The End of a School Year: “Free at last, Free at Last …”

Early in the afternoon on the last Monday in June a “whoosh” of wind will sweep across the city, not a storm, tens of thousands of teachers exhaling: a hellacious year ending.

From COVID to a new mayor and a new chancellor, to testing, testing, testing, to confusion piled on confusion, to a final “gift,” drastic budget cuts and teacher excessing and teachers asking: where will I be teaching next year?

City Council members who voted for a budget that included $215 M in school budget cuts demonstrating against the cuts claiming they were duped. (Read here).

The school wars never end.

For some teachers a few days off and back in summer school, or taking required courses, or just decompressing.

Back in “the day” there were cheap, really cheap charter flights, backpacking across Europe, sleeping in youth hostels, student Eurail passes, my wife and I exchanged our apartment with a family in Paris and attended a Gifted Education Conference in Hamburg and we crossed over Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.  Another summer a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to study Luso-Brazilian History and Culture, as a teacher you are always, from year one to your last year striving to become a better teacher.

As a school district union rep I was a member of the District Leadership Team, and summers involved planning for the upcoming school year. While the New York City school system was, to be polite, lethargic, local school districts ranged from top down, “my way or the highway,” to highly collaborative; I was lucky enough to work in a collaborative district, the teacher union had a seat at the table; being heavily involved in school board elections didn’t hurt.

The new Adams Department of Education team, as I have written , has a window of opportunity; they can simply continue the chancellor to superintendent to principal to teachers pipeline, who salute and continue to do whatever they have been doing, they’re comfortable and Newton’s First Law of Motion is powerful.

… every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. This tendency to resist changes in a state of motion is inertia.

Two elements of personal and organizational change,

* Change, especially imposed change is viewed as punishment,

* Participation reduces resistance

In a few days the Banks/Weisberg/Blackburn team will announce the new superintendents, I suspect many of the current superintendents will be replaced.

Will the superintendents simply be new faces, old style leadership, (electronic) clipboards and checklists, school goals resulting in triage management, concentrate on the “issue” of the moment, or, will the new leadership begin to build truly collaborative school and district cultures?

Advice to the new gals and guys:

  • Call the district union rep, ask s/he to set up a Zoom meeting with all the school union reps, introduce yourself, tell them your goal is a partnership, a two-way street between the superintendent’s office and classroom teachers.
  • Work with the district union rep and set up a face-to-face planning meeting with the school union reps.
  • Ask the school reps: what has been working well? Not so well?  What can we, (emphasize “we”) do better?
  • Provide funding so schools can bring in “volunteers” (pay them) the week before Labor Day to plan for school opening and other issues specific to individual schools.
  • Election Day is a Staff Development Day, how can you use the day to target issues you jointly agreed must be addressed.
  • Attend school staff meetings and at the meetings engage the faculty. 
  • Your staff must be in schools, not tied to a desk in the District Office.
  • Support School Leadership Teams, how can you provide on-going training to the SLTs, not “one-shot” here today, gone tomorrow
  • District Leadership Teams should be forums, consider “live-streaming” the meetings, once again, an arena to address, to self-criticize, to engage,
  • Perhaps a District Newsletter, highlighting achievements, introducing staff members and roles.
  • Reach out beyond the school community, local faith-based leaders, local electeds, business leaders, other city agencies, enlarge the team.

In my role as a school district representative I visited schools almost everyday, sometimes scheduled faculty meetings, frequently an availability to answer questions.   In some schools teachers ate lunch alone in their rooms, in others with teachers on the grade, in a few together in a faculty room. Sometimes by age, the newer, younger teachers hung out together, sometimes by language, schools had unique cultures. In one school the principal “invited” specific teachers to lunch with him, a hierarchical school culture; in another teachers played Scrabble every day during their lunch, with kibitzers.

Does collaboration weaken the role of the school and school district leader?

In my view just the opposite, collaboration develops a distributive leadership model. In every school there are the witch doctors, maybe a senior teacher, who sets the tone in the school; other teachers and parents look up to them. It’s not the title, it’s the respect.

A few years ago I was at a Broadway play and at intermission a women greeted me, she was a teacher in one of the schools in my district.

Me: “You still working?”

Her; “Almost forty years, I love every day.”

Me; “You still teaching pre-K?”

Her: (with a smile), “Of course, although I had a tussle with the new principal.”

Me: “What happened?”

Her: “Brand new principal called me in and tells me he’s switching me to the First Grade, told him I never taught the First Grade, he was adamant.”

Me: “What happened?”

Her: “A few days later, he was crazed, told me his phone was ringing off the hook, there was a petition floating around with scores of signatures demanding he place me back in pre-k, he ordered me to stop calling parents”

Me: “What did you do?”

Her: “Told him the truth, I only called one parent, btw, he didn’t last too long.”

Teachers jump out of bed, “I overslept, I’ll be late,” and suddenly; a smile; it’s the first day of summer vacation, a hugh sigh as s/he drifts back to sleep …..

The “new team” might be slapping putty on the cracks and a new coat of paint on the crumbling Department of Education structure, or, a new architect, a new building in process.

In the meantime, a few days on a beach, a few hikes in the country, refilling the tank.

3 responses to “The End of a School Year: “Free at last, Free at Last …”

  1. Another excellent piece. It should be required reading for managers in all fields of work. I had the pleasure of working with Peter as a District Representative starting in the late sixties. Peter’s advice worked then and will continue to work.

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  2. Marc Korrashan

    I couldn’t agree more. Collaboration is the hallmark of good leadership. Top-down mandates rarely move the needle because those mandating a curriculum or teaching method don’t know the students in the multiple classrooms they are attempting to govern as well as the teacher in the classroom does. My career was in teaching seriously disturbed adolescents who tend to be dismissive of all authority. The firs thing was to create a positive relationship and meet them where they lived. I was able to meaningfully teach science when I tossed out the curriculum and texts and started by asking how many students believed in UFOs. They all did. So we began exploring the literature for and against the existence of UFOs. I knew I was making progress when one student asked, “What is swamp gas?” When we finished that unit with a discussion of The Scientific Method another poll showed that only one student remained convinced of the reality of UFOS (and in his case that reflected his deep seated belief that he had been brought here by aliens). With the Scientific Method in mind we could begin examining other subjects in Biology and Chemistry. I was able to do this because I was not subject to pacing calendars and administrative observations to see if I was complying with mandates. Every student left with a good understanding of complex topics like evolution because I had the freedom to teach to them, not to a preconceived mandate so f how to teach. There is no right way to teach, and even the most creative theorists, like Lucy Calkins, ultimately have to admit that their theories are not one size fits all.

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