the Eyes of a Child:
Reflection on myself as an elementary student and that influence on me as an elementary teacher
Philosophy of Teaching Science:
Essay upon my arrival at an appreciation for science and understanding why it has always challenged me
Study on Trevor:
Observations, interviews and reflections (academic and personal) regarding the challenges facing urban students
A Powerpoint presentation, created for a Literacy for Teachers course taken during my first year.
An editorial observation on the professional environment of elementary teaching as perceived by a career-changer following his first year teaching.
An essay in response to a student's private inquiry.
|Professional Development Proposal
A Powerpoint presentation documenting my synthesis of research on effective elementary PD (April 2009).
|Essay on Leadership
A literature synthesis on the nature and role of leadership. (September 2009).
|History and Implications of the School Principal|
An abbreviated history and analysis of the evolving role of school principals (October 2009).
|The Irony of Relationship Management|
Reflection on the importance of relationship among school leadership. (January 2010).
|Case Study on Daniel: |
Reflection and literary analysis of my differences from many students I seek to support (September 2010).
|Social Justice: A Lit Review of Herbert Kohl|
A literary analysis of the work of Herbert Kohl and similar thinkers on social justice (December 2010).
|Evidence-Based Decision Making|
A Powerpoint presentation created to summarize the problem-solving model and strategies for teacher leaders to create a culture of evidence-based work. (August 2013).
ReferencesBarot, B. (2003). How to make learning chemistry fun, exciting and interesting. MSTA Journal, 48, 18-22.
M. (1996). The constructivist approach
to science and technology. Paper presented at the
Tabor, R. & Anderson, S. (2003). Action research: The use of demonstrations to increase achievement. MSTA Journal, 48, 28-31.
Paley, V. G. (1995). Kwanza and me: A teacher's story. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Payne, R.K. (2001). A framework for understanding poverty. (New Revised Edition). Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc.
Williams, D. (2004, Spring). Raise the Bar. Teaching Tolerance, 24-29.
In our little classroom, there is space for twenty-some best students. Some come every day, others peek in for a minute, a lesson, or an afternoon. They’re usually not all present at once, but sometimes a whole bunch come together. I love those days. On those days, the best student learns, loves, and grows. The best student shows respect, gives best effort, shows encouragement and loves learning. The best student listens with keen ears and an open heart. The best student is prepared more often than not and more often than others. The best student is ready to learn and willingly reflects her understanding. He knows the difference between arguing and discussing. She senses when and when not to do either. The best student smiles early and often. The best student is friends to everyone, but doesn’t require the approval of anyone. She is the example. The best student teaches his teacher. He understands that a teacher is a cheerleader and a coach, not a boss, not a judge. The best student figures out routines quickly. He learns to enjoy the questioning more than the answering. The best student sets high expectations for herself. The best student makes me proud, but makes himself prouder. He doesn’t require a teacher to learn, but he values learning from his teacher. The best student is organized. The best student is responsible, accountable, remarkable, memorable, and most of all, unstoppable.
“Walt Sutterlin teaches and coaches quality from a “laymen’s
perspective”, allowing others to see the benefits rather than be overwhelmed by
the science of it. He has a genuine
interest in making things better, but without the maniacal drive that can turn
some folks off and cause them to not engage in the process.”
Eileen McGill, Carlson Marketing Worldwide
Servant leadership, as defined by Robert Greenleaf, responds to four critical questions:
Do those served grow as persons? Do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants? What is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? (Greenleaf, 1977)
Successful leadership can not be assured operating within any one theory (Marshall, 1996), but I firmly believe that by predicating my forays across leadership styles with the humble servitude of others I will develop leadership skills by exhibiting them. Three specific steps towards the servant leadership to which I subscribe are to expand, to give of, and to replicate myself through others, with the sole intent of making peers, staff, and students greater than me (Farber, 2009). Imagining that my own “least privileged” constituents could be students on the low end of the achievement gap, parents without a positive educational experience to support their children’s success, parents, supervisors, or board members with sufficiently rich educational experiences that they have effectively distanced themselves from realities of school, or staff members who are enmeshed in the painful, joyful struggle of educating our youth, everyone I encounter I must approach as a servant leader, seeking to serve with quality and with the selfless objective of raising the quality of education by helping them grow as persons. After all, quality education results in good outcomes for all (Darling-Hammond, 2000).
Understanding process as the transformation of inputs to outputs is a fundamental theory that is under-utilized or little known in public education. The impulse to become better is natural, but continuous improvement is a learned behavior that requires vision and attention at every step. Through pedagogical reasoning and action, the process of continuous improvement becomes practice (Shulman, 1987). I must embrace continuous improvement through research and reflection, then translate the methodology to my staff in practical ways (Likert 1955, Louis 1995, Lambert 2002). Indeed there is a science to continuous improvement, but the principle is simple: improve, no matter where you are on any continuum, work to be better. It is this “laymen’s perspective” (McGill, 2005) that I must keep in focus to practically serve others where they are.
Where they are must be deeply understood by a leader, embodied by engagement. Where your constituents are engaged is where they will function with the most efficiency and satisfaction (Chase, 1955). An educational leader must have vision that becomes a shared mission, because “principal certainty” is the root of an effective school (Murphy 1984, Rosenholtz 1985). Thus, getting students, staff and other stakeholders to the shared vision, means where they are is where you are! A specific step towards this vital virtue is to foster collaboration, collegiality, and collective responsibility (Firestone & Bader 1991, Kruse 1995). To further this area of leadership, I must always return to a model of servitude, knowing that sharing expertise engages those around by valuing their unique inputs to the process of continuous improvement (Elmore, 1999). At the same time, shared risk-taking melds relationships, which furthers engagement and commitment to one another and the shared cause (Likert 1955, Roberts 1985).
Leadership is an age-old variety of skill sets, acquired a little at a time (Roberts, 1985). It involves certain innate propensity, loads of intuition, but definitely a set of beliefs, constructed over time, that guide the functions of the leader. For me, at this moment in time, continuous improvement, engagement, and most significantly, servant leadership are those beliefs.
Chase, F. S. & Guba, E. G. (1955). Administrative roles and behavior. Review of Educational Research 25(4), 281-298.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). New standards and old inequalities: School reform and the education of African American students. Journal of Negro Education, 69(4), 263-287.
Elmore, R., & Burney, D. (1999). Investing in teacher learning: Staff development & instructional improvement. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (p. 263-291). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Farber, S. (2009). Greater Than Yourself: The Ultimate Lesson of True Leadership. New York: Doubleday.
Firestone, W.A. & Bader, B.D. (1991). Professionalism or bureaucracy? Redesigning teaching. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 13, 67-86.
Greenleaf, R. (1977). Servant Leadership: A Journey to the Center of Legitimate Power & Greatness. New Jersey: Paulist Press.
Kruse, S.D., Louis, K.S., & Bryk, A.S. (1995). An emerging framework for analyzing school-based professional community. In K.S. Louis, S.D. Kruse, & Associates, Professionalism & community: Perspectives on reforming urban schools, p. 23-44. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Lambert, L. (2002). A framework for shared leadership. Educational Leadership, 37-40.
Likert, R. (1980). Patterns in Management. In J. Hall (Ed.), Models for Management: The Structure of Competence (pp. 395-412). The Woodlands, TX: Woodstead Press. [Original pub date: 1955]
Marshall, C. (1996). Caring As Career: An Alternative Perspective for Educational Administration. Educational Administration Quarterly, 32(2) 271-94.
McGill, E. (2005). Annual Performance Review form for Walt Sutterlin. Troy, MI: Carlson Marketing Worldwide.
Murphy, J., Hallinger, P., Weil, M., & Mitman, A. (1984). Instructional leadership: A conceptual framework. The Education Digest, 28-31.
Roberts, W. (1985) Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. New York: Warner Books.
Rosenholtz, S. J. (1985). Effective schools: Interpreting the evidence. American Educational Research Journal, 93(3), 352-388.
Shulman, L.S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1-22.
"The services are needed of a great leader whose talents and whose weight of character are peculiarly necessary to get the government so under way as that it may afterwards be carried on by subordinate characters."
-- Thomas Jefferson, 1789
The words of one of our most iconic, and
ironic, founding fathers are an apropos job description answering the
call-to-action of the muddled and defunct, painfully-slowly evolving role of
the public education school leader. From its perfunctory genesis in late
Given such history, it is no surprise that the role of school leaders, specifically principals, was created around a social expectation, rather than an educational one. In a patriarchal society facing much international turmoil through the lenses of an industrial economy, the principal’s role required the modeling of Democracy, while valuing the functions of following district edicts and maintaining a solid image of the school as a public institution (Newsome, 1949). This activity in itself solidified the principal as an institution of managerial control, while heeding little mind to the rest of the organization beneath.
Much of the focus was on the singular role of school leader as the end, not the means for students. Around the 1950’s, research on the role of school leader explored dimensions of administrative hierarchy, focusing on authority and roles (Chase, 1955). Many issues regarded staff and public relations, in respect to the leader’s relationships with these entities (Chase, 1955). At the same time, research of managerial practices in other industries began to uncover the unique and significant relationships of empowerment, teamwork and continuous improvement through research and reflection (Likert, 1955). While all of these findings served the development of principals as leaders, the social and professional focus of the principal was still far from students.
The present-day role of the school leader has expanded beyond the role of principal. There are many leaders in today’s school from teacher-leaders to district liaisons to the principal and school improvement team members. This is a fundamental change in the perception of school leadership brought about by multiple calls for, what is again commonly considered reform, instantly and continually following the release of a commissioned report named A Nation At Risk (USDOE Commission, 1983). This political statement “in response to widespread public opinion” (USDOE Commission, 1983) investigated several areas of concern in public education and provided as many recommendations for improvement, all in hopes of returning America to a “learning society” (USDOE Commission, 1983). The view of a school leader is still a reflection of America’s social and economic self-view, as it has always been, but has expanded and changed in light of the different economy and international climate from 1983 to date.
In response to this report, several areas of research sprung up over the following years, all of which had relatively common themes. An early indication of how this role would change was the realization that there was not currently a connection between good leadership and student success, but a relative connection of principal behavior to school climate and instructional organization, was found to affect student learning (Bossert, 1982). Similarly, the actions of a principal that would affect students were bound within three areas of leadership: instructional, academic and social (Murphy, 1984). Yet a third comparable triumvirate towards effective student outcomes was the principal’s leadership, common goals and instructional quality (Rosenholtz, 1985). The relationship and similarity of each set-of-three findings implied a missing link in the role of principal as being the instructional leader of a school. Combined with a national workforce quickly advancing from doers to thinkers, this set up the role to significantly expand with the realization that more thinkers meant the capacity for leadership at more levels.
Without an established knowledge base on the many intricacies of teaching itself (Shulman, 1987), much less that of school leadership, the field for both was developing on a less-than-firm foundation. It would seem that the context of school leadership and education found themselves existing within convincing structures and expectations of society, but without a comprehensive system through which their rapid trajectory moved. To nominate changes as educational reform misrepresents the reality that new form cannot be given to a network of disconnected structures, hardly to be called a system. Much to the contrary, our educational system was still very much being formed. The pragmatics of the entire picture of state policy control, federal political pressure, local social elements and the daily job requirements could not be ignored, each of which morph and affect the next, making the now-defined role of instructional leader one who manages both above and below.
The challenges of this role are formidable, but the basic philosophy seems relatively straightforward: focus on children’s learning. Professionalizing teaching has consistently made the list of school leadership functions throughout this evolution (Newsome 1949, USDOE 1983, Firestone 1991), which would appear to be a challenge, but natural outcome of good leadership. By gaining commitment to common values, a leader will bring the staff closer together (Selznick, 1957). If goals are child-centered at the appropriate level, children’s learning will improve. To be an instructional leader, knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy is critical for a school (Murphy, 1984). Without it, one cannot establish appropriate goals to make common. While school leaders must know how to redesign teaching in response to state or federal mandates (Firestone, 1991), a simultaneous commitment to advocate for children up the ladder where achievement standards are created is another challenge. Improving relationships is key to any management role, but particularly vital in the role of leading teachers who are generally a very wise, self-managing breed. Engaging those personalities through empathy, clear expectations and empowerment (Chase & Guba, 1955) does not come easily or naturally, but must be accomplished for successful students.
All the while, ones purpose must be forefront. In public education, that purpose cannot be developed in isolation and often mirrors the expectation of greater society. It may be easy for a leader to have refined management skills as has been shown through history, but quite another for that manager to be an effective instructional leader between micro- and macro- levels. The current expectation, which seems timelessly appropriate, is to focus on student success, thus making children’s needs the focus. In a recent movie review, unrelated to public education, James Rocchi states,
We spend childhood at the mercy of large, distant adults who define a world we don't understand, unable to speak to the feelings that swell in us and come and go with the intensity of summer storms.
With such an understanding of the position of them…our goal, our purpose, our children…we must realize the immense responsibility of being an instructional leader, but at the same time our own fragile existence working within structures of an incomplete system, defined by those we don’t completely understand. However, true instructional leaders must speak to these feelings and notions, have the patience and fortitude to accept the slow pace of our educational history, to recognize the “talents” and “weight of character” (Jefferson, 1789) required for the task and embrace that Jefferson’s “subordinate others” who carry it on, are us.
A Nation at Risk (1983) United Stated Department of Education Commission.
Chase, F.S. & Guba, E.G. (1955). Administrative roles and behavior. Review of Educational Research 25(4), 281-298.
Firestone, W.A. & Bader, B.D. (1991). Professionalism or bureaucracy? Redesigning teaching. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 13, 67-86.
Jefferson, T. (1789). Retrieved from http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff1770.htm. October 14, 2009.
Likert, R. (1980). Patterns in Management, In J. Hall (Ed.), Models for Management: The Structure of Competence (pp.395-412). The Woodlands, TX: Woodstead Press. [Original pub date: 1955]
Murphy, J., Hallinger, P., Weil, M., & Mitman, A. (1984). Instructional leadership: A conceptual framework. The Education Digest, 28-31.
Newsome, N.W. & Mickelson, P.P. (1949). The role of the principal in the modern elementary school. The Elementary School Journal, 50(1), 20-27.
Farrar, E., & Cohen, D.K. (1985). Origins. The Shopping
Rocchi, J. (2009). ‘Wild’ Beauty. Retrieved from: http://movies.msn.com/movies/movie-critic-reviews/where-the-wild-things-are.1/#Review_0. October 16, 2009.
Rosenholtz, S. J. (1985). Effective schools: Interpreting the evidence. American Educational Research Journal, 93(3), 352-388.
(1957). Leadership in administration: A sociological interpretation.
So have I found in my own professional journey, there are many concepts conceived that seem applied completely out of place, but can be used elsewhere for fantastic results. Case in point: There I sat with my new and very intimidating boss at the marketing firm, watching a Webinar from the company headquarters, announcing the second “restructuring” of the company in my four years. As the CEO described everyone’s new role as “change agents” and the metamorphosis of our salespeople who would hereunto be known as “relationship managers”, I whispered the irony of this to my boss. She got it, but didn’t appreciate my observation of how phony it sounds to manage a relationship that, by its nature, was created for one party to benefit from the other, in this case in the form of financial gain. Relationships, I explained my understanding, are the intentional interaction of two separate parties. A relationship is something to be managed only if the intended outcome is for both parties to benefit from the management. The pricing and concessions models that followed this new nomenclature were distinctly in favor of our company’s profits, not the relationship with, or benefit of, our clients.
My boss was impressed with my objective analysis, but wished I had not shared the common sense of it. I may not have been a company man, but I felt my translation was a skilled and objective analysis of one concept and, perhaps, its fallacies. Translation is a skill needed in, and between, many groups that share common goals, and even common dialects.
Of course the need and architecture of relationships and translation are completely dependent on the environment in which interactions take place and the parties that are interacting. Context is the critical differentiator on how well a prophylactic works, where a flashy new term makes sense, or when translating into a common language means the difference in success or failure. As it turned out, the company went through a number of restructurings before being sold, perhaps for attempting to manage relationships, but I moved on to see the remarkable connection of these earlier life experiences in leadership to be completely applicable as functions and focus areas of tomorrow’s educational leaders: relationship management, translation, and context.
In the world of education there are multiple interactions and relationships at work at any given time. Some are valid, such as teacher-student discourse, district-school engagement, and state-district mandates while others, like federal-state expectations are simply unconstitutional, but relationships no less. With the conceptual clarity that relationships are the intentional interactions of two parties with the goal of mutual benefit, I believe that education is a ripe organization for an idea such as relationship management. If we genuinely share a goal of student success and achievement, when students win, all relating parties experience mutual benefit of their efforts. Educational leaders are in a unique situation, be they teacher or principal, to manage relationships across school and district staff, for the sake of children.
Central to relationship management is collaboration, the sort observed in Type Z organizations where consensual power is manifested through, rather than over a team (Leithwood, 1992). While it is virtually impossible to incite motivation in another, collaborative leadership provides a natural incentive by fostering individual desires to change outcomes (Leithwood, 1992). Indeed, Leithwood includes collaboration in two of three “Fundamental Goals” for a transformational leader. This “prosocial” behavior focuses on the school’s mission over individual needs, which, if we share the same goal of student success and work together towards that end, we typify mutual benefit through managing our actions and managing our relationships to accomplish this objective (Kruse, 1995).
To be completely honest, my whole motivation to leave business for education is this idea that one must transcend his own self-interest for a greater good (Bass & Alvolio, 1993; Leithwood, 1996). A lesson from that past life that rings true was the role I once held of project manager, where I worked in a matrix organization managing highly-intelligent subject matter experts across various practices: IT, training, graphics, communications, travel, sales, and the clients we served. Collaboration was the norm as we regularly experienced shared expertise driving change, ironically, even in that “project mentality” (Elmore, 1999). Working as a team, with a common goal, we were able to accomplish great things, but the greatest gains were when the team met in a room and combined the variety of experiences and knowledge to forge ahead, creating new solutions. Dewey applied this concept of collaboration to schools long before I, but I’m not sure why it is just now taking flight:
“…to support the educative nature of life experience, the school should be a community in all that this entails.” (Dewey, 1915)
Being a jack of all trades, master of none, my unique position at that point in life required a lot of interpreting and translating ideas between these professionals, who then were able to increase their buy-in to the team’s goal once each understood in his or her own vernacular. Out of this collaborative activity, I was able to develop a common language leading to richer discussion, which is essentially the “deprivatization” of practice (Kruse, 1995). With the regular advent of buzzwords, clichés, academic prowess and constant “reform” efforts, a school leader must constantly translate ideas and efforts back to terms that a busy staff already shares. This may also mean coining or introducing important new terminology to the shared language. Articulating rationale and setting expectations are part of this agenda-setting function (Young, 2006). Without confusing this as a need to dumb-down information, effective school organizations must have leadership who translate the layered complexities of public education and continuous improvement into palatable portions for busy teachers to act on expediently and effectively. In this metaphor of business, consider this translation akin to the type of summary writing necessary for busy CEO’s, where one must communicate practical, pertinent information, quickly and without question. Large-scale school improvement is a process by which external demands are translated into concrete structures, processes, norms and instructional practice, which altogether implies the molding of a school culture (Elmore, 2002). This is a non-negotiable function for effective school leaders.
Love, war, and school improvement are not conceived in isolation and require multiple inputs, alignments and personalities. The element of context is a huge and fundamental driver of the need, and degree to which, a school leader must translate. While context may affect the style of collaboration, the two must coexist. Simply understanding the nature of human activity being distributed across interactions of people, processes and outputs, situation is the most appropriate and unique factor in the decisions a school leader will make (Spillane, 2004). It has been proposed that the model of instructional leadership encourages leaders to fashion leadership based on what they want to see in classrooms (Shulman, 1987; Young, 2006). This makes sense as classroom management and content-area instruction are both derived from the contextual relationships of material, teacher and student. Dare I suggest this as an apropos use of relationship management where all parties benefit? In good instruction, or leadership, “the message is the medium” (Postman, 1969), which underscores the significance of understanding and working within the unique context of each situation and using it to achieve your goals, which, hopefully, are mutually beneficial if the relationships are being managed!
Agenda-setting, collaboration, translation and organizational capacity are individually insufficient (Young, 2006). School leadership must be pragmatic, building a rational system of quality instruction by organizing non-rational aspects (Young, 2006), by way of translation and collaboration. School leadership is constantly, contextually evolving, which is why there is place at the leadership table for more than just principals these days.
If the output desired is improved school administration, one must develop this pragmatism and sense of inclusion towards a greater good. In one world, the buzzwords may be “restructuring”, “change agents”, and “relationship managers”, while in another it may be called “reform”, “teachers”, and “principals”. I have little use for a rifle, nor plans to visit a desert, but I do have the hindsight to recognize innovation in unexpected places and the foresight to put it together. The lessons are so similar and transferable. The benefits of learning these lessons and transferring them to new and different environments are our childrens’.
Bass, B. M.,& Avolio, B. J. (1993). Transformational leadership: A response to critiques. In M.
M. Chemers & R. Ayman (Eds.), Leadership theory and
research: Perspectives and directions (pp. 49-80).
Elmore, R., &
Burney, D. (1999). Investing in teacher learning: Staff development &
instructional improvement. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession:
Handbook of policy and practice (p. 263-291).
Elmore, R. F. (2002). Bridging the gap between standards and achievement: The imperative for professional development in education. Albert Shanker Institute.
Leithwood, K., Tomlinson, D.,& Genge, M. (1996).
Transformational school leadership. In K. Leithwood et al. (Eds.), International
handbook of educational administration (pp. 785-840).
Leithwood, K. (2002). The move to transformational leadership. Educational Leadership, 49 (5), 8-12.
Postman, N. & Weingarten, C. (1969).
Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Dell Publishing,
Shulman, L.S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1-22.
Spillane, J.P. Halverson, R., and Diamond, J.B. (2004). Towards a theory of leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 36 (1), 3-34.
Young, Viki M. (2006). Teachers’ use of data: Loose coupling, agenda setting, and team norms. American Journal of Education, 112, 521-548.
The connection of school, family, and community is imperative and unavoidably influential on each student’s life. This connection is also influential on every educator’s efficacy, though many do not realize how salient the interactions of these environments are. We are products of our belief systems and environments. When a student from one environment is placed into a different one, the connection is made and the success or challenge it presents is undeniable. Unfortunately, lacking understanding of the alternate environments and sensibilities creates a friction that all but stops progress if not lubricated with genuine effort to understand.
entered my classroom this year. Daniel
is an 8-year old black boy. He reads at
a Kindergarten level and struggles to count, in order, to ten. Daniel sleeps many days at school and asks
for snacks regularly. In our Kindergarten
through fourth-grade building, he has a brother in grades 1-4 and a toddler
brother at home. These five boys live in
public housing with a single mother, transplanted last year from
I have been middle-class all of my life. I am a white male whose parents are both educated through graduate level and are still married. I have never been hungry and for that matter have never gone with any personal needs unmet in my life.
Having read Ruby Payne’s seminal piece A Framework for Understanding Poverty (1996), I entered teaching feeling that I knew some differences between Daniel and myself. In retrospect, I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s statement:
In America everybody is of opinion that he has no social superiors, since all men are equal, but he does not admit that he has no social inferiors, for, from the time of Jefferson onward, the doctrine that all men are equal applies only upwards, not downwards (1950).
I found equality in a sense that neither of us was elite, thus we were closer than we might expect. I had friends across races growing up. My parents encouraged me to play with children from all financial backgrounds. Payne’s “hidden rules” (1996) were not so surprising and the vocabulary she provided armed me with interview language for teaching jobs. In hindsight, it provided me an awareness and buzzwords, but not truly perspective on the vast differences and the connection to Daniel’s world that I needed to make and possibly never would.
Before the year started, I went to Daniel’s house in my late-model minivan with my two blonde-headed, blue-eyed children to give Daniel a ride for a pre-school year event with the rest of the class. His mother does not own a car. When we arrived, following my daughter’s cheerleading practice and my son’s pre-arranged play date with a neighbor, Daniel was in a parking lot with his siblings, precariously climbing and jumping off of a jagged metal snow roof. His mother, whom I had not yet met, was in the apartment that had no windows facing the parking lot. Adult males were drinking soda pop and beer, sitting on the backs of cars and talking loudly. I was insecure about leaving my children to go find Daniel’s mother and get permission for him to go with us. My children were full of questions and observations that they wanted to discuss. The connection between my concerted cultivation and Daniel’s accomplishment of natural growth merged uncomfortably (Lareau, 2003).
Lareau’s research speaks of this “cultural logic of child-rearing” where a child’s upbringing informs him of certain expectations and goals (2003.). In Daniel’s case, the expectation was to stay away from the adults and the goal was to keep himself busy until further directed. The expectation of my children was to be busy in activities they had selected and I had planned my day around, then to discuss our experiences in dialogue. Why do my children spend their days in such different activities than Daniel? They do it because of the family and community in which they live and strive to succeed. The expectations are not completely intrinsic, but an interaction with external expectations of our communities. Daniel was succeeding in his environment as it is defined. The potential for success in common institutions, such as schools, is derived from which cultural logic a child is inculcated which, depending on your perspective or position in society, makes my children fortunate in that their family and community interactions prepare and support them in alignment with broader institutions (Lareau, 2003).
Each time I call Daniel’s mom to notify her of behavior issues or information the school needs, she is notably agreeable, always calling me “sir” and complying within a day or so to my requests. There is always noise in the background, loud talking, simultaneous voices and televisions blaring. I am reminded of Lareau’s observations of families in poverty who defer to institutional demands, such as the school (Lareau, 2003), in part because it is an institution, but also because they do not have a sense of entitlement to question authority, nor the time or skill to analyze what is being requested. Compliance is so much easier, though I would not be surprised if Daniel’s mom hangs up each phone call with resentment.
I contend that the working- or poor-class may be built on a culture of survival that begets and allows identity to develop. The separation Daniel has from adults in his immediate sphere allows him to develop an interdependence that my children may not fully know as they develop an entitlement to independence. It could be said that the middle-class is built upon a culture of insecurity where we are informed by, and conform to, more external forces such as institutional expectations. Through this conformity, we may lose some sense of identity on our road to mainstream success. It is quite a paradox to consider that our independence may lead to lost identity or individuality that manifests throughout society.
I have come to a realization that the difference between middle-class and working- or poor-class is a product and problem of societal proportions. A “collection of individuals” has created social structures that shape the daily lives of others (Lareau, 2003). It would be simple to say that society has created this difference through economic inequity and social segregation by a culture of power (Deplit, 1988), if blame were of any use in creating change. Blame does not effect change, but identifying the causes of an issue is critical to change. Spiritualities across the world, prosthelytize dignity and equality for humanity, from the Qur’an: “respect and honor all human beings irrespective of their religion, color, race, sex, language, status, property, birth, profession/job and so on (IRFII, 2010), to the Bible: "…to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me (NASB, 1995), to countless other orthodoxies and edicts that promote social justice. So why does the difference remain?
Dr. Ronald Ferguson identified that,
“Policy won’t or can’t change it all if we don’t change our social identity”
when discussing achievement gaps in subgroups of minority and economically
disadvantaged students (
I propose that the connection between school, family, and community creates symptoms, while the illness is a social problem that the vast differences in communities and families has created and perpetuated. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, offered the following gem:
The only way to
achieve equity in society is to achieve equity in the classroom…The fight for a
quality education is about so much more than education. This is a daily fight for social justice. No
other issue offers the same promise of equality as education. No other issue can end the cycle of poverty,
teen-age pregnancy, the prison pipeline, and the social sickness plaguing
broken communities (
medical practitioners know that you do not treat the symptom, you treat the
illness, but educators are the first-round treatment for those symptoms of
behavior and lacking skills to succeed in middle-class institutions. We are charged to treat these symptoms in the
battle to cure the illness, but we must recognize that educational institutions
alone are only dealing with symptoms. Our
prescription could possibly create a society where class differences share more
similar goals and value.
Several questions arise from
The number of children in poverty is on the rise (ChildTrends, 2009), showing educators that the class differences will be increasingly representative of students entering the middle-class institution of schooling. An increasingly complex issue in this difference of social classes is the root of poverty and associated values. The effects of poverty on child well-being are consistent regardless of how long the poverty exists, though it may be essential to consider how middle-class values that are recently thrust into working-class conditions affect the decisions and actions of parents and children in those situations. This forces us to consider a dynamic that goes even beyond the current literature on class differences, but to consider students and their families to be further conflicted. It requires us to approach each student without a preconceived notion of who they are, based on where they are from, rather to consider what value-systems they have, which rules they currently live by, and how their particular interaction with the middle-class institution of schooling is affected by their current conditions juxtaposed to their beliefs. At the heart of this individualized analysis, is the social change that we will need to see if we expect to alter class structures or coalesce their interactions.
The data that we review is critical to our direction. Through social research, Stephanie Coontz reveals quite a different picture of the American 1950’s as portrayed in popular culture and memory to the one as reflected privately by individuals living at the time (Coontz, 1997). This qualitative data goes against what many people might believe from the media of that era, as far as the actual unhappiness, fear, and longing to fit-in while remaining isolated, within many American families. Not much is spoken of disadvantaged Americans when the focus is on the perks of the middle-class. Again we see the middle-class upholding a public relations identity crisis.
There is good data showing that parents from both middle- and working-class have similar goals for their children’s educational success (Epstein, 1986). This alone is foundational information of how similar humanity ends up being despite our social structures that moderate everything from our values to our daily lives (Lareau, 2003). Irrespective of which class we feel a part of, there are methods for helping other people succeed. Many times that requires teaching someone a different set of rules. Every time, it requires understanding another individual’s experiences and values. That is the social change we must pursue.
Using the “overlapping spheres of influence” perspective (Epstein, 1987), it was determined that effective families and schools had shared goals and missions and worked collaboratively towards those ends. In Daniel’s case, as harried as his mother’s life appears, it is essential that our school continue to have conversations that show our compassionate interest in her children’s success even when that means directly telling her what the boys need to do to be successful in school (Delpit, 1988). Involving her in decision-making about their IEPs and providing transportation are other methods of inclusion that let Daniel’s mother know middle-class success is the option we are all working toward together.
Inclusion of parents is an important piece across all socio-economic classes. Recently, my wife asked me why the teachers used “such teacher language” at conferences which shed light on the reality that even within the middle-class, the language and expectations educators sometimes present are daunting and unfamiliar to others from outside of the institution, leaving them less prepared with how to help their children succeed (Epstein, 1986). I can only image how Daniel’s mom must feel each time we talk, which drives me to consider my explicit word choices to communicate important concepts, not only with Daniel in instruction, but with his mother (Delpit, 1988).
Asking Daniel’s mother for her own goals is another option to engage her in her children’s progress at school (Epstein, 1987). Parents want to help their children through motivation and success, not teaching them. Much of this can be established through providing an opportunity for parents to give feedback on teaching strategies, homework, or their child’s success (Epstein, 1997). Parent involvement through feedback can make anyone an expert on their child, and feeling like an expert empowers and gives a sense of success, which is what all parents desire. Formal response to this feedback models middle-class values and rules of success, while acknowledging the parents as a partner (Epstein, 1997).
In my personal experience, grade level changes seem to have created more division between schools and families. Not much research has been done on how this affects the home-school connection, but learning the new rules of a new teacher within and already intimidating institution must create additional stress on both students and parents (Epstein, 1987). To reduce this confusion, looping teachers through multiple grades may be a practical option for extending those relationships and allowing the expectations of a new teacher to become routine for families just learning the rules of middle-class success. Summer break between loops or between teachers is a Procrustean system anymore, during which much learning of content and social expectations can be lost when students are immersed in alternate cultures. Year-round school calendars could extend the spheres of influence between school and family (Epstein, 1987), if that is a goal.
I have attempted parent workshops where I teach new math and literacy skills to parents to help them feel more connected and effective in their children’s learning. It is usually the middle-class families who show up, as the working-class families tend to avoid the school (Lareau, 2003). I could change this by communicating directly to the families who need such instruction the most, but it may be more important to commit myself to a family curriculum of encouragement and praise as a first step.
The conversation is easily led to options of how…how to get “them” to succeed by “our” rules, but those options initially insult my sensibility of why…why do “our” rules define “success”. I suppose the bottom line is that middle-class values and the culture of power is what defines institutions and institutions define success in our society. While I hold fast to an idyllic view that society should change towards social justice starting at the individual level, the world I live in leads me to lead others toward middle-class values. I suppose if I were in a different environment, such as poverty, it would be me making the choice and change to another value system dictated by circumstance. Understanding where someone else comes from is essential to changing anything. I may never truly connect with Daniel’s world and his values, but I can learn to understand them not as a process of changing Daniel, but to understand him should he choose my middle-class institutionalized ways, right or wrong. Who am I to change someone?
(1997). The Way We Really Are. BasicBooks:
Delpit, L. (1988) The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 58, No. 3, August 1988
Epstein, J. (1986) Parents’ reactions to teacher practices of parent involvement. The Elementary School Journal 86: 277-294 (Reading 3.4).
Epstein, J. (1987) Social intervention: Potential and constraints. de Gruyter: New York/Berlin
Epstein, J. (1997) Practical Application: Linking Family and Community Involvment to Student Learning.
Hoop Dreams (1994).
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc. (2010). Words of Wisdom from the Qur’an. Revtrieved on November 18, 2010: http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_201_250/words_of_wisdom_from_the_quran.htm
Kohl, H. (1994). “I
won’t learn from you”. The New Press.
New American Standard Bible. (1995) Matthew 25:40.
(1996). A Framework for Understanding
Poverty. 4th Edition. aha!
(1950). Unpopular Essays. George
Allen & Unwin.
[*] Daniel is a pseudonym for an actual child.
“There are moments when…the only thing you care about in someone else is what makes them strong, times when you see what someone could become if the world were a kinder and more welcoming place."
-- Herbert Kohl
Alas! I have found a mantra juxtaposing my personal hopes and intentions of a world that seldom exists with a solution for creating such a world, one person at a time. There is so much contradiction, blindness, and double-standardized mores which humanity shares that I often feel ashamed of my race and gender, knowing I could never know the depths of shame or immortal pride that others have experienced; shame that is unknowingly from my own, ignorantly-forked tongue and privileged experience. Perhaps such a summary is as out of place in this analysis as these articles have made me feel in the world. Perhaps that was the intention. Then again, perhaps I am a “kinder and more welcoming” soul longing for kindred spirits, strong for their individual make-up of person, culture and experience, more so than for their difference from me. Perhaps we are closer than we allow ourselves, or than we truly want to be.
Kohl’s perspective on public schools and the beings herded through them is close to my own. Kohl observes the souls of children being lost in schools that attempt to fill molds rather than rough out diamonds. Through his identification of “creative maladjustment” (Kohl, 1994) a certain worth is given to the experiences and choices of the individual and his or her unique situation, by placing value on the conscious choice of not learning that which offends, discriminates, or further separates an individual. Not learning as a defense mechanism against blindness by the culture of power at best, inhumanity at worst, is a different concept for why certain students may or may not thrive in any given situation. I was forced to consider stories of slaves who, in the Middle Passage, often willed themselves to die. This connection between the resolve of the human mind and soul to forgo a situation so repulsive to its being is extreme, but are the consequences no worse; perhaps they are better, than to learn something that disparages oneself.
Similar to Kohl’s conceptualization of creative maladjustment, Delpit shares multiple examples of peoples not of the culture of power, who have become so revolted by agonizing years of empty patronage that they have chosen to not learn and have even gone so far as to generalize the antagonizing group as being unable to listen at best, unable to know when they are lying at worst (Delpit, 1988). While I believe the analogy of listening versus hearing is semantically incorrect, the accusation that white people or academia are unable to truly understand the depths of their own misunderstanding of other races, could either be an affirmation of whites own “not learning” something threatening to their culture of power, or it could be a racist generalization cast back upon the culture of power. Merely those words escaping my mind feel like an indictment of me, my race and gender, as someone who just does not get it. To be sure, this creative maladjustment is a not a rejection of public education, but an affirmation of its possibilities (Kohl, 1994). This comforts me that I am not personally bad, wrong, or even responsible, for being born into a culture of power, or non-listeners, but an individual with a “romantic sensibility” (Kohl, 1994) who also believes in the possibility and capacity for change, for expansion, for “identifying and giving voice to alternative world views” (Delpit, 1988).
Kohl speaks of norming of excellence, which makes me reflect on how standardized tests have infiltrated and guided schooling, where the standards are those created by the establishment, not cultures with less power. There is a complete disconnect between the values of the culture of power and the values of those not in power. Padrón (2002) describes the “funds of knowledge…gained through participation in household and community activity” of Hispanic students, which aligns well to the individual person on which Kohl’s writing is so focused, identifying that a student is so much more than a body in a chair, but a person from a culture, with unique talents and values. When these are not recognized as components of excellence, they are in fact de-valued by those who perform the norming.
Ironically, educators who attempt to de-emphasize their own power by not recognizing, valuing, and leveraging information about individuals and other cultures, actually perpetuate that power at an unconscious level (Delpit, 1988). This brings a dilemma because schools, by virtue of their mission, must indoctrinate students who did not previously receive the codes of power. At the same time, a value of the power culture is not to offend others and to empower through self-learning. The educator is left to determine how to communicate this cultural difference and why he is attempting to teach these new norms, without offending his students or implying their differences are inferiorities. Likewise, if “not learning” is a value of some cultures, the educator is further stymied by honoring that sensibility. To either the educator struggling to fill the mold or the student struggling to maintain a cultural identity, it seems liberating to simply say, “You don’t know what you don’t know and that’s okay.” But is that right?
Delpit (1988) emphasizes explicit communication patterns as being useful for people of color while Padrón (2002) laments direct instruction for similar populations. This contrast can be overlooked because both writers conclude that a method of bridging cultural gaps is to recognize that academic learning has “roots in both out-of-school and in-school processes” (Padrón, 2002), which reflects Kohl’s concern for the student as an individual. Delpit agrees that students must understand the value of their own culture and of the mainstream culture that seemingly defines success in our society.
These realizations do not quench my suspicions that my whiteness and maleness will forever make my genuine intent questionable to some. My personal belief aligns with these authors that a better way is out there and we cannot “act as if power does not exist” or it will remain (Delpit, 1988). However, if we focus too much on the power, and not the person, we miss what I believe is a more salient question, one that I feel any of these three authors would delight in entertaining, Kohl probably more than the others whom a sad reality has jaded a bit more. That question is: Is it more important to teach people to play the game, which perpetuates a culture of power, or do we want to value individuals and begin changing what we have come to know as mainstream culture? Though I am a shameless idealist and readily accept guilt that is not due, I concur that there is a subconscious level of our actions following our belief and as much as it allows me to come across as ignorant to others’ experiences, it allows others to come across as unwilling to see me as an individual who wants more than my experiences have provided. Again, perhaps we are more alike than we allow ourselves, or than we truly want to be, and if so, that is scary…and sad. Still, I stand by Kohl’s romantic sensibility that “wonderful things can happen in the world, no matter how terrible and hopeless things seem” (1994). I’d love to be given that chance to see, and be seen for, that which makes us strong.
Delpit, Lisa (1988) The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 58, No. 3, August 1988
(1994). “I won’t learn from you”. The New Press.
N. et al. (2002). Educating Hispanic Students: Obstacles and
avenues to improved academic achievement.
Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.
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