Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Common Sense Solutions

"You want to know how to begin solving the problems in the schools? Ask the folks on the front lines of education. The teachers and the students."
That has been my contention all along. The real education experts are the people on the front lines doing the work in the classrooms, and the student/consumer.

Saturday I was finally asked, at a public forum, what I need to do my job better.
My on-the-spot answer was: Materials, better administrative support, and improved security.

The conversation this sparked on George Nemeth's site Brewed Fresh Daily got me thinking about the last two topics in a bit more depth.

Since we need more support from administrators, it is probable they need help developing leadership skills. One of the weakest links in the field of education has been identified as the graduate degree programs in Educational Administration; specifically, the principal training programs. Right here in Cleveland we have a wonderful resource in Jack Ricchiuto, corporate coach and author. His latest book, Appreciative Leadership, invites organizations to replace deficiency based leadership styles (dysleadership)that focus on what is wrong, with appreciative leadership which uses self-organization to build upon the things that are working.

I have participated in several Open Space discussions facilitated by Jack, and found them to be the most meaningful and productive sessions I ever engaged in. A principal's Appreciative Leadership retreat would be a great start toward addressing some of the building leadership problems the district faces. Teacher professional development in A.L. would be great too.

The second issue, regarding security, is easier to fix.
Many security positions were eliminated, due to budget cuts. New security cameras have been installed in the schools to provide extra eyes. Problem is; nobody monitors the monitors. The monitor is mounted in the main office where the clerks can see it. We now have fewer secretaries; again, due to budget cuts. The secretaries are busy with their duties. Nobody is watching the screen.
If a monitor was also placed by the main entrance where the security guard sits, like they do in many businesses, security would be aware of problems immediately. This is common sense and common practice. Why don't we do it in the schools?
The students talked about the reasons some kids vandalize the building.
They said vandalism was a crime of opportunity. They don't go to class, instead they wander the halls when no one is around to stop them. They know, when the security guards are hanging out in the cafeteria, or sitting on the first floor, they can bust out windows in the second floor stairwell, and not get caught. They hang out in groups and show off to their friends...it's fun.
What would keep kids from destroying school property? They said, matter of factly:

"If the security guards were walking around the building, if someone was watching us, it wouldn't happen. When the security cameras were first installed we thought we wouldn't be able to get away with stuff. Now we know nobody watches them."

Two security guards. One at the door watching the monitor, the other patrolling the building. The money the school would save on window replacement would cover the cost of the security station.

There are many people who would call my ideas band-aid solutions. It's true. They are. However, I don't see the Public School messiah coming over the horizon with a plan to reinvent education or rescue the district. While we wait for major school reform, we should not sit idly by. We need to find solutions to our day to day problems. Common sense practices that will make teaching and learning easier today. These are just two of the ideas I've had...I've got more. Perhaps I will do a series.
"I could call it "Common Sense Solutions to Front-Line Issues in Cleveland's Schools"


Dale P. said...

Oooh. You were right; good dialogue going on at Brewed Fresh. The solutions aren't easy are they? I'm not sure I have any sound solutions; however, I've always had one complaint and some ideas.

As I've mentioned, I teach in Euclid at the high school and our staff has seen the changes in the climate of our building: kids roaming the hallways during class, assaults on teachers (which have doubled this year!), repeat offenders still allowed in school, etc. But what gets me is the way most of us stand idly by and wait for administrators or politicians to do something. Yes, I think it's wrong that principals aren't swifter in their suspensions or expulsions. Yes, I believe principals do have some power to set a tone. Yes, it's wrong that teachers are assaulted and unruly kids are allowed back in classrooms. But, there are four administrators in our building and over 100 teachers and staff members. Who has the advantage? Teachers MUST believe that they are the agents of change that happen in schools. I believe this to be the single most important part of the equation in our conversations about our schools. Here's what I mean:

1) If security isn't out in the hallways, why not have teachers patrol them and take turns? If kids know they're being watched, they fall in line. Bark at kids to get to class. Keep them moving. Talk to them in between classes out in the hall and form relationships. With 100 staff members, who has more of the power to mobilize this kind of effort, them or four lousy administrators? Also, who works with the kids the most in classrooms? Administators? Please! Those people most connected to the kids should be the ones most visible in hallways, lunchrooms. 2) Talk to colleagues about potential problems with managing classrooms. I don't know about your school, but it isn't uncommon for urban schools to have massive turnover with a number of new, naive teachers. I know that's the case for us and many of our problems stem from teachers just NOT knowing how to manage kids of different races, socioeconomic backgrounds. Hell, many just don't know how to manage period! 3) Why aren't we tapping into those teachers in our buildings who are most effective? Why aren't they sharing their expertise? Why aren't colleagues engaging in the kind of dialogue that addresses real classroom issues? The single greatest asset our school adopted was a structured dialogue called Critical Friends (see the National School Reform website for the best overview). Critical Friends is an ongoing, structured dialogue of TEACHERS whereby problems are solved, observations occur, and feedback is given. It literally created a more reflective, professional group of teachers than any form of crappy professional development our district gets twice a year. And, IT'S FREE! 4) How are teachers addressing the issue of culture in their school? What are they creating for their kids that honor who they are? Respect what they bring to the table? Most represent what's happening in their lives? Is it clearly visible? 5) Finally, and this is a doozy, I know: if a school is so bad, why not walk out for a day? Demand to be heard? Refuse to teach for a day and call the media? Mobilize to save the school. It is afterall, YOUR school is it not? When a clear sign of frustration isn't made widely and powerfully known, people assume that teachers are comfortable, accepting, complacent. I've heard of a school where parents of an urban school went on a hunger strike until improvements were made (told to me by Pedro Noguera)! And changes were made. Why do we wait for Regina Brett to do an article to suddenly discuss?

These are just a handful of quick, free, viable solutions that just might make a difference. But, to me, here's why they don't happen: Teachers complain. "I don't have time to do that." "My prep period is too important for me to be out in the hallway for five minutes." "I'm here to teach, not be a counselor". "Race isn't important, ALL kids are the same." "I'm not doing anything because that's the principal's job." "I have a family at home, I can't read a book, go to a meeting, spend extra time with students, etc." These are the same people who wish things were better. How do I know this? Because these excuses have been the single greatest barrier in improving the conditions of our school. Simply being a teacher doesn't automatically entitle someone to a badge of honor. You have to earn it. And in some school, unfortunately, it doesn't come easily. When was the last time you heard a large number of teachers say "What can I do in my classroom to get kids to stay seated?" "What do you need ME to do to get kids in classrooms?" "How can I form better relationships with my students?" "Let's call a meeting and organize a task force" "Let's take turns monitoring the hallways" "Let's hold a forum at lunch and listen to our students' concerns". I'm sure every building has a small core group of teachers who do this. But why doesn't EVERYONE?

Changes don't come from innovation, money (most of the time), or some stupid administrator getting his/her act together. It comes from a staff who ALL dedicate themselves to saving their school and the wonderful kids who attend. I don't know about you, but my students need the skills necessary to compete with the harsh world out there. They haven't been brought up or given the opportunities to navigate in the work place. Hell, some need the school to stay alive. To make that happen for them, I DON'T HAVE TIME TO WAIT FOR ADMINISTRATION! I DON'T HAVE TIME TO WAIT FOR MONEY! I DON'T HAVE TIME TO WAIT FOR PARENTS TO LEARN HOW TO SUPPORT AND BRING UP THEIR CHILDREN. I DON'T HAVE TIME TO WAIT FOR THE WORLD'S LEADERS TO STEP UP. I can do this. If I can't, then I need to move my ass somewhere else.

Dale P. said...

By the way, thank you for continuing to spark the fire. As you have read, you probably get the idea that I'm pretty passionate about my profession. It's clear you are too. I read your blog everyday and conitnue to find it insightful, inspiring, frustrating, and darn good! Keep representing!

marybeth said...

Thanks Dale,
By no means do I wish to imply that school principals carry the entire load of a school's success. Your experience, as well as mine, will conclude that concerned, dedicated teachers can carry a building despite a mediocre principal, and a majority of selfish,lazy, teachers can foil the attempts of a decent administrator. But I have seen how quickly a bad principal can demoralize, insult, and suck the life out of an excellent staff. On the other hand, I've watched an exceptional principal inspire a so-so faculty to excellence.
Because they hold the king-pin position in a building, the district should concentrate some sincere efforts toward optimizing their leadership skills. More bang for the buck. We are talking about a couple hundred administrators vs 5,000 teachers.
Yes teachers should take control when building admistrators don't. But those who have been demoralized may not want to anymore. It's a Catch 22.

Anonymous said...

Mentor High School has a security booth at the front entrance of the school. Often times there are Mentor Police officers in there along with the security guards or as we students called them, rent-a-cops. The security guards would roam the halls and walk between the tables during lunch. We really hated them because they'd harass us about having our ID tags on around our necks. They did, however, set a tone that if we acted up there would be consequences. We liked the police better because they did not harass us about ID tags. One officer even ate lunch at our table on multiple occassions.

Additionally, teachers would be present in the lunch room. They'd sit and talk near the front, but they were always around if a fight broke out. Also, a lot of the teachers stood outside their classrooms to hurry kids along when the bell rang.

I supposed that's how it works in the outer suburbs.

Anonymous said...

As an outside observer, I find it real comical how an individual from Mentor can sit here at bitch about having officers in their building when they should feel blessed. They should try being in the chaotic enviroments of Cleveland Schools where your lucky as hell to even see one security guard in the Middle Schools and High Schools.

Each day, a teacher , regardless of their designation (Special Ed or Regular) would take their life in their hand just to go to work.
The hallways are crowded and students are premitted to do as the please. Nine times out of ten the principal won't do a damn thing but cover his/ her ass unless he/ she has a heart and cares for the welfare of their falcuty and students which is rare I must say.

The only time you see Police Officers is when there is a bomb threat. Otherwise, you can forget about. After the media goes away then, its buisiness as usual.The suburbanites don't know when they got it good.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand where you got that I'm some pompous suburbanite who does not understand how lucky I was to attend good schools. I was just offering my observations on security in the high school I attended. I was simply noting that from a student's perspective, there were consequences for our actions. That environment does not appear to exist in the Cleveland Public Schools.

I believe every child should have the opportunities I was afforded in the Mentor Schools. The reason for my post was that I was highlighting the difference between suburban and urban schools. If suburban schools can have the resources to have that much security, why can't urban schools?

Anonymous said...

Ok Mentor Surburbanite, there is no need to get defensive. If anything, you should feel bleesed that you have been afforded the oppurtunity to learn in an atmosphere that your welfare and teachers' welfare is paramount in addition to instruction. This is basically my point.

steveg said...

HEY, Anonymii! Stand up and be counted. Who are you both? Get your names on this at least an email. The first step to change is taking some personal responsibility for the change. There may be some out here that want to expand the conversation, to start moving from talk to action, to help MB & dale do the the best job they can!

Cleveland parent said...

So kids inevitably vandalize unless someone with a big stick is watching them? That hurts.

Kids vandalize because the buildings are cages, they are bored and alienated and it costs them nothing. The incentives are all wrong.

How much did vandalism cost your school last year? Replacing windows, graffiti removal, everything beyond normal wear and tear - is there something students would rather have or do with those dollars?

Ask them. Post the total cost of such repairs for each of the last three years. Set aside the average of three years' repair bills, and let students propose and vote on positive uses for the funds. List the cost of every repair as it happens and chart vandalism losses.

Will this change behavior? Possibly, hopefully - it works in business - but more importantly, it costs little to try.

marybeth said...

Dear Parent,

You offer an interesting point:

"Kids vandalize because the buildings are cages, they are bored and alienated and it costs them nothing."

That is very true, and the obvious solution would be to create schools that are comfortable, curriculum that is challenging, and to hire teachers and administrators who are engaging and caring. These are the goals of every school throughout the country, and they appear to be easier said than done.

The reality of vandalism, is that it only takes one person to inflict thousands of dollars worth of damage. That one person can exist in any school setting no matter the quality of the school. When hallways are monitored, it gives that one person less opportunity to damage property.

When students are made aware of how much money vandalism costs, some students may think twice about destroying school property. If they felt the financial consequences would impact them personally, it might provide incentive to monitor themselves.
I think I will propose this idea to our staff when we meet in the next few weeks.