Many Americans fear Betsy DeVos will be the undoing of the public school system, but as a long-time high school teacher, I can tell you that ship started sinking a long time ago.
Once upon a time, teachers were happy. We were treated as trusted professionals
by our adminstrators, and allowed the flexibility to make sound instructional decisions based on our training and experiencce.
But since the turn of the century, a teacher’s talent, creativity and pedagogy have taken a backseat to the micro-micromanaging of admistrators– many of whom couldn’t teach their way through an honors seminar class, let alone a hodgepodge of hellions who have juvenile records and flatlining Lexile scores.
Administrators, or Gym Teachers with Briefcases as I like to call them, are now the armchair quarterbacks of the classroom.
Sure, these gym teachers-turned-neckties were once teachers themselves, but most got out of the classroom or gymnasium faster than a twenty-spot slides through the fingers of a sixteen year-old.
At any rate, apparently we Yanks aren’t the only country where schools are sinking upon the high seas of administrative ineptitude, usually under new initiatives based on the latest research from some ambitious moron’s dissertation.
Meaning that every year, when teachers return to school in August, we inevitably hear, “Get on the Latest Bandwagon–Quick!”
So we’re expected to drop everything we’ve been doing. At least for the upcoming year. Or as long as the federal mandate or standardized test floats. How sound is that?
Anyway, I recently read a mystery set at a hallowed British prep school written by a former teacher turned bestselling author. (see book review under The Foxy Bibliophile – April 2017.)
Author Joanne Harris creates a very real albeit fictional world of teaching in the face of administrative cat-and-mouse politics that smacks of unvarnished truth. And Harris’s dark humor is especially keen.
What follows are specific quotes, organized by theme, from: Different Class Touchstone Books 2017, indicated by blue text font. My own observations follow each in black.
The Captain of our old ship is bound for dangerous new territory, and only the gods—or a mutiny—can save us from his ambition….And the most dangerous thing…is that he does have a measure of charm…
…the last Headmaster—who had a tendency to lurk in his office, avoiding boys and members of staff in favor of mountains of paperwork…(105-106)
Experienced teachers have a saying: “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” New administrators are an unknown commodity–kind of like taking home a mattress found on the side of the road. It might look okay, but…
Back in the day, I had a principal who rarely left his office. Students had no idea who the guy was. One rare day, he came in to observe my class, and the kids (seniors in high school) asked me who he was. Um, he’s principal.
But alas, those days are over. And FYI, it’s the charming ones you’ve got to watch out for… They want to make a name for themselves–and you’re going to do all the work it takes to get him/her noticed.
Which usually means meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. And PLC’s (Professional Learning Communities) and PD (Professional Development.)
And there’s only one thing to know about professional developments run by the young and ambitious:
On Management by Intimidation
“Mr. Straitley! Please come in.”
That was disingenuous…the smug, propriety way in which he gestured toward the chair positioned in front of the Headmaster’s desk…oh he was a politician all right; smarter than most politicians, double-dipped in a toxic brew of arrogance and sanctity. (146)
Yes, the ambiguous See Me note in the mailbox is never a good sign. Especially when the boss has ulterior motives.
And these days, they always do… And make no mistake, anyone who is a higher up in the school systerm is a politician first and foremost. Someone’s going down.
On Promoting Rookies Over Veterans
Back in the day, experienced teachers were revered. They were promoted and celebrated as authorities in their respective fields. They were also rewarded with classes they wanted to teach.
Today, the young ones are given the best classes, mentors to help them teach, and are then promoted while having less than five or ten years of experience.
…this makes Markowicz a Promising Young Man, destined for the greatness of a full-time administrative post, rather than actually teaching boys. A dull old business, this teaching of boys…Markowicz will escape within three years, as one of the Heads of the future. (165)
And what of the new breed of young, fledgling administrators? This about sums it up:
…administrators like Thing One and Thing Two: stuck all day in their offices, going on courses every week, drinking their coffee from the Headmaster’s cups, and having as little to do with boys as possible. (170)
But I guess promoting the young ones is the thing to do when one is insecure with his/her own position and wants to make sure no one in the inner circle can see the Emporer’s New Clothes.
On Elder Abuse:
On the other hand, the veteran teachers are given the worst classes and are driven out the door by every imaginable trick.
As for (veteran teacher)…he expects the new, streamlined St. Oswald’s to find a special place for him in reward for his years of service. The likelier outcome…he will be encouraged to take premature retirement to make way for a younger, cheaper man… (165)
Teachers who stay in the classroom–who are devoted to their students and their craft are not embraced–sometimes even by their own colleagues. Petty jealousies simmer beneath the surface, making the faculty room a sometimes dangerous place to eat lunch. Et tu, Brute? Especially in the current climate.
Devine disliked Harry Clarke because he saw him as a bad influence, encouraging boys to waste their time discussing pop music… this made Harry Clarke a sloppy unprofessional teacher. (But) he was an original; refreshingly unconventional; blessed with ideas and values that were decades ahead of his time. (172-173)
On Establishing a New Order with New Initiatives:
New boss always has to make his mark. Especially when new jobs have been established at central office. These ass-kissers need to do something to justify their six-figure salaries.
.. .his current obsession with name tags, which, he claims, if worn by staff and visitors to St. Oswald’s, will ensure that intruders in the school are swiftly apprehended…
And then there’s the real problem with new orders and initiatives:
In the old days we ran on instinct. But now we have guidelines to follow…(they) have removed the peril from teaching… And yet, as any Master knows who doesn’t spend his time staring at a computer, teaching is the essence of risk, the home of the unpredictable. There is no risk assessment for life. And Life is what we are teaching. (258)
Which leads me back to the way it used to be vs. the way it is now:
…St. Oswald’s has always run, not on paper, but on blood, sweat, chalk dust, work, and most of all on loyalty—loyalty to the boys, the School, and most of all, to each other— (212)
(Former Headmaster) Shitter Shakeshafte was old school. He believed above all in protecting his staff. I doubt if later Headmasters would have been so loyal. Certainly, Johnny Harrington would not hesitate to throw a colleague to the wolves. (244)
……I am the primary target. And though I cannot see the shape of the trap that the Head is preparing, I know it’s just a matter of time before it finally closes on me. (251)
Now back to the dreadful See Me note from the principal who will sell your ass up the flagpole sure as look at you.
“Roy,” said the Head. “We’ve had a complaint…”
“…this is Classics, Headmaster—but that’s hardly the same thing as using the text as a manifesto—”
The Head gave a sympathetic look. “I know, Roy…. We have a responsibility. We have to be very careful about the kinds of messages we give out.” (252)
Very careful indeed. Like for that parent who complained I was teaching witchcraft by teaching Macbeth. We must be careful about the kinds of messages of classic literature.
It’s 2017: Tenure and Teacher’s Union are Dirty Words:
Of course, the unions lack power in many districts. Certainly ours. Which makes a lack of support from administration a double-edged sword. Especially when parents are considered customers.
In all my years of teaching, I’ve never asked the
union for help…mostly because I’ve felt able to deal with my problems myself…I could always rely on the Head to support me (in public, at least). Now I strongly suspect that the Head is cheering on the lynch mob. (253)
It’s such a comfort to know your principal is gunning for you. Which brings me to my next topic–
Dead Man Walking:
They want to get rid of you. Maybe you’re too competent. Or they just don’t want to pay the pension. Or someone got a bug up their ass about you. For whatever reason, it’s happening, and it’s rampant. The average new teacher washes out before five years, with most leaving before they are tenured. And many of us believe that’s intentional. Turn them and burn them.
But how does that benefit the students? There’s something to be said for the expertise of someone who has perfected their craft.
…a Century (35+ years) of duty and teaching were dismissed—by an upstart in a shiny suit and his pair of lackeys. (253)
And speaking of lackeys…Ms. Buckfast, Assistant Principal is on it…
I once belonged to St. Oswald’s…a part of it heart and soul. Now I am in the shadows…My hearing with the New Head has been confirmed for next Monday…Ms. Buckfast is already collecting ammunition—she thinks I don’t know about this, but I do.(255)
Ammunition that will be collected this way:
I am on report. For the next few weeks or so, someone will shadow my classes, watching out for any irregularities. This is for my protection, says (the Head) with a little smile…Once more, I suspect that Harrington is trying to put pressure on me to drink the hemlock. (293)
When they start showing up in the back of your classroom…
“You know I respect you enormously…But you must see you’ll never win. Better to step out gracefully…” (296)
And then after they wreak havoc, they leave…
“I know when someone’s gunning for me. The Old Head, at least, was loyal. This one just sees St. Oswald’s as a stepping stone to something better.” (302)
To Sum Up:
Joanne Harris’s new book, DIFFERENT CLASS, does a kick-ass job of working the narrative of what’s going wrong in education into a mystery that will tie your brain in knots.
It’s anything but predictable…sorry I can’t say the same thing about the way education is going of late.
Thanks for reading–and if you’re wondering, I was not a dead man walking. Just someone who observes and reports.
S.J. Anderson, Foxy Writer Chick