10 June 2011

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

I have a weird job. No...that's not quite right. The job itself is not weird, but the circumstances in which I attempt to accomplish it are. For example, when I was blissfully ensconced in a classroom with students, I never received a message telling me that someone was going to have to miss a conference call because he was meeting with the president of Mongolia. This is not to say that classroom life doesn't have its own headcocking oddities. They just don't play out the same way.

I'm finishing up my third year outside the classroom. I work in a place which has the sole purpose of overseeing education in this state---and yet, I am one of only a handful of teachers within it. So rare are we, amongst those influencing ed policy, that other workers tend to make a point of it when we are discovered. We are sheep who have infiltrated the pack of wolves: A highly dangerous place to be. The fact is, we shouldn't be the odd ones out...but as long as we are, let me pass along some hard truths I've learned.

Teachers have enormous power inside their classrooms. This is as it should be. And yes, I can hear some of you yelling at your screens. You're saying, "Have you seen the Pacing Guide the district gives me? Have you seen the Internet filter Mordac uses to restrict my students' learning?" And I will nod in agreement that you do not have complete control of every factor which impacts your teaching. You don't make the bell schedule, set the income level of families, determine bus routes, or choose what gets served in the cafeteria for lunch. But you are the ones who are with the children. You have the power to influence their thinking and learning. Don't point out to the wolves what you don't control---they will treat it as weakness and reason to form policy. Stop confusing control with power. Use your power.

Outside the classroom, you have only as much power as any other citizen. You can get your ranty-pants on (as Sci Curious would say) and blog. You can tweet what you think are bon mots from "experts." You can march and demonstrate, if it makes you feel better. But don't fool yourself for one moment that the wolves are paying attention or that you're making a real difference. If you want their attention...if you want change...then you're going to have to learn to speak Wolf---because there is no way they will make an effort to understand Sheep.

Yelling louder at the wolves is akin to speaking loudly and slowly to someone who doesn't speak your language. If you're serious about wanting something different, then you're going to have to change the content of your communication. What does that sound like?
  • First of all, stop blaming the wolves for job woes. I'm not saying that they aren't to blame---they have played a major role in earning it. But if you want them to try to understand your position, you have to make a similar effort first. There's a lot of bad policy out there. There aren't a lot of bad people. Get to know some wolves as individuals. Relationships are king here, just as they are in the classroom. You're probably not going to be able to get on Arne Duncan's calendar, but there are plenty of state officials you can sit down with. Just don't let your utterances be completely negative. You will be given as much credibility as a toddler throwing a tantrum. 
  • Get involved. Join a state level committee and participate in some of the process---especially something you hate. Don't think that if you belong to a union that it matters beyond the confines of your district. They might have clout there, but they are nowhere to be seen amongst the wolves when deals get done. You have to be the advocate and you can't effect big change without understanding all of the angles.  Classroom experience is the most important lens you can bring, but stop fooling yourself into thinking it's the only one that matters. (Do you really think anyone at my agency cares that I clocked 17 years of experience in the classroom?) You're far easier for wolves to ignore when you just stay in your little box. Don't make it easy for them. Get in their territory (and pee on a corner).
  • Pay attention to the right things. Some people will make an analogy between sausage-making and laws, but it's really more like a magic show. There's a lot of misdirection involved. The wolves will guide your attention in the direction they want you to look while the real action is happening elsewhere. I don't really know how to advise you to know where you should be watching, but a place to begin is to carefully look at staffing and hiring changes. In our state, there are probably 2 or 3 easy pressure points that would blow the wolfpack apart, and yet not a single blogger has sniffed them out. Look for the things no one is talking about...and talk about them. A lot. Do it with a big smile on your face so they can see your teeth.
  • You're going to have to learn to negotiate by making the wolves think they're getting what they want. This is not so simple. For example, when you gripe about state testing, you let the wolves win. Why? First of all, their hands are tied by the feds. The tests aren't going anywhere. You will win no arguments against testing based on what you think makes a good test. The posts by teachers I've seen show an incredibly poor understanding of statistics. This type of ignorance on display does not help your cause. And really, the tests themselves are not the real problem (see "misdirection" above). The real problem is how the results get used---and why. So if testing isn't going away, then you are going to have to leverage the other pieces. But most importantly, you have to be willing to make a trade. If the reason for testing/AYP/miscellaneous punitive NCLB items is ostensibly to increase accountability for helping every child learn---then you have to provide another plan. You can't just fuss about what you don't like with the current one (see "toddler tantrum" above). Getting the tests to go away and letting teachers pick whatever they want to teach isn't going to cut it. There were decades of that which is part of what triggered the current accountability environment. You want control back from the feds or from your state? Offer an alternative which meets the same goals. Tell them you understand what they want (you don't have to say you agree or like it) and why your plan will be better to achieve those goals. That's how you get them to fight for what you want.
I'm not saying it's easy. I'm not saying I enjoy these diplomatic forays. I'm just trying to tell you what you will have to do if you want something different. How much do you want that? Bad enough to step up, learn the system, and figure out how to repurpose the pieces? Do you crave it enough to put on some wolf's clothing instead of bleating from the field?


Anonymous said...

Wow, nice post! You give a couple really helpful ideas as well.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

This may be selective perception on my part, but as a retired teacher and outgoing school board member, I'm thinking this is the most valuable, most amazingly perceptive, and most revolutionary post you've ever written. Never mind "reform." You are talking penetration of the pack mentality, and possibly one of the secrets to overcoming the horrendous inertia inherent in public education.

I have cramps in my cheeks from smiling at the irony, and I'm totally green with envy that I have not written something like this!

Kathie said...

Excellent post! I've been teaching since 1974. Currently I'm teaching in a private school and although we don't have the same restrictions in our curriculum, we still have to manage the wolves. There are four of us who work as a team and choose one thing each year to tackle... and it works. Change happens through careful planning and presentation. Getting good results helps too!

enzuber said...

Great posting. It has always struck me how ineffectual "ranty-pants" responses are :-) Here's to less bleating and more engagement.

The Science Goddess said...

Maren and Hugh---Glad you found something useful in the post.

Kathie---You've provided good advice to target something specific and not diffuse your attention.

Enzuber---Ranty-pants posts have caused me to remove many edublogs from my RSS feeds this year (and people I follow on Twitter). I completely understand the need to vent, but post after post of how the rest of the world is wrong gets old in a hurry. We need people willing to get involved and look for solutions.

doyle said...

Dear Goddess,

Some of us are past wearing any wolf costumes, as much fun as that may be. I hope you're right, and in the short term (1 or 2 generations) your strategy has the best shot of success, but as an old soul ridiculously happy in life, a few words to ponder.

You're absolutely right that whining is counterproductive. Anyone working to change how things are knows this. Many folks, alas, would rather whine than work.

I had a chance to peer from the glass encased office of our highest ed official in our state (other than the Governor himself) less than a week ago. I didn't bleat. Not my style.

I did propose a few things, though, not as a wolf, not as a bleater, but as myself. I will continue to do so, because I believe a few things matter. I do smile a lot, though I was dismissed as an "ankle-biter" rather than a wolf, so maybe my smile needs some work.

In the long run, playing wolf will only get us all killed. We may all be doomed anyway, true, and maybe the short-term gains are worth putting on the costume, but I like to sleep at night, I like to dance without fear, I like joy.

Even more important, two generations of children have been conceived since my birth, and they are watching.

Please forgive a few of us as we take our inefficient (and, granted, largely ineffective) show on the road, modeling how lives can be led despite the honking from the "elite" above.

I have been in boardrooms before, and with a feint here or there, I could still be in boardrooms, with all the perks. I do worry, though, about how the boardrooms affect me.

To paraphrase the wise words of Joe Strummer (or maybe it was Mick Jones), he who screws nuns, eventually join the church.

I'm mortal, and I'm human. I try to remember both each and every day.