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TNLI: Action Research: Policy & Practice: The Development of Power: A Tale of the Need for Teacher Development

by Joseph Rafter
AUGUST, 1997

"A small school must be a school -not a school-within-a-school (whatever that is) or a "mini-school" or a house or a family. It can be just one of many housed in a shared building, but a building does not equal a school. A school must be independent, with all that the word implies, with control over a sufficient numbr of parameters that count-budget, staffing, scheduling, and the specifics of curriculum and assessment, just to mention a few. And power indeed to put toilet paper in bathrooms."
Deborah Meier

I am writing the epitaph for a school within a school. A program called Connections began in the fall of 1996. It died this spring. To review this collapse is like doing an autopsy on your own child. Why bother? "It's over. It's gone. Give it up. Forget about it." But, this program generated hope and a sense of excitement in teachers who had not experienced these emotions in teaching, in some cases, for as many as 20 years. For these teachers, myself included, there is a sense that there must be meaning in this year. The things we learned can't have been for nothing. The feeling of connectedness was real. The excitement was powerful. And there was the sheer fun. The daily sense of growth was real and we felt it. The kids felt part of a team and parents felt pride in their children's involvement. Still, it might not warrant a soul search just to gather the memories for a nostalgic trip, a self congratulatory pat on the back. There is more. The hope is to give direction to others who might try to give meaning to their careers and daily lives, to explore our own mistakes for (God help us!) another try ourselves, and most important to invite those who have the power to make these dreams a reality recognize opportunities to implement policies that will help teachers in reinventing themselves and their schools.

We were given "good advice" as we began that we were reinventing the wheel. That what we were doing had been done before, that we were doomed to failure and should do something different. But, this was our dream, our vision. We knew we would succeed. Well, in hindsight we can say that all the advice was "good", but similar to the psychoanalytic concept of insight, until we experienced we couldn't "know." We couldn't "understand." We couldn't not try.

Because this is a highly charged emotional issue involving a sense of failure for everyone involved the tendency is great, as in the dissolution of a failing marriage, to seek to blame. I can feel it as I press these keys. I will try to be as honest as I can and to recognize that there is plenty of blame to share. There is also a great deal of success lurking here and I will try to recognize it. Most of all there are a great many things that could have been done differently and might yet be, if only by others.

The school is like many in the city of New York. The administration is grossly overburdened and consequently has adopted a relatively strict top down policy where committees are formed and carry out work but are tightly controlled by an ambitious and energetic principal. (This principal is now leaving to become a deputy superintendent in another district.) The history of administrative philosophy has been one more of crowd control than of pedagogy, - strong belief in the power of order and discipline and an equally strong belief that anyone can follow a manual and teach what he/she is told. In addition, administrations have faithfully carried out, to the letter, the faddish directions of federal, state, city and district. While the current administration has been more "progressive" than some in the past, there is still the overwhelming sense of "boss and laborers."

The staff has a significant population of senior teachers who have thoroughly accommodated themselves to this style of leadership . Many of them became teachers in a time when education programs were laughable, when being an education major meant you failed out of everything else or at least that if you were bright you had made the wrong choice and were often encouraged by your professors to "make something of yourself" in a more appropriate course of study. It was a time when educational research was dismissed out of hand. And so, it is often reported with satisfaction, "I didn't major in Education. I came here and learned the job on my own. Don't tell me how to teach." These teachers are used to "teacher proof curriculum," to professional development that at best involved the appearance of an interesting speaker who spoke on subjects only tangentially related to what these teachers did in their classrooms, who at worst read to them from poorly constructed teacher manuals. They are used to being asked their opinions for form's sake only to find their advice totally ignored. They are used to being corrected before children. In short, they have been juvenalized by 15 to 20 years of working a "job." Many new and old teachers came with high expectations but, now have succumbed to a malaise that contends that, "This is the way it is. I do my job. I leave at 3 o'clock." And saddest of all, "I have a real life." For many these responses are defense mechanism. They protect against guilt felt from intuiting that there is a better way while not having the means to find it. They protect against the derision of those who would mock the expression of idealism. They protect against a sense of loss and emptiness at being career less. It would seem that for all but a small number the school life as opposed to "doing my job teaching in the classroom" has no meaning. These are decent, honest, in many cases caring people who find no connection to the life of the school.

The children are like all children. They represent every known type of personality and learning style. What might be of interest is the fact that the population has changed from a nearly homogenous group of Southern Europeans to a heterogenous group that may find as many as 29 different nationalities in a class of 32 students. Their social and economic status is also changing from a middle-class working group to one which includes all the problems of poverty, single parent families, dislocated groups in a foreign environment, second language and survival of war torn countries. In addition, they are children of 1990's America. They are often on their own. They must find their own path to acculturation. Often they are without models of ordinary social behavior. Of thirty-two fifth grade Connections students surveyed, three ate dinner with their families on a regular basis.

Our school is overcrowded; 1400 children. It has limited space and even more limited resources. Lunches are served in a cafeteria and two gymnasiums three times a day. (The coming year may see four lunch periods a day with some eating lunch as early as 10:30AM)

This was the situation in 1995 when I was working as a Math-cluster teacher, meeting over 700 children a week and supervising a lunch room with more than 200 fifth graders. Even this lunch period was divided into two parts. The fifth grade sat in the auditorium for half of the fifty minute period and then changed places with the fourth graders who had been eating in one of the gymnasiums. They were driven from place to place like a herd of would be silent cattle. The children were instructed to bring books with them to the auditorium (presumably to read) and were instructed that under no circumstances were they to make noise. The principal's office was directly across from the auditorium and noise meant "trouble" for all. It was a totally disagreeable experience for the children and a nightmare for me. I felt I was being paid to do a job and evaluated for doing something that I thought was wrong if not immoral. It is not in the nature of children to sit quietly for fifty minutes doing nothing. It is not in my nature to harangue children.

At the same time I had become a fellow of IMPACT II's Teacher Policy Institute. It was an awakening experience to meet 49 other teachers who agreed that this was an untenable situation. Part of the Institutes work involved doing surveys to understand the creation and implementation of policy. So I surveyed the children and teachers about the problems of lunch at our school. Based on conversations, we created a committee to see what could be done about the dehumanizing conditions. About 30 teachers mainly, old friends, came on Friday mornings for about five weeks. At the time I had been reading Endangered Minds by Jane Healy (Healy, 1990). Her discussion of children being left on their own and without adult models for social interaction or problem solving seemed to describe the problems our children were having. So one of the committee suggestions was to explore the possibility of having children eat lunch with adults. The idea was not to have adults eating at the same time in a different place or merely being present, but to offer a genuine opportunity for interaction. Adults would sit and eat with the children, interacting much like a family. Other suggestions included having additional lunch periods, employing music in the cafeteria, setting aside an area for crafts or games when children finished eating, adding pleasant design in the eating areas, and having multi-age groups eat together so that they could interact in a manner similar to that proposed for adults and children. Interestingly, the committee had been formed over the objection of the UFT chair who opposed even the discussion of teachers eating with children.

Here begins both the creation of Connections and the first sign of problems. In addition to the obvious purpose the Lunch Committee was a first attempt at getting teachers together to discuss their situation and the problems of their school and to learn to initiate action to reform the situation. These were their first steps toward responsibility for their own professional development, and they were undermined. The principal had sat in on the Lunch Committee meetings and took several of the suggestions (some of which she had made herself) and implemented them. When faced with opposition from several staff about changes including adding an additional lunch period, her response was that "your colleagues decided" what was to be done. Division was introduced and I, personally, lost credibility. More important, committee members were furious with administration and lost interest in the germinal and tenuous idea of taking the initiative in making changes in their own work space. For some, the idea of eating with children became a symbolic issue of teacher rights. Mainly, the right not to do. In the background, the following year brought a contract which ensured that teachers would not have lunch duty. Some began to see eating with the children as a ploy to keep teachers doing lunch duty. Recognizing the need to plan the Lunch Committee meetings, I had asked two other teachers for help. We spent a lot of time in discussion. We read Healy's book and other articles and, in fact, engaged in what was genuine, self-directed professional development. In the course of these discussions and evaluations of the committee and the climate at school, we decided to gather a small group and talk about the creation of a "school within a school." We felt that the number of children was overwhelming and there wasn't enough personal contact between children and teachers or with each other. Our world was too cold, too distant, too estranged. We had several discussions, and as the end of the year was approaching, we decided haste was in order (a second major problem). We gathered five people who felt comfortable in working together. We agreed on a series of goals and attitudes that we thought we would like to implement and agreed to form a unit. We really didn't know each other well enough (another source of problems). Three of us were thoroughly committed to using the lunch situation as a spring board for the creation of a family unit that would stress social responsibility. In addition to eating with the children, we wanted to integrate the children across grades, to create opportunities for Service Learning, Conflict Resolution, Mediation, Student Peer tutoring and other cooperative activities. The last member to join was particularly committed to Themes. And so we joined together, quickly and naively. What were we thinking?

Well, we were sincere and willing to work and, unfortunately, for the most part inexperienced in this type of group effort. We knew enough to realize that we could not implement anything in our school without the support of the principal. So, we invited her to a meeting off campus at the nearby home of one of us. She was impressed that several "old" teachers were so enthusiastic and agreed to come.

We told her that we were willing to volunteer our time to eat with the children and that we viewed the time spent as instruction time, as valuable as reading or math. We said that we would not do lunch duty and what we were proposing should not be confused with that. We hoped that eventually we could get a backup period from a meaningful cluster program which would give us a break to catch our breaths or do the mundane tasks that teachers typically do at lunch - find books, arrange trips, contact colleagues and do personal business. We were hopeful that as time passed we could write grants or rearrange schedules to make this a reality. In the meantime we would give it up. I think we were overly impressed with our own generosity.

In a series of meetings we worked out details that included giving us five classes on one end of the top floor, a common prep period once a week to do planning (here again we had no idea how much time we would need - another problem), an assistant principal and one of us to be liaisons and an introduction to the district coordinator of grants. The principal felt that in order to not be alienated from our colleagues we should continue to participate in grade level activities as well as our own. This included among other things weekly meetings, fund raising activities, and a musical festival. We acquiesced in ignorance of the burdens this would entail - another error which would come back to haunt us. The grants person was never able to meet with us and apparently did not have a good relationship with the principal at the time. So, we had grades one through five, a space, a single prep period for planning and the year ended with us agreeing to return in September as a "school within a school," Connections. None of us could meet over the summer. (One went to Canada, another to Italy, a third to Virginia.) We felt we would approach this as a pilot program and work our way through it for the first year. Before we left we were handed a copy of a letter from the Superintendent recognizing the initiation of Connections. The pressure was on. This belied our position of pilot program. The point should be emphasized that we had taken on an enormous responsibility, but we had no authority to make decisions. (This was an additional major mistake.)

We returned in September of '96 in almost a giddy mood of excitement tremendously anxious to begin. BUT... one of our number, for personal reasons, had decided not to return and remained in Virginia. It is difficult to be honest and clear here. We were hit with the problem. There was no time to canvas the staff (some had expressed interest in joining us in June). The principal said, " Do you have someone? We have to do this now." We had none and the principal appointed a substitute to take her place. In the crush of events associated with beginning a new year and without serious consideration we welcomed a new member whom we barely knew. Immediately, rumors arose that she had been told that she could have a job only if she was willing to give up her contractual lunch period. She swore that wasn't true. However, once again we had no control and we lost credibility with large numbers of the staff who did not believe our new member. It turns out our newest member was pregnant and was forced to leave us about two thirds of the way through the year, leading to a repeat of the initial hiring procedure about which even we were dubious.

Like Cyrano or Don Quixote we fought on. A lunch program had been designed over the summer. Each teacher would have 32 children at four tables. The children were heterogeneously grouped at tables of eight. The teacher would eat lunch on a rotating basis with each table. Thursdays we had our common prep prior to lunch and we would work through lunch so we didn't eat with the children on that day. On Friday's after lunch we each took our group of 32 to our classrooms for a forty-five minute period. We were interested in creating a family like atmosphere so we agreed on a number of rules to strengthen the lunch groups. For example, no one would eat unless everyone at the table had gotten lunch from the cafeteria and been seated. As teachers we encouraged each child to be in the conversation and worked hard at making that happen. What was interesting was the rise of expectations which were largely unstated about behavior. If one child brought a bag of snacks they would be offered to everyone at the table. No one grabbed or stinted. If someone needed help carrying a tray or opening a bottle it was offered. I don't know how quiet it was, but there was an absence of threat and there were daily demonstrations of consideration. We had fifth graders asking for first graders who were absent with genuine concern. We saw spontaneous demonstrations of older children reading to younger children or just offering help on words or meanings. We saw younger children reading to older children, sometimes to older children who could not read without causing embarrassment. We discussed everything from Kathita's statement that she was really white to Danny's suspensions. After a few weeks we scrambled the tables with the idea that all the children would get to know each other and that all five teachers would get to know all the children.

We had had an orientation meeting with parents in October to explain the program and now we began to get notes of support and praise. Parents would tell us how their sons and daughters wouldn't eat until everyone sat at the table and how they wouldn't take the last piece of food. We had parents talking about spending more family time at meals. In the classroom we were trying to leverage this new consciousness into our concern with social conscience and acceptance of responsibilities. All five classes worked on peer tutoring projects. On Tuesdays my fifth graders moved as an entire group to the third grade class where we worked in pairs on reading and math. The fourth graders did similar projects with both the first and second graders. The fifth graders were trained in Mediation and offered themselves as dispute consultants to the whole school. Our first theme had to do with animals from around the world and culminated in a group trip to the Central Park Zoo for the fifth, fourth and third graders with a series of reports done for the younger children. In culmination of a theme on harvests a Connections breakfast was organized in which every child brought breads or spreads from his native country and all 165 of us celebrated as a universal family.

This was the joyous side, but while we tried to integrate our curriculum and develop our socialization program we were obliged to follow a "teacher proof " literature curriculum as well as a mandated math program. In addition, we each were involved in mandatory "push-in" programs for remedial reading and math. Time was beginning to catch us. We were overwhelmed both in the classroom and in our attempts to organize and plan. Over Christmas we had a one day retreat and did as much long term planning as we could. Even here there was not enough time to do more about grants than send out requests, (Although we applied for several we received none). Nevertheless each of us was struck by the exhilaration of working together. It was amazing to have some time to talk and to think out loud. This sense of community of teachers was something we yearned for. It was satisfying. It was inspiring, but --- it was not enough. It would never be enough. We were being eaten up by the clock. There was barely enough time to plan the joint week let alone write winning grant proposals. We could see no solution. We felt we were being sucked dry from every direction. Everyone was needed to pitch in on the big school wide fundraiser and on grade level trips and music festivals. I spent enormous amounts of time on end of year activities for the graduating fifth grade. The lack of time affected our planning, our work, our attitudes and our very mental states (It made us crabby). We had little control over what we did and less time to do what we had to and what we yearned to do. As the year progressed it became clear that our second substitute felt both overwhelmed and lacked commitment to what we were doing. In addition, among the remaining four there was some dissension, I believe brought on by the stress and lack of time. It seemed one member had never really accepted the rationale for the lunch program and now, under the constant pressure of the lack of time, was seeking to abandon it. This caused hostility on the part of the other members. It was getting late in the year and we were to face another round of negotiation with the principal for continuing in the fall of '97. A mediation smoothed over the division for a time, but we were divided and the principal knew it. We met and decided that we wanted to continue, but there were new problems. We met with the principal and presented a plan to expand to three new classes. It was hoped that the addition of new teachers besides offering the plan to more children would lighten the collective load. We dreamed that we might find among the staff an expert on grants.

By now it is obvious we were delusional. We also asked for a series of changes in our program. For example, we asked to eliminate our involvement with the other classes on each of our grades to free ourselves from some of the overburden. We could see that we should be autonomous, but we couldn't see how to arrange it. We hoped to gradually institute a separation. In retrospect, this was not a poor strategy. It was a non-strategy.

The new contract had been finalized and with it a rising fear on the part of the union representative that we were going to end up substituting as lunch duty personnel. We explained over and over that if someone was not assigned to lunch duty we could not and would not eat with the children. We even heard from the district union representative. His first words were "I could be your worst enemy". Here indeed was a separation between the liberal leadership of the union and its "shop stewards." In fairness, I believe we could have convinced him of the meaningfulness of our goals and he might have been "our best friend." But it was too late by then. The principal had turned down most of our requests including expansion of the program, retention of the same children, and separation from the grade level responsibilities. In fact one of us suggested to her that our meetings had turned from the appearance of mutual discussion and problem solving to "fiat" (she was not pleased). In this context we faced our final challenge. One of our original members was going to take a sabbatical to spend time with her newly married daughter and the second replacement had shown no interest in the group. Word had circulated that we had no clout in setting our own program, the interest shown by some staff a year before was largely gone, tensions were rising within our group and we needed two replacements. We were adamant that no staff be conscripted.

In accordance with the wishes of the principal, who offered a series of mixed messages we held meetings with parents and teachers. The parents who attended were few, but strongly supportive and some who could not come to the meeting sent notes asking that the program be continued and that their children remain in the program. Unfortunately, we could give no details about whether we would be keeping the children in the program or just about anything else. We expressed a series of wishes and non-promises to parents. Once again we were locked in an absurd situation with no authority to make decisions.

We wanted to hold a voluntary meeting for those interested in hearing about the program, but were forced to present at a regular faculty meeting between 3 and 3:45PM. Typically what happens at these meetings is that the staff watches the clock while feigning an absolute minimum of attention (sometimes not feigning and being completely, though understandably, rude) and then bolts out the door at the end. It was not a place to undo all the public relations problems we had amassed.

We waited as long as possible, but in the absence of committed candidates we finally ended the program in early June. It was over and we were in shock. Parents were concerned, but didn't understand the problem of recruiting staff who would give up fifty minutes of free time a day. Children were disappointed, realizing that now there was no chance of staying together and moving up within the program. We didn't know how to feel. We had set down a tremendous weight, but we were nowhere near our goal.

A fascinating postscript had to do with the number of staff who told us how sorry they were that the program had ended and how good it had been "for the children." Many offered that they would have loved to have been a part of it if it hadn't been for giving up lunch. Two with whom we had been negotiating showed obvious signs of guilt, and we had to assure them that they were not responsible for the fall of the program.

These are the experiences of a handful of teachers, two administrators and about 150 families in just one school in New York City. The problems are not unique. Schools across this country and especially in our urban areas are overcrowded and overutalized. Children are isolated and on their own growing up with minimal contact with adequate adult models. Time is a commodity more precious than gold. Administrators are overburdened and unsure. Faced with unmeetable responsibilities they resort to rigid policies and "cover yourself" strategies that allow little if any input from parents or teachers. Even the most recent New York State legislation, an attempt at liberalizing the structure of schools, only asks principals to form committees that require them to meet with parents and teachers. Thus because it leaves the full burden of responsibility on administration it frustrates any serious participation of these non voting, parents and teachers and encourages administrators to fear teachers' attempts at self-determination. This leads them to policies that divide and juvenalize their teacher corps. This top down "leadership" inhibits opportunities for teacher growth and development and cuts off a powerful source of creative solutions for educational problems. In their frustration, teachers abandon the very goals and interests that brought them to the profession in the first place. Some linger and fade in isolation and others become belligerently attached to an outdated labor model that demands all join in an "us against them" crusade, sadly forgetting the children we have all sworn to serve.

What Can Be Done?

Our experience has shown that some teachers are still strongly enthusiastic and that others would gladly be rescued. Linda Darling-Hammond (1996) has argued that the single most important factor in educational reform is the development of excellent teachers. If this is so, and we have every reason, both from research and common sense, to believe it is, we must do everything possible to develop and support excellent teachers. To suggest that we can strengthen professional development in a vacuum is to miss the point. We cannot simply polish them off and expect them to be fit for such an enormous undertaking. We must seek to support and strengthen their whole beings. We must change the conditions of their preparation, value their continuing growth and thoroughly alter their working conditions. We must recognize their human needs and their professional needs. Let us look at professional development as human development. We want to professionalize teachers in a way that causes them to see teaching as a career - not a job. We want them to rise to the tremendous responsibility of helping children to invent themselves. This is not a task accomplishable by narrowly trained educational technologists. Rather it is a lifelong challenge for fully rounded human beings. Recognizing that the environment plays a major part in the development of any human being we must structure the environment for maximum professional development.

 

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