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Teachers as Control Freaks

By loosening the grip, we can unleash the potential.

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Earlier this year, I took a test to see what kind of leadership personality I had. When going over the results, the consultant paused and chuckled at one of the measures. “Every teacher is high on control,” she said. Among career groups, we’re control freaks.

Interesting. We teachers are passionately devoted to doing our best for students in a profession that has almost endless complexities and challenges. On top of our own high standards, administrators, parents, and experts add to the demands we must manage. For the most part, we work alone in our classrooms and bear full responsibility. Surely “doing our best” means trying to think of every detail and making sure everything is just so. Right?

Without dismissing the need for diligence, our extreme need for control needs to be scrutinized. Michael Fullan and Ben Levin, the noted education reform leaders in Ontario, Canada, wrote recently in the pages of Education Week about the fundamentals of whole-system reform. ("The Fundamentals of Whole-System Reform," June 17, 2009.) We are lucky to have them at the helm of a movement and a major school system, and there is no doubt that many great things are happening in Ontario. But one addition must be made to their list, and it relates directly to our control fetish. They identify focusing on a small number of ambitious priorities as one of their fundamentals. Literacy, numeracy, and the high school dropout rate are Ontario’s current priorities, and these are excellent choices for that school system.

Yet, within each individual school are possibly a hundred other areas of need felt intensely by those who live them each day. Probably thousands of details go into a school day, and each has the potential to be positive or negative. Even in Ontario, I would wager, too many are negative. Part of system reform must be devoted to exposing issues within each school, and empowering all within it to address them. With a little more attention to our control problem, progress could grow exponentially in breadth and depth, and be much less painful.

Despite positive steps, our profession remains too much a mishmash of well-meaning, hard-working solitaires, exhausted by the effort of trying to single-handedly move mountains for children. If we all gave up some control in order to share the load with others—administrators seeking out the concerns of teachers, parents, and students, and sharing leadership in addressing what comes up; teachers working with their colleagues to drive curriculum development in any way it needs to be driven; all adults inviting the perspective and leadership of students—our profession could truly soar. In the hope of making that so, I offer the following ways in which “loosening up,” if done right, could be the key to making reforms work.

Relevant, aligned improvement on many fronts. Most teachers are trying their best, but the vast majority of their time is spent as the sole professional they come across. When they are brought together, it is usually in meetings to discuss administrator-driven topics that, while important, have little connection with addressing teachers’ most pressing concerns.

In such a setting, improvement is inherently limited. Ideas coming from a single person, or from someone outside the school, may or may not be a complete solution when implemented on a broad scale. If they are used to start discussion and encourage school-based experimentation, ideas are on a progressive path. But this kind of discussion and experimentation is rare in most schools. It is perfectly appropriate that teachers participate in state or provincial projects. But there remain many other issues they must also be set up to deal with. Relevance is guaranteed if the issue to be addressed is a challenge identified at that school. Alignment will happen when teachers see the solution as meeting their needs.

Teams, working with few restraints and within a clear and compelling structure of vision, mission, and professional standards, are the best possible source of relevant, aligned improvement. Many teachers are would-be leaders who are ready to help drive curriculum development if invited. Administrators must give up some of their control to let teachers be the professionals they are expected to be. There is ample literature on the strengths of such learning organizations. It is as unacceptable as it is ironic that most modern schools cannot say they are true learning organizations.

Supported, energized teachers. Teaching to the degree we all want is impossible as a solitary task. No one person can know enough to immediately and completely meet the needs of all his or her students. It is far too complex a task. Yet we try, and end up exhausted. Working as a team, speaking up about our challenges, sharing ideas, and collectively trying out solutions is not only the more effective and efficient way to work, it can be downright energizing. Teachers deserve it.

Student leadership. If all teachers were engaged in driving schoolwide improvement efforts, each school could experience an exponential increase in the number of ideas making a positive difference. Now imagine how many more ideas would take root if teachers and administrators invited the students to join them. As much as teachers are an undertapped resource for meaningful progress, students are even more overlooked. It takes a climate of respect and multiple other leadership experiences to engage all young people in this process. But in such cases, they can take the achievement of the school to heights beyond the capacity of adults alone. By their involvement, they increase the number of ideas brought to the table, they contribute extra manpower to the task, and they alone can articulate the perspective of students. In the same way that shutting out teachers limits the potential for ideas, so it goes when we shut out students. Involving students in this significant way also will have a substantial, positive effect on the school climate and student discipline.

Retention of the best teachers. The best teachers join the profession to make a difference. If they do not feel they can, they leave. Surely, this makes the effectiveness of the school environment paramount as a priority. The best teachers crave to be informed, encouraged, effective professionals, constantly learning and experiencing the success of meaningful schoolwide interventions. Administrators need to make this happen for them. When this kind of interactive support is in place, ours can be among the most attractive professions imaginable. Yet the system in which we work can just as easily shackle as unleash that potential.

This needs to be the start of a serious discussion. As with the development of all ideas, success will hinge on the details. On the surface, being control freaks appears to be a funny little oddity of the teaching profession. But it is easy to see how too much control is a deeply unhealthy attribute of the system we accept. It slows us down, wears us out, and robs us of the quantity and quality of ideas that would emerge if everyone in every school were engaged in the improvement effort. For us all to share more control is to change a monolithic culture. Not to do so, however, is a direct affront to our collective commitment and professionalism. If we truly want what’s best for students, we must. And we must do it together.

Vol. 28, Issue 37

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