Struggling for power…

I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to read my Standing in the Corner post about the role that teachers should play in school decision making, but it’s gotten a few interesting feedback comments.  First, Jeff–who keeps an interesting blog called School Studio—wrote:

As one of those “outsiders” to the school, as an educational (facilities) planner, I can add that having a teaching staff ready and able to discuss and reflect on their own practices assists us as designers to serve the needs of teaching and learning much better. Some of my best conversations with educators have come when teachers have a strong sense of how their work fits into the trends in education; they are empowered and as such are already on a road of continuous improvement. When reflective thinking like this happens, we are then freed up to create learning environments that can make your practices rock.

For whatever reason, Jeff’s post rubbed me the wrong way.  I’m not sure why, but I felt a sense of “If teachers would just get out of the way, the rest of us could improve schools.”  Of course, that theme runs through many of my strands about teacher neediness and our responsibility for making empowerment less risky and more rewarding—but I guess hearing an “outsider” say the same things seemed wrong.

Mike echoed some of my feelings of frustration when he wrote:

It has been my sad experience, you see, that most human relationships, in schools or out, are dominated and motivated by the desire to attain and keep power. The higher up the ladder one goes, the more power they accumulate and the more determined they become to keep those below them on the lower rungs. 

Thus we have classroom teachers looking down on substitutes, custodians, support staff (which is unconscionable, by the way), and everyone above the teachers doing the same, only in more overt and nastier ways. Thus, no matter how skilled teachers become, no matter how aware, how reflective on our own processes and how strong our sense of how our work fits into current educational trends is, it will avail us little or nothing because we’re not understanding the underlying dynamic.

I couldn’t agree more that there is an incredibly interesting dynamic at work here.  Struggle for power definitely plays out in schools and districts every single day—and has permeated every element of our profession leading to dangerous assumptions and quick judgments in many buildings.  “Us versus Them” attitudes dominate our thinking and phrases like “let’s stand up to this,” or “I’m going to explode” indicate that adversarial relationships exist between classroom teachers and other educational professionals.

Some administrators see teachers as “out of place” or “incompetent,” valuing their own experiences and knowledge above anything that a teacher may possess.  Position and title are sacred and carry the only legitimate authority in many organizations.  Heck, even the title of “instructional leader” has been removed from the hands of classroom teachers and placed under the perview of those who are no longer instructors.

Teachers—lacking any official organizational power—feel slighted at every turn and respond testily to what may (or may not) be innocent comments and decisions.  My initial reaction to Jeff was nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction based on repeated experiences where I’ve been spoken down to by “experts” removed from the classroom.

Perhaps it’s time that all school personnel—from superintendents through cafeteria supervisors—begin reading Roland Barth.  Barth has long written about the impact that positive relationships between adults in a schoolhouse have on student achievement.  In fact, Barth argues that productive conversations are the single greatest factor in school improvement.  In this interview with the Journal for Staff Development, he explains:

“Conversations have the capacity to promote reflection, to create and exchange craft knowledge, and to help improve the organization.  Schools, I’m afraid, deal more in meetings — in talking at and being talked at — than in conversation…

By conversations I mean a dialogue characterized by mutual respect, time to really talk and reflect, active and nonjudgmental listening, the development of shared meaning. But the work of people in schools doesn’t lend itself to such conversations.

I’ve likened the experience of an educator in a school to that of a tennis shoe in a laundry dryer. It is difficult to have contemplative conversations in a laundry dryer. But many schools have found ways to create cultures that enable educators to get out of their laundry dryers, at least periodically, so they can reflect on what’s going on. A school that’s hospitable to conversation has to slow down a bit.

One precondition for a good conversation, of course, is having something to say. But a big part of conversation is listening, and I don’t think we have very sophisticated listening skills in schools. When someone talks, we are too often waiting for him or her to run out of gas so that we can jump in and get our airtime. It’s important that we be respectful of what each individual has to say.

I don’t know too many principals and superintendents who are good listeners. They want others to listen to them, of course. Conversation is much more equitable and satisfying when people talk and listen in roughly equal amounts and there is little posturing regarding who is the superordinate and who is the subordinate.”

Barth goes on to argue that the single most important relationship in any school is that between the principal and teachers.  Both partners in this relationship, Barth writes, are responsible for promoting “we” thinking:

It’s important that both teachers and principals nurture…relationships. It’s a reciprocal responsibility. Unfortunately, given their charge to monitor teachers’ compliance with mandates, principals are more and more being placed in the role of adversaries to teachers.

When I was a teacher, and I suspect it is true for other teachers as well, I knew I wasn’t able to do all the things I was supposed to be doing, let alone do them all well. As a result, when a principal or superintendent walks in a classroom almost every teacher feels, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be discovered as a fraud.” No wonder teachers close their doors and cover the windows with artwork.

All of this wreaks havoc with relationships between principals and teachers. It’s getting harder and harder to maintain a respectful, collegial relationship because principals are often caught between supporting teachers and acting as agents for those who are laying expectations on the teachers. That’s a job that fewer and fewer educators are able to do or want to take on.

As a principal, I tried to change the first person pronoun I used from “I” to “we.” When principals distribute leadership to many others within schools, then it becomes “we” who have a problem and “we” who are working on a solution. Teacher leadership is not only a huge part of the solution of relationship problems between principals and teachers, it’s a huge part of the solution to the problem of improving public schools.

Is my contention that the struggle for power in a schoolhouse can be set aside Utopian?

Perhaps….I know that the positive relationships that I’ve shared with those above me on the “organizational ladder” have only been the result of hours and hours of hard work.  It would be unfair to expect all teachers to make the same kinds of investments into relationship building while they are juggling the demands of today’s classrooms and trying to maintain a semblence of a personal life.

But I would also argue that setting aside power struggles is essential if we are ever going to maximize our efforts to ensure that every child succeeds.  Until all of education’s stakeholders—including those with established organizational power like principals and superintendents—leave their titles at the door and join together to promote “we” thinking in buildings, we’ll struggle at best and fail at worst.

So I guess the critical question is whose responsibility is it to take the first step towards relationship building?