Education Opinion

A Mess That’s Out of Control

By Susan Graham — October 16, 2009 4 min read
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Earlier this week I sat in a professional development class with teachers from across my district. One of the best things about this sort of event is getting to spend time with other teachers talking about our classrooms and our practice. My elbow partners were a good friend from my own school and an elementary teacher who is one of the most intentionally positive people I’ve ever met. Of course there was the obligatory “ice breaker” where we paired and shared bits about ourselves both professionally and personally. For the “something I like to do for leisure” response, Jacke smiled and said “I like to clean and I’m really good at it.” She laughingly admitted that she might be a little obsessive/compulsive about it, but that cleaning gave her a sense of control. “Of course,"she added “my kids at school make a pretty big mess of the classroom. Sometimes it bugs me, but hey, it’s not my room, it’s theirs.”

I’ve thought a lot about who classrooms and schools belong to in the last week of so. I thought about that each morning when my seventh graders, who are working on a project walked into the room, got out their supplies and quietly and efficiently took care of business until it was time to clean up.The classroom was their workplace and I was there as an on-site consultant and that’s about as good as teaching can get. Good teachers know that the classrooms belong to the students who populate them because the children have taken ownership of their own learning.

Because I live in the shadow of Washington, D.C. I’ve thought a lot about how of the current problems in DC schools is about power struggles among adults who ought to know better. There’s a mess in too many of the classrooms of DC schools; but the kids didn’t make it. It’s a mess made by grownups who can’t seem to move beyond power struggles that continue to spin out of control, creating a vacuum that sucks the life out of everyone involved and leaving lost opportunities. Like Thing One and Thing Two, the grown ups dabble in this and that and then whoosh out the door leaving the kids behind amid the mess.

Michelle Rhee
, who has been chancellor for just over two years is determined to fix D.C. schools. She is a firm believer in the importance of the classroom teacher and has made it clear that she’ll do whatever she has to improve the quality of education in a system that is heartbreakingly dysfunctional and that is laudable. But as she closes schools, and fires principals and teachers her decision making process lacks transparency; she displays a tendency to be dismissive of any dissenting opinions; and she often seems unnecessarily rude and almost intentionally combative.

The Washington Teacher’s Union maintains that its members have been committed to student learning in DC schools for a long time and that Rhee has an agenda of removing career teachers and replacing them with Teach for America and New Teacher Project short termers who are true believers of her philosophy and bargains at the bottom of the salary scale. They point out that the years and layers of administrative problems in DC schools were not of their making. They argue that there has always been a procedure in place for dismissing incompetent teachers but administrators were negligent in implement those policies. They question why Rhee invested in an extensive new IMPACT teacher evaluation tool but dismissed teachers without any clear criteria. While WTU makes no apology for the making the welfare of its members their priority, the interests of members are poorly served by protecting incompetency. At the same time, there have been too many instances where union representatives have protected adults at the expense of children and have been distracted from their professional responsibilities by political gamesmanship.

I’m not so naive as to think the chancellor and the union are going to walk hand in hand into the sunset, but they should be allies. They do, after all, share a common goal of education children and they both risk loss of face and control through lack of cooperation that results in student progress. Instead there is accusation, disparagement, disrespect, disruption, disillusionment, and damaged lives. . I don’t pretend to know whether the DC budget crisis was contrived; if the teachers who were dismissed were removed with good reason; if the WTU is being obtuse; if Chancellor is acting in good faith; or if the City Council and the mayor are manipulating the situation. But I do know this much, McKinley High School students have learned some rather disturbing lessons this week:

“You always hear stories about how dirty politics is. Now I have some personal experience.”

“It just seems like everybody was trying to make themselves look better.”

“The more you get into power, the less you take responsibility for your actions.”

“Im tired of always being somebody’s pawn or guinea pig.”

Maybe the policymakers could use a little professional development lesson.

“Hey, it’s not your classroom, it’s theirs.”

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.