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08 October 2006

One-Sixth of the Way Home (Part II)

We had our first real School Improvement Team meeting last Tuesday, and, in spite of my previous whining (hey, gotta live up to the billing), it was an enjoyable and interesting, if exceedingly long, one. What was of most interest to me, though, was what I observed from our administrators, who were both there, eagerly.

It has to be an overwhelming weight, I suppose, when you are a high school principal for the first time, with an assistant principal who is in the same boat. And vice-versa, I'm sure. Fortunately the two of them seem to work well together, perhaps, in part, because of solidarity in inexperience. But picture this situation, and then couple it with the fact that within the first month of school a student gets murdered one weekend night, and an English teacher quits without notice. Not, I'm guessing, a scenario that shows up in "101 Ways to Start the School Year in a Positive Way".

Furthermore, I'm here to tell you that high school teachers, especially entrenched ones, can be tough to deal with. They know, after all, that administrators come and go much more often than they, the teachers, will. And so, like some of our recalcitrant students, certain teachers will fight you on particular issues, or just ignore you altogether.


Anyway, at our meeting there were a couple of interrelated issues the principals seemed genuinely perturbed about - not in an angry way, but an exasperated one. These involved the refusal of some teachers to follow the usual protocol of dealing with minor disciplinary issues through students first, then their parents, and then administrators. One of the reasons the departed English teacher gave for leaving was that she felt she should be able to remove a kid from her room for minor, as well as major, offenses and not have to deal with that kid again the rest of the day (this would include sleeping, talking, getting out of seat, etc.). The principals' point was that, in the long run, the teacher was causing more problems for herself by not trying to handle the minor issues through the protocol. She was, in their view, farming out control of her room to them. They emphasized that they weren't referring to automatic suspension issues like disrespect, cursing, or insubordination. Principal Goldberg also seemed to be puzzled over how to deal with teachers who make no effort at relationship-building with their kids (not the naughty kind, of course).

Well, I know what many of you will say, and I can't blame you for being hardliners. We've discussed the days when kids automatically did what the teacher said the first time they were told, or else. They knew what their parents were going to do with reports of misbehavior, and it involved a red ass, or worse. On these matters, at least, the community largely worked together as a whole, so I understand. There is a charming story a retired teacher told me about when she was a freshman at my school in the late 50's. One day the principal announced, over the P.A., that all classes were to get up and file past the office in an orderly fashion. When they did so, they saw three of their classmates sitting on a bench, holding up pieces of paper that read in big letters, "Tried to Skip School Today".

But we ain't in Kansas anymore, folks. When I first started teaching I privately railed that I had to find a way to deal with any nonsense from these kids. Slowly, I started to realize that if I didn't I would sink. So many kids treat their parents like dirt, and vice-versa, that it is hard to expect them to come in, sit quietly on day one, and automatically stay that way through day 180. And, realistically, you can't write up thirty kids a day for every little thing they do.

So, I learned, often the hard way, that there are two things which go in your survival kit. One, you have to assume command of your own room, assume responsibilities for your own problems (within reason), and let the kids know you are the f'ing drill sergeant they have to deal with first and foremost (a laughable image, I realize, for those who know me). But then, perhaps unlike that drill sergeant, you have to get as many kids as possible to buy into what you are selling. And this only happens, I believe, when you say, both with words and deeds, "Come on with me. I love you, and I care about what happens to you. But just remember who is in charge here." Come to think of it, even that drill sergeant has to get the privates to buy in at some point if he is to have good soldiers.

I've always had natural success with relating to my kids - in fact, I find that the most enjoyable part of the job, and can't imagine anyone staying in teaching who doesn't enjoy the heck out of dealing with the knuckleheads. But as my post yesterday indicated, the being in charge part has been my albatross, though I'm getting better at it.

I do believe that the principals are mostly in the right here, and I don't think they were trying to shirk responsibilities. The teacher who quit should not have had to hear smart-mouthing every day, no matter what. I think you can fairly ask, though, if she exarcerbated things with the way she chose to approach disciplinary problems. I don't know the answer in her particular situation. But these days, if you're going to have a chance, you must learn to win things on the front lines, at the point of contact, etc., etc. (insert your own bad sports/war metaphors here). And sometimes, you can do this with nothing more than a little extra kindness.

What the principals may be wondering, though, is if they can win over enough teachers to feel like someone has their backs. I think they will, but it may be, to paraphrase Wellington, "a near-run thing."

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