In the Aug. 4 edition of the Education News Colorado newsletter, Sarah Fine, responded, with a tale from her own experience, to a New York Times article on a growing interest in unions among charter school teachers.
She provided a powerful story of how intense efforts to replicate the successful charter school in which she worked created the conditions for teacher discontent and a growing interest in unionization among that school’s staff. She wisely called on charter school leaders and funders to do a better job managing the pressure to scale up the distinctive and fragile cultures of small schools.
Based on my experience as the founding principal of a small public (non-charter) high school of choice in Boulder Valley School District, I have an additional and complementary explanation for why teachers in small start-up schools might want the “protection” of a contract and a union.
Let me begin by saying that starting a new school is incredibly challenging. It certainly is the hardest work I have ever done in my life. If, in fact, the goal is to create something different from traditional schooling then everything in a new school has to be invented from scratch.
There are no procedures, there are no policies, and there is no culture among students or staff. The consistency and clarity of daily school life that helps create a safe, caring container to allow students to focus on learning doesn’t exist when a new school opens.
New schools that replicate existing models have an easier time of it, but to the extent that the new models differ from traditional ones, there is still a tremendously steep learning curve for staff, students and parents.
What gets people through the first exhausting years is the excitement, the challenge, the sense of ownership that comes from truly being masters of your own fate as well as seeing the work you do make a difference in students’ lives. Once the basic structures are in place, it becomes possible to limit the number and length of meetings because the sense of extreme urgency – “holy s**t, we don’t know what we are doing tomorrow at back to school night” – begins to let up.
At that point, the school staff can spend proportionately more time on teaching and learning. However, if you want to keep the “new” in your new school, you still find yourself in the business of continuous improvement – revisiting every policy, practice and procedure as experience shows what does and doesn’t work.
And you find yourself identifying student needs you didn’t see before as well as dealing with issues that emerge from inevitable changes in the school’s policy environments (district, state, charter management organization) and student body. All of these require some kind of organized institutional response, which means time must be found to work on these issues together.
The temptation would be to keep up the intensity of the first couple of years – to continue to hold long and frequent meetings, to involve everyone in the conversations, to keep up the pace of change – while still shouldering the enormous responsibility of meeting the daily needs of the students, which in many new urban schools involves extended school days and Saturday programming as part of regular teaching duties.
An example of this approach to small school start-ups is found in an earlier New York Times article, excerpted below. It describes a new small public high school begun by the New York City Board of Education which kept up its intense pace for four years as staff worked to graduate their first class.
While there was every indication that the school had worked wonders for its students, the story goes on to describe how the principal and many of the staff who had opened the school were resigning even as their first, successful, class graduated. They wanted and needed time for themselves, time for relationships, time to have children of their own.
Noteworthy in the article was the interview with Joel Klein, NYC Chancellor of Education, who felt that there was nothing wrong in asking people to work14 hour days as a matter of course. That was how his staff worked and he saw no reason teachers shouldn’t as well. (See excerpt of article in box below.)
But placing such enormous and continuing demands on the teaching (and support) staff in high-needs schools is short sighted. First of all, working that hard over the long term is detrimental to the mental and physical health of the staff. And stressed out, exhausted and/or sick teachers do not respond appropriately to the needs and issues that students present all day long, day after day.
Secondly, despite Chancellor Klein’s view, teachers rebel against these expectations. Whether this takes the form of quitting the profession or organizing a counter-balancing force, it is unlikely that more than a small proportion of talented professionals with other options will work this hard over the long run.
From my point of view it is simply wrong to ask teachers (or administrators) to give up their own personal lives, working 60-70 hour weeks, year in and year out, to save the lives of their students. This is not to say that the lives of students are not worth saving. It is to say that the burden of that work should not rest solely on the backs of the teachers and school staff.
Other people, other institutions, and other resources have to be equally committed to the goal of saving students’ lives. The work must be spread around if it is to be sustained.
At the school where I worked as principal for 17 years, the pace of change and innovation slowed down dramatically after the first couple of years. We were still committed to our students and to keeping the “new” in our new high school, but we were also committed to creating a working culture that was sustainable for the staff. For us, that was a culture in which people could work over different phases of their lives, without having to choose between their profession, themselves and their families.
It was a culture in which people could reduce their schedules while their children were young, where they could leave meetings early to pick their kids up from day care, as well as a culture in which they could take care of themselves when they needed to.
Achieving this balance wasn’t a one time event. Every year we had to renegotiate among ourselves what we could and couldn’t do, what we would take off our plates to compensate for what we wanted or needed to add to our plates. But as a result of our collective commitment to sustainability, the school experienced low teacher turnover, high teacher satisfaction and not even one grievance filed with the union.
We also had every reason to believe that we were making a significant difference in our students’ lives even if we weren’t meeting every need we saw or reaching the highest potential of every initiative we undertook. We chose the path of doing the best we could for students, while protecting the sanity and well being of our staff.
Any model of school reform that depends on Herculean efforts by educators who are discouraged from seeking better working conditions must per force depend on Teach for America interns or other short timers. Educational research, however, suggests that this is a precarious foundation for schools serving our highest need students.
That research tells us that teachers begin to be truly accomplished when they’ve had three to five years of experience, that at risk students with turbulent lives benefit from long term, stable relationships with the adults who teach them, and that schools with carefully built trust among staff have the highest student achievement as well as the strongest ongoing staff engagement in innovation.
In light of this research, school founders need to drop the “all hands on deck all the time” rhetoric and instead create school cultures in which teachers can stay committed to growing in their profession while maintaining a meaningful personal life.
This isn’t a recommendation that teachers stay in the classroom for 30 years or even 15. It is an exhortation to create healthy organizations which balance the personal and the professional, continuity and change and the wisdom of experience and with the enthusiasm of newcomers.
Anything less is a disservice not only to teachers but to their students as well.
Rona Wilensky was the founding principal of New Vista High School, a small, innovative public school of choice in Boulder Valley School District. She retired from that position in June. This year she is a Resident Fellow at the Spencer Foundation in Chicago Illinois.
Sidebar — N.Y. Times excerpt
“Ms. Karopkin (the principal) said it would be unfair to say she was burned out, but admitted she was nothing less than “exhausted,” both physically and emotionally.
“You are taking a bunch of hyper, type A perfectionist people and giving them a herculean task,” she said. “People have to work much too hard to do what we are doing. People cannot work at this level all their lives and nobody is prepared to do something at a level of mediocrity.”
The nature of the work at Law and Justice almost dictates that the staff be of a certain age: most are in their late 20s, and few have families at home. But, Ms. Karopkin said, nobody should be forced to choose between educating other people’s children and having their own.
Mr. Klein, who spoke at the graduation of several successful small schools last week, seemed unconcerned that so many of the teachers at small schools were working such long hours.
“When people are part of the world of changing things for children, they don’t view it is as work,” he said, pointing to members of his own staff who log 14-hour days.
While the work is inspiring, Ms. Karopkin said that she has lost several teachers — many of whom had just begun to hit their stride — to graduate school or to more lucrative and less grueling jobs. Surely, she said, if there were more teachers assigned to fewer students, the work would be more manageable, and good teachers might be compelled to stay. Either that, or the salary must be significantly higher. “
Medina, Jennifer. “Attention Goes a Long Way at a School, Small by Design” June 30, 2008, New York Times.
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