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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Looking Ahead--Part II: Change Agent

I would like to now look at some of the pitfalls that any new Superintendent will face in the Oklahoma City School District. Specifically, I wish to address the need we have in this district for an agent of change.

Obviously, we need a change of direction in this district. We have been known for a long time as the district that parents want to get their children away from. Actually, parents seem to be willing to have students go to Oklahoma City schools through the elementary years, for the most part. However, at least in my northside end of town, parents look for alternatives such as suburban, private, or charter schools, once their children leave the elementary years and venture into the middle and high school years. There are many reasons for this: a greater mixing of economic and demographic groups, an unruly learning environment, the problems associated with adolescence, loss of community and so on. Whatever the reason, performances take a big nosedive in the middle/high school grades.

Everyone has his/her favorite villain in all this: poor teaching, inconsistent discipline, intimidated administrators, poor parenting, poor classroom management. All fingers are pointed in every direction except back towards the pointer. But it is obvious, that we can keep doing what we are doing because it is not getting us what we need, and especially not getting our children what they need.

So the next superintendent must be change the direction of our journey. All change is uncomfortable and threatening. So the problem becomes how do we do this without having those who need to change feeling threatened and retreating into little "turf wars" that sabotage real, constructive change? To do this, I think that we must develop a dual attitude towards our educational practices: one that is at the same time both demanding and yet forgiving.

I can draw a personal example here as a classroom teacher. I attend professional development seminars, both voluntarily and under duress, where some super-successful teacher is brought to show us how we should be doing our work. Typically, these "Stars of Education" have taken miserable students in degrading environments and made academicians out of them. They have been given beaten up sows' ears and somehow turned them into beautiful silk purses. And as I sit in the audience, my temptation is to find all the reasons why these speakers would have bombed if they had my classes. I look the results of my own efforts and feel that they don't match what I am hearing. So I put on my own "Defense Shield" the missiles of Discouragement and Disappointment. Of course, I also shoot down any chance that I might be able to learn something good from the presenter, something I might be able to "take back to Jerusalem" the next time I face my students. I close myself off to the chance to change.

So instead, I adopt a different attitude in which I both demand excellence in my teaching and forgive those times where I don't quite get the results I hoped for. I find that I don't have to be defensive if I know I am trying to improve at all times. All humans and all human efforts are imperfect, but humans are also capable of improvement and achievement.

I think that a superintendent who can inspire this attitude in everyone associated with this glorious and yet often frustrating business of education will go a long ways towards breaking down the barriers to change. We should feel that we must improve, but at the same time acknowledge that this is not a condemnation of who we are right now.

My wife and I have a few family "mottoes". One of them is, "It's a Work in Progress. (We Hope!)" We use this whenever we try something new like home improvement or a new recipe. It recognizes that we may not get things right the first time, but that's no reason to give up. If we keep at it, we will learn how. After all, a doctor's work is called his/her "practice.” This is just as true for the work of a teacher.

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