Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Akron to Sidney

Last week I was in schools in Akron, Ohio (population 199,000) and this week I was in a school in Sidney, Montana (population 5100).  Whether inner city or rural as they come, we seem to be facing the same puzzle.  Teachers who care and students who don't perceive that care.  Teachers wanting to engage students and students who are not engaged. Teachers who believe education is the key to the future and students who don't quite get the connection between what they are doing in school today and what they will be doing in the real world tomorrow.

The more I see and study our country's schools the more I believe that those who see either teachers (lazy, inadequately trained, etc.) or students (lazy, over stimulated, ill-mannered, etc.) as the problem are misguided.  I suppose if one only looked at test scores and saw them stagnate or falling, one would be inclined to blame one of the two parties involved in producing those scores. And if the whole system is set up with those test scores as the only indicator of success and it was becoming clear "success" was unattainable, you would have to grant waivers or else admit you had set schools up for failure.

But if you talk to teachers and to students, it becomes clear quickly that the very rules of the game are a cause of its own inability to produce a successful outcome.  Imagine a baseball game that required touchdowns from each team to declare a winner.  Who would you blame for a baseball team's inability to produce touchdowns?  The players?  The coaches? The umpires? Or the one's who set up the game that way?

Teachers seem not to care when students think they care more about them as students (i.e., test takers) than they do about them as persons. Teachers find it impossible to be engaging when pacing guides keep them relentlessly driving toward various pre-test markers.  And when schools have become nothing more than test taking factories, it's no wonder students don't see the connection between being successful test takers and the real world in their future.  So let me ask (a rhetorical question): Are students more likely to succeed academically in a school they believe is caring, engaging, and relevant or one that is so "ridiculously focused on the state test"--as one student put it--so as to inspire only effective test taking?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Role and Goal Confusion

One thing I have noticed in schools is something referred to as "Role and Goal Confusion."  The more I talk with school staff, the more I see it as a cause of tension and even disrespect.  Consider this thought experiment (or try it for real):  Have teachers write a job description for themselves, including their goals as professionals.  Have administrators write a job description for themselves, including their professional goals.  Now have the teachers write a job description for and the goals of administrators.  And have the administrators write the job description for and goals of a teacher.  Finally, compare notes.

One thing I see frequently is that the lists do not match.  Sometimes the differences are dramatic.  "No wonder I don't think you are doing your job!" What do we do when a cause of tension or disrespect is my thinking you are not doing what I think your job is? Or when you think I am not doing what you think my job is?

This confusion is not limited to those in different positions (e.g., teachers and administrators, support staff and teachers, etc.).  It can creep in among teachers themselves. Sometimes it breaks down along department lines (in high schools) or grade level lines (in middle schools still struggling between junior high and middle school philosophies) or even along "old school" "new school" lines.  We can converse with trusted colleagues in the parking lot about how other people are not doing their job. Or we can clear up the confusion face to face, colleague to colleague, and learn how we are each doing our job as we understand it to the best of our ability.