Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Junta

I've decided that the most appropriate description of the way my school works is that it is ruled by a junta. Our principal makes some decisions and works quite hard--I don't mean any disrespect of her--but when push comes to shove, a group of three or four of us work behind-the-scenes to make sure that the important things get done and to discuss problems.

Unfortunately, this year, Ms. Dean does lunch duty, and so our little group hasn't really been working together like we used to. The positive side of this is that I am able to concentrate more on my own teaching and responsibilities and no longer get caught up in other people's drama. The negative side is that there are unaddressed issues that remain unaddressed, things that we would normally act upon.

Yesterday was Ms. Dean's daughter's first birthday, and she invited two of us to come over for cake. After the other guests had left, we started talking about some of the issues at hand.

First, my principal made this arbitrary decision about two weeks ago that the teachers are using too much paper. Instead of bringing it up in a staff meeting so that we could discuss ways of conserving and what amount of paper is reasonable, she just told a school aide to limit our paper use to a total of two reams per day. That's 1000 sheets. So, for the last few weeks, teachers have had to beg for more paper, buy their own, and deal with lectures from the school aide about how this wasn't her decision, blah blah blah. It is such a petty issue, and really poisoning the school environment. Plus, the math is easy: We have 210 students. Each has five classes per day. One sheet of paper per class per day would already exceed the 1000 page limit! So it is patently unrealistic. Granted, some classes do not use any paper, but that is easily balanced by other classes that use more than one sheet per period. And our school made the decision to use textbooks as references only, so we have a single class set of each book, rather than one per student. This makes sense, because we are project-oriented, not textbook-oriented, and we create many of our own materials. But a side effect is that we use lots of paper, particularly in content-heavy subjects like Science and Social Studies. Anyway, we decided that I would bring this up with Ms. Principal next week. I had been planning to discuss it with her anyway, but she is having some serious family problems and this week was parent-teacher conferences, so I left well-enough alone. But now that I know how strongly everyone feels about it, I can't let it simmer any longer.

Another issue is what to do about one teacher who is really not working out. To be fair, he was hired in October when additional money was released and the annual fall hiring freeze ended, so he took over his classes from other teachers; that's always hard. Plus, he's a brand new teacher, and learning to teach takes time. Points against him: He has a very light schedule, lots of supportive people helping him, a fairly easy school environment, and periods built into his schedule to observe other teachers and try to absorb how we exercise authority. His classes are a mess. He doesn't seem to see the big picture when designing his curriculum, so he strings together interesting activities, but it is unclear what they add up to. Worse, his classroom management is a disaster. The eighth graders don't respect him, and their behavior makes learning really hard for even the conscientious students. Either Ms. Principal or Ms. Dean often has to linger in the back of his classroom, in the guise of one errand or another, because their presence keeps total chaos from breaking out. And the rest of us have to back him up quite frequently when he kicks kids out of class or is having trouble taking his classes downstairs to lunch. None of this really helps him establish his own authority, but it's to the point where we step in because otherwise the entire school environment would be degraded. Ms. Principal is now taking notes with an eye to dismissing him at the end of December, even though we have no replacement prospects, because he's sucking up so many resources and really hurting the kids' education. It would mean more work for Ms. Dean and a couple of other teachers, but it may still be the best option. It feels really harsh to give someone so little time to get used to teaching--I was a MESS for more than a year when I first started--but he's in a very different school than where any of the rest of us started. He could not ask for more support, better kids, or a lighter schedule. And the cost to the eighth graders is too high for him to continue teaching at our school. *sigh*

Talking about this teacher led us to a broader discussion of our role as mentors to the new teachers. There are other teachers who are struggling, and we are all having trouble figuring out the best ways to help them. None of us had positive experiences with mentors or supervisors who really helped us improve our teaching, so we have no model for working with adults in this context. We all just learned as we went along, absorbing what we saw more experienced teachers doing, learning from our mistakes, getting as much as we could from the classes we took. One of the biggest challenges is working with teachers who don't see the problems that we see. Mr. Kelvin, for example, thinks his kids are learning really well because they can solve basic equations for speed, etc. What I see is that he taught them simple formulas for solving these problems, so they eventually mastered the methods, but they do not necessarily get the concepts. It's hard to help someone fix something they don't think is broken! I also struggle with authority as the Science Dept. Chair. I don't want to treat adults like children, who are to be given assignments and chastised when they do not complete them. I don't want to order anyone around, yet I'm beginning to think I need to be more demanding in what I ask the new teachers to do.

The main point is, the three of us are once again learning as we go. We are in leadership positions, yet we have no one helping us learn to lead! Ms. Dean is in an administrator's masters program, so she gets some ideas from her classes, but as far as real practical help goes, we're on our own. It's frustrating to know that I'm not doing as well as I want to be, yet not know how to find the resources and support that I need.

Finally, Ms. Principal is under a lot of stress. She is dealing with a family member's illness, but even before that, she never seemed like she really likes her job. When she gets stressed out, she becomes arbitrary and unpleasant in the way she talks to people, and unapproachable to her staff. She should be our leader, but she doesn't feel supported, she feels attacked from all sides. Parents are never happy no matter how she handles a situation; experienced teachers are always reminding her of things she needs to do; inexperienced teachers require a lot of her time; the Region makes demands; she is only the "acting" principal and is about to go through a formal hiring process to really get her job - and someone called the school the other day to tell her that he is applying for her job; etc., etc., etc. We can't make her like what she does, and truthfully, most of these pressures are not going to change. This is life as a principal. But many principals are not miserable! What to do, what to do? For the long-term good of the school, something has to change...

There's more. But I am in the process of doing about 100 lbs. of laundry, and I need to put it all in the dryer. Enough school politics for today.

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