A Hapless Search for Organizational Juice. . .
After spending the better part of the last two days thinking about my recent battles with digital bureaucracy, I’ve come to realize that I CRAVE something that I’ll never have: Organizational Juice.
This is going to sound like a broken record to those who know me best because I’ve been bumping up against education’s glass ceiling---wanting to remain a full-time classroom teacher while leading at the district and state level at the same time---for years now.
Sadly, I’m convinced that those two professional goals are mutually exclusive.
Here’s what I mean: As long as I remain “just a classroom teacher,” I can birth as many ideas about instruction or institutional direction as I want, but I’ll never be able to translate my ideas into action beyond the classroom because translating ideas into action requires decision-making power that my position doesn’t carry.
As a buddy of mine who works as a principal in a local district told me this week, “It really is pretty easy to say no to classroom teachers.”
And he’s right: Saying no to classroom teachers is easy because whether we want to admit it or not, classroom teachers still sit at the bottom of the schoolhouse ladder. We have to work within structures defined by dozens of well-intentioned professionals who---whether they realize it or not---make decisions influenced by their own perspectives of ‘what should be’ and who have the organizational authority to insist on compliance.
What does this look like in action?
Here’s a list of examples that colleagues in dozens of schools and districts across America shared with me in the past few days:
- It’s the attendance professional who requires head counts to be taken in the middle of class periods rather than waiting until teachers have planning time---and then publicly calls out those who haven’t set instruction aside to deal with paperwork.
- It’s the front office secretary who keeps the key to the school supply closet and miserly doles out materials only after teachers can prove that the colored pencils and staplers that they are requesting are truly necessary for classroom activities.
- It’s the tech services specialist who requires 43 forms to get a piece of software approved or a website unblocked---and then who doesn't even bother to explain the rationale for their final decisions to classroom teachers.
- It’s the principal who requires weekly grade level, academic, subject specific AND vertical learning teams because he/she is convinced that more meetings means more good ideas.
- It’s the district level leaders who implement four major change initiatives in the same school year, convinced that they’ve found the solutions to struggling schools yet failing to recognize that teachers are already buckling under new pressures and expectations.
- It’s the state-level education leader who develops portfolio requirements for assessing teachers in an attempt to design a more thorough system of evaluation, but then fails to design systems for reviewing work submitted after hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears.
Do I need to keep going?! (The sad part is I probably could.)
What’s wild is that if I really wanted to work at it, I probably could play a key role in shaping all of the decisions listed above. It would just take a commitment to building positive working relationships with every one of the stakeholders listed above.
If they came to see me as a respected and intelligent ally, I’d have what I like to call influence by proximity. While I wouldn’t be able to set direction unilaterally, I’d “have the ear” of those with power. They’d run ideas by me, I’d get the chance to offer feedback, decisions would be polished based on my input, and I’d have juice, right?
The only hitch is that building those kinds of relationships takes tons of face time. Trust is only built when individuals have meaningful shared experiences with one another----and as a full-time classroom teacher, I don’t have time for shared experiences with a dozen different decision-makers because I spend the better part of every day behind closed doors with kids!
I can’t stop by the principal’s office for informal conversations about teaching and learning. The 10 AM conference calls with district level leaders fall in the middle of my class periods. The 3-day PD conferences that instructional resource teachers and school leaders attend together building professional rapport require being away from class----and finding money for substitute teachers, and writing sub plans, and catching up after getting back to school.
What does this all mean for me?
Who knows. I still have this pipe dream that I can reshape the way that people think about classroom teachers. My goal has always been to redefine the role of the practitioner, crafting a world where teachers were respected players in the world of educational decision-making.
I’m not sure it’s possible, though. I’ve been doing this a long time and I haven’t had much luck. While I’ve built a level of credibility in the broader educational community on issues ranging from teacher working conditions and technology to professional learning communities and educational policy, I’m still just a classroom teacher.
And saying no to classroom teachers---no matter how accomplished they are---is always going to be easy.