Big changes, small sacrifice

Published 9:10 am Friday, February 6, 2009

It often seems as if a school or a school system lacks the resources needed to make significant changes that can help to improve the academic environment for the students; however, I would like to offer you an example as to how such changes can be put into effect without the need for much money, technology, space or such.

Imagine a school that faces problems with student discipline and even bigger problems with academic achievement. Suppose this school resides in a rural community, it is the year after integration, there is substantial socioeconomic disadvantage across the general population, and the staff includes a principal and a few teachers who are brand new to education. If we also had outdated textbooks (1957…), no peripheral materials, minimal technology, and a New Deal vintage building, does that mean that we had inadequate resources to do our job? I submit not.

Our principal was a true leader who required meaningful input, effective communications, cooperation, teamwork, innovation and lots of hard work. He asked us — the classroom teachers — for advice, guidance and ideas at every step, respecting what we had to say and what we could do. We understood that if we did not talk freely with each other about the problems we faced every day in our work, there would be no hope for making progress to improve the education of our students. We were ripe for his brand of leadership.

Concerned for our students, we found that there was an education program tuned to the specific needs of the middle school, and I and another teacher traveled 14 hours in my VW bug to Nashville, Tenn., to attend the two-week George Peabody Middle School Institute associated with Vanderbilt University. The coursework included thorough instruction about curriculum, teaching methodologies, school organization and scheduling, the emotional, social, physical and psychological development — and the behavior management of youngsters, all tuned to the unique needs of the pre- and early adolescents in our charge.

We brought all this back to our little school and created our own formal training for the whole school staff. Everyone became involved in developing a middle school program best-suited to the needs of our students. Our staff became closely bonded, and we worked well together, always with the best interests of our students in mind. There is no doubt in my mind that our effort resulted in a very strong middle school program.

Further, one of our teachers became involved with the Department of Education in the development of a Virginia Studies video series to be used in seventh grade classes all across the state. Additionally, his classroom, students, and teaching methods were the basis for the culminating segment in the series and in fact came to be used by the Department of Education as a “teach the teacher” instructional video on statewide public television for many years.

The point is not as much about what we did as it is about how we did it. It did not require much money at all. It had not been dictated from above. No big deal consultants had been brought in from outside, as we had done all of our own reseaarch and development. Instead, all it took was a form of leadership which trusted its professionals in the front lines — encouraging, soliciting, and counting on our ideas, concerns, disagreements, involvement, questions, cooperation and hard work.

The lesson I took from all this is one that can and should be applied everywhere we face serious problems within our own community. How much money, technology, federal grants and new buildings are required for effective leadership, communication and teamwork to be implemented? This is all simply a matter of organizational style. What a great reservoir of energy and talent we have kept suppressed and untapped! Too many problems continue to be unaddressed, too many wrong decisions continue to be made, too many ineffective programs continue in place, and too many improvements continue to be unrealized. Do you remember who the victims of all this ineptness are?

Have things changed in education since the early ‘70s? You bet. I submit, however, that nothing has changed that cannot be effectively addressed through the use of two phenomena: 1. excellent leadership and a participative organizational style within the school system as in the example above, and 2. a receptivity — no, a reaching out — to the community to garner support and involvement from every element of the community. For now, more than ever, our schools cannot succeed alone.

The operative sentences in this plea? “We understood that if we did not talk freely with each other about the problems we faced every day in our work, there would be no hope for making progress to improve the education of our students. We were ripe for his brand of leadership.”

Even with a sudden commitment to change, perseverance tempered with patience will be required, for it is not easy to turn a huge ship around that has been headed in the wrong direction for a long time — and in troubled waters no less.