My Manifesto

Do you really want to know what I think?

I wish I could tell my administration what they need to hear. Not angry jabs or piles of blame, but just the inside scoop. Because they try to understand our perspective, but only sometimes, and they are not asking the right questions. They seem to have total blind spots to some of the main issues that come up time-after-time. Sometimes I wonder if the blind spots are intentionally avoided or true gaps in their mind.    

 One theme of griping tends to be about how the administration knows that many teachers do not feel like their opinions count, tries to go about giving opportunities for people to voice their opinions, but then (seemingly to us) does not ask about what we think, or more concretely, what we see everyday in our classrooms when it comes to issues and situations where it really matters. I understand that administrators cannot have more than a couple people speaking into each important decision, but after sitting through meetings (even one-on-one) where I was interrupted several times and where the direction of the meeting went in a negative direction rather than the positive direction I had intended for the meeting when I set it up, I can see why teachers get frustrated and stop trying and just start dishing out irrational complaining.    

Now the main blind spot that I see arise in teachers' complaining and in my experiences is the issue of inconsistency. It is so bad -- it is like the administration never stops to ask the question, are we being consistent with what we are asking of our staff and students? Could someone in the office please stop and seriously pose that question? When teachers are inconsistent with the messages they give to students, the natural teenage response is to completely abandon all respect and throw out all credibility they had associated with that authority figure. It happens all the time and some teachers don't care and continue treating kids unfairly, but some teachers respond by showing that they do care and listen when students are frustrated with that teachers' practices. The latter type of teachers get more out of their students and, overall, receive higher quality work from students. This scenario should not be too far from the administrator's minds, but they do not seem to see themselves in the same situation. And, of course, no one is going to put their head in the lions mouth and go about writing off the administration in the same dramatic and obvious (and immature) way that our students write off us teachers.

Today's example of inconsistency was around the issue of deadlines. Teachers in my school have not been sticking to deadlines connected with field trip procedures, which is an issue and I know makes some peoples' jobs very difficult. But the way that the issue was presented was allegedly with the phrase "students have to understand that there are deadlines." (perhaps paraphrased) Unfortunately this is where that self-reflective question would have helped this directive not seem like a boatload of crap. Teachers are consistently instructed by our administration to accept late, even extremely late, work from students in order to raise students' grades, help them feel like it is possible to climb back from failing, and communicate that "Failure Is Not An Option." (I really like that book, by the way. This circumstance is not what the book advocates for at all...) Students have no deadlines in classes and they know it. Most do not even bother to ask if they can turn something in late and when the term is over they still turn stuff in from the last term in hopes it will still count (thank goodness the term is a boundary or I'd be getting work from September in May). This is the atmosphere we have been instructed to create, or rather, the unproductive environment that has arisen from the instructions teachers have been given, which were not intended to create such an environment.  Whether or not the administration recognizes that students are learning in an atmosphere of soft deadlines and a lack of teacher control over students' work remains to be seen. But it is there. And they did ask us to enforce one set of deadline, their deadlines, but don’t want us to enforce our own. The dichotomy is there and it puts teachers in the hard position.

My perspective on the specific issue is this. While field trips and classwork are two different topics in a teacher's or an administrator's mind, students do not distinguish between the two. To many students, it is all a bunch of crumpled pieces of paper in the bottom of their backpack. Soft deadlines are a problem for many reasons. One that teachers often site is that soft deadlines do not help students prepare for the future. I personally tend to fork off at this point and believe that middle schoolers are not developmentally ready to hold down a job and pay bills, that's why they aren't, so talking to them about school deadlines carrying over to paying bills on time is like water in a sieve (although I still say it). I really see soft deadlines as a problem because when not used in conjunction with a solid teacher-student relationship -- with honesty and hand-in-hand with teaching good communication skills between adults and students -- soft deadlines only perpetuate a school where students are neither held accountable or responsible. Students abuse soft deadlines and play the system. Soft deadlines give them the room and the opportunity to work harder at avoiding tasks than at ever doing them. Responsibility is just a word in the mission statement, not a practice or a foundational value. Second chances are not the same as soft deadlines, and soft deadlines are what we have in my school.

Teaching responsibility and citing paying bills as a reason to get homework in on time are two very different things. I believe that giving second chances is part of the business of teaching with one's heart, and administering an electric power company is a very different role. But second chances have to be founded in relationships, which many teachers cannot grasp or don't care too. I believe soft deadlines are a problem in my school because teachers do not believe in them. Thus having second chances is taken for granted by the students because teachers are not connecting knowing and listening to students with giving the second chances in the first place. This is the problem I have with the teachers all the time. Many teachers I work with do not try to see the merit and the good intentions behind the directives coming from the office, put in a half-ass job at following through with the directives and then blame the administration for all the problems associated with the directive. This whole issue is a sick cycle of blame, crumbled support, closed ears, insensitive minds, lack of understanding, intolerance, and, most of all, resistance to learning – and both parties are guilty of all these things.

Where do I go from here? That is the only thing that comes to mind after reading this all back to myself. Where do I go from here in my teaching? Where do I go from here in this blog post?

Do I quit, as I often think of doing? Do I shake my head and keep going? Especially since no one wants to listen to a second-year teacher and this second-year teacher doesn’t want to get fired. I truly believe that the teachers I work with will never change. I don’t usually say never (except when I am being dramatic), but even this “naïve and inexperienced” young teacher does not have hope for them. Maybe a really good administrator could turn them around, with a nice sprinkling of young influences. But part of the problem is that the teachers do not let anyone in. In their minds, the people at UMass are the “people on up on the hill” looking down from their high intellectualism. But it is not all the teachers’ fault. Both parties are guilty. Both parties are unapproachable. Both parties are not willing to look at it from the others’ perspective. How do you disarm the Cold War? How did we? I should look it up.