School & District Management Opinion

No Complaints: Devos Criticized Them and DC Teachers Spoke Out

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 19, 2017 4 min read
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Especially now, with a new Secretary of Education talking about teachers in receive mode, school improvement, vouchers and charters, teachers and their leaders are firing back. When new evaluation processes were instituted to hold teachers and leaders accountable for student achievement, there were complaints. When schools are blamed for lack of student achievement, there are complaints about lack of understanding. When a principal makes a decision, that displeases teachers, there are complaints. When we think about it, the only times we hear the profession unite with a positive public voice is when unanticipated, badly needed resources flow into the system or when a business partnership opens new doors.

Are we a group of complainers? On one hand, complaining feels good. It is like blowing off steam. It allows push back to critics when other voices all seem to in judgment and attack mode. It helps regain a sense of efficacy, maybe. What then? It is there, in that very spot we think, that educators miss the boat. Once the steam is blown off, we provide validation to the complainer by our inability to confront effectively. So people complain but little changes. The opposite can be seen in the actions of the courageous teachers in Washington DC. ICUMI (in case you missed it), Secretary DeVos made a statement after a visit to the Jefferson Middle School Academy, calling it awesome. But days later the Washington Post reported she said,

The teachers at Jefferson were sincere, genuine and dedicated, she said, they seemed to be in “receive mode.” They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and tha’s not going to bring to success to an individual child...You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.

A comment that could most certainly have led to angry complaints among the faculty was fuel for their action. Using Twitter, the social media avenue that has become the vehicle for politicians to communicate their thoughts, the teachers fought back. (The Twitter storm can be found in the Washington Post article). They stood up, corrected the record for themselves and their colleagues, gave voice to the good work they are doing, and immediately countered the misinformation broadcast by Secretary DeVos.

There are situations where the complaints motivate action and pushback and some changes are made. One example is in New York. Educators pushed back against the use of student achievement data being used as part of a teacher’s evaluation. They successfully got one piece of the evaluation process changed, but there remains much more that could make it a more meaningful process. The attempt of the evaluation to connect student success to teacher practice failed, but is it not measurable some other way? Is the issue resolved or is it on a back burner somewhere? Successful complaints upon which action is taken can be found in the upsurge of emails, calls, and letters to Representatives and Senators in an effort to object to a nominee or bill that is being considered for vote.

Taking Control
Educators speak often about empowering students as learners. Giving students effective feedback, inviting them into the learning process with choice and voice, and framing learning around the solving of a problem are just three of the devices used. What if we turned that around for the adults who are the educators and leaders of the empowered education we intend for the students like these courageous DC teachers did?

Within the school, imagine if instead of complaining in the faculty room about one decision or another, there was an effort to ask questions of the one who made the decision? What if there was a respectful, organized action to understand the decision or to help change it for the better? What if we became problem solvers together? As adults, we can grant ourselves voice and advocate for choice. Principals are not the only ones who can solve problems. As we have witnessed lately, action not only makes a difference in others, it fuels the actors with hope and purpose. Here are three examples of questions that can be asked.

  1. How do you see the problem that xxx training was meant to address?
  2. Are there ways that communication about changes can better prepare us to be ready?
  3. How might we be able to help with feedback before decisions are communicated in order to limit the need for retooling decisions after they are made?

The gathering of voices, shifting from complaining to each other to speaking together, is important. With truly good intentions to make things better, turning complaints into questions is important.

The faculty and staff can begin by replacing complaints with questions, and for the good of the order, step forward and ask them as a unified, concerned group. Or the leadership can begin by inviting critical voices to emerge when decisions are being formulated. And, beyond schools and districts, when a voice is needed to speak up and speak out, we can follow the model of those courageous DC teachers and fight back with the correct information about the good work being done. Any action in this regard refuels hope and purpose. Aren’t they two essentials for all educators? Actions are the fuel. And hats off to those brave educators at Jefferson Middle School Academy for letting the world know about their hard work and setting the record straight.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Image by WDnetStudio courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.