First Person

The Values of Labor And Management

At the beginning of this school year in my second year of teaching special education, I spent some initial lessons introducing the concept of values and exploring three values that we would strive to uphold in the classroom: integrity, empathy, and respect. I elected to do this because I wanted to develop classroom rules collaboratively with my students — as opposed to simply unfurling my own pre-made list — and as I was planning for this, I realized that rules are developed fundamentally upon the values that one holds. I felt that these values were rich and could be explored in subsequent content areas, such as in discussions of characters in books (for example, we had fruitful discussions on how Edward develops empathy in the story “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane“).

I often find the debates that are ongoing in the education policy world suffer from a lack of explicit acknowledgement of underlying values, even as those debates are really just a fundamental clash of values. As I read articles heralding the decline in union power and calling for budgetary bloodletting in public services, I might posit that some values that the authors would hold are that of efficiency, expediency, and force as an agent of change. As someone who has been in positions of management, I can understand the perspectives that channel from such values. We seek immediate and replicable solutions to problems, to make systems run more smoothly and efficiently, and to increase performance and productivity.

But there is another value I inherited from positions of management as well that often seems to get left out in these meta-level debates: empathy. (Notice that this is one of my three classroom values?) Empathy embodies the essentials of working with other human beings. As a leader, you must practice active listening, you have to be able to model the behavior that you want others to emulate, and you have to be able to foster trusting and meaningful relationships if you want to motivate and inspire others.

This isn’t just something I’m making up, by the way. Read most any literature on management and notice the focus on interpersonal skills (as well as on intrapersonal). Motivating others and inspiring high performance requires strong abilities to develop relationships with others.

Doesn’t that make sense? Strange that this fundamental value inherent in leadership seems to so oft be lacking in those who seem to speak (or act) in the field of education from a business-minded perspective. As Diane Ravitch explains in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” education leaders such as Joel Klein and Alan Bersin seemed to turn a deaf ears to their employee base as they rammed through reforms, as if this were effective leadership. Michelle Rhee has also most famously exemplified this style of leadership. Problem is, this is not effective leadership. Not in the business world, and most certainly not in the realm of education. At least, not in any sort of sustainable way. It might seemingly work for a few years — in that people conform because they have to —until the results start trickling in. Turnover will be high. Motivation will be low. And increasingly hostile rhetoric and a culture of mistrust will develop between labor and management.

The business and reform minded values of expediency, efficiency, and high performance are seemingly contrasted against labor and community activists, for whom the values of equity, civil rights, and quality of life take precedence. Though I don’t think we can accurately say that teacher unions are at all powerless nor voiceless (in New York, hardly so), they were formed to give voice to the powerless, and they continue to speak from a perspective of disenfranchisement; community activists similarly engage to counter the norms and dominant perspectives of those in power, whether management or policymakers.

I think we have to recognize that in any viable democracy, multiple perspectives and voices and values must necessarily come into conflict and seek to resolve their differences through the process of ongoing advocacy and dialogue. This is the messy and politically complex reality that we must undergo if we are to truly work with a diversity of stakeholders.

Let me bring all of this high level discussion of values back down to earth through an example of something trivial and mundane that occurred on my subway ride to work the other day (right after scribbling some notes down for this here post). As the train approached my station, I got up from my seat and wended my way over towards the door. A lady was standing at the corner pole with a large handbag jutting out, blocking my path between other passengers. I attempted to (gently) push past, as I assumed she was not getting off at my stop (generally, passengers give subtle body signals as they prepare to exit, such as gravitating into the space of the door). She called out calmly but warningly, “Hold on.” She let me know that she would be getting off, that she was ahead of me, and that she would not move. She advocated for her position. She spoke up. Thus informed of the situation, I then stopped where I was and waited my turn to step out the subway. I abdicated my own personal trajectory and needs to partner with her presence and needs. That’s the process of advocacy and partnership (I stole these two key words from Richard Iannuzzi in the latest issue of the state teachers union magazine, by the way). She spoke up, and I listened. Thus, we worked together to get to where we needed to go.

When dealing with a diversity of human beings, the path that is most expedient is in taking the extra time to establish meaningful relationships and trust. This is what makes for effective leadership, whether in the classroom or in the supermarket or in the office.

The values of management and labor do not have to be oppositional. We can operate more efficient and higher-performing schools by fostering trust (read Deborah Meier’s “In Schools We Trust” for more on this critical concept) and taking the time to build relationships, and most fundamentally by listening to each other and understanding where we all are coming from.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.