Who I am: Chris Lehmann
What I do: Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA (Opening 9/06).
What I did: Technology Coordinator / English Teacher / Girls Basketball Coach / Ultimate Coach at the Beacon School, a fantastic progressive public high school in Manhattan.
Email: chris [at] practicaltheory [dot] org.
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Mon, 25.03.2013 14:05
Jon Goldman was both my
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Karen Greenberg about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
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Perhaps a more apt term
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Chris, thanks. Pete is my
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No need to worry about
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Wednesday, August 31. 2011
I've seen a fair number of people tweet out a link to the Salon.com story, Confessions of a Bad Teacher, so I read it.
It's a pretty sad, although powerfully familiar and believable story about a second-career teacher who finds himself overwhelmed by the job of teaching and undermined by bad administration. I wondered as I was reading it, what was the point of publishing it? It reads a little like the third season of the Wire, the well-meaning teacher realizing how hard the job is kind of storyline, but also, the administrators are portrayed as tyrants who contribute to the problem, right up until the last line where the writer - who leaves mid-way through the year - writes:
And I think the reader is supposed to empathize with the teacher who, when struggling with kids is told by the principal "Take them to lunch" and "Frame everything in a positive way," and "Don't say 'don't.'" As if that's terrible, terrible advice.
And that's what got me thinking - the advice the principal gave wasn't terrible.
The problem was, as we accept the writer's description of events, she didn't live it herself.
This gets me back to one of my strongest beliefs as an administrator:
You have to be one school.
You cannot want one thing for students and another for teachers. The principal in the article tried to bully the teacher into caring about the kids, when everything we see about her behavior showed that she did not care about the development of this teacher.
If taking a student who isn't being productive to class out to lunch to get to know the student better is a good thing (and I believe it is,) then shouldn't principals and teachers share lunches and learn about each other's needs and ideas?
The writer had a bad boss, yes, but only in the way he thinks he did. It's not that he got bad advice, it's that there was a profound disconnect in what the administrator wants for the children of her school and what the administrator wanted for her teachers.
It's hard sometimes. Teachers are adults, and they get paid. So, as administrators, we want and expect more from them. But the values we hold as an administrator will be reflected in the values teachers manifest when they work with the kids. Both kindness and cruelty flow downstream.
If we want classrooms to be active places, so must our faculty meetings be.
If we want to feel cared for by teachers, then we must care for teachers.
If we want students to be able to engage in powerful inquiry, so must teachers.
The biggest crime of the story is that the principal wants kindness and care from the teachers to the students, but is unwilling to do the same for the adults in her care.
We must endeavor to be one school.
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Thank you for posting this, Chris. Important words as we consider how to hold our staff to high standards - being the standard-bearer is all about modeling.
Education is full of people and administrators that are just as diverse as any other human beings, so I'm reporting MY EXPERIENCE in NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS. But one of the first things that struck me was that when I became rookie was that in assessing discipline, principals moved in lockstep. The issue for them was how to make this situation go away, and then the next, and the next, ad infinitum.
In my experience, if a teacher was injured badly, the principals jumped into action - in order to intimidate the teacher into shutting up. When dealing with disruptive students, some administrators were more or less skillful or nurturing, but the bottom line was almost always the same - assessing the least possible consequences, making the deal that was easiest on the student, and sending a message to teachers to not write referrals.
This culture might seem strange to non-educators, but it was like handling the photocopier budget. (And it predated my arrival by decades) Administrators knew their quota of disciplinary actions wasn't enough, but their job was to stretch it, and avoid blame for running out.
The principal's advice might have been fine had it followed the assessing of disciplinary consequences. Also, let's not forget, that the proliferation of choice has made it much worse for neighborhood schools that are left with an even greater mass of troubled kids. When one school is empowered, another school has to be disempowered.
And in my experience, its also the concentration of kids whose behavior is an outgrowth of their disabilities. The central office won't let principals even think about assessing consequences to them, and principals have to send a message to teachers that they can't even think about consequences for kids who routinely commit felonies at school, but that the school can't address because of the district's interpretation of federal law.
I have read a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style of blogging. I added it to my favorites blog site list and will be checking back soon. Please check out my site as well and let me know what you think.
It is an old tale but newly relevant and necessary with all the "if only we could get rid of these bad old teachers" and bring in some new blood rhetoric.
You wondered what the point was in Salon.com publishing "Confessions of a Bad Teacher".
Tom Hoffman partially answered your question with his earlier comment.
But also, as someone who agonizes on a daily basis with the (I'm sorry to say) rotten-to-the-core system we have in NYC, there are other important reasons for publishing "Confessions."
My husband has been subjected to the "Ms. P" treatment at his school for the past couple of years, after eight prior years of shining work as a teacher despite the more normal DOE chaos. He knows, through the teachers' grapevine, that there are many other teachers experiencing this kind of abuse in the NYC DOE system. Yet, reading the detailed, complete picture "Confessions" describes -- which has taken so many proven excellent teachers and flushed them down the DOE toilet -- was an extremely validating experience for my beleaguered husband.
Furthermore, I have never read an article which captures the constellation of adversity factors, as clearly and vividly as does "Constellations". It should be required reading for every mayor, schools chancellor, teacher, and administrator in the U.S., in my humble opinion.
I apologize for such negativity in my descriptions of the system. But, even more, I am horrified for the students, who must somehow try to figure out how to grow up to be good and educated people amidst such waste, incompetence, and corruption as they witness firsthand in their public schools.
The only area in which I take issue with the author of "Confessions" is his minimizing of the effects of a "U" on a tenured teacher. If only the effect was merely to lose a raise in pay! My husband has become his school administration's whipping boy. He cannot transfer because of the "U" on his record. He has even requested (in writing) being "voluntary excessed" (volunteering to become an ATR!) and his principal ignored the letter.
It is only a matter of time before he will likely be brought up on "she said, he said" 3020a charges of "incompetance" even though his "crimes" consist of nothing objectively prove-able at all. Nevermind that nobody rates the raters. Apparently, this matters not! At best, he'll be required to pay a hefty fine to the DOE and join the ATR pool then. At worst, he'll never be able to teach anywhere, ever again.
(It's not like when you work in private industry and the boss doesn't like you; then, you can go across town and work at another corporation. Not so with the DOE, where your name is mud in all five boroughs and beyond, even if all of your students do well on the Regents! If the principal and cronies decide you are the one they'll be bullying from now on, Lord help you!
If you ask me, I think my husband's biggest "crime" as a teacher is having "master's plus 30 credits" status in the pay scale, and more than ten years of service. The school's administration gets nice bonuses for cutting their costs by driving him to quit or be fired. (This is called "constructive dismissal" -- much like the landlord getting rid of a tenant by sabotaging the tenant's apartment: constructive eviction.)
So there's plenty of reason that a readership as sophisticated as that of Salon.com should know the truth about the NYC DOE. I, for one, am thankful "Confessions" was published, and I hope it goes viral on the internet!
To introduce myself, I'm a third-year teacher who spent the last two years teaching in a middle-school in the South Bronx.
Like many administrators, I admire Mr. Lehmann's fantastic aspirations to bring his school to meet his theoretical ideals. I cannot speak of your current school in PA. However, as a former student-teacher at Beacon High School, I wonder if you really understand Mr. Owens' predicament at a South Bronx High School. Students at Beacon High School are of complete the opposite socio-economic status as that of Mr. Owens' students. And, yes, you may roll your eyes at the "socio-economic status excuse". It's unfortunate, but like Mr. Owens wrote, most students in the South Bronx are not of grade-level and merely pushed up within the system. They are not like Beacon kids who interview for their place in the school and are advanced students. Most Beacon students are self-motivated and are exposed to a successful path to a collegiate career. Students from the South Bronx are mainly Dominican, Black and African with many parents who have not had the opportunity to attend college. Beacon students pass by Fordam's campus, Lincoln Center and Julliard every morning; they shop at Urban Outfitters and wear brand name clothes; they take yearly trips with their parents to cultural cities around the world; they end up at prestigious colleges when they graduate. Do you know what an average South Bronx kid encounters? As an administrator, I'm sure you would follow in the footsteps of the principal at Beacon because she's leading such a successful school. However, there is a reality that a South Bronx school faces and as an administrator you must take those considerations into full account before aspiring to be anywhere close to an institution like Beacon. I can go on forever about this topic but lets get back to Mr. Owens.
I don't believe Mr. Owens' description of his experiences remotely encompass the reality of despicable treatments of teachers. Yes, the advice Mr. Owens' administrators gave him were decent, but you fail to understand what I think Mr. Owens' was trying to convey. He wrote about the advice under "Great Expectations". This is not to say that it is out of our abilities as teachers to take the time to connect with our students. However, I think Mr. Owens was trying to express how discipline is thrown into the hands of teachers when it should be the priority of the administration. "Plus, individual teachers must handle all discipline problems in the classroom." Now, I ask while individual teachers are dealing with discipline, how can they be good educators if students don't listen to them in the first place. A good educator probably spends 80% of the time educating and 20% on discipline. Speaking from experience, in the South Bronx, you do the opposite. It seems as though administrators want to play the "good cop" and have the teachers be the "bad cop." But, discipline should be an institutional priority. If an administrator wants his/her staff to have these great relationships with their students, why not take charge in discipline and be the "bad cop". A cohesive school should have uniformed discipline that trickles down from top to bottom. That's the support teachers need.
The frustration I share with Mr. Owens is that not only do many administrators fail to support their staff, but they bully us when we don't produce the vision they see for the school. Now, while administrators are trying to convince DOE and political leaders of their achievements of their pitched visions, how many walk into classrooms and help teachers with their management? Was it right for Ms. P to undermine Mr. Owens' authority when she walked into his classroom? Especially, since Mr. Owens is still trying to gain their respect. People of color might understand the situation more-- these kids do not encounter "middle-aged white males from the suburbs" on a regular basis and for a stranger to command their respect is out of the question for them until they know him and what his intentions are.
Now, back to Ms. P's advice. Say Mr. Owens took Natasha (the student who was texting in class with her cellphone between her legs to lunch). Now, wouldn't Ms. P accuse Mr. Owens of pedophiliac behavior should Natasha not cooperate and went to Ms. P with the allegation that Mr. Owens has the hots for her? It just seems that administrators (at least the bad ones) like to keep their staff between a rock and a hard place -- not supporting them and punishing them when given the chance.
Education is not a business and there should be no monetary profit made from it. It is a basic human right to be educated. Yet, these reformers want to treat Education as a business industry. Why is it that non-school employees of the DOE make more money for pushing paper? A secretary at the DOE makes more money (at least 1K more) than a first-year teacher and is only required a high-school diploma while a first-year teacher needs accreditation, a bachelor's degree, and training.
As teachers, we just want more appreciation, more support, and better treatment. We want to educate students not as a means for cash. Why would we bust our butts to get a masters degree for an awful job, with bad pay, and regular harassment? Mr. Owens was a successful Vice President at a publishing company, did you think he turned to teaching for the money? Oh, maybe it's for the the "job for life" As someone who's been bullied and is up for tenure, believe me, tenure is not necessary should we have understanding administrators who don't bully us.
You deem us as bad teachers when we lie awake every night worrying about individual kids and how to get through to them and engage them. Maybe administrators are content being stuck in their idealistic bubbles that they don't want to step out into reality and deal with the nitty gritty problems we teachers deal with. How many accountants are expected to buy their own calculators to do their jobs? How many lawyers are expected to buy their own legal pads? How many nurses are expected to decorate their patients' rooms with their own money? We teachers are expected to provide the best educational experience to students, yet we're required to decorate and supply students with the materials to learn. What other profession requires their employees to take that initiative. If you want to treat us like business professionals, why not do it on all levels? Where are the good incentives (bonuses? trips? etc.?) We barely have maternity leave in a female dominated field. We have no HR department to voice what's bothering us (and the Union does not count). We have no way of protecting ourselves from harassment. It reflects on the value of our society. This is now you treat the people who educate your children; the future of our country.
I apologize for going off in a tangent. But, before you deem Mr. Owens silly and that he failed to consider the administrative viewpoint, ask yourself whether you've really considered his point of view and realities.
I don't think the teacher was silly at all for writing the article... the problem I have with the article is that it didn't go far enough in really assessing why the principal's advice was so toxic.
My fear with the article isn't the same as the wife of teacher or of the non-tenured teacher. My fear with the article is that non-teachers at Salon will read it and think that the principal's advice was silly because "why would taking the time to take the kid to lunch work." And I honestly believe that an ethic of care works in all schools - and the work of amazing educators in cities all over this country have proven that for years. Look at what the Coalition of Essential Schools schools were able to do back when we, as a nation, made it easier for schools to do work like that.... and it wasn't that long ago.
So let me be clear on this - the point of my blog post was this -- the principal's behavior was toxic. My point is that it was even more toxic than the writer portrayed because it was so pedagogically unsound. All of the comments about how teachers are treated by principals and how that all but ensures that teachers will not succeed are 100% right - all the more right when schools are facing the socio-economic challenges that schools in the South Bronx face.
So I'll end this comment with this... (and I say this whenever I work with administrators on how to make schools better...)
Whatever you want for students, you must want for teachers, and you will never, ever bully teachers into caring about kids.
I should clearly jump in to support your big point. As David Brooks explains, people learn from people who they love. I played lunch-time b-ball with my students for 18 years.
In those years, however, I repeatedly saw our school show our professionalism (and compassion) during four to six week periods when we were briefly allowed to enforce our code of conduct. Back when we were 75% low-income, we were allowed to enforce our rules for an entire year. We saw a huge improvement. The next year, the principal told us that she had been told that we had suspended too many students, and we reverted to our old system. Once we were 95+% low income, nobody entertained the notion that we could try to maintain a safe and orderly environment.
I can not prove it, but I think my experience is typical. I've heard the same stories from all over, and in Philly, the refusal of the central office to allow consequences to be assessed has been documented. In fact, Paul Vallas admitted that he had believed that federal law prohibitted the long term suspension of an IEP student for a violent felony at school. (in our district, principals could not suspend an IEP student for more than ten days for a knife, if the blade is shorter than 2'1/2inches.)
I don't think our points are mutually exclusive.
And I agree... I believe that caring for kids has to include disciplining them when they do things wrong. (Just ask my seven year old what 'angry voice' from Daddy sounds like.)
And teachers need administrators to have their back when discipline is needed. But let's also say that discipline is a really tough nut to crack. We have some schools that are criminalizing behavior that isn't criminal, like latenesses. We have other schools that are looking the other way on things that should absolutely have consequences. And in places where "zero tolerance" was implemented, we know of cases where kids who were working in auto shops after school who were expelled because they brought their Leatherman with them to school.
Putting some quota on how many kids you can suspend in a year is rather insane - on that we can agree. Thinking that saying, "Let's suspend fewer kids" without putting systems and structures around restorative justice is a guarantee on increasing student bad behavior. Using restorative justice (which I would argue is a profound manifestation of Noddings' ethic of care) to create consequences for student behavior without criminalizing it would get at the true goal - creating a safe and healthy environment for teaching and learning.
I also think policies like a four-year advisory program so that every child (and every parent) knows who their advocate is, and so that every teacher has a profound reminder that they teach kids before they teach subjects.
All of this goes to the idea that unless administrators set up smart systems and structures that reflect their values, it makes it very, very hard for teachers to be effective.
I did not think mean to imply that our views are mutually exclusive. I meant to imply that teachers, and students, in neighborhood schools need the same reality-based policies as they have in many successful charter schools. If anything, the implication is that I understand why charter leaders broke free from the culture that has been dubbed the "status quo."
I did not think that you would hack into my computer and steal my words verbatim. Seriously, you read my mind on all of the above, a "quota on how many kids you can suspend in a year is rather insane," as is "criminalizing behavior that isn't criminal," as well as the need for "restorative justice" and "a four-year advisory program so that every child (and every parent) knows who their advocate is, and so that every teacher has a profound reminder that they teach kids before they teach subjects."
Think what would have happened if twenty years ago, education reform had been based on the positions you just articulated. The vast majority of teachers would have rushed to join such a movement, and perhaps the educational civil war would have been averted.
The principal says, "You need to have lunch with the girls. You need to show them that you care about them." The teacher responds, "I realized I was living a nightmare."
That's a pretty strange, and troubling, reaction.
How would he respond if the owner of the company he worked for said, "Take the client to lunch. Make sure they know how committed to the project we are."?
Same principle - unless someone knows you care about their concerns and well-being, they will not want to work with you.
1) In the real business world, your clients are not children.
2) Also, it is supposed to be the student's (and the student's parents') job to show the teacher and principal "how committed to the project" they are!
I swear, we've all gotten so "open minded" in education, that our brains are falling out! Emperor, put your clothes back on!
we need to improve our interactions and relations with students
Relationship between students and teachers is very important. Sometimes, students are motivated because of the teacher. In short, teacher-factor. Even the lesson is hard but the teacher is cool, it's still nice to try and learn.
What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media - Edited by Chris Lehmann and Scot McLeod
The Quote File
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little"