Monday, June 6, 2011

Who Cares?

We all want teachers to care for our students. I know it is the first thing I look for when I enter a school as a parent or as a fellow teacher.  Perhaps based on the instinct to care for our young we want teachers to bring empathy and compassion to the classroom. However, these traits tend to be lost in today's cluttered educational atmosphere. With testing, budget cuts and union issues making headlines, these more fundamental, but extremely important concerns, don't make it into our conversations. There haven't been any recent news stories about how to attract and train compassionate, empathic teachers.   I suppose the story just isn't as sexy as parents arrested for sending their kids to the "wrong" school or the debate over core standards, but the long term effects of attracting and training  teachers who genuinely care for kids is perhaps much more important. After all, we aren't raising up auto matrons. Our kids need to be taught and shown examples of adults who are inspired, show concern for others and make accommodations for the unique needs of the individual. I know this is a tall order in our current educational environment, but the truth is we can't loose track of the fundamental characteristics that make an excellent teacher.
I am joined today by Dr. Perry Wiseman. Dr. Wiseman is the founder of Wise Foundations, as well as the principal of the middle school he was honored to help found, organize and continues to lead in Southern California.  He is also author of the book Strong Schools, Strong Leaders.  You can read more about his innovative approach to giving a voice to the power of the school community on his website.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Wiseman a few questions concerning the changes we are seeing in education today. Here is one question that is every parent's mind.

1.  In an educational system filled with requirements, test scores, bonuses and lay offs, how can we find educators who feel an urge for care towards our children?

Every organization, whether private or public, has requirements and accountability. Some are stringent and inflexible; others are, on the other hand, more relaxed. Yet no matter where an institution falls on this spectrum, disgruntled, unmotivated employees naturally surface. Perhaps it is the automaton with the desk job clocking in, lackadaisically going through the motions, and then clocking out. Or it is the classroom teacher lacking in enthusiasm, closing his or her classroom door, unwilling to learn new skills—truly modeling the antithesis of the profession. The question becomes: What’s their driving force?

I have always been a member of the “glass is half full” club and firmly believe that people go into a profession wanting to make a difference. Particularly, a classroom teacher demonstrating an uncaring persona isn’t blatantly aiming to harm students’ futures. The problem lies in the fact that they either, one, don’t yet have the skill set (or ability) to work with children; or, two, they are somehow unconnected, operating within their own bubble, isolated from the rest of the community. And a lack of motivation versus a lack of capability clearly requires different approaches.

We’ll start off by tackling the lack of ability issue. This one is pretty cut and dry. Teachers needing assistance must be given intensive site and district support with celebrations at each milestone. And those key players providing support must demonstrate that they care, that their competent, and that they’re consistent.

The second issue, motivation, is a little more intricate and involved. Teachers, more often than not, are discontented and aloof because they feel that they are not being listened to, they feel as though their ideas are not being heard. Obviously, when individuals aren’t appreciated or given opportunities to contribute to change, they begin to steer opposite of the organizations vision and values. It then becomes a tug-o-war with the feeling of: Why should I feed the needs of the organization if the organization is not attending to my fundamental needs? In other words, why should I care about others if they don’t care about me?

So to overcome a lack of dedication to the profession, school and district leaders need to create cultures where it is commonplace for everyone’s ideas to be put on the table—so to speak. No matter the external circumstances that may surface—changes in education code, increased accountability, budgets crises, and so forth—the answers ultimately lie in the room. Unveiling the collective intelligence of any group of teachers will lead to innovation, as well as an unwavering commitment from all.

To end I would like to share a few words from Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, which parallels my outlook. In a recent letter to American teachers he stated, “…how we recognize, honor, and show respect for our experienced educators will reaffirm teaching as a profession of nation builders and social leaders dedicated to our highest ideals” (Retrieved on May 8, 2011 from

1 comment:

  1. great ideas -- I'm concerned about the implementation, esp. when it comes to school culture. I really want to see a difference in training and accountability for principals -- that's really where the problems lie in my own experience as a teacher and a parent. What are your thoughts about the leadership piece?