Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post in a series called “A Look Back.” In it, I’ll be highlighting a particularly insightful response an educator has provided in a past column.
Past posts in this series have included:
Today’s “A Look Back” features a response contributed by American Federation Of Teachers President Randi Weingarten headlined “We Need ‘Fewer John Waynes & More John Deweys.” That post also included comments by Dean Vogel, then-President of the California Teachers Association; and Barnett Berry of the Center For Teaching Quality.
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.
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.