From My Side of the Desk
Family First? Not necessarily so in some schools
When I was eight-years-old, my sister, Susan, gave me my first, and most memorable, lesson on what it meant to be a part of a Family. We had been playing with a neighborhood friend, Kathy, until the two strong-willed ten-year-olds began to squabble. If I remember right, the dust-up started over a misunderstanding of a Hollywood Hopscotch rule. I sided with Kathy because she was right. Wrong move, Connie! Susan grabbed my arm and on the long march home, berated me for my disloyalty. “Family always comes first,” I clearly remember her yelling at me. “Right or wrong.” When I tried to tell her that she had been wrong about the rule, she interrupted me, “Maybe so, but in front of others, family sticks together. Always!” After over three decades as a member of a number of school families, all I can say is, “Sorry, Susan. It ain’t necessarily so.”
At the start of each of my teaching terms, no matter the school, the head principal always used the family allegory at the first faculty meeting as a motivational tool. Around my twentieth September, hearing that administrator’s version of the, We Are a Family call to arms, I remember thinking, “What is this? Do all future school leaders take a course in Faculty Meeting Metaphors 101?” Why did I then tune out these words and choose to hum the lyrics to the old Sister Sledge song, We Are Family instead? Unfortunately, I knew that all too often, once the criticism missiles zeroed in on the school, those in the classroom trenches, the teachers, would be treated as cannon fodder, not as valued family members.
(Let me just interrupt this blog for an important reminder: not ALL administrators forsake their faculties and side with students, parents, school boards, community critics and government edicts when their phones start ringing and their E-mail boxes chime with new messages. Just some. As I said in my Principals: A Matter of Principles blog, “And oh, how treasured are the administrators who make each and every staff member feel his or her individual importance and worth to the team, the family that they comprise.”)
What I have never been able to understand, though, is why some family members (be they a part of a societal, community, school, or business unit) feel the need to disregard, distrust, and undermine the thoughts, words and actions of their kinfolk in the face of disapproval. This negativity doesn’t just flow from the top down, either. Siblings put down siblings, colleagues criticize colleagues, and faculties demean administrators. An adage exists that states, “Home is the one place you can vent and still be loved.” Maybe so, but isn’t respect a part of love?
How many times, in the midst of planning group sessions, pre and post observation conferences with administrators, and parent/teacher conferences can instructors be chided with words along the lines of, “No, no, that’s not right,” or “This is what you should do, think, say,” before they just shut up and shut down? How many times can teachers write referrals for student misbehavior and have nothing happen before they just don’t bother and choose to take care of classroom infractions on their own? How many excuses do they have to swallow about why Johnny is late, why he doesn’t complete homework or why he didn’t have time to study and deserves a retest before their passion for teaching teeters on the cliff of disillusionment?
At the end of every school year, conversations with neighbors and friends often revolve around the question, “Why do the good teachers leave?” when word gets around about highly effective and much admired educators, especially those not near retirement age, who choose to leave one school for another where they will feel more valued, or sadder yet, who leave teaching entirely. Maybe these educators are tired of being silenced when they have to enforce a situation they know will be detrimental to students’ future success instead of beneficial, i.e. a school-wide ruling that in no way prepares young people for real life. Maybe they are tired of seeing the creative and innovative lesson plans that they spent their summer vacations meticulously crafting, lessons that turn students into life-long learners instead of proficient test-takers, being replaced by the newest teach-to-the-test software program. Maybe they are tired of being treated as the whoops child of the family when they attempt to make their concerns for their students and colleagues heard. Maybe, just maybe, they would like to know their principal's first response to a complainant were the supporting words, “I will talk with my teacher and get back to you after I hear what he/she has to say.”
A number of years ago, on the first day teachers returned in August, as I was strolling into the lecture hall after a fantastic feast put on by the PTA (who understand that a well-fed teacher is a happy teacher), I overheard a comment by an administrator and his fellow compatriots. “Dang,” he said as he eyed the teachers filling the seats, “We have to keep hiring these younger teachers. They are easy on the eyes, don’t complain as much and don’t cost as much money.” Once the shock of his words wore away, I realized that he had given me the title, Terminal Leave, for a cozy mystery I was writing. In it, older teachers mysteriously were sent to the eternal teachers’ lounge in the sky before their rightful time. And although that novel is in revision as a contemporary women’s fiction book, that principal’s words still come to mind every time I hear about a teacher, veteran or rookie, who, for some innocuous reason, doesn’t measure up as a respected member of the family.
To be a functional family, one where every member feels valued, faculties and staffs need to put aside personal ambitions, petty jealousies, and the need to be the best and the brightest fish in the academic pond. Teamwork, reveling in each other’s successes, supporting each other’s efforts, and loyalty to the mission of creating a safe and inspiring learning environment for students are the primary nutrients for a well-adjusted family.
In his novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As a new school year looms on the horizon, and in some districts has already begun, I hope that for the next nine and a half months, all school members, in each and every thought, word and deed, will epitomize the principal’s We Are Family speech and nurture their academic family. I really don’t think that they want a loyalty lesson reminder from my sister, Susan.
Until next week,