Friday, December 23, 2011

Winter Break Thoughts on School

The clear blue sky gives way to a more appropriate grey-colored hue on this cold winter morning.  I was actually hoping for tons and tons of snow, until my wife kicked me and reminded me that we are driving to Colorado in just two days, and to please keep my selfish thoughts to myself until we get there.  I oblige.  My thoughts turn, instead, to other things - this is not hard for me to do - and end up where they usually do.  For anyone working in schools, this is always where our thoughts end up: in our classrooms, offices, hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds.  I received a call yesterday from a teacher, who was supposed to be on winter break, telling me that the lights which are supposed to be illuminating the school at night were apparently not on.  I reminded her that, although it was a dismal day, it was still day.  Those lights do not come on until dark.  She gave an uncomfotable little laugh.  I asked her what she was doing at school and reminded her that she was supposed to be taking time off to rejuvenate.  She said she was doing this - at school.

This is typical of many teachers, of many educators, and although I, myself, don't go in over a holiday break, I find myself constantly thinking of school.  I can't help it, and I share this story today.  Because I can't stop thinking of school...

Walking the hallways one day, I happened upon an unusual thing.  It was after making my usual morning rounds up and down the halls, in and out of classrooms, talking with kids and the occasional teacher if I happened across one on her way to the work room.  Most of the time I will stop in a classroom if I see or hear something cool and exciting going on and I want to be a part of the action.  It is the best way for me to know what's going on with kids and with teachers.  I need to feel connected, and I can't think of a better way to do this than by being out and about for a good portion of each day. 

On this day, I happened upon a classroom where I didn't hear a thing.  Not too unuusal; I mean, the kids were in there, this much I knew for sure, because I had already made a pass on my way to another room and I saw them in there.  And I saw the teacher.  And you could hear a pin drop.  I thought maybe they were taking a test, or someone was dreaming up an answer to a question posed just the moment before and I hadn't heard.  So I moved on, not being one to interrupt in serious moments of thought like what was certainly happening here.  I stopped for another visit on the classroom across the hall, where these kids and their teacher were dancing a Mexican Cumbia.  Very typical in this classroom, these kids were intensely focused on their maestro, as he moved with them through the steps in this dance.  I joined in and everyone laughed at my two left feet.  After breaking for a few hugs and some discussion on the history of the dance in this very important culture at our school, I bade them goodbye and returned to the classroom across the hall. 

From the moment I stepped out into the hallway, I could hear only sounds wafting from the lively room I had just closed the door on.  My heart broke as I moved into the doorway of the quiet room across the hall and witnessed the students sitting in perfect quiet (minus pencils scribbling) at their desks, their teacher staring out at them from her perch at the front of the room.  Books were open on each child's desk and they were furiously scribbling definitions from the vocabulary section of a basal reader.  I cautiously made my way about the room, attempting to engage the eyes of at least one child.  No one would dare look at me.  The teacher made no attempt to rise from her desk, if only to look over the work of her pupils, ensure that she was checking their understanding (although I cannot answer what it is they are supposed to glean from simple copying)... something.  At least something in the way of engaging these children. 

There are two ways of responding in these situations - the right way, or the way I wanted to respond.  The way I really wanted to respond would have caused serious repercussions for me, in the form of low teacher morale and feelings of inadequate self-worth. This is not something any principal needs when the education of children is at stake.  Everything we do translates back into the classroom.  The way I did respond is undoubtedly the right way. It is not always the easiest, of course, as tough conversations never are, but the results are definitely worth the planning and preparation that go into having them.

As I spoke with that teacher in the privacy of my office later that day, sharing with her the notes from my reflections that day, and asking her direct questions about the teaching practices and techniques I witnessed, some genuine, reflective conversation around pedagogy ended up taking place.  I understood but disagreed with her on some issues, and she with me.  That was okay.  The important thing is that she felt comfortable disagreeing with me, which was why we were able to come to some mutual understandings on my expectations for how things run in this school, while still allowing her the creative liscense she desires as an educator.  She agreed to try some things, and I agreed to be patient and help her along when I noticed her getting stuck in old ways that come from years and years of doing things the same way.  The status quo. 

I, by no means, rule with an iron fist.  I like to think I treat adults like adults, and that I have no need to look over their shoulder all day long.  At the same time, there are certain things I am responsible for, and the bottom lines for me are student achievement and social well-being.  This begins with relationships, but that is the subject of another post... 

Outside, it has started to snow.  Much to my wife's dismay.