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Introduction from Maria

July 22, 2010

My name is Maria and I am a teacher from a family of teachers. I am also a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend and an advocate for change. I believe in our public education system, in its potential to provide all children with equally valuable educational opportunities.  At its best, that’s what it should be. I have traveled to many less-developed nations and have seen for myself how poor children do not have equal access and I believe that, historically, our school system has been part of our nation’s success. I have worked for some of the lowest-performing schools in my urban school district and it was my choice to do so. That said, I love my job but the politics are discouraging. Our world and our communities are changing and our school system has not adjusted to keep pace with the changes.

I began my public school career in a ‘restructured’ school in one of the area’s poorest neighborhoods. I started with a group of talented, passionate people who shared the belief that we could turn this school around.  By the end of the year, many of us were anxiously looking for other positions.  Was it the heart-breaking reality of desperate poverty that discouraged us?   Perhaps it was the difficult task of bringing students up to grade level? Actually, no, the really intolerable aspect of our already difficult job was the atrocious leadership.  The district had appointed a young woman with no previous leadership experience to commandeer this rock-bottom school.  She lacked demonstrable qualities for such a demanding task; she had limited people skills, limited social skills, limited language skills and apparent emotional instability.  (I am being kind in my description.)  She screamed and belittled people on a regular basis and reduced many to tears; there were plenty of other instances of flagrantly unprofessional behavior that I won’t go into here. That same year, I began hearing stories from many other teachers about other under-qualified, unprofessional principals in similarly struggling schools.

After I moved on, I quickly realized that poor leadership is the rule rather than the exception in my district.  I am sorry to say that I have had limited opportunities to work with truly effective principals, but ample time to work with flawed and ineffective ones.  Indeed, I have a long list of stories that I could (and perhaps will) share, of the often-bizarre antics of principals encountered by teachers in this district.  Many of these individuals would be swiftly fired if they worked in the private sector, but in the public setting they are allowed to drag teachers and schools down with them before, or if, that ever happens.  Maybe I’m just being picky, but it seems to me that the people who have the most influence over a school’s performance and who make the most money should be held truly accountable for their actions.

Colorado lawmakers have recently approved Senate Bill 191, which was touted by foes of teachers’ unions and public education as an anti-tenure measure.  This argument suggests that by extricating all of those supposedly ineffective teachers who have been wedged into place by tenure and teachers unions’ we will have magically have flourishing schools. Really? I acknowledge that there are teachers who are phoning it in, who make minimal effort to consider best practices or who really have no interest in the children they are serving but effective leadership is a critical ingredient to an organization’s success.  Where are the effective leaders?  They certainly are scarce in the highest-risk schools; it very much looks as if the powers-that-be decided that the poor communities really don’t deserve the best resources.  Meanwhile, achievement continues its downward spiral as we focus on development of finite test-taking skills rather than the thinking and learning skills of each child. These are some of the very grave pieces of the problem of school achievement that are not being addressed. If we continue to ignore the importance of putting the strongest principals in the poorest schools and pretending that students in them aren’t capable of higher-level thinking, we are missing an opportunity to implement the kind of change that we really need for our schools.  A part of me fears that we currently run the risk of irreparably squandering one of our nation’s greatest resources.

I have been observing a curious trend in recent politics, one of excluding experienced educators from fully participating in policy development regarding changes affecting our field.  Somehow, our place at the debate table has been increasingly co-opted by special interest groups and individuals, people who often have little to no practical experience in the classroom. As teachers, we need to reclaim our professional authority and assert our voices of expertise.  I invite you to join us.

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