Education Opinion

Waiting for My Job Description

By Nancy Flanagan — August 16, 2011 3 min read
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A couple of blogs back, I shared a moving story about a professional development workshop at a turnaround school in Louisiana: the new principal-with-vision, the mix of teachers (veterans who knew the community well, eager newbies, masters teachers who transferred in from other schools), the galvanizing moment when the principal let her staff know that she valued their judgment--that they were the people who would make learning happen.

School opened last week, even though they weren’t even close to “ready"--not the building rehab, not the cleaned-up, bright-and-shiny classrooms everyone wanted, not the professional preparation and staff bonding. The principal (who’s only been on the job for a few weeks) hadn’t even received her job description. School started anyway.

Here’s a verbatim dispatch from the principal.

Monday morning, Week Two.

Morning duty at 7:00 a.m.:
Parents and kids are now being receptive to the idea that we are not there to babysit before 8:00 a.m. Next, announcements and dismissal of kids to classrooms. A few phone calls, checking through teacher lesson plans for the week.

I check in on a few classes, then lunch begins. Our cafeteria is so small that we begin lunch at 10:45 and don’t end until 1:00. As soon as one of the first classes goes out to recess, we have a casualty -a little boy falls off the rusty jungle gym and onto the rocky surface below. The gash above his eye is so deep that I can see the socket.

No first aid kit! (And then I’m told we’re not allowed to administer first aid!?) And there’s no ice pack, either. I grab the ice pack out of my lunch, wrap it in cheap brown paper towels, and hold it to child’s head. Meanwhile, secretary is calling every number we have for the child and they are all either disconnected or there is no answer.

I call my boss, the next administrator up the line--and he asks me where the nurse is (we don’t have one) and then where the social worker is (we don’t have one of those, either). Then he tells me to get the child to the ER. Charlene (my dean of students) and I get the child into the backseat of my car and take off, flashers going, although other drivers are not paying attention.

On the way, Charlene gets hold of the grandma, who is already at the hospital with another child. The hospital staff is very gentle and quick. Grandmother (who appears to be all of about 25 years old) comes in with a tiny baby and a preschooler in tow. Turns out the mother of all three died in childbirth on June 24. I guess this explains why the little boy wailed uncontrollably when we asked him who his guardian was...

Oh--I finally got a copy of my job description this afternoon; it doesn’t even come close to what I did today.

The principal closes by asking:

Okay, so you have to tell me how to join the blogging world so I can quit sending these long emails to you!

That’s a very good request. The whole nation should be interested in long e-mails from principals and teachers taking on the challenge of rebuilding educational hope and success--making kids “college and career-ready"--using the turnaround model, defined by the U.S. Department of Education as follows:

Turnaround Model - This would include among other actions, replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure and implementing a new or revised instructional program.

Does the reference to “among other actions” include a school nurse, a social worker and an upper-level administrator who knows what resource personnel are available? How about a safe playground with soft surfaces? What about a first aid kit--and permission to use it?

What new governance model will “turn around” a child who’s lost his mother?

Are the four turnaround models simply leaky levees against the ravages of poverty?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.