The Administrative Trap: From 'We' to 'They'

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About a year ago, I became a "they." For over 23 years, I had been a "we," but that ended when I decided to make a career move and left the classroom to become an administrator.

I was so very pleased when I learned that I had been selected as an assistant superintendent of schools, and, rather naïvely, I expected everyone to react positively to my good news. The congratulations I received, however, were often overshadowed by criticism of my moving into administration.

Certainly, I had hoped that there would be some disappointment at my leaving the classroom. I had enjoyed a very successful teaching career, highlighted by my being named the 1983 National Teacher of the Year. But I was ready to move on to other challenges and had decided to seek a central- office position in curriculum and instruction. I believed that as a districtwide administrator I would have the opportunity to help lead a district in the kind of reshaping I envision as necessary for our schools.

So I chose to move "upstairs," as one colleague expressed it, with the renewed enthusiasm and idealism of a first-year teacher. The reactions to my move caught me by surprise, but in retrospect, I see that they were indicative of a major roadblock that is deterring the restructuring of our schools. The "we/they syndrome" is alive and all too well in American education. At least, that is what I inferred from reactions such as these:

  • "You crossed over." I heard this from many of my teacher colleagues, and I realized that the idea of teachers and administrators being on opposite sides of a conflict is still frequently held. I am sure that at some point in my career, I also perceived teachers and administrators as being opponents, especially during the years when I was participating in the negotiation of contracts for teachers. But I wanted my colleagues to perceive me as assuming a different role in the education team, not as deserting one team for another.
  • "I hate to see a good teacher leave the classroom to become an administrator." This was perhaps the most common reaction, and I heard it from teachers and parents alike. Even last week, I heard a variation of it while talking with a university professor, who lamented, "It makes me sick that the only way good teachers can advance is to leave the classroom and become administrators."

    This seemed to suggest that I would be wasting my time in administration. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see the opposite point of view presented by a local newspaper--one noted for its scathing diatribes on education. It suggested editorially that we will need effective administrators if schools are to be reformed, and that logic suggests an effective teacher just might also prove to be an effective administrator.

  • "You deserted the profession." I was truly bothered that my career move could be seen by some as a form of betrayal. After all, I had dedicated 23 years to teaching and had worked to become the best teacher I could possibly be. Was there a magic number of years I had to serve in the profession before I could leave without being labeled as a traitor?
  • "You sold out." Interestingly enough, I first heard this comment from my students, when I told them I would be leaving them. But its echo reverberated for weeks.

    It is true that my salary increased significantly when I moved from teaching into administration, and that increase was appealing, especially with two children in college. But I knew well enough that the responsibilities, increased time commitment, and frustrations that come with administration would make the glow of financial gain pale rather rapidly.

  • "You gave in." Implied in this comment was an assumption that I had been battling a temptation and had finally succumbed to it. I admit that my initial reaction was one of guilt, for this view of my decision seemed to suggest that, had I been a stronger individual, I might not have become a "they."

    Yet the truth is that I was not really torn between remaining a teacher and becoming an administrator. Simply put, I was ready to make a career move, and the decision I had to make was whether to move into administration, college teaching, or full-time consulting. I chose administration because I felt that I could make a difference in my new role and effect the changes that, until that time, I had been limited to talking about as a consultant.

  • "You're giving up a good thing." You might be surprised at how many administrators said this to me. Then again, you might not, especially if you are an administrator. Clearly, there is a sense of immense frustration among administrators that emerges from their feeling of being swallowed up by the educational bureaucracy. In effect, those who voiced this comment were predicting that I would discover I was rapidly becoming mired down in minutiae and would never have the time or energy to effect the changes I envisioned.
  • "You're too good to go into administration." Perhaps I should have taken this comment as a compliment, but it seemed to exemplify all too clearly a pervasive stereotype of administrators. It reflected the mindset that "those who can, teach; those who cannot, go into administration." Of course, if I had believed this, I would not have even considered pursuing an administrative position. But I am concerned that such a perception still remains common. If schools are going to be able to respond to changing needs, we will need administrators of the highest caliber to lead the way.

It is a year later now, and I am still a central-office administrator. I don't consider myself as having been transformed into the creature known as ''they.'' On the contrary, I still think of myself as a "we," and we are a team of professional educators working together for our students.

Yet I understand fully that administrators are still too often perceived as-and too often function as-the "bosses" of the "workers" known as teachers. This Industrial Age organizational paradigm is interfering with the reforming of our schools, and until we can reshape it into an Information Age paradigm featuring a team approach, the reform movement will continue to be left outside the classroom door.

The we/they syndrome divides the time and energy we professional educators have at a juncture in education when those resources are at a premium. Clearly, we as a whole team will be greater than the sum of our parts.

Vol. 10, Issue 11, Page 33

Published in Print: November 14, 1990, as The Administrative Trap: From 'We' to 'They'
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