Education Opinion

Response: We Need “Fewer John Waynes & More John Deweys”

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 10, 2013 12 min read
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(This is Part One of a two-part series.)

Last week’s question was:

How can teachers best relate to Superintendents -- and vice versa?

This is a question that I regularly wrestle with in our school district, and I assume many others around the country do as well.

Today’s guest responses will be coming from the perpective of teachers -- shared by Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers; Dean Vogel, President of the California Teachers Association (Disclosure: I am a proud member of the CTA); and Barnett Berry of the Center For Teaching Quality (Disclosure: I am a member of the Center’s Teacher Leaders Network). Part Two in this series will be sharing thoughts from three Superintendents, as well as from readers.

Response From Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten is President of the American Federation of Teachers:

Fewer John Waynes, More John Deweys

How can teachers and superintendents best relate to one another? We have to walk in each other’s shoes. Simple to say--but unfortunately not so simple to do.

I’ve worked with a lot of superintendents--as a teacher, as a local union leader, and now as the national president of the American Federation of Teachers. The best relationships I’ve had were those built on mutual respect--sharing a common goal but understanding each other’s roles and responsibilities in achieving it. Essentially, it’s about doing everything in our power to make our public schools places where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach, and students want to learn.

When these relationships are constructive, both parties understand they need each other. We understand that superintendents have the ultimate responsibility to move an entire system to enable student success, and superintendents understand that teachers need the proper tools, conditions and support to help students learn and grow.

Before today’s “market-based reforms” phase in which competition and measurement--rather than collaboration and learning--are the primary goals, many superintendents saw it in their interest to work with teachers. They often started their careers as teachers, and the best superintendents understood that they shouldn’t leave their memories and classroom experience in the garbage heap once they assumed their new role. Parents saw the entire school system--teachers, principals, school board members and superintendents--as acting tirelessly together to serve their children.

There were always the occasional instances of cronyism, bureaucratic snafus, strained budgets and tough negotiations between teachers and the district, but the landscape was not nearly as hostile, confrontational and toxic as it is today. At the end of the day, we all believed we had a shared interest in doing whatever we could to help the kids in our schools succeed. We believed those interests and responsibilities were aligned. If we want to help all kids reach their God-given potential, we must find the common ground of shared responsibility once again.

I saw that firsthand at Clara Barton High School, where I taught in the 1990s. The fiscal situation was tough, and we scavenged for chalk and taught with books that still referenced President John Kennedy, even though Bill Clinton was president. But I always knew that I could find support--from other teachers to principals to administrators. And that continued throughout my career.

My best personal example of a constructive superintendent-union relationship was the New York City Chancellor’s District. The Chancellor’s District was an innovative program involving nearly 60 schools that flourished from 1996 to 2003 under a joint agreement between then-Chancellor Rudy Crew and the United Federation of Teachers. We built the program around a common purpose--turning schools around--and mutual trust and respect between the members and leaders of the UFT and the chancellor. And it paid off big for kids.

Schools in the Chancellor’s District were given a fiscal shot in the arm--spending an average of $2,700 more per student than at comparable schools. This extra funding was devoted to implementing a jointly agreed-upon, evidence-based literacy curriculum; additional teachers to help lower class sizes; academic after-school and summer programs to get struggling students the extra help they needed; and school-based professional development aligned to the new curriculum that helped teachers to constantly improve their skills.

Unfortunately, once Chancellor Crew and his successor Harold Levy left, educators and children lost the Chancellor’s District when Joel Klein dismantled the project and fractured the relationship the UFT and the chancellor’s office had built.

We see this all too often as many of today’s so-called reformers believe destabilization is their primary and only school reform tool; so they would rather denigrate, devalue and demonize teachers than work together to help all kids. They don’t see the value in mutual respect, collaboration and recognizing each other’s roles and responsibilities. They want teachers to be seen and not heard. These superintendents have no desire to walk in the shoes of an educator--an increasing number of them have spent more time in the boardroom than in the classroom.

Today, conflict is celebrated. Everyone wants to be the lone crusader who challenges the teachers, gets the headlines and imposes the latest education fad on teachers without valuing their expertise.

How can you build an education system that helps all kids succeed without valuing the input and experience of the educators who spend every day nurturing and enriching the minds of our children? How can you instill trust and confidence in a public education system if you don’t respect the people you entrust to teach our kids?

Today, you almost have to whisper if you want to build a system based on common purpose and mutual trust and respect out of fear that you will be attacked for lacking courage. Courage is now seen as destabilizing the same people you need to get the work done. This is foolish--and it hurts kids.

Courage should be about working together--as tough as it is sometimes--to work with parents and teachers as partners, to invest in public schools, to ensure teachers have the tools and conditions they need help their students, and to recognize that ideas and solutions can come from the classroom just as often as they can come from the central office.

And here’s the secret: Those who are doing the whispering, those who are actually focused on teacher-superintendent collaboration, those who are walking in each other’s shoes are the ones with the real track record of improving their school systems and doing what is best for kids.

In short--what the education world needs today are fewer John Waynes and more John Deweys.

Response From Dean Vogel

Dean E. Vogel is president of the 325,000 member California Teachers Association:

A teacher and a superintendent too often exist in almost totally different worlds, with one focused on daily opportunity to challenge and guide students to their full potential, and the other focused on the more bureaucratic, business, and political sides of a school district, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And in the most successful schools and school districts the relationship is very different.

In my experience as a local teacher leader and as the President of CTA, I’ve had the opportunity to visit hundreds of school districts, and to work and meet with thousands of teachers and hundreds of superintendents. Those encounters have reinforced an obvious conclusion: districts with the strongest connections between superintendents and their employees serve students far better than those that operate with a more top down, remote approach. Teachers rank a strong, supportive principal who understands teaching and curriculum as one of the top five criteria for having a successful school.

Those connections begin with the ability to talk to each other regularly, to tell the truth, and perhaps most importantly, to listen. Superintendents need to hear from teachers directly what kind of support they need to do their job and what approaches they believe work best for their students. Teachers need to listen to fresh ideas (and not just the latest fad) from superintendents, and be able to deal frankly and effectively with the constraints that squeezed budgets or political decisions place on their efforts. And both need to know when to change course when something isn’t working. “We’ve always done it this way” or, “It’s working someplace else” isn’t good enough.

To talk to each other you do actually have to meet each other. I know of a few superintendents who rarely, if ever, set foot inside a classroom, other than attending annual faculty meetings or a district Teacher of the Year award ceremony. Conversely, some teachers would no more think of calling the superintendent with an urgent concern or great idea than they would of calling the President of the United States.

While serving as a union chapter leader in Vacaville, California I had the chance to work with John Glaser, then superintendent of the nearby Napa school district. John had left a successful career with his own labor/management relations firm to return as superintendent to Napa where he had previously held other administrative positions. As superintendent, John practiced what he had preached as a consultant: collaboration, mutual respect and an eagerness to work with his teachers to find what he called “the other right answer.” John was a listener, a skill he had used in private practice to help other school district management and labor teams bridge gulfs that sometimes turned out to be not that wide after all.

The collaborative approach may not a cure-all, but it is a “cure-most.” Nearly all teachers and superintendents want the same thing: to create and maintain systems that sustain positive and successful learning environments. Getting there begins with both sides being heard, having their ideas valued, and then working as a team in the best interest of students.

Response From Barnett Berry

Barnett Berry is the founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit that’s transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders. His book TEACHERPRENEURS, written with colleagues Ann Byrd and Alan Wieder, will be published by Jossey-Bass in July 2013 (Note that Barnett specifically reflects on the relationship between teachers and principal as well):

All too often the business of teaching and learning strikes a sharp divide between those who teach in schools and those who lead them. This split between teachers and administrators is rooted in teaching’s stormy and convoluted past, often framed by the struggle to determine who teaches what and how--as well as under what conditions and at what cost. Historians have documented the ebbs and flows of our nation’s efforts to professionalize teaching and struggle over whether teachers are workers or bosses--an unfortunate false dichotomy. But despite the lack of consensus on the best path to teaching quality, I believe it is time for a bold brand of teacher leadership that brings together those who teach in schools and those who lead them.

First, powerful evidence speaks volumes to how teacher leadership can make a significant difference for students. Researchers have found that students achieve more in mathematics and reading in schools with higher levels of teacher collaboration. And of late, economists, using sophisticated statistical methods and large databases, have concluded that students score higher on achievement tests when their teachers have opportunities to work with colleagues over a longer period of time and spread their expertise.

Second, dramatically improving our nation’s public schools is no simple matter. Teachers must teach increasingly diverse students, who must be able to compete in a global economy that requires them to master more complex knowledge as well as new basics of cross-cultural problem-solving and communication. To make matters more challenging, today, one in five students in the United States do not speak English as their primary language; by 2030, the number will double to more than 40 percent.

At the same time, our nation has one of the highest rates of student mobility among industrialized countries, and almost 25 percent of America’s public school students, because of their families’ devastating economic situations, are at-risk. Individual school principals, even with a small band of assistants, do not have the know-how and/or bandwidth to do all that must be done as schools morph into 24/7 “hubs” for integrated academic, social, and health services.

Third, top-performing nations, like Finland and Singapore, have built their success on increasing curriculum flexibility. Both nations invest heavily in pre-service preparation. In each country, the attrition rate of teachers is less than 3 percent annually, primarily because powerful policies are in place to support teaching for a career and prepare teachers as leaders. For example, in Finland, research methods are part of every course future teachers take. In Singapore, digital recordings of pedagogical practices support teacher development for 21st-century skills, including formative assessment. In both nations, principals teach students as well as lead adults, as do teachers.

And finally, a new MetLife Foundation poll has found that 23 percent of American teachers are “extremely” or “very interested” in serving in a hybrid role as a teacher and leader. (And half or more are at least “somewhat interested in such an assignment.) These findings are compelling, especially when set in context: More than 50 percent of teachers today play a leadership role in their school as department or grade level chair, instructional coach, or mentor. The vast majority of them--84 percent--are “not very” or “not at all” interested in becoming a principal.

All educators and reformers need to think and act differently. Administrators must realize that teachers want to lead without leaving the classroom. Teachers have solutions for the vexing problems facing school districts...and beyond.

At the same time, teachers must realize how complicated administrators’ roles are. The same MetLife Foundation survey revealed that 75 percent of our nation’s principals believe their job has become “too complex,” and almost half (48 percent) report they are “under great stress several days a week.” It is time to get over fallacious boundaries between teachers and administrators--and rebuild the profession that makes all others possible.

Thanks to Randi, Dean, and Barnett for contributing their responses.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.