I went to a principal workshop today and the presenter had a lot of really good things to say. (And I’ll be honest I can be a tough audience.) Much of the powerful take aways dealt with building capacity for change in our schools, and how principals can unwittingly build resistance for their ideas rather than support. The talk was based on the book Transforming School Culture by Anthony Muhammad, And the talk was good enough – persuasive enough – that I’m going to give the book a very careful read. And at a very basic level, I was appreciative of the fact that the presentation asked us to be reflective about our practice in a way that did not make me, or anyone else from what I saw, feel defensive about our work. That, in and of itself, is a worthwhile workshop.
But there was one piece of the presenter’s talk that I felt uncomfortable with. Multiple times, he reminded us that we were, "In the arduous task of saving lives." And on one level, he had the chops to make that claim. He and his faculty, and without question he made sure we understood that his faculty did amazing work, took a school that had less than a 60% graduation rate and raised it to a 91% graduation rate in 6 years. Moreover, as he told his own story of being an English language learner and how he felt his own life was saved by a teacher who cared for him, it was clear that, for him, the work is around saving lives.
But I worry about that as a mantra – a lot.
And I say this knowing full well that I’ve used that phrase. I don’t think I’ve used it in the talks I give, although it’s possible I have. But I know that I’ve said it to SLA teachers when they have gone above and beyond over and over again to impact the life (thank you to Dave Childers for that phrase today) of a student. And so I am struggling with these ideas even as I write them. What better thing to blog about, perhaps.
I worry that when we say, "We are in the business of saving lives," we run the risk of doing several things wrong. I worry we over estimate our role in a child’s life and under estimate the vital, powerful and important role of the parents, the community, and their culture, and in doing so, run the risk of becoming paternalistic in our dealings with both children and their families.
I worry that in the name of saving children’s lives, we can use that as an excuse not to take care of the adults doing the work as well. Because, after all, how can you stop working if your job is to save lives?
Perhaps most of all, I worry that the idea that we are saving lives perpetuates the Messiah myth of the teacher and that myth leads to hubris which can blind us in so many ways.
I do believe we are engaged in the work of changing lives. I believe in the transformative school. I believe that a school that engages in deep learning within ethic of care can have a positive and profound impact on the lives of all of those who live in it. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the students and teachers and parents of SLA forever changed my life for the better, and I hope their interactions with me have changed theirs for the better as well. Enough of them have told me so, that I have faith it is true.
Maybe this is a semantic argument, but it doesn’t feel like it to me. Schools should be places where young people and adults grow together. Yes, the adults are little older, a little more knowledgeable, and hopefully wiser, but hopefully still open to grow and open to learn. I believe students and teachers and principals can impact and change each other for the better. Change feels like a two-way street to me, but if we feel like we must be saviors, I worry that closes us off to be changed to ourselves, and in doing so, we make it that much harder to do the work we set out to do.