Sunday, May 13, 2007

Haberman's teachers speak well of their administration

Among those of Haberman's insights that simultanously surprised me and rang compellingly true, that felt like an articulation of what I have always known as well as triggering a sudden, cold realization of mistakes made this year, was his description of how star teachers relate to their administration. The teachers with whom he is concerned live and work in dysfunctional schools, typically under inept, corrupt, indifferent or authoritarian administrations. The teachers themselves are of a kind that are strongly inclined to initiate projects of a sort that cause inconvenience to the bureaucracy, as they tend to organize field trips and interdisciplinary units that involve extra noise, trash and student movement. In consequence, Haberman's stars are constantly in negotiations with their superiors in order to protect learners and learning from rigid rules and uninformed directives. However, while constantly scheming and working to carve out space for their projects, these teachers will defend their administration in speaking with students and parents, and will carefully avoid suggesting that their superiors are to blame for any restrictions on activities that the students are learning from.

As for other unusual behaviors of Haberman's stars, this tactfulness, this willingness to act as "the grease between the children and any school rule or policy that would grind them down" (p.93), has its origin in great sensitivity to particular aspects of life in poverty. Star teachers intuitively know of their students that
These children and their families are constantly abused or mistreated by bureaucracies such as the welfare department, health providers, housing authorities, insurance companies, the criminal justice system, utilities, etc. Children in poverty do not need to learn to believe that their school is just another selfish bureaucracy that claims to be helping them but is really run for its own convenience. (p. 40)
In the interest of instilling in their children some trust in society's institutions, these teachers are willing to take the heat for a decision they are fighting against, as when their principal orders that a popular and effective project be discontinued. The stars "do not want the principal to lose stature in the eyes of children" (p. 40), and besides, they "want the children to see them as decision makers and not merely people who must follow orders." Hence, they will present the decision to discontinue a worthwhile project during class hours as their own, while finding some way of continuing the work after regular hours or in some other way.

'Quitters and failures,' in contrast, when asked whether they would inform their students of the real reason why they are discontinuing a project that students enjoy, typically respond that they "always tell the truth." While this may sound principled and morally impeccable, this approach gives away a lack of attunement, a lack of understanding, with regard to the realities of poor children:
For children in poverty, succeeding in school is a matter of life and death. ... They must make it in school or spend their lives in hopelessness and desperation. ... Teachers should not lead poverty students to believe that schools are just like all the other bureaucracies ... Stars are sensitive to this, and will protect the school principal and stick up for school rules and policies even when it is exceedingly hard to do so. ... They know that they must get students to believe in schools even if there are particular things about school that sometimes don't work." p. 40

I work in a school whose administration is incompetent and corrupt, and the students sense that something is wrong. Does this affect their attitude to what happens in the classroom? Of course. In that awfully clear light of hindsight I think I see that it would have benefitted the students greatly if the whole staff had agreed from the start to protect the students from knowledge of irregularites, waiting until external forces strong enough to fix the problems could be summoned. Instead, we let a word slip here and there (and, to be fair, some of the shady practices are so glaringly obvious that students have discovered them on their own), and so it should not surprise us that students do not take their schooling very seriously at this point. I am not sure that we could have protected the students from disappointment and cynicism if we had tried, but the unfortunate thing is that we did not try very hard either.

How can teachers who care deeply about students' quality of education bear to work under administrations who hamper and undermine their work? Would not these teachers be particularly likely to be outraged, to resist and protest? Some probably do, but I suspect that a selection effect guarantees that there are not many of them in high-poverty schools. Teachers who are prone to too much righteous anger at systems and structures that hurt their students will burn out and leave, because large, dysfunctional bureaucracies are stronger than young, idealistic individuals. This, I suspect, explains why the stars that Haberman studied
tend to be non-judgmental. As they interact with children and adults in schools, their first thought is not to decide the goodness or badness of things but to understand events and communication. ... They are not easily shocked ... They do not see themselves as saviors who have come to save their schools. They do not really expect their schools to change much. p. 93
This ability to simply "get on with their work and their lives" (p. 93) in cases where it is not clear that they can help distinguishes Haberman's stars.. This invites some reflection on my own reasons for becoming a teacher. For many of us, a concern with social justice, an outrage at the enormous inequities in access to education, are among the strongest motivators that brought us here. Would not such people be particularly disinclined to picking their battles with care, to disregarding gross neglect or worse in their administration? I am not sure, but if that is the case, and if I am reading the lesson from Haberman's studies correctly, we are doomed to early burnout unless our motivation shifts and we become swayed more strongly by those factors that keep Haberman's stars in teaching. Those include deriving great joy from interacting with children and youth, and in a love of learning and learning encounters - overly sweet as that may sound. That will be the topic of the last Reading Diary entry on Haberman's rich little book