Public Education and the Secular Ministry

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What we educators do out of school is often more revealing than what we do in school. I recall three end-of-the-year parties held in the Boston area last spring. The first party was in honor of a superintendent who had resigned after more than a dozen years of distinguished service. Following months of torment within the school community, exacerbated by declining resources, morale, enrollment, and public confidence, he was leaving to take a position in a university. At the conclusion of his going-away party, I'm told, a huge cake was brought out. Handsomely crafted in the icing loomed the unmistakable profile of a sinking ship.

The second party recognized an outstanding teacher whose nine years of dedicated work was insufficient to prevent her from being RIFed. I attended this event expecting to find a coterie of friends and colleagues attesting to her professional capability and lamenting her dismissal. Instead, I discovered the major theme of the banter and conversation among her colleagues was one of anger, resentment, and envy that they were not being "released." Public schools were every bit as "compulsory" for them, they felt, as for their students.

The third party was attended by some of the most able school principals in the Boston area. Over in a corner of the room someone asked a stranger to the group--the husband of one of the principals--what he did for a living. He answered that he was a personnel recruiter for a hi-tech company in Boston. The conversation in the entire room abruptly ceased as everyone looked with renewed interest at this man. E.F. Hutton could have done no better.

Each of these not-very-festive, out-of-school events illustrates the same sobering in-school message: The best and the brightest are leaving public education--or want to. And a huge number of the educators who remain want to drop out. They will serve their time only until something more lucrative, socially valued, personally fulfilling, and less consuming comes along.

What a public school system can deliver when its employees are in a holding pattern is something to worry about. A recent study by the National Education Association revealed that a staggering 45 percent of all teachers would not teach if they "had it to do over again." Last year, Massachusetts had the highest rate of turnover among superintendents in recent times; the state's "teacher of the year" for 1981 was RIFed; before an intensive study of eight highly successful school principals could be concluded, the researchers found that seven of their subjects had vacated their jobs, or were considering doing so.

What on earth is going on? Public educators--superintendents, teachers, principals--have never enjoyed highly revered positions. Yet in difficult times they have been fueled by a sense of their own mission and public recognition of the social usefulness of their work. But a decade of decline in test scores, enrollments, resources, and public confidence now conveys to them that the public lacks commitment to public education, in general, and confidence in its educators, in particular. The cumulative effect of rejected bond issues, placement of children in private schools, school closings, and devaluation of education by the Reagan Administration is an unmistakable message: What public educators are doing is not only not good, it is not worthwhile.

We have heard parts of this message before. But I now see too many educators believing it. As a result, schools face not only a crisis of public confidence but, more dangerous, a crisis of self-confidence. Not only can we no longer expect that people without school-age children will support education, we can no longer assume that people with school-age children will offer their progeny and patronage; and worse, we can no longer take for granted that those who staff our public schools believe that they are engaged in a vital cause.

Theodore R. Sizer, director of a study of American high schools and a keen historian, has observed that prior to the 1960's a position in public education was a "calling." (I remember when I began teaching, my father, a minister, referred to my work as the "secular ministry.") Mr. Sizer notes that the 60's and 70's were a period during which education became more professional, whereas in the 80's it has become, for many, a job. The erosion of the inch-by-inch gains by mile-by-mile losses is too much for too many. Expecting more for less is not a formula that attracts and retains talent. I'm afraid many would agree with one state department of education official who told me, "I'd leave tomorrow if I could afford it. I've paid my dues in public service with little recognition over the years. Now it's time for myself." As a calling or a profession, education offers much. As a job, it offers little.

Where will all this lead? Where are the remedies, the signs of hope? I see several possibilities:

  • As talent, morale, and productivity continue to erode, public schools will limp along, finding occasional replenishment from the many dedicated professionals for whom education continues to be both a calling and a profession--even if their "half-lives" are short.
  • Despite an increase in user fees for more and more services, public schools will gradually give way to private schools. Many talented public-school educators will find re-employment in independent schools, but many will find a profession but no calling and will abandon schooling altogether.

I find both of these possibilities depressing; but I see little to be gained by adding to the literature of despair. Recent experience suggests to me another, more hopeful future and a third possibility:

  • School people will take it upon themselves to find meaning, importance, competence, and even dignity in what they do by transforming competitive relations among themselves into more cooperative ones.

Recent literature on effective schools suggests that when teachers hold high expectations for all their students, pupil achievement is likely to rise. Yet, educators face the problem of maintaining high standards of achievement for ourselves while our public has low regard and few expectations for us and our work. A formidable lesson plan.

During the last year, the Principals' Center at Harvard University has engaged some of the most beleaguered public educators in the country--elementary, middle, high-school principals as well as teachers, parents, school-board members, and superintendents. These school people have not only been trying to negotiate the familiar national waves of accountability, back to basics, community control, growing teacher power, and diminishing student discipline, but also the decimation of resources resulting from Massachusetts' Proposition 2. The Center is trying to find ways of valuing school leaders' important work while promoting their professional growth so they may pursue that work with greater satisfaction and effectiveness.

Perhaps because many on the staff are former school principals, the Principals' Center assumes that every school leader possesses strengths and insights of value to others. We rely less upon university or outside resources and more upon the strengths of public educators themselves. This has brought us up against three tough facts of school life:

  • A belief held by many practitioners that one's knowledge, skills, and success in schools is a private matter, best kept from potential competitors or critics--in other words, from most others;
  • A taboo in many school settings against distinguishing oneself or even appearing to distinguish oneself with respect to others by declarations of "I know how to ...";
  • And a widespread belief that any opportunity for professional growth is an additional, unwanted demand upon time and energy.

These strictures, of course, contribute to the malaise not only of staff development but of public education in general.

Our conviction that a principals' center must be principal-centered led to the enlistment of a group of 28 Boston-area principals to be the architects, designers, and engineers of the center. After a year of trial and error, of attempting to identify abilities in school leaders and make them accessible to others who would like to develop them, there have been some heartening responses.

Principals and university people alike have been surprised at just how many and how rich are the insights that school people carry with them and at the professional and personal power that emerges when these insights become visible.

One member of the center observed, "Most principals feel they have a lot to offer and a lot to learn." And indeed, now more than 300 area educators are paying membership fees to be givers as well as receivers of ideas and services--for example, a series of conversations on "the principal as staff developer"; a workshop on team-building led by a principal and teachers from one school for those in other schools; 20 principals participating in a program to write about their work as school leaders, thereby translating private practice into public prose. One member commented, "Although I haven't had the chance to attend any of the activities this year, just knowing that the center is there gives new meaning to my work." Another principal on leave from the New Orleans Public Schools last spring observed:

"As a principal who has fumed under demeaning, mandated, staff development, and who has never been very comfortable about 'doing it to' others--I can say that it feels wonderfully freeing, responsible, and exhilarating to think that we hold in our own hands the choice and destiny of our development."

To be sure, Harvard is not the world, and the Principals' Center is not public education, yet I feel far more optimistic this year about the restorative powers which lie within educators. In a year, we've seen evidence suggesting that the best way for school people to become and remain committed to their calling and profession may not be by shortening their hectic agendas, but by adding to them: the articulation of practice, adoption of a spirit of professional reflection, experimentation, and collegiality and, above all, responsibility taken, not only for their own professional invigoration, but for that of their colleagues. We've seen that professional growth can release and generate energy, as well as consume it. And we are seeing that each school building is the crucial unit of analysis and change, with respect not only to the performance of pupils, but to the performance of adults.

Those who would improve public education have been preoccupied with prescriptions about what teachers, principals, and superintendents should know and be able to do in order to be effective. Another question needs equal consideration: Under what conditions are educators likely to reflect upon their work, develop collegiality, and practice continuous improvement? All evidence points to the schoolhouse as the context in which adults as well as children can find nourishment. A sense of calling and professionalism is infectious; if public education is alive and well in the minds of but a few within a school, public education is alive and well.

Maybe it's time we educators relied upon ourselves for validation, affirmation, support, and replenishment and gave up waiting until "they" realize just how important and valuable we are. Who knows, when we come to believe in ourselves, when we see ourselves not only as leaders but as learners, others may come to believe in us, too. And end-of-the-year parties in future springs may yet become festive celebrations.

Vol. 02, Issue 07, Page 20, 15

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