Friday, June 29, 2007

The Joys of Summer -

As I write this on June 29, the last day of work for teachers in Ontario, I am reminded of how, when I was still teaching, once that date arrived, I really didn’t want to think about pedagogical matters again for a long time. Despite that, due to the regimented nature of the teacher’s life, divesting myself of the educator’s persona usually took me about two weeks.. One of the best ways for me to begin to unwind was to embark on my summer reading, which usually consisted of a combination of familiar and new authors. So, in deference to those of you who will be returning to the classroom in the fall and savoring this season’s opportunity for rejuvenation, my upcoming posts will be lighter and devoted to some of the authors I have enjoyed over the years. As well, I may comment on movies I think are worthy of note. I hope that you will consider placing some of your recommendations in the comment section of this blog as well.

Now take a deep breath and begin to relax. I’ll be back shortly.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Some Heartfelt Advice for Administrators

Common sense: we hear the term all of the time, and usually it means the ability to see that which is obvious. However, in my experience, many administrators lack this capacity in their relationship with the teaching staff. I therefore offer the following advice gratis to those wayward principals who are seeking a new beginning in September.

Recognize that you are dealing with a well-qualified and well-educated group of people who both expect and deserve to be treated like mature adults.

Don’t be afraid to compliment people for their efforts. It will cost you nothing and you will be surprised at the dividends you receive in return.

Keep your ego in check. Although you hold the top post in the school, your elevated status means nothing to the staff unless they respect you.

Although there may be times you need to intervene in situations, trust the professional judgment of teachers, and don’t interfere in that judgment simply to curry favor with your superiors.

The term ‘principal’ used to mean ‘principal teacher.’ Try to remember what it was like to be a classroom teacher. It will keep you grounded.

Never use your authority to threaten, intimidate, or demean your staff. Once a trust is broken, it is very difficult to restore.

Recognize that one of your most important functions is to provide a positive climate for both staff and students. Lead the school with moral conviction, not craven career ambition.

Finally, be humble. Despite whatever prideful promptings you may have, recognize that you are not the most important element in your school's success. That distinction has to be reserved for the teachers.

Have a great summer.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Administrators I Have Respected – Part 2

Being a vice-principal has to be one of the least appealing jobs in education. Dealing with discipline problems on a daily basis is not what most people aspire to; indeed, the position is generally viewed as job training for the principalship, the ultimate goal of many. One of the most effective vice-principals I ever worked for was a man named Ray who, for whatever reason, seemed uninterested in moving to the next administrative level. I suspect that was why he was such a good v.p.

Unfortunately, in my experience many of the decisions made by school administrators often have more to do with political considerations than educational principle. Beset by concerns of whether any given action will help or hurt their career goals (either to maintain their position, secure a promotion or, at the very least, not be sent back to the classroom, a fate worse than death for some, I suspect), such school managers can be rendered professionally impotent, losing the support of both staff and students.

Ray was different. While certainly not a favorite of the wayward student, every colleague I knew had deep respect for him. He never forgot, as so many do, the sometimes harsh realities of the classroom, and did everything he could to make our jobs a little easier. For example, although I handled most problems on my own, as teachers are expected to do, occasionally I had to send students down to the office for defiant behavior. It was Ray’s practice, either by the day’s end or the next morning, to make sure there was a note in my mailbox explaining the action he had taken on my referral. While that may seem like a small matter, dealings with other vice-principals often meant no followup information unless vigorously pursued by me.

Which of these two management responses tells teachers that their concerns are important?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Administrators I Have Respected

Readers will undoubtedly have detected a bias against administrators so far in my writing. I make no apologies for that bias; it is one that will be evident in future posts as well. However, I would like to talk a little about two people, one a principal, and one a vice-principal, for whom I had a great deal of respect.

Earlier I discussed Bill from Manitoba, who I said set the gold standard for leadership. Another principal of real integrity was a man named Rick, who led an Ontario high school. Rick’s refreshing philosophy, increasingly rare today, was a simple one. He would say to kids, “Yeah, you’re right, life sucks and you got a raw deal. But what are you going to do about it?” In other words, while it may seem like an increasingly quaint concept today, he tried to teach young people that their fate was ultimately in their hands, even when outside forces seemed to conspire against them. It’s something that the education system should be teaching all students, but increasingly, with the plethora of labels given to kids, be it “anger management issues” or “attention-deficit disorder” or, my personal favorite, “oppositional defiant disorder” (the kid won’t do what he’s told), all kinds of exceptions are made for improper classroom behavior, the consequence being that there often are no consequences. Therefore, having a principal who embodied common sense instead of the latest trend was both refreshing and a definite tonic for staff morale. And for the most part, the kids rose to the challenge. If they didn’t, they eventually left the school with Rick’s ‘encouragement.’

In my next post I’ll talk about Ray, a vice-principal who never forgot what it is to be a classroom teacher.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Student Cheating – Parental Reaction – Part 5

In Part 4 of Student Cheating, I discussed how upset I was over the principal's handling of the situation of the dishonest student. What follows is how I dealt with my distress.

After mulling over how to come to terms with having been treated so unprofessionally, I decided to write a letter to the principal, which essentially turned out to be a 1000 word memo assessing her handling of the unhappy parents. The reason I didn’t make an appointment to see her was my tendency to get emotional at times; I really didn’t want my anger to supplant my logic.

Although much of what I wrote is lost to memory now, I do recall acknowledging that while she had the authority to act as she had, I stated that I had never been treated so unprofessionally in my career; I pointed out that in taking the expedient route, she had undermined me professionally, since the students I taught would be well aware of what had transpired. Clearly student respect for my classroom authority would now be in jeopardy.

As well, I said that her actions sent an inappropriate message to the students. The education system is often criticized for not preparing students for ‘the real world.’ I had tried to hold the student accountable for his deception, teaching him that there are consequences for one’s actions; she, unfortunately, had conveyed that consequences can be avoided if enough pressure and influence are brought to bear.

The response to my letter was a lengthy voicemail message stating that she had tried to get the parents to see me, but they were adamant in their goal of having him drop my course. To her credit, she did invite me to make an appointment to see her in her office if I had any further questions, but it was an invitation I declined, my disillusionment with the entire episode profound.

How do I think she should have handled it? I think she should have insisted that the parents see me before going any further; if they refused, I guess it would have been their option to complain to a superintendent, who likely would have acquiesced in their demand. However, the difference would have been that the principal would have at least sent a morale-boosting message that she supported her teachers, although having the problem progress to the superintendent probably would have meant some unpleasantness for her.

But isn’t that why administrators are paid the big bucks?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Failure of Leadership

This post marks a digression from my previous topic thread, which will continue soon.

I read in The Globe and Mail today that the Ontario Provincial Police has been given the task of investigating former RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli over allegations that he tried to impede an investigation into wrongdoing in the administration of the Mounties’ pension fund. The man who will be leading the investigation, OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino, was quoted in the article as saying that he had always known Zaccardelli as an honorable man, continuing, “I can’t really look at a man’s career of 30-some odd years of dedicated, loyal, committed service and forget all of that and just focus on this one piece of his career.”

Reading those comments made me think of many parallels in education, one of them being how often administrators fail in what should be their most important responsibility, providing a positive and ethical environment within which the organization can thrive. In the case of the RCMP, it has been alleged that Mr. Zaccardelli, rather than establishing such a climate for all the men and women who strive to live up to the putative ideals of the RCMP, may very well have instilled fear and exercised retribution against those who tried to bring the wrongdoing to light. Apparently, his autocratic management style made it clear to all employees that to displease him was, as they say, ‘a career-limiting move.”

I have known principals who have run their schools in a similar way. Instead of cultivating independence and fostering an atmosphere of collaboration, they have surrounded themselves with a small coterie of sycophants who do their bidding, while the rest of the staff is left to wallow in a morass of demoralization. And the strange thing is, this management style, which demands unquestioning acceptance rather than informed and spirited discussion, is the one that tends to be rewarded at the board level.

Perhaps this is one of the central ironies of public education; as teachers we are supposed to help students to think freely and critically about issues, while we ourselves are often penalized for doing so.

If I sound bitter, please understand that the abuse of authority and the squandering of opportunities have always incensed me.

Student Cheating- Parental Reactions – Part 4

You may wonder why I got so upset over the removal of the student that I wrote about in my last post. While I recognize that the administration always has the final say in the disposition of students, what bothered me so much in this case was not the fact that he was no longer in my class, but the manner of his removal. In failing to insist that the parents first speak to me, as per procedure, in failing to inform me once she took the expedient course, and in overriding the guidance department, she was sending a very powerful message to students: parents have a great deal of power, and if you complain hard enough and loudly enough, you will get your way instead of having to learn from your mistakes.

To the staff, she was essentially saying that our professional judgment and standards were secondary to parental pressure, that when parental push came to shove, parents would be accommodated no matter what. You can well imagine what such aberrant judgment calls can do to staff morale. It affected me a great deal, not because my ego had been bruised, but because the entire process was so lacking in integrity. I literally lost sleep over it, until I realized there was only one way I could achieve catharsis in the matter. That will be the subject of my next post.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Student Cheating- Parental Reactions – Part 3

In my last post I told of the parent who suggested I had a personality conflict with her son due to my insistence on a note explaining his absence on a test. About five days later, said student came to me with his books, telling me he was no longer in my class. How his departure from my class came about is a tale that epitomizes how administrators often act out of expedience rather than principle.

After being informed of the departure, I contacted the guidance head to determine what had happened. Apparently the lad had gone to her, insisting upon being removed from the class. She told him, after hearing the reason, (i.e., that he had simply skipped the class and had had no doctor’s appointment) to ’suck it up” and learn from the experience. She thus refused to authorize his dropping the course. However, the common sense and integrity present in the guidance department seemed to be sadly lacking in the principal’s office.

Apparently, following the guidance visit, the parents went to the principal, insisting that their son be allowed to drop the course. Thus the deed was done. The normal and ethical practice is to insist that the parents first speak to the teacher before any kind of administrative involvement. In this case, not only was that stage eliminated, but to compound matters, I was not even given the courtesy of being informed by the principal. Thus, in the several days that elapsed before the student came to me with the news that he had dropped the course, every day I would ask the students if they knew where ________ was, until one day one of them told me she thought that he had dropped the course. So they knew before I did, and presumably they knew how he had effected his departure.

In my next post I’ll explain why I think the process that had taken place was both an affront to me and an attack on my professionalism.

Student Cheating - Parental Reactions- Part 2

One of my more unpleasant experiences with student dishonesty began when I had given a content test on Dickens’ Great Expectations. It was always my practice either not to count the test or give a makeup assignment if an absentee had a legitimate reason for missing a test. One such student told me that he had had a doctor’s appointment, and I simply asked him for a note from home to confirm that. When the note was not forthcoming and I pressed him on it, the student told me how deeply hurt he was that I wouldn’t simply accept his word. Never one to be swayed by such histrionics, I told him to get over his distress and produce the note.

Later, I called his mother to verify the reason for his absence. She asked me to ‘simply accept that ________ was absent for the test.” This non-sequitor really was of no help in my quest for the truth, so I asked her again if her son had had a doctor’s appointment during the test. Rather than replying, it was at this point she suggested that I had some kind of personality conflict with her son, and that he and I should try to resolve our differences. I assured her that such was not the case, and, as I recall, our conversation ended shortly thereafter.

What transpired shortly after really should not have surprised me at all. That will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Students Cheating – Parental Reactions - Part 1

One of the least pleasant tasks faced by teachers is informing parents that their son/daughter has cheated on an assignment. No one likes to be the bearer of such news, but parents need to be informed when such transgressions occur. For the most part, they would accept the news stoically and thank me, but in my last several years of teaching, I noticed a disturbing trend developing. Sometimes parents expected exceptions to be made for their child, usually in the form of a makeup assignment. When I would refuse (my reasoning being that giving makeup assignments essentially meant there would be little disincentive to cheat) my motives would come under scrutiny, the parent wondering why I was being so ‘unfair’ to their child. I found such accusations so profoundly disturbing because they suggested to me that the children had been raised in a moral vacuum, where questions of right and wrong no longer held any meaning. It is one thing to look out for and try to protect your children, but at any cost?

I’ll tell you of some specific instances in future posts.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Shortcomings of School Administrators - Part 1

It is no secret amongst teachers that the success or failure of a school rests largely with its principal. Not only are principals responsible for implementing and administering curriculum, meeting parents, and attending a myriad of meetings, but also, perhaps most importantly, they set the tone and climate of the school. It is at this they fail more often than they succeed.

During my years in Manitoba, I had the good fortune of working under one administrator, Bill, who set the gold standard for leadership. What was his secret? Very simply, he understood that the teaching staff was the most important component of the educational process, something many principals and superintendents and directors of education today seem oblivious to. Bill never saw himself as being ‘above’ the classroom teacher, and was quite willing to compliment us for jobs well-done, while also letting us know when we had let him down. One of the clearest memories I have of his positive leadership came after I had returned from a field trip to Winnipeg, having assisted a retired English teacher taking a group of students to some workshops and a play at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. About a day after I returned, I found a note in my mailbox from Bill, thanking me for my efforts on the trip, adding that Mrs. A., the retired teacher, couldn’t have done it without me.

I’ve always remembered that note over the years, which spoke so well both of Bill’s generosity of spirit and his understanding of the importance of positive reinforcement. It is a shame that so many of today’s principals feel that complimenting a teacher is somehow a diminishment of their authority and prestige. But more about that in future posts!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Student Cheating

I read an article in the paper recently about the state of cheating in schools today. The worst for dishonest practices apparently are business students; a survey showed that 74% indulged in dishonest academic behaviour, followed closely by engineering students. A myriad of devices are now available for high tech cheating, including the Internet, cellphones, Blackberrys, and some of the traditional methods persist as well (writing on hands, bathroom visits, speaking to students who wrote the test earlier, etc.)

In my years as a high school English teacher, very few semesters passed without my apprehending one or two students guilty of the most common form of academic dishonesty, plagiarism; while most of my students were honest and hardworking, the few that weren’t deeply affected me. It was no lie when I would tell my charges that each case of dishonesty I uncovered took a tremendous toll on me emotionally, I think because I always took such acts quite personally, and I was also deeply offended over the disrespect that it showed for the collective, i.e., the rest of the class. For me academic dishonesty usually meant two things: laziness as well as a certain contempt for me, the assumption being that I either wouldn’t detect it or would simply overlook it.

Both were incorrect assumptions. I used to warn the kids that I was something of a pit bull when it came to cheating. Once I suspected it, I wouldn’t let it go. Sometimes I would spend upwards of 2 or more hours trying to ferret out suspected plagiarism in order to uphold academic integrity.

Just as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her seminal work, On Death and Dying, identified 5 stages of grief that dying people experience (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance), I found that there were corresponding levels experienced by those caught in plagiarism:

Denial – the student initially responded with wide-eyed innocence, his/her physiognomy simultaneously displaying both disbelief and deep suspicions about the sanity of her/his accuser.

Anger – the more experienced cheater often had impressive acting talents, frequently expressing indignation, outrage, and/or sorrow that such an unworthy suspicion had taken hold of my mind. It was usually at this point I would ask the student if she/he had a mirror. “A mirror?” they would ask. “Yes,” I would say, “because I want to see if I look as stupid as you obviously think I am.”

Ignorance – when confronted with the proof of the plagiarism, the usual response was to profess ignorance that the action violated academic rules. Usually this was accompanied by a ‘mitigating circumstance defence,’ consisting either of, “I put most of it in my own words,” or, “I was only looking for additional ideas,” or variations thereof. Occasionally I was blamed, as the student feared he/she “couldn’t meet my high standards.”

Bargaining – depending upon the student, this stage could involve angling to be given the opportunity to do a make-up assignment or pleading that the parents not be informed. Unfortunately, these otherwise callow youths failed to realize that bargaining is possible only when both sides have something the other wants.

Remorse/Acceptance – if the student was a first-time offender, he/she would sometimes experience remorse over the transgression, and promise never to do it again. Veterans of the experience would often just shrug their shoulders at this point, probably uncontrite but realizing nothing more could be done to salvage the situation.

In a future post I will discuss how the guilty parties’ parents responded to notification of their progeny’s delinquent behaviour.


Educational Authority - The Beginning

Far too often, the ‘bosses’ have little concept of the challenges facing teachers, either because they have spent so little time in the classroom themselves or, after their ‘ascent’ (some would say ‘escape’) from the classroom, forget all too quickly what it means to be a teacher. For example, when I started my job in Manitoba, I was shocked to learn that I would be teaching two Business courses and one English. When I had been interviewed for the job, all the questions had been about English, my subject area; the Superintendent mentioned nothing about Business. When I arrived a few days early at the school and saw my timetable, I quickly phoned the Superintendent, telling him that I knew nothing about business. His glib response was, “To my way of thinking Lorne, a good teacher can teach anything.” A smooth way to deal with a 'problem,' but of absolutely no help to me. At the time, I had neither the wherewithal nor the experience to debate him; I simply ended my call with a lame, “I’ll do my best.”

Thus marked the beginning of what was often to be a disputatious relationship with administrators. The following thirty years were to see me occasionally working for very competent and principled people, but who, sadly, proved to be in the minority.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A Little Bit About Me

It was almost a year ago that I gained my liberation from the world of high school education. After working in the field for thirty years, I had decided that because the job was always getting more challenging, and my own energy levels were not what they had been in my twenties, and especially because I had become profoundly disillusioned with the structure and bureaucracy of education, I decided to call it a day. Because I was so recently an active part of education, and because I maintain friendships with people who are still teaching, I hope my comments will have some currency and relevance for today’s teachers as well as the general public, who may want to know more about what goes on ‘behind the curtain’ from a former ‘insider.’ I do hope that this blog will be an access point for spirited but civilized discourse, and that readers will feel free to offer their comments and register their agreements and disagreements with my views. And that last point is the aspect I most want to emphasize: the views I will express here are entirely my own, the truth as I see it, but as we all know, truth is an often slippery and elusive commodity, which is why I hope people will respond frankly to my posts.

My Career

Although born and raised in Ontario, I began my teaching career in the 1970’s in Manitoba, and spent the last 18 years in education back in Ontario. For almost my entire career I taught high school English, something that on the one hand I felt was a very worthwhile pursuit, since I sincerely believe that important truths about the human condition are to be found in literature, but on the other hand I grew to almost despise due to the heavy marking load, heavier, in my view, than most other subjects.

"I like not the smell of this authority." - John Proctor, protagonist, The Crucible.

I should also tell you that for most of my life, I have had a somewhat jaundiced view of authority. To me, the respect accorded to it has to be earned, not demanded. Let me succinctly say that in my education career, both as a student and a teacher, there was much authority for which I had little respect. Having been educated in the Catholic school system, I was often both witness to and victim of the abuse of power. Our teachers, both lay and clerical, all too often abused us physically at the slightest provocation; indeed, it was the rare instructor who wasn’t a bully. A few examples will suffice to illustrate: once, when we were eating in the cafeteria, one of the students had the temerity to close a window. Retribution was swift: he was immediately pummeled by a priest who shrieked at him, “Who the hell do you think you are?” After all these years the memory is still vivid, so you can well imagine the impact such violence had on us at the time. Another time, in Latin class, a student, perhaps for not knowing the answer, was hauled in front of the class, slapped about and had his shirt ripped. The teacher apologized for ripping the shirt, telling him to ‘send me the bill.’
Never a particularly apt student in the sciences, I was often the victim of both physical and verbal abuse by the physics teacher. He wielded a heavy text, frequently slamming it with great relish and force on my head when I allowed myself to get distracted. Once, when I didn’t know the answer to a question, another student, surreptitiously reading the answer from the text, was told to slow down, because ‘Lorne’s kind of slow.’ Both he and the rest of the class enjoyed his wit, but I frankly failed to see the humour.
I could go on with these tales of woe, but my purpose here has been only to provide some context for forthcoming remarks and observation.