27 December 2008

Negotiations and Navigations

Being in the classroom comes with a variety of blessings and curses. On one hand, you are shielded from most of the politics and intrigue that happen at the school, district, and/or state level in education. Ignorance in many of these particular instances can indeed be blissful. You also have the luxury of just shutting the classroom door and doing your very best for the students sitting in front of you. You are the most influential factor and have the most direct power for what happens in the classroom. But, on the other hand, the fact that you are left out of the conversations means that you often have very little say in many of the policies and practices which shape most of the other aspects of classroom life. These include everything from how much prep time you get, to the number of students in a class, to the money spent on supplies. In that sense, it feels like everyone but you has a say in how you do your job.

What I am seeing from my current vantage point is that we all need to be better negotiators. By "we," I mean anyone who is sticking their fingers into the education pie: legislators, teachers, policy people, budget-makers, etc.

For example, there has been a lot of talk about "opportunity to learn" in several meetings I've recently attended. The idea here is that unless students get to engage in science lessons, they won't learn science (and scores on tests won't improve). So the answer is just to do something to mandate/encourage more time on science, especially in the k-8 levels, right? I'm not so sure. I do think that more practice with scientific skills and content may very well result in better student performance---but just telling teachers to teach more isn't a magic bullet. If we do this, then we also need to make an offer. In other words, what will we take off of their plates? Are we willing to work with schools to identify how to make more pockets of time for science in their schedules? Are we willing to say "teach reading and math less"? Are we willing to provide more prep time---or pay for a longer school day? What support will we provide so that teachers can be successful with the "do more science" thing? Where is the spoonful of sugar that will make the medicine go down?

I don't mean to trivialize things---but I do think that we need to be mindful that when we ask for something, it should come with an offer of benefit as part of the negotiation. Imagine how much differently NCLB would have played out by now if the feds had taken that tact.

If you're not reading Organized Chaos, you should. It's written by one of the best edubloggers out there, in my opinion. She's passionate, committed, and as adverse to capitalization as e.e. cummings. Her school was recently targeted for some changes, all in the name of district budget cuts. I could understand all of the amazing reasons she and others don't want these changes to take place---the reasons are entirely student-centered. The unfortunate thing is that such reasons aren't enough anymore. They should be. What's best for kids should be the very bottom line of every decision made in schools, in my opinion. The reality is that budgets must be balanced---schools aren't allowed to operate like the federal government. I suggested to her that her school will have to negotiate. To just offer the "right" reasons not to cut won't solve the problem for the money people. They have an ugly job to do. Instead, offer them alternatives: "If you don't cut x at our school, we could do without y." Help them achieve their goal---which in its own weird way, will get you to yours, too.

I realize that union leaders might negotiate for benefits and working conditions, but that's not where most teachers need help these days. Teachers need to be able to navigate the other systems which impact the classroom---those factors which often make them feel impotent, overwhelmed, and uncared for. It means that we all need to be respectful and aware of our power to negotiate---to give, as well as expect a return.


Jenny said...

I don't think you are trivializing at all. We continue to add and add expectations for students and teachers within the same period of time each day and each year. The best teachers out there are finding ways to maximize every second they have, but it's impossible to make everything happen. That's important for higher ups to recognize.

At the same time, you make a great point about teachers suggesting exchanges to make things work better for students. We, as teachers, are the most knowledgeable and should feel some responsibility.

Jenna said...

We did increase the amount of science our students are required to take, at the expense of the vocation tech program. So far, it's only slightly increased the number of passes. Perhaps if passing the science was required to graduate it might be different, but for the most part they just don't care. Granted that's high school - but I think that most people would be stunned to know how much apathy there is in the lower grades to...

The Science Goddess said...

We have a lot of "systems" issues...and yet we treat situations as if there is just one variable to consider. Jenny is right in that teachers could do more to speak up for themselves ("I'd be happy to start doing x, but you're going to have to help me to something to move program y elsewhere")---although I get the impression many feel like they can't. I feel like those of us in policy jobs need to not take advantage of that (which is what has been happening) and instead make some offers. Otherwise, it's just not respectful.

Dr. Luann Lee said...

This message, as well as the message I hope my dissertation will send, is to elementary teacher prep programs. Are they ready to listen?

The Science Goddess said...

Depends. Many of them have their hands tied, too, by what they can and can't require within their programs. In other words, you are going to have to look for trades there, too.