What We Sometimes Don't Say

As I have taken the time over the past few days to think, read, reflect, and re-direct my actions at the dawn of the New Year I have been forced to ask myself a few hard questions – “If I were to be called upon to design this system from the ground-up, what would I do? How could I attempt to fix what ails education? How could I truly work toward what I believe is my purpose and provide a better education for students and a better, more rewarding experience for educators?”

This is a pretty complex prompt to try and wrap your brain around – and I certainly do not have all the answers – but what I do have are four issues that I do not think we address enough as a group of educators and that I think we need to start having some real serious conversations about.

I am a firm believer that being a leader sometimes means stepping out on a ledge and saying what everyone else in the room is thinking – or occasionally saying the things that others have not taken the time to think about yet. The courage to do so can lead to a great many things – some of which incredibly positive such as powerful and meaningful dialogue about the issue presented. Sometimes the result is negative – which I am sure many of you have felt in your own unique way a time or two in your life. With the five areas of concern I present below, I am certainly not claiming to have all (or any) of the right answers, but I do think I identify some areas that undoubtedly need some more conversation so that together we can speak openly about the state of our profession.

Flying cars – We have planes, jets, and helicopters. We have cars. We are yet to have a flying car. School reform feels like we are trying to create a flying car, when if we just forgot the fact that we already owned a car we could create a jet. This takes courage. It takes courage from everyone and is incredibly difficult because the positive experiences community members had in traditional schools. Seat time over productivity, A-F grading instead of standards-based grading, desks in rows, high schools starting class in the 7AM hour, and I could go on and on – all of these things are not supported by data and research, but are traditional and are observed all the way from my current Doctoral classes to Kindergarten. The writing is on the wall, but we refuse to read it.

Technology is a disrupter in our society. We can either embrace the disruption and use it to serve our needs or attempt to ignore it until the disruption makes our current practice irrelevant and outdated. I hope as a profession we choose to embrace the disruption and leverage it to better connect with our kids.

17 years of modeling – Outside of parenting, there is no other profession in which someone receives more modeling than they do inside of education. This can be incredibly positive as many teachers new to the profession cite the incredible influence a few teachers had on their decision to enter the greatest profession in the world. On the other hand – think of the thousands of hours of poor modeling our teachers are exposed to before they ever enter in to the desk at the front of the classroom. Anyone doubting the influence of this ask a new teacher why they do some of the things that they do. The root answer to almost any why question to a new or pre-service teacher is simply – I thought this is how ‘we do school.’

This is no way meant to undermine the teachers that have served our country’s students for the past few decades, but if we teach in 2015 the way we taught in 1990 we are doing our students a great disservice. We obviously cannot erase the modeling students received, but we can encourage critical thought in to the pedagogy of their teachers and encourage the creation of new ideas and thoughts instead of creating a mirror image of what a new teacher may have received decades earlier.

Accountability Conundrum – I am a firm believer in accountability – in fact; if people ask my leadership style or philosophy my response is always a mix of support and accountability. I am also a firm believer that people are at their highest level of success when they are living a purpose-driven life. To extrapolate that thought – I believe businesses and organizations are at their pinnacle when the work of the employees in the organization aligns perfectly with the purpose of the organization. It would seem that this would occur naturally in education since the core purpose is to serve children.

Quite the opposite occurs, however, because success is so often intangible. Is success a test score? Is success a graduation rate? Is success employment 5 years post high-school graduation? The conversation as to what is success is not often held at the local level and when it is held at the State and Federal levels it does little to impact the day-to-day operations of teachers. When it does, it is largely negative as some schools become so test-driven that the creativity and ingenuity often received in American schools becomes null and void. Somehow, some way the definition of success must be defined at every level of education in every school or else no accountability measure becomes a measure of achieving purpose – instead it becomes a large version of the carrot and stick game.

Personal stake in PD – In the corporate world a person advances largely based on the amount of value that they bring to the organization. A person can increase and/or demonstrate their value within the organization by accomplishing certain objectives, expanding their areas of expertise, and continuing to grow. In essence, advancement is based largely upon an individual’s ability and willingness to continually grow and therefore add value to their organization. That same mentality does not hold true for all teachers. The organizational and contractual structures of most schools fail to provide the extrinsic rewards that may exist in corporate America, but we must work as a profession to change the culture that Professional Development is something that happens occasionally and is provided for the teachers and turn it in to part of the culture of our profession that all educators must be working to continually improve their practice on their own time as well – we may see great strides.

Twitter use is a great example of this. Most educators who are on Twitter when asked about its professional development value indicate that it is the best free professional development they have ever experienced. The number of educators using Twitter as a way to connect and develop, however, is rather troubling. One source indicates that only 38 percent of teachers use Twitter and the majority of those teachers do not use it as a source of professional growth.

This blog is not intended to start the year off with negative overtones – but as we continue to think about working towards building a 21st century, world-class school system these are issues I think we need to be discussing more often and more passionately.

PJ Caposey is the principal of Oregon High School in Oregon, IL and the author of Building a Culture of Support. Read more at www.pjcaposey.com and twitter.com/PrincipalPC.