Education Opinion

Plugged In?

By Susan Graham — June 25, 2009 7 min read
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Anthony Cody asked, Do Teachers Lack Power and Self-Worth?
after his mom tipped him to a
New York Times interview with Suze Orman that said

She has been reluctant to work on school curricula on personal finance, because she says students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth.

Hummm….So, if self-worth is proportional to what we are paid, it would follow that rock stars and professional athletes would have no need of Prozac and those who do volunteer work would be candidates for the psychiatrist’s couch? Now Suze makes the big bucks, so I’m sure she’s confident that her assumption that teachers have no self-worth is probably correct. But I wonder if that is a completely objective and data-driven conclusion that she can verify with statistical analysis or if it’s just a reflection of a personal value system based human worth on net worth. But whether teachers are so unempowered that they are incapable of empowering our students is a troubling question, because if teachers don’t empower the next generation and the fully empowered like Suze walk away, then the future looks pretty grim. Since I’m not feeling real confident about the opinions of economists these days, I thought I’d ask around a little.

School was out on Wednesday, so I’ve had time to attend a communications committee, a mentoring committee, a grant committee, and a strategic planning committee. I’m pretty sure everything you ever needed to know about education is in the minutes of one of those meetings. Since that’s taken care of, I decided to use breaks and working lunches, to do a little informal field research on the topic. When I mentioned the article and asked Anthony’s question I got some pretty interesting responses.

Teacher One has been a well-liked and effective elementary music teacher for sixteen years. She makes a good income in an affluent suburban setting, but revenue is down and her longevity steps are frozen and and there was no cost of living increase this year. With a big sigh she said, “Well, I’m just glad I’m still employed. I’m staying right where I am and keeping my head down. I just hope they leave me alone and let me work with my kids.”

Teachers who are employed have a job with some nice benefits and pretty good job security. Most of them realize that, really care about their work, and do a good job. While they work hard, they often willing to live with limited career potential in exchange for stable career expectations. This teacher accepts the role of a somewhat passive contract worker who “holds” the job that the school system “gives” her. All the power is in the hands of others, but so is the responsibility. It represents a burden she’d prefer not to take on. Some would say this teacher lacks ambition. Some would say she needs and deserves an advocate to intervene for her. Others would say she has simply found her comfort zone.

Teacher Two came in hauling a bulging bag of printouts and notebooks. “My administrator made me leader for the Strategic Plan team for my grade level. He’s given me the school wide goals, the framework Central Office wants us to use, access to the disaggregated test scores for the last two years, and some of the research he wants us to include. I’ve got to talk some of the teachers into working on this with me and get started on it this month before we leave on vacation because he wants it ready for review by mid-August. It’s a lot of work, but hey, they’re giving me a stipend for doing it and it will look good on my resume.” He’s thirty-something and a ten year middle school veteran who recently finished his masters. He coaches two sports, teaches summer school and is looking into administrative certification.

This teacher has been recognized for his professional skills and leadership potential, and he’ll invest himself in involving his colleagues, managing the process and submitting the plan. He realizes that there is no guarantee that it will be accepted or implemented unless it receives approval at several levels. But, unlike a project manager in a corporate setting, his opportunity to advocate for its approval once submitted will probably be minimal. In the business world, someone who develops a project, defends it, and negotiates for its implementation is likely to be considered “a potential leader who is committed” in the business world. Teachers who do so are often labeled as a “loose cannon who is argumentative.” To a great extent, being a team player means being compliant.

He probably doesn’t worry about being employed, but he has been “made lead” and “given a stipend.” He is enabled to develop skills and earn more income, but limited to delegated tasks and responsibilities. A limited amount of control has been ceded to him, but only at the discretion and under the close management of others. For him control, may be accessible within only the confines of an agenda and circumstances developed and defined by others. This is why some of the best and brightest burn out and leave the profession. This is also why some ambitious young teachers who love the classroom shift to school administration. This is why some stay put but become workaholics or cynics.

Teacher Three
is twenty-six years and has been teaching for two years. She spent her first year as part of a sixth grade four teacher team. During her second year, she moved to seventh grade. Her partner is old enough to be her grandmother and has over twenty-five years of experience. We were in a discussion group related to block or flexible scheduling for middle school. She shared, “My new teaching partner and I wanted to try something new about when and how we met with classes. We worked up this plan to where we’d alternate which half of our kids we saw each day. She’d see half for a four hour block of Science and Math two days a week and I’d have the other half that for Language Arts and Civics and then we’d switch. Depending on what we were doing, we’d keep the same kids two days in a row or alternate days. On Fridays, we wanted to each see all of them for a one hour block in each content area. Our principal sort of raised his eyebrows, but we told him we really though it would let us integrate content better, give us more flexibility for projects and presentations, and cut down on the management issues that go with all those class changes. He said we could try, we’d have to survey the parents to see if they’d buy into something different before he’d agree and that we’d have to look at how benchmark test grades looked at the end of each quarter.”

This teacher is employed and given her choice of teaching assignment. She has been enabled by a principal allowed her and her partner to implement and test a new idea and provided resources. She is empowered to control how she teaches and to take on real leadership within her building and among her colleagues. Control is shared, but with checks and balances that reduce risk. It is based on respect, trust and good communication between the administrator and the teachers. It requires shared acceptance of risk and accountability. This is why some schools see empowering teachers as a dangerous gamble that may be a distraction in achieving an established vision and mission. This is how some schools attempt to recruit young teachers and retain experienced teachers. This is how some schools reinvent themselves.

Anthony asked, “Do Teachers Lack Power and Self-Worth? Are They empowered?” A reader responded

Some are and some ain't. Like people in any profession. Perhaps it's just that the question is not nuanced enough; for example, it doesn't acknowledge that empowerment is a spectrum or that the definition is entirely subjective.

Here’s my take on this. The variable is not whether teachers have power. Everyone has power. It may be kinetic or potential. It may be focused or diffused. Power can be negative or positive. Empowerment is not about whether or not one has power. The real issue is how power is harnessed, managed, and utilized.

When teachers talk about empowerment, I don’t think they’re interested in taking over the power grid of education. I believe what most teachers really want is some control over their options. They’d like to be consulted about whether they are most comfortable with accepting, conceding or sharing responsibility and control. They’d just like to have some control about where, when, with whom and how the plug their personal and professional energy into the power grid.

Teachers ought to remember that they are some of the most powerful people in the world. We are powerless only if we choose to concede control to avoid the risk of exercising our options as individuals. do have options if we choose to exercise them.

Policymakers ought to realize that hoarded power serves little purpose. Resisting power diminishes production. Misused power becomes a destructive force. Resisting power diminishes production. Consolidated power can be transformative.

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.