Training the Players for Power Sharing

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It is important that teachers be able to see the need for change within the context of their total professional integrity.

School-based management is fast becoming the buzzphrase of the 1990's. Educational leaders see it as a means of effecting meaningful reform, school by school. And teachers, for their part, seem eager to accept the kind of shared decisionmaking it entails.

Why, then, aren't we further along in the process?

One reason might be that teachers haven't been given a real opportunity to understand and relate to a process so contrary to their generally accepted role. Their relationship with school administrators has always been non-participatory. Changing it will require support aimed at changing attitudes and perceptions.

If a manufacturing company were going to completely change the way it produced its product, it certainly would assume that retraining employees was a necessary step. How else would they be able to function productively in the new work environment?

Yet, the general assumption being made in regard to school-based management is that teachers should be able to make a transition from their old role to a new one without the benefit of training and skills-development.

This is not a recipe for productivity--or for successful school reform. And teachers' unions should play a role in seeing that it is corrected.

It is important that teachers be able to see the need for change within the context of their total professional integrity. The union has traditionally promoted improvements in their working conditions. But within the tightly controlled parameters of the traditional school model, it had limited opportunity to promote such concepts as shared decisionmaking. Now that teachers' contributions are being actively sought, unions should seize this opportunity for establishing school reform as an issue of critical importance to teachers.

As teachers come to identify school change as an issue that is as important and natural for their union to pursue as wages and working conditions, they will begin to adopt new attitudes about their right to participate in that change.

In New Haven, Conn., we have seen this kind of transformation come about.

The city made a decision several years ago to implement a program designed by James Comer, the Yale University child psychiatrist whose work is now attracting attention nationwide. Included within the New Haven program is a collaborative model called the School Planning and Management Team, or SPMT, which brings teachers, administrators, and parents together to address issues related to the program and to school climate generally.

Although the initial pilot project had been successful, efforts to implement the program systemwide met with only moderate success because several critical factors had not been adequately dealt with. Our union made a decision in 1987 to help rectify this situation by offering the SPMT process our full support and engagement. We did so because we recognized that meeting the mandate for change in the district required the development of a meaningful school administration. We identified five areas that needed to be addressed; they served as the basis for our plan of action.

First, we recognized the importance of keeping our members fully informed about current thinking on school-based management. Teachers cannot truly commit themselves to a process they do not clearly understand. Yet they do not always have easy access to the critical literature on particular issues. While many teachers were familiar with the concept of school-based management, they did not have the knowledge base needed to begin to build a comprehensive understanding of the issues involved.

We began to research the field and disseminate materials that addressed important trends and proposals that were emerging from a broad spectrum of sources in both education and the business community. We also organized professional seminars for teachers that provided opportunities for personal contact with some of the leaders in the movement.

These experiences proved to be so positive that a commitment has been made to continue this dissemination of information, so that teachers will be able to keep pace with developing trends.

Second, we acknowledged another important factor that needed to be clarified: the actual level of collaboration that the school-based-management model would offer teachers. Teachers need to be assured that there will be a quid pro quo inherent in the process. That is, they need to know that, if they make a commitment to participate, their efforts will yield results.

Teachers have had countless experiences in which they diligently served on school-based committees and faculty-liaison groups with an expectation that they would have an opportunity to improve or change a particular situation. Almost all of them, though, have past histories of seeing their recommendations ignored or overturned by someone in authority who didn't agree.

Because of this, it is extremely important, at the outset, to establish a relationship among all the members of the collaborative team that is based on an acknowledgement that all will have an equal voice--and that the group as a whole can make and implement important decisions. Teacher members in our School Planning Management Team represent their colleagues and are expected to communicate with them regularly. The administrator does not automatically chair the team and exercises no more authority in the group than the teachers or parents do.

This change was contrary to the original model fashioned by Dr. Comer, in which the administrator would head the team, and our effort to secure the approval of Superintendent John Dow Jr. for it was a turning point.

The need for training was the next area of concern to emerge. We were convinced, early on, that teachers and administrators needed to be taught certain techniques to be able to function effectively in the new context.

Team dynamics are not universally understood, nor are they generally encouraged in the teaching profession. Teachers for the most part are expected to work in isolation, with very little opportunity for interaction with their colleagues on professional issues. And principals for the most part are expected to be "in charge" and responsible for everything in the building, from the curriculum to the snow removal.

Somehow in this new process, all the members of the team must rethink their traditional roles and become a unit whose focus is to improve the school as a learning institution. Traditional thinking that the principal should fix what is wrong is changing. Instead, problems are being viewed as a group challenge. When this happens, everyone begins to realize they should be part of the solution.

We have been working collaboratively with the staff-development office in the New Haven public schools to develop a training model that fits this type of thinking. It addresses the issues of group dynamics, decisionmaking through consensus, conflict resolution, agenda development, and team building.

Teachers are the most critical players in this emerging phenomenon of school-based management/shared decisionmaking.

The willingness to serve on a team is not enough. All the participants must also develop the necessary skills. Proposals for implementing school-based management that do not include a training component are destined for failure or, even worse, the limbo of unfulfilled expectations.

Beyond training, the successful implementation of an innovative idea needs ongoing support. In our model, an interested observer or "coach" is available to assist in the developmental process of the team. The combination of the natural maturation of the group, their increasing level of comfort with decisionmaking, and this coaching component leads to a highly effective and dynamic team.

The use of coaches also offers constant reassurance that school-based management and shared decisionmaking are a high priority of the school system. The team then begins to attach real importance to its role.

The natural progression will be for the team to assume more and more responsibility for the total operation of the school, with the entire staff either directly or indirectly participating in the process. School restructuring thus becomes a real option. Beyond adjusting and adapting the program within the context of the typical school organization comes the possibility for rethinking, and possibly redesigning, the school.

The New Haven School Planning and Management Team is a sound and well-conceived vehicle for responding to a challenge for change. Change demands a kind of "deprogramming" for school professionals that will counter the continuing efforts in most schools to maintain and promote the status quo.

Our efforts in New Haven are the exception, rather than the norm, since they represent a serious collaboration among all the important stake holders in the educational process.

We have recognized that simply having a desire for change is not enough. A plan of action to support that desire must be implemented, and a shared vision must be achieved that represents the best interests of the children in our charge.

Teachers are the most critical players in this emerging phenomenon of school-based management/shared decisionmaking. They must support and believe in the process for any significant change to take place.

Certainly, it is an idea worthy of meaningful support. Teachers are up to the challenge; all they need is a helping hand.

Vol. 10, Issue 15, Pages 38, 40

Published in Print: December 12, 1990, as Training the Players for Power Sharing
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