Start with what we have

I recently read a blog post by Chris Lehmann entitled Root Causes and the Save our Schools March. It was a very thoughtful post and clearly shows the sincerity of Mr. Lehmann’s education philosophy. In the post, he describes a classroom he observed and why he supports the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C.

I was directed there by a former collegue’s Facebook page, which shared the link, saying she wished she could work for a principal like him. After seeing who she was talking about, I knew that I would be writing a blog post about it.

You see, Chris Lehmann is in fact a really good principal. He is respected by many educators across the country, including me, as a forward-thinking education reformer. From his school, the Science Leadership Academy, Mr. Lehmann is able to try new things, make observations, learn from his teachers, and spread the word at conferences throughout the country. He is a true education leader. However, it isn’t all about the principal.

Principals have people who give them directives, who have people who give them directives, who have legislators who came up with the directives, who are following the lead of the nation’s leadership who have the ideas behind the directives. It all trickles down. Each individual principal has to make a decision about how much they are willing to put on the line for their vision. At the Science Leadership Academy, administration and teachers have the support of people who are able to provide a bit of an umbrella around them so that teachers can teach the way we all believe they should teach. Even as I type this, I’m thinking that Mr. Lehmann might have a different opinion – maybe he struggles against directives, as well, and just doesn’t make that as apparent to us as he highlights the really great things that happen at his school, and that is how it should be.

Which brings me to the reason for this post.

I listen to educators complain all the time about administration, about standards, about testing, about their students. I have witnessed educators whose response to something they don’t agree with is effectively a removal of good practices from their classroom. They decide to throw out everything they ever hoped for in their classroom and instead sit behind their desk and let their students figure everything out for themselves. While student-centered learning is a good practice, this type of learning is not – same lessons every year in the same sequence with a product of one PowerPoint with 13 slides, etc.

I have seen teachers who leave the profession because they didn’t agree with one administrator. I have seen teachers who turn into the teacher Mr. Lehmann described or the one I described in a post two years ago: Burnout: Trickle or Flood? They focus on what they don’t have. They focus on what they don’t like about their job.

They do not focus on what they do have.

They have students sitting in that classroom who want to learn. Those students have been conditioned to expect the burned out teacher instead of the one with a plan. They also have colleagues who share, or at least once shared, their vision.

Yes, they have standards they must teach. Tests they must proctor. Administrators they must satisfy. But 95% of the time they spend in the classroom, nobody is watching but the kids. They have control over the how in their classroom, even if they don’t have control over the what.

The end result – whether our students master the content – should be what we are focusing on. Any time we spend focusing on the negatives of our job is time we have stolen from children.

All of this is not to say I don’t see a need for education reform. I do. I just have an opinion about how it should come about. In presentations, I will often put  a picture of a mountain up. When it appears, I talk about the approach we have to take when we are tackling a problem and I see this as applying here, so I’ll share:

When we are climbing a mountain, we often lose sight of the top. We can’t necessarily see how to get up there – our view is obstructed by many obstacles and still others that we haven’t encountered yet. Once we get to the top and look down, we can see clearly the path we chose and the obstacles that path offered, but we can also see the path we should have chosen – the one with fewer obstacles – or the one with the kind of obstacles we could handle.

When we talk about education reform. We have to do it from the top down. As long as Washington is doing what they are doing, our states will do what they are doing, our districts will follow, and our principals will have to comply. As educators, we have the choice to either focus on the negatives or instead, to start with what we have. Run with what we’ve been given and make the best of it while we fight the fight from the top down.

I vote for starting with what we have.


2 responses to “Start with what we have

  1. In Texas one choice with budget cuts was to lay off technology support. Starting with what we have is going to be greatly reduced as the very people who have making change happen will not be there to help. What would be your first choice as an action plan item to implement your post ideas?

  2. Karen, that is a really good point. Sitting in Texas, the top of the mountain that is nearest to us is the state. We are especially crippled by the recent cuts. I think we have to organize something at the state level first. The question is – how do we organize enough of us to make a difference? I don’t think the small things we do regionally or even sending emails, etc. makes the difference – we need to make a statement.

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