Q: I am a parent of children in school but I am also a teacher. From that perspective, I can see that one of the things that would help education is if school boards and superintendents and principals would consider teachers’ opinions in their decisions. I’ve been teaching for over a decade and no one has ever sought my input. Honestly they’ve sought my opinion more as a parent than as a teacher, but the insight I could share with them on discipline, programs and testing I’m convinced would help everyone. What can be done to make them listen?
They have to want to. The reasons they don’t are many. The biggest one is that most people who vie for school board or superintendent do so because they think they have answers, not so they can ask questions.
Obviously education is an area with many stakeholders. I don’t believe the wheel should be turned over to teachers just because we’re teachers. We serve at the will of the citizens, so input should be gathered from many places.
However, there is something to be said for the generals in the Pentagon listening to the rank and file soldiers in the foxholes. There is a war going on against ignorance and we are at a stalemate. Could it really hurt to hear what teachers have to say? Someone must think so. In a recent Gallup poll of various professional groups, teachers ranked dead last in agreeing that their opinion at work really matters.
I am fortunate in that my district, Charleston, seems to have a desire to turn that around and our superintendent, Dr. Gerrita Postlewait, is taking measures to correct the blind, administrative-driven, dart-board throwing approach to improvement.
A couple of years ago, she enacted what she calls the Teacher Cabinet. It is a model that I think all districts should use to ensure input from their soldiers; unless, of course, they’ve got something better they’re already using.
It works like this: every faculty at every school in our district elects a teacher representative. The representatives meet every quarter for two clear reasons: 1. So district officials can get teacher input on critical upcoming decisions. 2. So teachers can bring dire concerns to the attention of the superintendent.
The election part of the process is critical. I’ve seen similar groups where the teachers are cherry-picked by principals or district administrators. You’re sure to get a big batch of suck-ups and yes-people doing it that way. But when the faculty elects a representative, they’re usually going to choose someone with a more critical eye to represent their views. This could be the fresh, new teacher they admire or the old, crotchety lifer who’s seen it all. Either way, you’re getting authentic insight, not starry-eyed groupthink and that’s what matters.
But this level of synergy only starts at the top. For it to really work, it must filter down to the school level where the day-to-day combat takes place. That’s why the Charleston district employs Faculty Leadership Councils at every school. These groups consist of multiple school-level teacher leaders who meet with their principals every month. In these groups, the power structure works together in cooperation with teachers to solve schoolwide problems and discuss issues that truly impact the classroom.
At my school last year, for example, teachers worked with our principal on a schoolwide discipline plan to uniformly handle minor classroom behavior issues. It worked beautifully and it was successful in part because it had the authentic input of actual teachers.
This system isn’t without its imperfections, of course. If you’ve got a principal who’s a know-it-all or is, ahem, at the other extreme, he or she might turn the leadership council into a mockery or neglect to convene it at all.
Despite the impediments, I am proud of the way my district has recently been trying to get teacher input. We’ve had plenty of the same old thing and have experienced too much of the same old failure. I admire the fact that our superintendent has been willing to think outside of the box and search for a new way.
Over time, this system will make our schools and district much stronger because whenever you have a voice in the chorus, you care a lot more about the quality of the music you’re making. With a few more tweaks I think the whole thing could be a model for districts across the country.
The biggest question now is if it can survive a bloated, intransigent bureaucracy the size and scope of a district like Charleston’s. A superintendent may want it to succeed, but he or she can’t do it alone. And if the administrative underlings necessary to see it through aren’t competent enough or choose to reject the things that educational bureaucracies tend to reject (like teacher input), it will wither and rot on the vine, as all good things caught in the web of bureaucracy seem to do.
Check back with me next year and I’ll let you know how it’s going.
Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2018 first place award in column writing from the South Carolina Press Association. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent.