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Killer instinct vs. relationships

October 24, 2010

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. markfriedman1 permalink
    October 25, 2010 6:48 am

    A good follow up on this topic is here, where a Baltimore teacher questions the Baltimore contract and the details about “career acceleration”:

    A selection from the article links up with Maria’s comment, “In the absence of a clear, unified, vision it is not always the cream that rises to the top”, here:

    “But the proposed contract gives principals tremendous power to choose which teachers advance and which get sidelined. Won’t that lead, in many schools, to a situation where a principal’s favorites are cultivated and rewarded, with little regard for effectiveness, while anyone who opposes the principal on any matter at all — even when doing so for the benefit of the students, like fighting for smaller class sizes — is largely excluded from advancement?

    The proposed contract is effusive about increased “career acceleration,” but in reality major gains will be for a very small percentage of teachers. Linda Eberhart, an administrator who took part in the negotiations, explained that “the cost of the contract over three years would be a maximum of $60 million.” That limited funding would have to cover the following costs (using the most accurate numbers available to the public):

    –$1,500 bribe (“signing stipend”) for each teacher = $9 million

    –2 percent increase in 2010-11 (and continuing in second and third years of contract) = $21.6 million

    –1 percent increase in 2011-12 (and in third year) = $7.2 million

    –1.5 percent increase in 2012-13 = $5.4 million

    –Cost of one “lead teacher” at each of 191 schools in second and third years of contract, assuming an average of an additional $20,000 per person = $7.6 million.

    This adds up to $50.8 million. Only $9.2 million remains to fund all other “increased career acceleration.” If we assume that the average “model teacher” would earn about $15,000 extra — compared to current salaries — and if we assume “model teachers” would be paid at that higher rate in the second and third years of the contract, that means, at most, that about 307 teachers will be allowed to become “model teachers.” In other words, the district CEO will have to guarantee that about 92 percent of the teaching staff is not allowed to achieve either “lead” or “model” status.

    Remember, if this contract is ratified, achieving “model” status will require the highest possible rating (currently entitled “proficient”) for at least two out of three years. This means, to limit the number of “model” teachers, all the CEO has to do is tell principals that they can give top-rated evaluations to only a tiny percentage of teachers.

    The Sun, in its glowing reportage about the proposed contract, argues that “Pay could go up quickly for effective teachers.” Are we to assume that 92 percent of Baltimore’s teachers — whose pay won’t go up quickly — are ineffective?

    The proposed contract is being lauded as a cutting-edge contribution on a national level to school reform and Race to the Top strategies. However, the real centerpiece of these trends is actually something less talked-about: a national curriculum. In all probability, in upcoming years, the MSA and HSA tests will be phased out and replaced with new high-stakes tests aligned with that curriculum.”

  2. Chris permalink
    October 26, 2010 9:44 pm

    I think this one of the huge differences between private and many charter type schools and the neighborhood school models. At schools with rigid discipline plans which basically consist of threats and punishments teachers etc. get respect because they demand it and consequences are swift and harsh. In a neighborhood school respect is based on the relationships formed; on the fact that you’ve taught this student’s brother, sister, cousin etc. and you are connected to their life. This is why new teachers rarely receive respect in that environment; one because they’re new and those relationships take time to develop and two because no 1st or 2nd year teacher is taught to foster a relationship of any kind with parents. Of course this often gets out of control and yes many urban schools are lacking any discernable rules or discipline policies for severe infractions. But still, I like knowing that I earned my respect and that I’m connected.

    • markfriedman1 permalink
      October 28, 2010 11:08 am

      Your comment “…no 1st or 2nd year teacher is taught to foster a relationship of any kind with parents” caught my attention. I largely agree. I’d go a step further and state that often, school systems find new teachers (as well as veteran teachers) who authentically pursue and build positive connections with parents and community members threatening. I suppose that when this fearful, threatened response happens, it comes from the feeling that a teacher may “out-do” the system at what its supposed to do. I have often times just been confused as to what the motivation could be when I’ve seen powerful people in a school criticize a teacher for connecting frequently with families outside of school, despite such efforts being done so in a professional manner.


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