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School Climate, locally owned and operated

Is it possible to teach and learn in a dysfunctional school environment? Certainly, anything is possible – but it’s like swimming against the current. It’s just common sense that, long-term, teachers are more effective if they’re in a school in which they feel respected and supported, where collaboration and innovation are encouraged, and where teachers are not held accountable for things beyond their control. In a time when resources are at such a premium, one would think that we would jump at an opportunity to make our educational system more effective - yet many ‘reformers’ have been pushing us in exactly the opposite direction.  

How did this happen?  It’s a vicious cycle that began with policies (i.e., NCLB)  that relied on the threat of sanctions to make them ‘work’ (although they didn’t work), and that have continued (well-intentioned or not) with Race to the Top. So we have the DoE twisting the arms of state education departments, who threaten school administrators, who intimidate principals, who then – whether consciously or unconsciously - bully their teachers into ‘doing what they’re told’. And what the teachers experience inevitably affects the students. (It takes a lot of courage to break the chain. See: Are You Stuck With Their Mindset?)   

Here’s one example: we’re beginning to see some pushback from parents and educators against the misuse of standardized tests; tests that consume significant resources in time and money with little value in return.  But testing abuse is only a symptom of the larger problem: education policies that have tried to ‘reform’ the system through coercion. This runs counter to everything we know about human nature.

It is true that ‘fear’ can be an effective motivator – in the short term, maybe. But you can’t live that way. Education is a marathon, not a sprint - living in an atmosphere of high tension will quickly exhaust everyone. 

This is the great overlooked issue of ‘low-performing’ schools. Leadership turns over constantly, so there’s no continuity of expectation. Instead of a culture of collaboration and innovation, teachers bunker down and try to stay out of sight. (As Debra Meier recently noted: “teachers are treated differently in low-income schools.") Just being in a school that is ‘low-performing’ places everyone under greater scrutiny and stress. Why would anyone want to work there?

Unsurprisingly, this results in high turnover, which means you don’t have the luxury of filling open positions with the ‘best’ candidates; instead, you get a lot of kids just out of college, who typically have no idea how to survive, let alone thrive, in such an environment. 

Yet, we continue to believe in the fictional “To Sir, with Love”: the superstar teacher. (Key word: fictional.) But how many superstar teachers did you encounter in school?  Is this really a viable model?  Besides, in today’s environment, Poitier’s character would burn out in three years (or be fired for insufficient test scores) and wouldn’t be given enough autonomy to make much difference, anyway. The reality is that teachers want an opportunity “to serve with kindred spirits” – a key ingredient to ‘retaining teachers in high-need schools’- where they can collectively make a difference. 

So the only viable alternative is to build a ‘virtuous’ cycle. This takes time and cannot be done from a thousand miles away in Washington. (That’s not to say Washington shouldn’t have a role in providing resources, training, best practices, etc.)  It begins with school leaders who consider the long-term impact of their decisions. They see the annual budget as a tool for getting where they want to be ten years from now. They measure student success not by a one-time test score, but by the quality of life their students have twenty years from now. 

They expect competence, professionalism and improvement - but they know that mistakes are inevitable, and view them as opportunities to learn. And so, people do. Over time, teachers and staff of similar disposition are hired, until a ‘culture’ develops – one in which quality teachers want to stay and build careers, turnover is low, experience is valued – and there is a healthy competition for the relatively few positions that become available each year. Only then is it possible to create an environment that is  emotionally and intellectually safe for students, where everyone feels they are part of something important.

Ultimately, this is the choice: education policies that are based primarily in fear, or those based primarily in, well, love. One works, the other doesn’t.

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