Getting Beyond Slogans: Training the School Leader for Creative Social Change
By J.D. JONES and MARGARET SORRELL TRUEMAN
Pogo (Walt Kelly) famously said, “I have seen the enemy and it is us.” My first year as a classroom teacher was in St. Albans, West Virginia teaching a 6th grade class. In that year I taught seven different subjects in a self-contained classroom. My first class of the day was physical education and like most six graders the students were wide awake at 8am and the game for this morning was kick ball. All the students were running to get in line, except one girl. I asked her why she was not getting in line also? She looked at me and said “do you see what I see?” All I saw was her with a blade of grass in her hand on a spring morning. I responded that I did see that blade of grass. She asked “you don’t see what I see?” Then she pointed out that there was a dew drop on the blade of grass and I responded that I did see it. Then she again said “you don’t see what I see….If you hold this blade of grass just right you can see a rainbow inside the dew drop.” I looked and sure enough, I saw the rainbow. Why did I not see that rainbow? Could it be that the older we get we lose that ability to see what is right in front of us?
Since that day I began to realize that we all see things in a different way and sometimes we lose sight or vision on what is relevant as we deal with the complexity of life and the reality of the way things are—or are not—concerning education today. Most of us reading this did not wake up one day and become a county superintendent a building principal or a classroom teacher. For many us, we have lived through all the “fixes”: America 2000; Back to the Basics; No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top; and now The Common Core. We started our career with one third of our students dropping out of school, and today we have one third of our students dropping out of school. We started with too many of our students having low test scores and today too many of our students have low test scores. We started with many of our graduates having to locate to other states to secure employment and today many of our graduates need to locate to other states to obtain employment. We have been chasing numbers and trends that says if you try this or that, or follow the data, only then will we will find the answer to all the questions related to all the finger pointing of why the system has come up short.
When it comes to change or pointing out where the system went wrong and why public schools have lost many of its noble goals, we would like to ponder some common sense change here. We know in education that our many layers of government have taken on a life of their own, inclusive of mandates, benchmarks, consultants, federal money, state money, local bonds, excess levies, colleges of education, teacher unions, national and state standards, local boards of education, and state boards of education. I could go on, but I think you get the point. Having to deal with each constituent “having the right answer”, well, pretty soon you’re talking about half the budget of a state going into education and without the outcomes that truly address what the goals of education should be, lifelong learners who are invested in their communities. The “system” often discourages a different type of leader from applying for leadership positions. It moves visionaries who thrive on constructive growth and flexibility to opt instead for other positions where they feel they are making more of a difference for the greater good. These lost leaders often see the plight of a school leader as one of managing a system where the tail is wagging the dog. Many see the nature of leadership in education as being more political, than a as agents of change. Many of those these talented and good minded individuals who have a unique vision for change, usually stay, as statistics show us, for an average of three years. Well intended Board of Education members voted into office by the public are also forced in many ways to deal with well-intended State Boards of Education that succumb to federal monies and subsequently take on the attached, well-intended Federal mandates. Like so many well-intended policies and procedures, these mandates usually make little difference in the end. This loop circles around good intentions buried inside a false reality of a system that seeks perfection in an imperfect world.
The Dilemma: Working with Adult Wants and Student Needs:
The adult wants are an important part of the puzzle and here we present a short list. They include: decent salaries; health benefits, job security; community respect; and reasonable control over their classroom. We all need to have a meaningful work environment in which to practice our craft, with a feeling of daily success that we are making a difference in the classroom and in the community. The student needs, concurrently important, include: a safe place to attend school; access to the best and brightest teachers at each grade level and content area; a flexible and creative curriculum that is founded in arts and sciences; the opportunity to move on to college; vocational training or a good job after high school—giving true meaning and value in a high school diploma. Over many years these ‘wants” remain in large part unmet, hence frustration at the local level seems to never change.
When we look across leadership at all levels of the school system we are faced with an aggressive push from the State and Federal levels. We respond to threats of state take over from not meeting certain levels of test scores. The textbooks we use to train our future leaders are immersed in pedagogies and theories of the past, making it difficult at best to apply them to the realities of today. So many pieces of our educational system simply don’t fit and certainly don’t hold relevance for our students (or teachers). As leaders, we again feel this pull from teachers and others that maintains “we are running as fast as we can,” not only to teach prescribed content and skills, but to be a parent, counselor, nurse, social worker and of course a teacher to the students we work with on a daily basis. This push-pull across our educational systems today provides two different realities of students, two different realities of school, two different realities of “reality”.
We are faced in rural and inner city school districts with being compared to the “ideal” suburban school. It is noble to think that all students can succeed equally, no matter the environment from where they come. Our teachers know however, that from birth to four many students’ daily realities are light years apart from and do not set the stage for the school success experienced by their “ideal” suburban counterparts. We know there are those that say that if given the right teacher, the right materials, and the time, you can move all students up to the same benchmark. For teachers though, time however is the obvious paradox. We all move faster, but few of us really have enough time to meet these needs adequately. Yet perhaps we do have the time. Time we have noticed is relative and dependent, on our age and what we do with it. There are some outside of education that say that if we dare to present any reason why we can’t reach all children then we are lazy or inefficient, or not trying hard enough. So we come up with slogans and labels to “create” a mindset that certain schools are doing it right and are awarded blue ribbon or exceptional school status, or ranked as a top school in the district or state. We have state teacher of the year awards, county teacher of the year awards and all are certainly well intended. We seem to be under the illusion, or perception, that conveys that all these slogans and labels represent a great leap for a system—a system that is living in yesterday’s world while searching for tomorrow. We are all a part of that system and for many it has apparently worked, however for many it clearly has not.
Kindergarten and first grade teachers are the first one to see the issues: kids having kids; grandparents raising children; single parent families; low expectations; hunger; stress; low self-esteem; unemployment. Take any one of these issues and you are in a battle for success. Take more than one and you have tragic issues impacting that 1st grader that will persist through high school. Take all of the above and multiply and you have a helpless community, and if the school is a reflection of the community. which our experience says it is, you have a helpless school.
It seems that we live in a highly dynamic capitalistic society where change is always present—sometimes negative and sometimes positive. In many communities today we seem to be moving more towards the negative end of the spectrum and many see this younger generation having less to look forward to than our own generation. If that is true, does it have to be so? How can we begin to shift these realities while also channeling our resources to what is best for each student and each school. Perhaps we need to realize that we in education do not have all the answers. To affect all students we need to draw on the expertise of all, rather than the few. We are using nineteenth century strategies in the twenty-first century and it is NOT working. It is a bit like plantation leadership, with the few possessing the power, while the rest of us on the plantation are given orders, from a world away.
The power for change must be culled from the skills, attitudes and values of a variety of community constituents that have (or could have) a vested interest in an educational system grounded in the realities of the twenty-first century. Central to their involvement will be a culture that allows us to realize that we, as educators and leaders, do not have all the answers. Our focus has traditionally been teaching and learning. We do not have the complete experience and skill sets to meet all that is confronting both us, and our students, in the twenty-first century.
So we would propose a training program for educational leaders that states this up front. And this new executive training for the needs of today and tomorrow will consist of seminars from others in the academic community, inclusive of many disciplines: sociology; social work; history, political science; economics; marketing; entrepreneurship; health and wellness, technology; and early childhood education as well as the fine arts. These seminars would be presented differently than how classroom instruction is typically done. Leadership candidates would earn university credit and the classes would have the same rigor demanded of advanced study but with even more attention to the needs of the adult learner who is embracing the vision of this training program to meet the real needs of their communities.
Pivotal to this program’s success will be the inclusion of teachers, principals, and superintendents. The educators and administrators I talk with are well intended people, many of whom however seem to be caught in that nineteenth century world. They aspire to move to the twentieth century in a meaningful way, but are pulled back by the day to day grinding realities of education. This is not a left brain or right brain issue. It is not a liberal or conservative issue, nor is it a money issue. It is a community issue and an adult issue that can only be changed by mature adults who want to make a difference for each student.
There are important societal groups that we must include in the training and development of our educational leaders. They include but are not limited to:
Civic groups: Service groups have always been there and are generally made up of those who really do care about the community and reflect the community itself whether it be Rotary, Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce and others who need to be drawn into the change that is about to occur.
Faith based groups: The faith based community needs to be aware of the many issues facing educational leaders and begin to assist in looking at how they can play a role in change. In rural areas especially this group is very instrumental in positive change.
Veterans: There are many military veterans in all communities that are returning from foreign campaigns or earlier campaigns that have volunteered to serve their country and, we would guess, would welcome being asked to volunteer in their community. This area needs to be a part of the future educational leader’s awareness.
Health/Wellness groups: The mind and body play a critical role in all we do and we need to assist in developing this aspect of leadership training. Community area health education centers and nurse educators can play a significant role in ensuring that we take a holistic approach to educational success. Many of our students today have serious issues related to health, from obesity to malnutrition. We learned early on that you can’t teach a child who is hungry, and that good health and stamina encourages extracurricular activities, and the more students participate in the extra curricula, the more students persist through school. Wellness centers and clinics need to be a part of each school to meet the educational and health promotion needs of all that are impacted by the school system from parents/caregivers to the students.
Educational technologies: New strategies to use technology as a support measure are needed, (instead of as the driving force) to meet employees’, students’, community and parents’ needs. Linking communities with similar needs and similar strategies to each other is vital to success. Support groups, long used to enhance success in persons/groups who are at risk for failure can also be used to support the success of schools in the twenty-first century.
Early Childhood focus: From birth to age four is a critical time establishing the groundwork a child needs to be successful in school, as well as in life. Identification of cognitive delays and behavioral problems can be addressed so that each child has the ability to be successful in school. Early childhood intervention projects have shown an ability to influence family risk factors in a way that improves children’s outcomes. Each community needs to develop mentors and excellent day care and nursery schools to work with children from birth to four years of age and that are built to help children seamlessly articulate into the K-12 system.
Obstacles Are Many: All coursework related to a leadership program for social change certification will reflect the needs of the county from where they are located. Seminars would be delivered in candidates’ own geographic areas, in a format that would be related to change and the culture from which they come. The reality is that what works in one county may not in another. What works in one region might not work in another and what may work in one state may not work in another. This perspective belies the National Standards and Benchmarks whose assumption that one strategy is “one size fits all”. In order to get needed revenue or credentials, the state departments and universities are forced to comply with this system. This system of national standards is not changing the landscape. The number of dropouts and lower than acceptable test scores—despite years of good intentions and a multitude of strategies—has not changed significantly in the last thiry years. “I have seen the enemy and it is us.”
Can This Change Happen: Yes! It comes back to leadership. Our sense is that it cannot happen state to state but rather by community to community. There has to be a dialogue or an appointed commission to move this forward, with the result being meaningful recommendation. Some will accept those recommendations and others won’t. That is an element of the republic of which we are a part. Many will remain on our version of a hamster wheel. They will continue to quote data because it is simply easy to spin. Stop the world, I’m dizzy…I want to get off.
Who will take the first step to begin this dialogue? Who will see that if we don’t try something very different, and very soon, then what we have will be just what we have? Who has vision? Can you or can we make it happen? Do we want to continue having one-third of our students not persist through high school? Do we want our unemployment rate and sense of despair in so many areas to continue to persist? As my former sixth grade student asked me many years ago: “Do you see what I see?”
J.D. Jones Ed.D., present assignment is on the Graduate Faculty in leadership at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. He is former Superintendent of schools in Roane and Morgan Counties, West Virginia. He served with the United States Navy worldwide and is an honorary Submariner. His teaching experience includes teaching school in Guatemala, Central America. He is the author of numerous books and articles including “101 tips for School District Leadership” and his new book, A View from the Bleachers Where the Real Game of Life is Played.”
Margaret Sorrell Trueman RN MSN EdD CNE is on faculty in the Department of Nursing at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is a member of the American Nurses Association, the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association-International and the American Heart Association. Her scholarship has been recognized in her membership in Sigma Theta Tau International, the honor society of nursing and Epsilon Pi Tau, the international honor society for professions in technology. She has been recognized as one of the “Great 100 Nurses of North Carolina”. She is a Certified Nurse Educator (CNE) through the National League of Nursing. She has published in the areas of collaboration in practice and creative teaching techniques.
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