These links hold a selection of essays and personal reflections providing insight to the type of person and teacher I am.

Through the Eyes of a Child:
Reflection on myself as an elementary student and that influence on me as an elementary teacher
Personal Philosophy of Teaching Science:
Essay upon my arrival at an appreciation for science and understanding why it has always challenged me
Case Study on Trevor:
Observations, interviews and reflections (academic and personal) regarding the challenges facing urban students
Curricular Cohesion Presentation
A Powerpoint presentation, created for a Literacy for Teachers course taken during my first year.
Autonomy VS. Isolation 
An editorial observation on the professional environment of elementary teaching as perceived by a career-changer following his first year teaching. 
The Best Student
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).

Through the Eyes of a Child
I was crazy about Melissa Steele.  She wasn’t the prettiest or most popular girl, but she laughed at me.  Her laugh made me feel like the king of the fifth grade.  Lately I’ve been thinking of an episode from that year that must tell me something of how I was as a student and, given the context of my life now, it must relate somehow to the teacher I aspire to be. 
    The Spanish teacher, Mr. Ledezma, would come twice a week and give us an abbreviated introduction to that language.  The lesson consisted mainly of echoing him while looking at pictures representing the words we were learning.  To add variety one day, he called on people to come up and lead the class in his stead.  Melissa went first.  She chose Aaron as her successor, who then chose Bill.  After a few people had gone, Melissa called out for someone to choose me.  I can still hear her shouting, “Pick Walt, he’ll be hilarious!”  When I got up in front of the class, I had nothing funny to say.  I wasn’t uncomfortable, but my off-the-cuff humor apparently stayed in my seat.  I could tell she was a little let down, but by the time we went to lunch, I’d earned my crown back by cracking her up in line.
    I’ve not yet made sense of this occasion or why this memory has decided to turn up so many times lately.  In my farthest analogous stretches I might predict a similarity in Walt as an elementary student and Walt as an elementary teacher.  In those days, my stage was the small group, line, recess, lunch or the few kids seated near me on the bus.  In intimate settings I would liven the conversation and engage my peers.  It wasn’t always orthodox or even on task at that age, but it was always intimate.  As the group got larger, I listened more than talked.  I feel quite sure that peers from that part of my life remember me for that. 
In today’s terms, I still see myself as the catalyst of a small group.  As a teacher, my small group is the whole classroom where I anticipate touching, entertaining, teaching or just getting each student to think at some point.  I know that this talent will reach beyond my classroom door, not directly or even publicly.  As I’ve grown, the group has grown and I can see myself at the front of the class, now with something to say. 
    I am the youngest child of an educator and a minister.  My siblings, five and seven years older, inadvertently molded the interaction I would have with my parents and teachers.  Watching their mistakes, I learned how to navigate.  I saw the lack of reaction tantrums would get and what consequences obstinance received.  I learned to be accommodating and stealth-like.  My behavior at home seldom warranted discipline, granted my parents, by then, had seen or dealt with it all and the boundaries were probably somewhat extended.  This instilled in me a sense of freedom to spread my wings and appreciate what room I had, without feeling a need to push limits. 
    In elementary school, I recall being highly respectful of authority.  Looking back, I realize that respect is synonymous with what I now call fear.  If the teacher took you in the hall to talk, everyone watched you walk out.  They knew what you were doing when you were called out as well as you did.  Then, because you were raised in a respectful household, you had to bear looking into the teacher’s disappointed eyes and answer rhetorical questions about why you were misbehaving.   What’s more is returning to the room and trying to look ten-feet tall, when you actually felt like you just made your mom cry.  Such scenarios may have happened with one or two teachers only and were never repeated.  Part of being raised correctly was this instilled “respect for authority”.  God knows I never set foot in The Office!  The aroma of discipline and shame wafting from that room the few times I stopped in for a Band-aid was enough to asphyxiate.  The fear wasn’t of consequences; it was about pride.  (Granted, in the office they knew my mom and she knew my dad who had a belt that knew my behind.)  It was about pride that I didn’t want to let my teachers down, I didn’t want to explain myself to my parents and I definitely didn’t want to lose my opportunity to entertain my small group by spending time being punished.  I knew my limits.
    As you can imagine, a student with these beliefs was a joy to his teachers.  I have no doubt that they spent summers meeting for tea to discuss “how nice it was to have that Sutterlin boy in class” and exciting the lucky co-worker whose roster held my name for the coming year.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a group of academic retirees somewhere in North Carolina who still lament my graduation.  Honestly though, I was the type of student who respected the teachers as individuals because my mom was one of them.  My perspective was somewhat different in that I never assumed they holed up in the coat closet until we came back each day, as I later learned some of my peers believed.  I didn’t think that they all lived in the lounge or that little room behind the library that was always locked.  I realized early on that my teachers were someone else’s parent or spouse and a student with that awareness made it easier for them to focus on educating.  It is when a student views his teachers first as real people that he best allows them to be teachers.
    In my own classroom someday, I hope I will remember the value of my situation as a student.  It was thrust upon me that I was a teacher’s and a preacher’s kid, but I didn’t know at the time how lucky I was.  Many people have distorted images of how surreal are those professionals.  I intend to make myself “real” to my students, to let them into my life and my corner of the world so that they see that teachers are flawed, but striving individuals, real people.  I’m probably setting up a hard balancing act for myself to maintain a leadership role while showing vulnerability, especially since I want to teach those heartless middle schoolers!  I think it’s important though to create a mutual investment with each student, to give him, or her, a sense of pride similar to what was given to me unbeknownst. 
    I don’t recall much about my learning preferences.  It wasn’t until late elementary that I realized I like Social Studies best, if I had to pick.  Until then, I just went with the flow, learned to read with basals, struggled on fractions and hid my lack of athleticism by always playing the field in kickball.  I preferred certain times of the day like the read aloud or the infrequent computer lab, but not certain learning styles.  I remember just going and doing and looking at a lot of chalkboards.  This makes me think I was probably exposed to an abundance of rote learning.     
    One teacher stands out from the chalkboard.  Joni Nash was my fourth grade teacher.  She really gave me a sense of preference and it seems to have been throughout the day and across all subjects that I was exposed to different styles.  I remember dissecting frogs and eating tofu, both new experiences related to the lesson.  One day she even told us a sub was coming in then, in the hall, she dressed up like an old mountain man to the point we didn’t even know who she was and she returned to teach us a lesson in character.  We were so surprised and tickled when she removed her beard!  Naturally I can’t remember what the lesson was about, which reduces the impact of this point, however it stands that active teaching and engaging students in experiences to accentuate the learning is a prime example of how     I want students to learn and remember me.  I looked up this teacher shortly after graduating prematurely, just to let her know that her style had affected my life positively.  I found her again when I decided that I must become a teacher, not unrelated to her influence. 
    I think daily about what kind of teacher I want to be.  It’s a different and welcome process to consider what kind of student I was as an influence on becoming a teacher.  I really believe that being a teacher is a personality one has before a profession one occupies.  Opening the door to reflect on things in the formative years of my personality is a new challenge that, with some ongoing introspection, should guide decisions for what type of professional I choose to become.  Knowing limits, sharing self and fostering intimacy will go on.  The value of laughter that I learned from Melissa Steele endures in my adult life and is bound to find a place in my teaching. 

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Personal Philosophy of Teaching Science
    After a number of years en route to a teaching career, and as a generally reflective individual, I have pondered many aspects of my person.  I think it good practice to continually revisit who I am and what I believe.  Until now I have neglected consideration of any beliefs around science teaching.  My major and minor, social studies and language respectively, are typically practiced as arts and I’ve maintained an academic segregation of them from science and math.  I classified science as strictly empirical and fact-driven, while the “arts” lent themselves to interpretation.  Recently, however, I have begun to recognize that both are truly based in inquiry, a common element linking humanity.  This new understanding has since led me to determine how I believe science is best taught, focusing on personalities like my own, whose inclination is to separate and even avoid science. With this belief, and some careful research, I’ve decided that two major elements enhance science teaching and learning:  prediction and participation.
    A fundamental of my approach to teaching is maieutic.  I believe that many students bring to the table a wealth of understanding and experience in many forms.  A central chore of a science teacher, or any teacher, is to develop this through thoughtful discussion, rather than imparting knowledge.   Margaret Birse, in a presentation at the AustraliaNew Zealand conference, rightly states, “Children are naturally inquisitive, observe something interesting and ask questions about it.” (1996).  By taking “something interesting”, having students create their own questions and predictions, then effectively posing meaningful questions back to them, I submit that students are able to turn inherent understanding into applicable knowledge.  Birse calls this stimulating “natural curiosity and imagination”(1996).
    An important revelation I reached while considering this philosophy is the additional function predicting and questioning play for the teacher. By soliciting predictions, where students can operate and participate confidently, Birse points out that teachers can gauge students’ understandings and misunderstandings, further directing the types of questions needed to drive students to improve naïve concepts and create accurate knowledge (1996).  Central to this constructivist approach is a student-centered emphasis on investigative processing.
    Since modern educators uncovered Vygotsky’s theory of constructivism, much adieu has been given to student participation in their learning process.  I recall many a science classes where frustrated teachers emptied boxes of chalk diagramming and reading text on scientific theory, confused at why I, and many peers, didn’t “get it”.  In eighth grade, however, an un-degreed college drop out put our science class into pairs and marched us outside to the fire escape to experiment, discuss and determine if a marble and baseball would hit the ground at the same time when dropped.  This approach provided instant clarity and was the first experiment of a year full of actual learning.  Ironically, this, one of the best teachers many of us ever had, was removed when the school found out his lack of credentials.
    In his article on making chemistry fun, Bal Barot of Lake Michigan College puts a name to this phenomenon, Peer-Led Team Learning, where “the goal is hand-on problem solving in a non-intimidating manner” (2004).  In this model, students work together to discover scientific understanding that they might not reach alone, with guided instruction from a teacher and one another.  Psychologist William Glasser (as cited in Tabor & Anderson, 2003) has stated that we retain 80% of what we experience and 95% of what we teach others.  This theory is supported by research wherein fourth graders were taught a science lesson, then in groups, demonstrated the experience to younger students.  Post assessments revealed that 70% of the students who participated in peer demonstrations achieved mastery understanding of the content, as compared with 58% mastery achievement by another fourth-grade class who did not participate in peer instruction (Tabor & Anderson, 2003).  Furthermore, it has been established that active construction by the individual and through interaction leads to understanding (p.28, National Academy of Science, 1996).  I believe this to be hard evidence that participation in science is integral to learning science and must therefore be a cornerstone in my approach to teaching science.
    Given financial and class discrepancies that our society has created, it is essential for science teachers to provide for students opportunities and experiences that will help them develop areas of knowledge that may not be as refined.  This activity will not impede those students who already attain certain understandings, but will solidify that knowledge.  Once provided, students will be able to pull, from their own stores, predictions for scientific outcomes.  Participating through experimentation allows them to further develop their knowledge, perhaps refine those predictions and continue experiencing science as a form of inquiry and understanding.  Predicting and participating engage students in a search to make the abstract concrete and the puzzling comprehensible.


Barot, B. (2003).  How to make learning chemistry fun, exciting and interesting.  MSTA Journal, 48, 18-22.

Birse, M.  (1996).  The constructivist approach to science and technology.  Paper presented at the Australia and New Zealand Conference (6th, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, January 9-11, 1996).

National Academy of Sciences (1996).  National science education standards.  Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 

Tabor, R. & Anderson, S. (2003).  Action research: The use of demonstrations to increase achievement.  MSTA Journal, 48, 28-31.

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Case Study on Trevor
Life Context
    Trevor is a ten year-old black boy sitting in an urban fifth-grade classroom looking very thoughtful.  He observes the activity, occasionally participating, but mainly watching.  When we first met, he had big hair like an Afro, but with no form.  It would take the shape of his hands or whatever object upon which it rested.  A few weeks into my visits he shaved his hair to less than an inch.  He caught my interest on the first day.  My cooperating teacher advised me to watch the room, then go with my gut for which child would make an interesting case study.  Trevor intrigued me because he seemed to have a dark side one minute, but the next he would be smiling and patiently raising his hand to participate.  I felt I could learn something from this child.
    All of his classmates are black, in numerous shades.  In fact, the charter school he attends is mostly black, except for the teachers.  There seems to be an equal ratio of black and white adults in the school.  Most of his fifth-grade class is at fourth-grade math and reading levels, including Trevor. The room is heavily decorated with content posters papering most of the walls.  The desks are all alike, but there’s just not a lot of warmth to the room.  The whiteboard and plain walls give it a hard feeling beneath unforgiving fluorescent lights.  Were it not for those lights revealing the dirt, the room would seem sterile.  Despite the teacher’s efforts, it does not feel learning-friendly. 
    For this case study to be authentic, it would not be just for me to describe Trevor’s world through my eyes, so I wanted him to tell me about it.   To ensure he didn’t feel singled out or know that I was giving his case special recognition, I made my inquiries in a small group of his peers.  It was sometimes hard to discern opinion from regurgitated adult talk, even from his occasional attempts to impress me linguistically.  He seemed to want to look at me, but wouldn’t maintain eye contact.  I think I got the gist of how Trevor perceives his life and I believe it is quite sincere.  He says his classroom is “big and unorganized”.  However, he thinks it is “educative”, obviously referring to the mass of charts, maps and process reminders.  He and his peers always talk about “who goes with who” and the girls frequently try to start fights about that subject.  The teacher is nice, but receives no other commentary.  Basically, as Trevor puts it, “People talks a lot.” 
    I ask what they think about their school and Trevor tells me it’s “fit” for his mind.  This is a unique adjective for me in this context.  He explains this is because he feels he learns things early in preparation for the next year of school.  Despite being academically behind, it’s good that he feels challenged and successful.  He doesn’t think much about being in an all black school because it is virtually all he’s known.  He doesn’t share any preconceived notions about white people and tells me that he does not care if the teachers are black or white, he’s had both, because he “just wants to learn”.
    Trevor’s neighborhood, in his estimation, is “not fit”.  There are lots of shootings and drug deals.  He vividly describes the dealers and their cars. Trevor thinks they’re “stupid for doing drugs” and he likes it when the “raid team” often comes to take them and their cars away.  His matter-of-fact way of telling me this is unfortunate, but I see hope that he admires the police.  During the 2003 blackout, a car crashed into a building “so that people could steal stuff”.  “Lots of car wrecks” happen in his neighborhood because “people are always drunk”, so he doesn’t play outside very much.  Subsequently, he doesn’t have many friends away from school.
    Instead, Trevor stays inside with his family.  His mom doesn’t work and the dad works second shift for a distribution plant.  Trevor has four brothers and one sister.  At ten, he is the second oldest, but the older sister only lives in his house intermittently.  His brothers are six, six, four and seven months.  His father is not the same as theirs, but he couldn’t really explain the relationships.  He only knows they’re a family.  A cousin who lived with them recently died of diabetes-related gangrene on her birthday.  An infant cousin drowned recently in the bathtub.  The details of these stories and the lack of emotion in sharing them is again disturbing to me, I hope therapeutic for Trevor.
    He tells me that his mom has been trying to get a job, but she has to stay home with the baby right now.  He has proudly helped both parents with their homework from classes at “WC3” (Wayne County Community College).  Every night, except Sunday, the entire family rides in their one car to pick up their dad from work at ten o’clock, perhaps explaining his tired countenance.  He does admit that he and his mom stayed up the night before watching a moving until one in the morning.  Sometimes, if they finish their homework, she will take all of the kids to Belle Isle to play on the playground because “it’s safer there.”  Most of the time though, Trevor stays at home playing True Crime on his X-Box.  He prefers to be the cop.
As a Learner         
    Trevor is committed.  A number of occasions when I’ve observed him with coursework, he has requested to miss or be late for special activities to finish the assignment.  I have seen him work in all content areas and each time he has put his heart into learning, then showing that he can do it.  When he doesn’t understand something, he does not get frustrated and want to quit, it actually makes him try harder.  Even after weeks of MEAP testing, he sat for almost an hour working an assignment that the rest of the class could barely focus on for twenty minutes.  He doesn’t just absorb the material and restate it just to finish the lesson like many students.  He actually wants to try more exercises to solidify his knowledge.  However, he is by no means nerdy or super smart. 
    As mentioned, Trevor is at fourth-grade reading and math levels so he is challenged by fifth-grade expectations.  He tells me Social Studies is his favorite subject and he likes to choose topics then write about them.  His writing mechanics are lacking, not only stemming from his casual register, but also because he is challenged at writing things he can discuss with sophistication.  He seems to realize this and has the confidence to use invented writing techniques to represent these ideas.  These have proven to confuse him later on, but he is willing to improve. 
    Admittedly, he’s challenged by math, but this is one area where I have specifically witnessed his perseverance.  Again, translation plays a role.  Once, I represented base ten numbers to him in dollars and with that authentic application, he was able to calculate and respond much more quickly and accurately than discussing the same operation abstractly.
    The only accommodation Trevor receives is after-school tutoring in math from his teacher.  She offered him the opportunity to improve his math skills and he volunteers to stay a few times each week for one-on-one tutoring.  This seems to reflect his determination.  While perhaps eligible, he receives no other special services.
    In his special courses (art, music, physical education), Trevor pays attention and works independently.  He is no more or less prone to mischief than most students, but tends to focus on his work first, then fools around.  Even in horseplay, he shows self-control and an awareness of behavioral expectations. 
Making Connections
    In her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Ruby Payne describes how a person must forgo certain relationships and behaviors to rise to the middle class.  I see potential in Trevor to do this because he shows a desire for goals of more than his life currently affords.  He also appears open to a special, mentoring relationship, as exhibited in his determination to succeed at his schoolwork, his apparent negligence of peer opinion and his response to discipline.  His attempt to use language outside of his comfort zone is another example of eagerness to rise. 
    Spending his school career almost entirely with classmates of his own race may prove the theory questioned in Kwanza and Me, that integrated schools diminish a minority child’s psyche, but single-race schools build it up (Paley, 1995).  Most fifth-graders would feel somewhat self-conscious after a major change to their appearance, such as Trevor’s hairstyle change, but it didn’t seem to phase him.  This child’s positive self-image seems unshakeable. 
    I’m not sure if his emotional life has been neglected as is common with boys (Kindlon, 1999).  Having a working father in the home and a mother who does not work must provide a more stable set of role models that encourage his positive outlook.  I have not seen any evidence of a temper, but his occasional silence and introverted personality may be a sign of pent-up emotion.  This could be the dark side I thought I had seen, or merely just a boy’s way of “recharging” (Kindlon, 1999).
    Trevor has not always been trouble-free.  In fourth-grade he brought a hard-core pornographic magazine to school and didn’t appear affected at the intense graphics.  His lacking reaction to the material shocked the administration.  It may be characteristic of his personality to be laid back, even in the face of consequences for poor decisions.  The implications of such a personality and situation are intriguing on two fronts.  First, here is a child born into plenty of social and academic challenges.  Second is an evident inner resolve to succeed.  As a teacher, consideration must be given to address and support both.
    It seems resources are readily provided to build up students when they end up in juvenile detention facilities and out of mainstream schooling.  Over 600,000 children go this way each year (Williams, 2004, p. 24).  Often their success stories are highlighted, as well as those of their superstar teachers who turn delinquents into striving pupils.  But what to do with the student who has not hit bottom, but whose situation places him precariously vulnerable to fall?  In an article about Detroit’s Benjamin Carson Academy, the nation’s first charter school for juvenile offenders, principal Nathaniel King says, “We try to make kids like school again, make them aware that they can learn, and we try to reach them at their level.” (Williams, 2004, p. 26).  Without degrading King’s vital and positive work, I think of the many Trevors I have come across and realize my role as a teacher is to do anything and everything I can to make these same strides before students get to that low place.  The best defense is a good offense.
    In this spirit, it is imperative that all teachers educate ourselves in building, recognizing and fostering motivation.  Trevor seems to have an uncommon level of intrinsic motivation, which, when recognized, should make teaching him a little easier.  He knows when he learns something and it encourages him to try harder to master it.  Granted, he is still a fifth-grader and subject to transient lack of focus due to his age, gender and home life, but he creates his own momentum from learning.  To foster such motivation, or build it in students lacking, it is important to involve them in the assessment process.  Doing this will help develop self-monitoring and self-evaluation skills, which are important in enhancing self-efficacy (Ormrod, 2003, p. 321).  It guides the students to become invested in their own success, which almost always leads to positive results.  A critical feature of nurturing motivation is the placement of value.  Whether it is identifying a student’s interests or showing your own enthusiasm for a subject, “fostering value for academic subject matter” is a key element in motivation (Ormrod, 2003, p. 399). 
Insights and Reflection
    In reviewing my assessment of Trevor with his teacher, we both came to view him in a different way.  She realized that she may be too close at times to see some of unique aspects of her students, such as Trevor’s commitment to learn.  This was jaded to her because he has a habit of not turning in assignments.  In her reflection, she realized how convicted he was to learn material and we discussed instances where he was eager to teach classmates things he recently mastered.  We agree that it is this perseverance that inspires us to try harder to teach such a child.
    The more we analyzed the late assignments we realized that we had different impressions of his home life.  My investigation found a child, supported by two parents in an environment where that was not typical.  I thought this contributed to his positive attitude and comfortable presentation.  His teacher, on the other hand, knew only of his mother and only from occasions when she walked him to the car to confirm a message would get home.  She found it odd that Trevor and his mom acted more like friends than parent and child.
    As I put the pieces together and shared my information with her, it became clear that Trevor’s dark side was probably a childhood suppressed.  As the oldest child of a family where the dad is gone most of the waking hours and the mom is ill-educated, Trevor is, in effect, the other adult in his house.  Hence, staying up late watching movies with his mom was probably not an uncommon event as she probably does treat him like more of a friend than a son.  Dealing with such traumatic experiences as his neighborhood and the deaths of family member further pushed him into adult-mode.  It stands to reason that turning in fifth-grade school assignments probably isn’t a big deal when your role at home is so far above it.  What appears to be a laid-back attitude may actually be preoccupation with much greater responsibilities. 
    All of this is consistent with the elements of poverty, as outlined by Ruby Payne.  Still there is a strong argument for the motivation factor in helping this man-child to rise.  He has improved behaviorally over the past two years.  The results of this improvement have shown academically.  I see an opportunity for this correlation to be tapped to his advantage.  His academic work is inhibited only by his home situation and apparent lack of genuine support, which is no small force.  It is realizing these connections that confirms, once again, my instincts as a teacher and drives me to show him the benefits of exploiting this motivation.
    Still, I must put myself in the place of Trevor’s teacher and recognize the almost impossible challenge of evaluating each student to this degree.  For every Trevor I figure out and learn to build up, there will probably be ten that slip by, evade or defeat me.  No less, by merely identifying these things in one child, I am more prepared to respond to them with ten others.  When the day comes that I have the chance to pursue these findings, it will be with Trevor’s commitment that I encourage another child to rise.  The bottom line is: Win or lose, I will be fighting the good fight. 
Kindlon, D. & Thompson, M. (1999).  Raising Cain.  New York: Ballantine Books.

Ormrod, J.E.  (2003).  Educational Psychology: Developing Learners. (4th ed.)  Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall 
 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.

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Autonomy VS. Isolation: Understanding the Culture of Teaching
A Strange, New World
    I recall, with regret, one of the ideals that motivated me to change careers and become an elementary school teacher.  I lived what I then thought was the fast-paced business world where my role was to participate and synthesize teams of employees to perform as one juggernaut of efficacy to achieve a common goal.  Time after time, we ultimately realized great success though I viewed the collaboration as cumbersome, frustrated that the success wasn’t always on my terms.  Too many days I sat in an air-conditioned cube, sipping hot coffee and daydreaming of becoming a teacher, where I could close my classroom door and be a private contractor, nurturing and helping young learners based on my goals and on my terms.  Not long into the year at my hard-earned, first teaching position, I realized how pampered I had been, not only with functional air conditioning and hot coffee, but within a culture of collaboration, no matter how unwieldy it seemed at times.
    I asked a lot of questions that first year, questions I honestly felt were fundamental to an organization’s operation and for a new employee’s orientation.  Where do I find the materials to do my job?  What is the protocol for this situation?  Why are we teaching different content to the same group of children?  Coming into this field, I felt like a relatively intelligent person.  After only a few weeks, I wondered if I was a bumbling idiot, insane, or merely dismissed as naïve because I kept arriving at the same answer to these questions from teachers, administrators and mentors:  Do the best you can. 
It came in many forms, sometimes with explanations, sometimes with an encouraging wink, too often with a shrug and the follow-up, “Welcome to teaching.”  After prying door after classroom door open, figuratively and sometimes literally in a few districts, I realized a culture has been created throughout elementary education that is as insidious, if not more so, than government mandates, unequal distributions of wealth, or altogether lack of funding. Those are problems the average Joe- and Jane-citizen can freely analyze and lament regarding American school children’s relative educational suffering, but the status quo of isolation that one finds within the profession of teaching seems so powerful that it avoids finding its way into public debate when it could be a cornerstone saving us from ourselves.  Within that first year, I recognized the value, and absence, of collaboration in elementary teaching.  I also knew I was surrounded by years of experience, knowledge and a sincere regard for children’s learning.  I had to understand this disassociation of such fertile means working separately towards a mutual end. 

Autonomy v. Isolation
    Warned as I was at the University of the dangers lurking in the teachers’ lounge, I knew it would offer the raw opinion necessary to help me form my own.  Playing up my own ignorance and innocent interest to understand, I approached educator after educator with a point-blank bluntness searching for answers to how a profession based on molding young minds to succeed in our society had come to be comprised of individuals working so independently. Many teachers vehemently defended their “autonomy” in the classroom and were offended by my inquiry to delineate that from “isolation”.  It became more and more clear, as I interviewed these brilliant and experienced lovers of learning and children that many of the tools needed to begin turning education around are already within our schools.  The system just hasn’t always been managed in cohesion.  Somewhere in the past twenty or thirty years of the teaching workforce, the subversive mentality of isolationism has become an accepted solution to the myriad of internal and external challenges. 
Similarly, I reflected upon my previous career and understood that the frustration I’d felt was simply the natural strain of people working together, where the whole becomes better than the parts and challenges are overturned with the combined knowledge of many working as one.  As I dug farther, I came to understand my colleagues and the culture of teaching.  I gained a new respect for their journey to this point and a new vision of where I would like to see the profession of teaching mature further.
Learn Your History…
    As of late, much is being written about the expectations of the new workforce of Generations X and Y.  These workers, be they teachers or otherwise, want to know what is expected of them, they want reassurance on their progress and they want to be a piece of something larger than themselves.  This provides for quite the juxtaposition with teachers who have been in the classroom for most of the Gen X/Y lifespan.
    Over and over I’ve heard tales of teachers who started their careers in the 1970’s and 1980’s, being given a key and directions to their room, then told, “Do the best you can.”  (Sound familiar?)  Given the fear I had with a few weeks to prepare my first room, locate material and relentlessly contact a mentor teacher with questions, I can only imagine their daunting task of a first job requiring such lonely freedom.  At that point, these same teachers realized it was time to sink or swim.  Those that are still here were the swimmers who dove into lesson planning, classroom management and all that is teaching, which required finding (or creating) any materials they imagined up for helping students to learn.  Many graduates of the teaching programs of yesteryear received little more than a Bachelor’s Degree in English, Math, History or Science, I’ve found.  There were fewer educational theory courses, lesson plan methods courses, cultural or socio-economic appreciation courses, much less a how-to course on teaching each subject area to specific-aged children.  Today’s mentor teachers primarily learned to teach by teaching, arguably still a viable method.  They were baptized by fire into curriculum planning and child psychology.  They came with their wits.  They taught most of the Gen X/Y teachers as children and are still teaching us today as colleagues. 
    However, through all of their efforts to survive each day and create paths where there were few, isolation became inasmuch a job requirement.  To maintain a sense of personal accomplishment and balance amid multiple duties and sparse resources, the classroom door had to shut to block out interference, so that each of these teachers could make their way.  This was a generation and workforce of the Baby Boom, parented by a likewise work ethic of doing what had to be done.  As today, teaching was largely a female occupation with a healthy influence of the feminist movement.  The glass ceiling was steadily being raised during this era as were the stakes for proving independent success. To be sure, there are exceptions, progressives, and even schools of collaboration in this generation, but by and by, there is reason to understand any sense of isolationism that resulted from these circumstances. 
It must also be considered that substantial pride is felt when one creates something unique to the world.  Artists feel it, parents feel it, teachers feel it.  The act of teaching, by nature, requires self-reflection.  We are our own worst critics, but due to that very personal and prideful process, we are sometimes prone to dismiss the valuable constructive criticism of a second set of eyes.  Without external intervention, this sense of autonomy developed as much in pride as with necessity to survive in the workplace.
    Today’s graduates, and even career-changing teachers as myself, are indoctrinated with a new approach to teaching.  From the earliest courses in University teaching programs, educators are reminded of standards, benchmarks and grade-level expectations.  However nebulous these terms seem at the time, how ever-changing they are, standardized teaching goals are a permanent fixture in the educational landscape.  Standards-based tests are also slowly becoming more appropriate for children and connect directly to material expected to be taught in every classroom.  For the system this is a positive thing, as it both caters to the desires of Gen X/Y workers to have clear direction, but also provides a common vernacular for all teachers, even those who resist a common language.
    Imagine the teachers who have spent years of their lives creating and improving lessons, learning what students can do, purchasing and making the tools they need for their students to be successful.  When they finally hit a comfortable stride, new rules are introduced to the game.  Standards?  Benchmarks?  What happens when these conflict with the content and lessons they’ve poured a career’s worth of heart and soul into?  Generally, because educators are a wise bunch, much of what they’ve always taught is generally consistent with the standards, newly dictated in many districts just since the millennium.  The change is smooth, but there are enough teachers who have units, or entire curricula, that are simply not in line with what the current conventional wisdom requires via State and Federal standards.  Who can blame these teachers for closing the door and continuing as before?  Certainly, the rationale I’ve heard can be justified that if they only have a few more years until retirement little harm can be done.  Right? 
    Consistent production has been commonplace in other industries, even helped to fuel the industrialization of our country vis-à-vis Henry Ford.  But learners aren’t widgets.  Each child requires a unique approach at specific and appropriate levels.  This philosophy has remained a strong enough argument for “autonomy” that standardization of content was delayed until educational reform movements beginning in the late 1980’s.  A decent argument supports the traditional education model of “isolation” that standardization is not in the best interest of the public, as not all students will be able to perform at the same level, simply based on their unique rate of development.   So it remains safe to say that standardization has not completely ripened, but at least its value has been acknowledged.  With those wheels in motion, I must wonder if the entire debate of standards could have been cut short or curtailed altogether had a culture of cohesion and teacher collaboration, sharing their wonderful and unique wins and losses in the classroom, been harbored as a true reform of education.


    Apparently, as educational theory has advanced with analysis of Vygotsky and constructivism, the way we teach teachers has only slightly progressed.  Upon entry to this personally rewarding field, I was surprised to learn that as recently as the current decade, teachers were herded into “stand and deliver” presentations, walked painstakingly page-by-page through binders of research, and otherwise handed piles of consultant-created material with the expectation that it would be implemented in facsimile throughout classrooms with glowing standardized test results as proof that the training was time, and money, well spent.  The current professional development, largely improved I’m told, is often a compilation of materials and resources gathered at a district office in response to surveys of teacher suggestions.  It’s closer to the mark based on audience interest, but still misses the engagement that really supports learning.  Teachers are charged and challenged to engage their students daily.
    In response to training sessions that do not compel educators through personal interest and investment, many return, overwhelmed to their rooms and assimilate to disregard the intent of the professional development, continuing with plans they’ve made, understand and to which they have a personal connection.  Undoubtedly this routine is repeated in many classrooms throughout a school or district, resulting in perpetually inconsistent instruction, despite the good intentions of a district to streamline what is taught.  There are many amazing teachers doing their own wonderful things in this vein and children are learning in many classrooms across the land.  The complement is that there are just as many teachers, new and experienced, who wander through days at the cost of their students’ true learning potential.  This situation makes the system mediocre, despite how effective may be the theory and practices are provided as continuing education.
    I was gratified to witness veteran teachers put forth effort to understand and incorporate what they are fed, but asking legitimate, clarifying questions of professional development.  These are the ones who are engaged in turning proverbial lemons to lemonade, the same ones who so often end up labeled by peers and superiors as “rejectors” and “nay-sayers”.    They are the ones who realize there is value at some level in the training, but it may need a collective touch to mold into something truly practical for a school’s particular children. I’ve come to understand many of these individuals as true “thinkers” and thinkers frequently like to share their understanding.  Unfortunately, the isolationists usually outnumber them, creating more isolated teachers.  The herd mentality is quite ironic in a profession based on new learning and understanding.
    Further rationalizing these responses by overwhelmed teachers is a perceived history of flavor-of-the-month professional development.  When employees realize that management introduces or replaces a tool, process or resource every few months, but infrequently enforces or monitors its use, morale and confidence in leadership deteriorates.  This is not unique to the establishment of education, but is something countless teachers have commented on and further explains how isolation has developed.  With the mounting responsibilities and expectations put upon elementary teachers, it becomes a matter of self-preservation to separate the chaff from the grain in order to get through a day, feeling that you’ve actually connected with your classroom of kids and taught them something.  The components of interpersonal connection and engagement in content are so critical to learning, not only for children but for adults too.
Marching On
    There is agreement that none of us want “learning factories” because children, people, are not machines that can all be built the same way.  Reflecting on my work in business, customer satisfaction and delivery of a service, some of the age-old theories of specialization and consistency do hold true however.  The gift that a good teacher brings is his or her own unique approach to teaching something.  That approach may or may not be transferable to a colleague, but by simply sharing practices and understanding on a regular basis, something will be learned.  Thriving industries, those where our students will ultimately be employed, have adopted a culture of collaboration.  If we agree that our students have the potential we believe, doesn’t it seem logical to model a practice that would benefit them…and us?   

The Best Student
    When I found the note, carefully tucked into a pile of papers that had been turned in for grading, I was a little perplexed.  I hadn’t assigned an essay or a pen-pal letter, but there was a full, hand-written page from a student I enjoyed very much.  As I read it, I remember suddenly understanding how my mom must have felt each time I teased her that I was the favorite among my siblings.  The note began, “Who’s the best student in the class?”, then went on to explain how the author, a mature, bright, well-rounded student, longed to be the “best student” and lamented that others may hold that spot in my estimation.
            The note got me thinking.  Do I really have favorites as she interpreted or was it pre-adolescent emotions making this child feel under-appreciated?  Had I not praised enough or was there natural competition brewing?  And what makes the best student?  I ruminated on these thoughts for a time, and then realized I had to somehow respond to this child who had been so courageous and mature in citing feelings of inadequacy…even if it was my own, especially if it was my own!  A part of me was mortified that I’d not shown enough affirmation to a marvelous student.  The other part of me was proud that somehow, my values had transferred through our daily interactions and this student was living my lessons of how to communicate directly and honestly, to let feelings in, sharing them with others, to embrace what moves you, then respond to it.  To this magnificent, questioning child and any others who really “get it” from our time together in Room 120, here is my reply:
             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.    

The best student “gets it”, so she doesn’t have to worry about being the best student.

Essay On Leadership

“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

 Manager, teacher, parent, principal, spouse, servant; which word does not fit?  I believe each of these is a leadership role because true leaders are not constrained by conventions and organizations within which they operate.  By its nature, leadership must transcend roles, so I would be irresponsibly remiss to limit my conception of myself as a leader in only the context of schools, nor through the lens of one set of readings, rather through the collective educational journey on which I continue to develop my capacity.  Looking forward through that lens, there are three virtues essential to leadership success:  servant leadership, continuous improvement, and engagement.

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.

History and Implications of the School Principal

"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 nineteenth-century America, the role of principal cemented itself as its own institution of security.  The present, and seemingly instantly, multi-faceted role has been forced to reckon with itself since the mid-1980’s and with a new understanding of its place in a system that does not fully exist. Those in the role, and entering it, face the challenge of understanding their purpose while creating the systems above and below which they will support and work within. This reflection examines that history and the implications for its future.

America has always thirsted for entitlement and a confidence of strength. This drive that built our economy and political structure evaded our educational network as it left the one-roomed schoolhouse and morphed to handle a growing number of older adolescents, as accounted for in parallel by George Counts and August Hollingshead (Powell, 1985). Schools indeed served a purpose, which was clearly not academic, and society was satisfied with its social function for fifty years until the mid twentieth century (Powell, 1985). Occasional progressives like Charles Eliot, not dissimilar to Jefferson, voiced concern even in the early years for greater quality and flexibility in curriculum (Powell, 1985), mirroring contemporary calls. These attempts, considered reform, were opposed at the time, followed by years of reduced standards and class-systemesque tracking rather than rethinking the means and ends of a free and public education (Powell, 1985). 

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.

Bossert, S.T., Dwyer, D.C., Rowan, B., & Lee, G.V. (1982). The instructional management role of the principal. Educational Administration Quarterly, 18 (3), 34-64.

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 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.

Powell, A.G., Farrar, E., & Cohen, D.K. (1985). Origins. The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace (pp. 223-308). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Rocchi, J. (2009). ‘Wild’ Beauty. Retrieved from:  October 16, 2009.

Rosenholtz, S. J. (1985). Effective schools: Interpreting the evidence. American Educational Research Journal, 93(3), 352-388. 

Selznick, P. (1957). Leadership in administration: A sociological interpretation. New York: Harper & Row.

Shulman, L.S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1-2

The Irony of Relationship Management
            It is funny, and at the very heart of constructivist learning, that the same concept can be used in a completely different environment and be, perhaps, even more effective.  A few years ago, a friend who had served in the Gulf War, explained to me how condoms were used more often to keep sand out of the barrels of rifles, than for their intended purpose.  I found this innovative and the integrity of the device is still to keep life from continuing, but in a completely unintended context! 

            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). San Diego: Academic Press.

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.

Elmore, R. F. (2002). Bridging the gap between standards and achievement: The imperative for professional development in education. Albert Shanker Institute.

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.

Leithwood, K., Tomlinson, D.,& Genge, M. (1996). Transformational school leadership. In K. Leithwood et al. (Eds.), International handbook of educational administration (pp. 785-840). Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

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, New York, NY, p.16.


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.  

Case Study on Daniel

The Issue

            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.

The Reality

            Daniel[*] 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 Mississippi as they followed an abusive father for work.  He immediately returned south, leaving Daniel’s mother, who is in her mid-twenties, morbidly obese and dreadfully uneducated, to raise the five children alone. 

            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. 

The Thinking

            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.

The Questions

            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 (Ferguson, 2010).  Policy has been used to create and exploit differences while it has also created institutions that value one specific set while growing subcultures of another.  As a society, we have not respected or honored the least of these, which sadly Daniel was born into.  Policy will not teach Daniel the values that my children have come by innocently, by grace, and not of their own doing.  Daniel’s community and family will not teach him the values of institutional success as it is defined by institutions, so he is left perilously in a lurch between what he knows and the institutions he is thrust into by well-intended policy. 

            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 (Duncan, 2010).

Good 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.  Ferguson seems to agree that a social problem requires a social solution which cannot come solely from politics, but must come from people understanding and caring for people.  Duncan seems to provide a hopeful and practical solution for long-term optimal educational opportunities for children.

            Several questions arise from Duncan’s hope that education is the way to change society.  To what length do we uphold middle-class institutional rules and goals?  It appears that if this is the language of success or of the “culture of power” (Delpit, 1988), any length is acceptable, but is that right to condemn or exterminate other cultures directly or indirectly?  To what length does an educator go in assisting the working-class towards understanding and achieving middle-class values?  Specifically, after teaching the rules, at what point do we allow an individual to make his own value choice about which system he chooses to operate within?  When does enabling a group turn into exploiting an individual from a different socio-economic class?  In the film Hoop Dreams, the rally cry of the middle-class high school was to, “…give Art the ball…”, Art being the token black player they had recruited from a working-class neighborhood.   As times got rough, even Art’s athletic prowess did not keep him within the good graces of middle-class institutions, though he tried.  When the connection between school and community becomes so transparent that we see children helped to succeed en mass and regardless of their conditions, then we will have social justice.  It seems extremely significant that understanding a group before enabling them to fit into your own perspective is sensitive and serious work that must be done and through which process, we might learn that our complete identity is not the best of all choices.

            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.


The Options

            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 Conclusion

            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? 


Coontz, S. (1997). The Way We Really Are. BasicBooks: New York, NY

Delpit, L. (1988) The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 58, No. 3, August 1988

Duncan, A. (2010, July). Equity and education reform: Secretary Arne Dunca’s remarks at the annual meeting of the NAACP.  Available at

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.

Ferguson, R. (2010, October).  Urban Education Perspectives Speakers Series: Dr. Ferguson’s remarks at Michigan State University, October 13, 2010.

Hoop Dreams (1994).

Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc. (2010). Words of Wisdom from the Qur’an.  Revtrieved on November 18, 2010:

Kohl, H. (1994). “I won’t learn from you”. The New Press. New York

New American Standard Bible. (1995)  Matthew 25:40.

Payne, R. (1996).  A Framework for Understanding Poverty. 4th Edition.  aha! Process, Inc. Highland, TX

Russell, B. (1950). Unpopular Essays.  George Allen & Unwin.  London, Great Britain.

[*] Daniel is a pseudonym for an actual child.

Social Justice: A lit review of Herbert Kohl

“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

Kohl, Herbert (1994). “I won’t learn from you”. The New Press. New York

Padron, Yolanda N. et al. (2002).  Educating Hispanic Students: Obstacles and avenues to improved academic achievement.  Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.  University of California, Santa Cruz

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