Monday, February 11, 2013

A matter of principals and principles

There is one question that I dread receiving as an educator.

“Why don’t you look into becoming an administrator?”

Thankfully, I am usually not sipping from the coffee that provides me with the sweet nectar of wakefulness for the day as I would surely be spitting it out in a random state of incredulity. Why do many good teachers refuse to cross over into the ‘dark side?’ There are quite a few Jedi knights in the classroom who would indeed make lovely principals and assistant principals, especially considering the increase in pay.

While the pay jumps a bit, the stresses and responsibilities make an even larger jump for already beleaguered educators.

When I am asked this question, I immediately think of the study in which college students were asked to play prisoners and wardens. In an experiment that made Lord of the Flies look like an Outward Bound romp in the wilderness, these students devolved into madness and depravity that destroyed the spirits of those who participated.

In this study, which needless to say, will never be conducted again, the randomly appointed wardens became drunk with power and took on a sadistic role that degraded the dignity of those who were once their peers in the classroom.

Egads, my friends! This Stanford experiment was all too real as the guards exacted psychological torture that were all too real to the same classmates who were their study partners a few weeks before. All it took was six days to teach us that this study was all too real a study in human depravity. Guards assaulted prisoners with fire extinguishers. Prisoners were forced to use buckets for toilets. Prisoners were forced to sleep naked on the cold, concrete floors of their simulated cells. When the experiment was called off, protests arose from the guards who liked their jobs a bit too much. Society learned that the roles that we play can sometimes take us over and make us forget our own humanity or the humanity of those around us.

But, I digress. The reason why I would never be caught dead lording over my colleagues is not because of a personal vendetta against any administrator in particular. The reason why I would never in a million years desert the classroom is because I wish to keep doing what I do best – nurture young minds and enrich learning to the best of my ability. I would never wish to get the amnesia that many folks get when they earn that much-envied promotion to what is considered the next logical step of their career. Most importantly, I do not want to be the good teacher who becomes a rotten principal.

I know that many people will ask me why a principal or any other administrator would take leave of their senses when they are working in the same schools with the same children as their subordinates. Allow me to provide some insights, with some help from One Mean MFA’s blog ( and from colleagues who would like to speak up but either can’t or won’t for obvious reasons.

• The best educational leaders never forget that they were once followers. Once we get that office, it is tempting to cloister ourselves in an echo chamber that leads us to believe that we were specially ordained to command from on high. Unlike teachers, for whom it takes an act of Congress to be able to relieve themselves in a timely manner, administrators take for granted the simple dignities of having unlimited restroom privileges. While us humble teachers would be strung up for denying a restroom pass to a student, we face serious health problems that arise from putting our bladders on hold for the lion’s share of the school day. Furthermore, administrators have the luxury of closing the door to the world when they are overworked or overwhelmed. In this ivory tower, they can actually do their work in peace. The average teacher, however, must stay on his or her toes throughout the school day – balancing the duties of taking attendance, passing out graded work, delivering lessons, collecting work, disciplining students, cleaning up the room for the next class, setting up electronic equipment, writing hall passes, loaning supplies, grading papers, helping students, redirecting students, and a slew of other actions that go unnoticed by the people who once did the same but now are oblivious of. The insular trappings of an administrator’s office also come with a cliquishness that permits them to choose favorites and dish out perks and privileges that betray the equality and fairness that is supposed to exist on campus. Either we are all in this to accomplish a common goal or we are not.

• The best educational leaders never forget that they were once children. It should be obvious that none of us were born directly into adulthood, but there are many administrators who behave as if they have no earthly idea of how a child actually behaves. They treat every character, behavior and social aspect of the child as something that is directly connected to the teacher’s success or failure as a person. I admit that I was not the most attentive student in the classroom and was not the most ideal student to have in the classroom if the teacher was being observed by a person with a clipboard and that institutional amnesia that allows them to judge the teacher on the merits of a few supposedly bad apples. Perhaps I have failed as a teacher if the commissars and inspectors from administration grill my students on their lessons using the jargon that would trip up even the most gifted of children. We, as educators, know of the gotcha tactics that are used to trip us up. For example, it seems like administrators take a secret course in how to select the most out of it student and ask him or her which state standard he or she is learning. If the student fails this impromptu quiz, it is apparent that the teacher is a slacker who is dooming the class to a life of either a succession of probation officers or a menial living working at a half-empty strip mall. Please do not misunderstand me; I believe that standards are important as we should communicate what lessons need to be taught. I also am a firm believer in the Understanding by Design methods that create lessons and learning by identifying the goals of what is to be taught and working to meet those goals. What offends and outrages me is that a generation of educators is learning how to game the system by coaching their students on what to say when the clipboard wielding men and women walk in and start asking questions. There is no more fun in learning when the education Gestapo takes a more active interest in the aesthetics of a classroom that seem to be designed for their approval as opposed to the actual needs of the students. In my decade plus of teaching public schools, I have yet to encounter a student who can adeptly say to me, “Mr. Meeks, I am learning NGSSS SS.A.2.3.1, the essential question is ‘how has geography affected the way people live?’ and I am developing a word wall that includes the following terms: scribe, famine, empire and exile.” It would a lie for any teacher to claim that they are able to corral malleable young minds into a mindset that reeks of a Stepford community instead of a true laboratory of learning. The behaviors in the classroom that we once accepted as part of our youth are now openly condemned. There was a time when students had down time for the sake of giving their brains a rest. Today, any break in learning is seen as a demerit for teachers. I understand that classes must never be seminars in coloring and playing around, but we are raising a hardened and harried generation of students who associate school with non-stop work and no joy.

• The best educational leaders always practice what they preach. Only a heartless tyrant would run a classroom that is filled with constant condemnation and criticism. The same, in my opinion, applies to an administrator who believes that the beatings should continue until morale improves among the faculty. In my classroom, I have created incentives that regularly recognize students for their accomplishments. It is healthy to balance negative with positive feedback to create an atmosphere in which students are not afraid to make mistakes. Similarly, if we work in a school where the administration is always on the warpath about something and all of the teachers and staff are walking on eggshells, we are not working in an environment that is conducive to learning. For every educator who loses his or her cool and yells at or snaps at a student, there is an educator who toils away in fear that their work is constantly being criticized with no pat on the back from upstairs. These teachers are not manic depressive or bipolar but perhaps may be lashing out because they are being subject to the kind of workplace abuses from their superiors that manifests itself in unhealthy communications with students. While it is inexcusable for a teacher to verbally abuse a child, it is equally inexcusable for an administrator to create a climate of fear and loathing that affords subordinates with no real help or assistance. Speaking of communication, teachers are now on call every hour of the day. There is no escape from email messages asking about grades, classwork or homework as parents and families have access to their children’s grades online. Teachers must juggle their daily schedules around parent conferences which they are required to attend and address. The teachers have an open door policy that necessitates good listening skills and being responsive to the needs of their charges. Many administrators, however, claim to have an ‘open door’ policy but are far too eager to use that open door as an avenue to shut down dialogue, retaliate against outspoken teachers and ignore legitimate needs of their faculty and staff.

• The best educational leaders always understand the big picture. While students spend most of their waking hours inside the school house, there indeed are factors that are beyond the control of the teachers. Thanks to Response to Intervention (RtI), we are beginning to craft teaching to meet the needs of students who all were not raised by June Cleaver. The factors of poverty, abuse, hunger and neglect must be factored into the work that we do for our students. These circumstances are directly connected to the inability to create perfect children as the government demands. The budgetary limitations that restrict how we aid students, however, allows bad administrators to oversimplify problems and make scapegoats of the very teachers how have worked to comfort students who lost a parent, spend money from their own pockets to buy lunch for a child, lend school supplies to students who do not have a permanent home of their own, or wince when they see a child come to school with bruises from a beating from a parent who decided to take out their anger on the nearest person. Many administrators are willfully ignorant of the teachers who deal with situations that were unimaginable even a decade ago. Teachers have to work in an atmosphere in which students are coming out as gay, students are being bullied on the Internet, students are witnessing their parents wrestling with the demons of drug abuse, students are missing school to take care of their siblings. The solutions that educators seek, develop and implement will never be included on their respective evaluations because this is the kind of work that, although it is ignored, still needs to be done by someone.

• The best educational leaders believe that putting students first does not mean putting teachers last. Every idea that comes down the pike might look great on the surface, but that does not mean that we must jump on every passing trend and fad like a fickle socialite who changes wardrobes with every issue of Vogue. The justification for spending massive amounts of tax dollars is just as silly. We are told that, if we do not blindly drink the Kool-Aid of the latest administrative fancy, we do not care about the children. While it may work for totalitarian regimes to hide behind the children to push their twisted agendas, it is counterproductive to demand that educators jump on the bandwagon to adopt the next big thing only to see it discarded the following year. This, in my opinion, is why so many veteran educators look at these whims with a jaundiced eye. A bad administrator does not listen to experience, but yearns to purge the learned hands in the classroom and replace them with more obedient rookies in this anti-tenure environment. Thankfully for other professions, they are not subject to the same instability in their respective fields. The clergy have been working with sacred texts that are older than time. Attorneys study laws that have descended from the same codes in place since the time of Robin Hood. Physicians, although medicine has made leaps and bounds over the centuries, are still faithful to the same fundamentals that the ancient Greeks pioneered. The same cannot be said for teachers, who witness the creation of program after program, attend training and professional development, spend their precious time executing these fabulous plans and then bide their time until something better comes along. Do they rebel? Do they mutiny? Do they strike? No, the keep doing what is right for the students.

At the end of the day, the main reason why I cannot move into that comfortable office is that I cherish my freedoms too much. I can take the time to express myself about what troubles me in public education. I can advocate for issues in which I believe. I can look myself in the mirror every morning and say with pride that I have done something for the betterment of society. It’s not that administrators are useful idiots or cowards who dare not do the same, but they agreed to take on the duty of leading at a price. If I was a principal, I would not take the risks that I do by speaking out. Yes, there is retribution exacted on loud mouths like me, but I would get beaten down no matter what I did if someone really had a mind to take me down a notch. I only fail if I do not bother to try. This is why I continue to work alongside my comrades in the trenches and why I continue to speak up on our behalf.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why I teach and why I fight

I am a teacher because I want your children to succeed.

This is why I maintain a transparent grading process for students and their families to completely understand how I arrived at my grades and how we can work to remedy these grades if indeed we are all trying to make a good faith effort to improve their learning.

I am a teacher because I want your children to make real progress.

This is why I stay up late at night grading papers in my pajamas and this is why I accept late work even if it means that I have to alter my home, family and private life to help your children make the grade. This is why I will often drop everything to even help former students who need letters of recommendation for scholarships, for admission to college and even when they need a job reference.

The politicians and administrators cannot say the same for educators.

This is why I work under a system that uses an evaluation tool that, when it is completed, is written in stone. There is no changing or altering teacher evaluations to include our own efforts to improve ourselves. There is nothing in this instrument that addresses what we do beyond preparing our students for the test that drives everything that we do in the classroom.

The politicians and administrators use the ‘bad’ teachers to justify their witch hunt against all teachers, good and bad. What they do not understand is that the bad teachers may be more effective at coloring between the lines and putting together a show that impresses the right people while the good teachers are forced to spend their own time, treasure and talent on efforts that ultimately get absolutely no recognition.

The politicians and administrators are not interested in teachers who do the right thing.

If they indeed really cared about helping good teachers become better, they would be as swift with the praise as they are with the condemnation. Why is school recognition money distributed at a snail’s pace while the negative news of school grades and teacher growth plans arrives faster than a delivery boy can bring a pizza to my doorstep? I have learned in my professional development classes that it is important for educators to give praise to their students often and efficiently. This is why it makes me and my students happy when we celebrate our successes publicly. I also learned to keep my criticism of student work private as I know that they can do their best when they are not under the pressure of knowing that I will broadcast their failings and challenges. So, why do we treat educators any differently? The main reason why teacher morale is so low in this time of testing and evaluations based on testing is that every day is judgment day for us and the powers that be are much more interested in proving their point that the teaching profession is populated by men and women who rank down there with horse thieves and convicted felons. The system is rigged to punish more than help.

This is why our state legislature and Department of Education are scrambling right now to adjust the teacher evaluation that they created – because there were too many ‘good’ teachers. Surely, there has to be something wrong with this evaluation system, right? There are too many C, D and F school grades and too many teachers who are graded as ‘effective.’ Don’t worry, there will be changes made to make sure that this never happens again. You can take my word for it when I say that next year’s evaluations will present a more ‘realistic’ picture of how awful our teachers ‘really’ are.

The politicians and administrators cannot handle the truth.

This is why we have educators who attempt to present their side of the story and are rebuffed in their efforts. I have a colleague in Florida’s public schools; she sent a portfolio of data and anecdotal evidence of her work to the human resources department of the school system because of the poison pen evaluations that she received from her administrators. They made it a sport to walk into her classroom and degrade her teaching in front of her students.

They took an almost sadistic joy in telling her that, in spite of being a National Board certified, she was not making the grade for her students. They ignored the fact that a former student of hers went on to win the Emmy award for the writing skills that he learned in her classroom. None of what we really do in the classroom matters when politicians and administrators have made up their minds that we need to be taught a lesson. The politicians and administrators do not care what we say or do.

This is why I had a private meeting with some influential people and said that I would be quiet and let the system fix itself. This is why I decided to be polite and back away from being such a loud mouthed activist for a while. What came of this? Some of my fellow union members accused me of selling out because the same shenanigans continued to come from politicians and administrators regardless of what I said or did not say. I learned how to play along and get along and go nothing in return. I extended an olive branch and ended up with a knife in my back.

I will use whatever constructive and legal means that I can to advocate for my profession and for my students. I will use whatever constructive and legal means to exercise my First Amendment rights to challenge the system that attempts to use the tired and trite platitudes that they are putting children first – while insisting that they must put educators and education support professionals last.

This is not a partisan crusade that I am launching today. The late Senator Jim King happened to be a Republican but also happened to be a friend of our state’s public schools. Former governor Charlie Crist was a Republican at the time that he vetoed legislation that I believe was designed to harm our educators. I believe that the leaders in Tallahassee happen to be misguided because of my silence and because of our collective silence. If we do not speak up, they will assume that we approve of everything that they do. There are men and women in our state leadership, beginning with Governor Rick Scott, who are making long overdue overtures to us. They are extending a hand to us that I want to accept in earnest as it takes us all to create a better education system for Floridians that works for all Floridians. That is why I wrote this message, and I approve this message.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Viola Liuzzo and our comfort zones

As we observe Black History Month, we remember the heroes of the movement that expanded rights and freedoms for us all, regardless of race or ethnicity. Hidden among the legendary figures of that turbulent time is the name of someone who is nearly as obscure as the life that she lived and lost.

The 1960s were the decade of Donna Stone and June Cleaver, so we don't normally give much currency or credit to the 'average' housewife of that era. The women of that time were supposedly mopping floors while wearing a fabulous mink stole, cleaning toilets with a string of pearls around their neck or fussing over a fixing dinner for a surprise visit from her husband's boss.

These indeed were comfortable times for many suburban Americans who watched helplessly while young people from all walks of life risked their lives in the killing fields of the Deep South. So, why did Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from the Wolverine State, take it upon herself to leave her domestic life to get entangled in the bloody civil rights movement?

She saw the injustices being committed against her fellow human being. The flickering images of Selma inspired her to stop viewing life from the sidelines and she took a stand; she was already attending her local Unitarian church in Michigan and joined the NAACP. This however, was not enough.

Mrs. Liuzzo believed that she was fighting everyone's fight when she decided to go south to do what she believed was the right thing. She marched from Selma to Montgomery to show the voices of hatred and intolerance that the voices of love and peace are louder than any bigot.

Mrs. Liuzzo, tragically, was killed by four klansmen for committing the unforgivable sin of ferrying protesters in her family car. She left her comfort zone, as many Americans dared not do, so future generations could enjoy the freedoms and liberties that we take for granted today.

Mrs. Liuzzo's death did not end injustice or prejudice, but opened the eyes of a nation to what can be done for others. If only we would leave our own comfort zones to take the brave step toward building a better nation that works for all. We are Mrs. Liuzzo's legacy if only we speak out wherever and whenever we can.

Thank you, Viola Liuzzo (1925-1965)