Treat People Like Professionals and They'll Act Like Professionals

That's been my philosophy and my practice.  As a turnaround principal, I was trying it again.  

The turnaround was going to happen under a huge cloud.  We had a year to design the new school, but at the end of that year we faced the prospect of half of the faculty being transferred to other schools.  That was the condition the district reluctantly agreed to in order to get the money for turning around first seven and now another five schools.  These were the first two waves of a reform effort that would eventually make it through all 32 district schools.

Common sense math made it clear that this draconian approach required by the Federal and state grants funding the turnaround was foolish.  Even if it was an attempt to right the ship, it still amounted to rearranging the deck chairs.  

Disempowering teachers was part and parcel of the tough talk from politicians angling for higher office, particularly Andrew Cuomo, who has sharpened his sword a year later on that same whetstone.  Now that a budget deal has been reached in Albany, we will soon see the reality play out on "higher standards" for teacher evaluation.

Nonetheless, I thought it important to lay a foundation of professionalism, collegiality, and solidarity during the design year.  Clearly, folks were cynical and frightened.  Strength-based guy that I am, I asked during my first months what our strengths were as a school.  Resoundingly, teachers and staff said, "We're a family.  We do whatever it takes to support each other. We've got each other's backs."  

I thought this was a perfect opportunity for us to adopt the proverb, "If you want to go fast, go alone.  But if you want to go far, go together."  Despite the impending transfer cuts, I hoped that this faculty, dedicated as they had been for decades, would grab hold of their futures.  Indeed, I promised in return that if we all did get involved, I would make the case to any and all (up to the US Senate) that we should be exempted from the transfer clause.

Having been a union rep myself, and believing in the power of a learning organization, I tried several ways to have our school become a learning organization rather than a top-down machine that exposed and ridiculed teachers into changing.  Sadly, I got the most push-back from the teachers' union district leadership.  

In today's blog post, I'll describe one such initiative, in which we tried a "less is more" approach to reviewing lesson plans.  Previous practice had been a weekly review of lesson plan books.  Huge volume of plans, often photocopied between members of the same team, notably lacking in any planning for differentiation, according to reports I had gathered.  

How about going deeper rather than broader, and encouraging folks to reflect on their planning?  We moved to turning in plans monthly, but only three plans rather than a whole book.  Choose three plans you think are strong: 1 Math, 1 ELA, and any other lesson.  Write a single paragraph on each, telling why you think it is a good lesson.

Simple, right?  Less work--once a month vs. weekly, right?  More reflection, less rote compliance, right?  Gives us all a sense of what teachers value in their teaching and planning--good information for moving forward with the turnaround, right?

Yeah, right.

Who did I hear from in rapid succession?  The president of the district association emailed me in days.  Why had I created a new assignment?  Not new, I answered.  Same requirement, just a different format. Actually less work more focused on teachers' strengths, rather than gotcha accountability measures looking for their deficits.  Was I aware that there was a Memorandum of Understanding from five years prior that governed this practice?  No, I wasn't, but I had gone over the change with my building union team, including teachers of 20 years or more, and reps who had served at least since that MOU was issued, and they thought it was affirming, respectful, and fresh.  And since part of the turnaround was establishing more local control within a building, I thought that this was a good move to get buy-in here, foreshadowing the bigger changes ahead.  Treat people like professionals, and they'll act like professionals, I said. 


The president waited a day, and then wrote back to challenge my asking the teachers to respond to a writing prompt such as, "Choose your three strongest lessons and tell us why you chose them."  I thanked him for a copy of the aforementioned MOU, which I had read thoroughly, and asked him about the clause that encouraged dialogue between teachers and administrators about planning.  Since the clause did not specify the goal of that dialogue, I asked for his understanding.  As an old union hand myself, I could imagine two possibilities.  First, it was a genuine opening to collegial dialogue in the interest of improving instruction.  Second, it was another gotcha technique to allow admins to gather evidence--more about accountability than about improving teaching and learning.

The union president said questions were intended to improve planning and teaching.  Great!  So then what was the problem if I asked the question in advance, rather than after reading the plans?

No answer.

But I did get a call from the Chief Academic Officer--two rungs up the ladder from me, and one step below the Superintendent.  Since this was mid-Fall of the turnaround planning year, I considered this a harbinger of the latitude and support I would get in organizing for change.  I recalled asking in my finalist interview if this turnaround would be done "by us, with us, for us, or to us."  I also recalled asking about our "Innovation Zone" schools, the previous set of turnaround schools that wholly adopted Pearson curricula, "How much actual innovation is there in the iZone?"  The Chief Academic Officer's roundabout answer gave me the strong sense that "innovation" meant "different from what's been done before," at least in the first iteration.  

What was I doing down there, she wanted to know, because the union president was all over her about it.  I explained my intentions and my work with the building committee. She didn't exactly doubt the pedagogical value of a strength-based less-is-more approach, but she was clearly frustrated that I had caused her trouble.  I responded candidly that this was not the hill I wanted to die on, although it was pretty close.  If she told me to take it down, I would, and find another way to get to authentic discussions of teaching and planning.

As it got boiled down to its essence, the real objection from the union leadership was that I was requiring people to write, rather than just hand something in.  It was new, a change of practice.  The building committee conceded that it could be understood that way, and we agreed to the paragraphs being optional, rather than required.  

Rank and file teachers had a variety of responses, as expected.  Many appreciated that they were being asked their opinion of their own teaching; recognized that choosing their own strengths was a good opening to back-and-forth on good teaching.  Once our admin team responded by acknowledging those self-described strengths, and then encouraged folks to go further, the planning dialogue got even better.  Many others simply turned in their 3 lesson plans monthly with no reflection.  The admin team responded anyway, but had to decide on their own what the strengths of the lessons were.  No real dialogue there, and little evident improvement in planning or teaching either.

When folks were treated like professionals, did they act like professionals?  Some did, yes. For others, when they were encouraged by district leadership to suspect a trap and to retreat into the presumption that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, they took that road.  As I thought, that would be a harbinger for things to come when more significant change was on the agenda.

Psychologically, we talk about fight, flight, and freeze as the responses to threat.  Here, the faculty clearly felt threatened, and rightly so, given the impending transfer of 50%.  And that climate was further enhanced by politicians, as noted above.  I still believe that unions, as democratic voices of teachers can choose their battles wisely.  I hope that they will nurture the small spaces--such as individual schools--in which teachers are empowered as professionals as examples of how it can be done differently, especially in the tide of demeaning corporate-inspired policies and practices coming from state and federal governments and the education administrators who implement them.