Every Good Morning

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Perhaps modernity itself may be more responsible than any other factor for the gaps of understanding that exist between public schools and their larger communities. The speed of daily life has increased, and this especially affects how locked in we are to our workplaces and routines by cellphones and email. With globalization and the creation of a “bits” as opposed to “atoms” economy, the pressure to become more productive has also increased. Information instead of materials must be moved. Speed and efficiency have become two of the all important qualities by which value is measured. Ask human beings to go faster and faster, and they will become stressed, lose track of critical features of their environments and even seek shelter.

As any number of sociologists have observed, community life has suffered. We go to work and spend time with our families and close friends and perhaps put in a few hours at church. Stress causes us to seek the sanctuary of home where we might be able to temporarily evade the relentless hot-wired world outside.

Schools move inside that same relentless world of speed, and speed is a killer of intimacy and connections. The faster schools cycle through pods of information, the more that information takes on a domino effect, one piece of a hugely complex puzzle depending upon the next piece and the next and all of it in motion and all of it increasing the pressure to make fast decisions. Some disconnect with the community seems an inevitable byproduct.

What does this look like on the ground? In a fashion similar to any modern family, when teachers go to work, they walk into the sanctuary of their classrooms and into the lives of their students. Their focus on their kids is possessive, inward and necessarily insular, and the geography of their day is also insular. They walk into their buildings and close the door. They walk into their classrooms and close the door.

If you are a parent, you want teachers who know your children well, who care about them as individuals, and who try every ethical method and trick to reach them, to inspire them, to motivate them to do their best work. That effort takes enormous energy. Few teachers welcome intrusions on that concentration.* I know that I saw my insularity as beneficial.

This insularity decreases with the chain-of command. For example, principals are open to winds of varying force, temperament and direction. They deal with all the teachers in their building, with central office administrators, with parents and in some cases with Board members. They have to be aware of and deal with Harrisburg’s nutty demands, the private dilemmas and tragedies of their staff and children and the myriad threads of control that attach them to the central office, for them, the immediate seat of  power.

This job has become so complicated and pressurized and its psychic demands so powerful that many good principals do not last much longer than 5 or 6 years. However, in spite of a broader scope of constituents seeking their attention than teachers, good principals also must spend the greater percentage of their time turned toward the requirements of their building – they cannot do otherwise.

Most importantly in terms of describing this insularity, teachers and principals go to buildings filled with children who are under their care and who they are paid to help shape. The presence of children as the center of an enterprise changes everything about that enterprise. Schools do not make things or bits or images. They do not sell. They are not part of the marketplace. The suitable instruction and care of children demands as close to a consistent 100% effort as I am aware of in this life and thus, in many respects, educating children narrows the attention paid to the worlds outside the scope of children’s and parents’ most pressing concerns.

Here is another source of disconnect, even alienation — many community members do not understand how schools have changed since they last attended. They do not know how these forces have reshaped schools: State and Federal mandates, the presence and effects of drugs and alcohol, the rise of single-parent families, the culture wars, the madness of intense year-to-year testing, the immersion of students in social media, the pervasive temptations of unmoderated sexuality, the light speed development of technology, the shifting markets and skill-sets generated by globalization. That list could go on for a page and still not be complete.

All of these factors describing both the daily responsibilities of teachers and principals and the total immersion environments of 21st century schools should be described to the community, not paternalistically, not in seeking pity, but as a step in letting the community into the work that goes on in all those buildings scattered throughout the larger district. In public institutions mystery only leads to rumors and misunderstandings. Public education must be demystified.

However, the narrow worlds in which teachers and principals often work have one central problem:  in the all-consuming nature of their jobs, they can become desensitized to the perceptions, fears, and disappointments of their school communities. The process of running classrooms and buildings becomes all important, and thus they sometimes miss the deep-set nature of community concerns.

In every district of which I am aware, the great percentage of community members are unconnected to public education; they either have no children in the schools, do some variation of home schooling or send their children to private schools. Their experience of public schooling comes in the form of news stories, a scattering of information from a district’s public relation efforts, conversations with neighbors and their property tax bills, which go up and up, the only perpetual motion machine of which I am aware.+

Parents whose children attend the school acquire more information, larger slivers of it at least, more rumors, a more intimate knowledge of the political and personal cross-currents alive in any workplace. They will make themselves known if unhappy, but are also any school’s best allies because of their children’s interests. Even they often feel some measure of alienation from a profession with its own opaque language (try negotiating and making sense of curriculums as a layperson) and protective layers of authority.

Unhappy community members seem to make two essential arguments: they believe that their tax dollars are often wasted, and they believe that teachers who do not do their jobs are protected; these are issues of waste and teacher performance.++ For example, I have heard many in my community speak of their anger at the expenditure of millions of dollars on athletic fields or on expensive construction projects, on “Taj Mahals”.+++

School Boards control the district budget. No matter how careful and honorable in their actions, they face the danger of becoming desensitized to their communities by their ability to tax. I do not believe that most Board members are cavalier in their use of tax monies, only that the capacity to raise taxes bears within it the magic power of making money appear if you do not have it. Without periodic review, how can that power not lead to a blinkered point-of-view?

When presented with large dollar items, any Board should ask this question: “Do we need this or do we want this?” Once the choice has been made, the Board should explain their reasoning clearly and simply and in as many venues as are available. At all costs avoid educational or fiscal jargon. Speak and write in plain English. School Boards should blanket their communities with the message that they are committed to using that question as their budgetary standard. The repeated public commitment to the use of this one question as their primary criteria might help increase public confidence in their Board’s use of tax dollars and therefore, over time, may narrow the disconnect between the community and its schools. Such a commitment may ease the distrust that exists between those without children and the schools.

*Which is why they hate most meetings and despise pedants who would not know how to defuse an angry 18 year old or master a rowdy classroom even if you gave them a counselor and a SWAT Team as their sidekicks.

**And why principals hate most meetings called by central office.

***And also why superintendents and central office administrators loath to the core of their beings most meetings called by their oblivious lords in Harrisburg.

+And truth be told an ongoing legacy of the Legislature’s inability over decades to reform the tax code despite public dissatisfaction.

++I will write about problems associated with teacher performance in the next Post, #3 of 4.

+++Principals and teachers have little control over monies spent on big ticket items for their districts. They make do with the resources assigned to them in building and department budgets (cuts had been coming down that pipeline in the school district where I had taught for years).

© Mike Wall

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