Killer instinct vs. relationships
I suppose there are fields in which a certain ruthlessness is beneficial to an organization. Corporations based on acquisition, say, or some types of law firms probably need people who are willing to forget about the human cost as they make decisions based on the bottom line. I just can’t make a case for this type of approach benefiting school systems where relationships are such an essential part of the equation. For example, a teacher’s ability to establish a connection with students can make all the difference in transforming a disengaged student into an active and enthusiastic participant in the learning process. We, well, those of us who actually educate, understand that with children, some level of buy-in is important. Kids aren’t as likely to do the work if they don’t somehow feel connected to it, or at least to the teacher asking them to do it. Teachers aren’t all that different from the students in that regard. We also generally prefer to be actively involved in the process of addressing the needs of our students and problem-solving the issues that affect or classrooms. We have this strange idea, see, that we know our students a little better than our principals, random district administrators, policy wonks, and school superintendents. As a result, we feel a little testy when goofy policies/tests/curricula are thrust upon us without any prelude. We want to know the reasoning behind the things we’re being asked to do, we want information on how these things will benefit our students. Unfortunately, asking thoughtful questions can be a dangerous proposition these days.
Sadly, we seem to be going in a direction, nationwide, in which the killer instinct in school districts is valued more than the intricate system of relationships. Punish schools and teachers for low test scores instead of addressing the complex underlying reasons for those scores. Emphasize testing and performance on tests over learning and development of critical thinking skills. Accelerate rhetoric about effective teachers and work on dislodging the “bad” ones. Blame the unions. Many of us deliberately choose to work with high-risk populations, opting to apply our expertise where we believe it can most be of use. However, there are a great many challenges in doing so. Meanwhile, ivory tower types in district administrative positions make six-figure-salaries without really having to experience the day-to-day realities of the struggling schools. Hasn’t anybody noticed the correlation between the socioeconomic level of a neighborhood and the test scores of its schools?
Will I make more of an impact with the child if I scold and shame him to get him to do what I want or if I use my genuine affection for him (and my personal connection to him) to encourage him to participate willingly in the process? The relationship building in the classroom takes time and effort but is, to me, an essential part of being an effective teacher. There are ways of being firm and setting limits and high expectations without being demeaning. School administrators should be held to the same standards. Ruthless types who value killer instinct don’t have any business working in classrooms or running our nation’s schools. Leaders in districts across the country are imposing structures without soliciting the buy-in of the educational professionals. And you’d better not question the decisions or your career, your job, your reputation might be at risk. It truly disturbs me that so much media attention and acclaim seem to go to the loud voices and autocratic wielders-of-big-sticks, to the Michelle Rhees and Joe Clarks. Is the field of public education in essence about the bottom line and the killer instinct or are we about education, about people, and relationships? Do parents really want their kids educated in systems where people are devalued? There’s a very real possibility that the top-down lack of compassion will filter down to the students.
In this “my way or the highway” kind of structure, there is another troubling consideration to bear in mind. In the absence of a clear, unified, vision it is not always the cream that rises to the top. Think about what really rises to the top in a septic system. Many teachers, myself included, are frustrated by how much mismanagement we are observing and how little we can actually do about it. We are asking ourselves whether we can in good conscience continue to work in systems that do not value our expertise, our education or our input. So, here’s my statement to the “killers”. As you’re shaking those trees, hoping to root out the bad apples, consider that you may also be dislodging some of the more choice fruits.