I’ve been getting caught up in the viewing of a show I recently discovered called Battlestar Galactica, not the cheesy 1970’s version, but the new one starring Edward James Olmos. As with all good science fiction, this series is uncompromising in the moral questions it poses and societal situations it explores. The one I watched last night, called “Dirty Hands,” reminded me a great deal of what the working situation was at the time of my retirement.
In “Dirty Hands,” the workers responsible for processing the fuel essential for the fleet to be ready to escape from their enemy, the Cylons, should another attack come, are becoming increasingly restive due to the fact that they are working 7 days a week, have been for months, with no relief in sight. Those in power utter the usual platitudes about the important work that the fuel processors do, etc., but ultimately a general strike is called, which is looked upon as an act of treason by those in command. Eventually, however, the strike leader is able to get a meeting with the President and convince her that their society is rapidly devolving into a slave-owner dichotomy, and that career opportunities are determined essentially by what planetary colony people are originally from. He persuades her that it is time to extend job opportunities and also for the leaders to begin doing some of the less desirable jobs or, in other words, ‘get their hands dirty.’
So what does this fine episode have to do with teaching? If it isn’t obvious, in so many jurisdictions our profession has become polarized; teachers and administrators occupy, to borrow a famous Canadian expression describing the distinctness and separateness of the English and French cultures, “two solitudes.” To be sure, all the right things are said by the leaders; they talk about the important work their teachers do, and how they appreciate their efforts, etc. etc. ad nauseam. However, in far too many situations, once that shallow rhetoric is ripped way, it is obvious at both the school and the board or district level that those words are mere political expedients meaning absolutely nothing.
To demonstrate from my own experience, near the end of my career I wrote a letter to the Director complaining about certain things. To my surprise, he invited me to meet with him. He proved to be a very attentive listener, took copious notes on the suggestions I made for reversing the deteriorating staff morale, said he would take my suggestions to Human Resources, and then, the predictable happened --- absolutely NOTHING.
I often think that because so many of them have become such creatures of politics, administrators and principals forget that teachers are experts at detecting insincerity. As I’m sure many know, it doesn’t take too long to demoralize staff if a principal seeks advice and input from a committee, and then simply ignores that advice because it doesn’t fit with his or her preconceived notions. It is far better not to pretend you value staff input than to insult teachers in such a manner.
As for “getting their hands dirty,” how often have we ever seen a principal or vice-principal take an on-call for an absent teacher? Of course, they would argue that they have much more important things to do in running the school, but what could be more important than showing some leadership and experiencing what the “troops” experience?
Or for that matter, how often do you see your administrators in the halls amongst the students? If you have such people in your school, consider yourself very lucky. My experience was frequently that they were often not even in the school, instead attending meetings at the board office, no doubt ‘seeing the bigger picture’ which for many meant promotions in the not too distant future.
Later this week I would like to look at the concept of ‘servant leadership,’ something that I think could be a very positive development in many of our schools.