My grandfather will be 101 years old next week. He grew up in a world where a man’s word and a handshake carried as much weight as signed and notarized contract does today. Neighbors watched out for neighbors. If you messed up you owned up. He shared with me the words his father shared with him: “When you’re hired to do a job, you do your very best work, not because of how much he’s paying you but because you promised to do the work when you took the job.” He was never out of work a day in his life, even though the Great Depression.
Grandpa was brought up knowing the importance of trust and responsibility. So was my Dad. So was I. If I ever misbehaved or slacked off in my classwork, few things would put fear into my eyes more than a note or phone call home. The teacher was respected. Their words rang with unquestionable truth and usually resulted in a tense conversation at home that night, followed the next day by an apology to the teacher and a promise to do better. That was the system and the system worked because my parents trusted the teacher as a trained professional, responsible for the education of their children. Today, if a teacher even has the courage to make that call, they better also have a defense attorney on retainer to deal with the barrage of accusations from parents claiming prejudice against their child, and incompetence in their teaching. (What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents)
Ask just about anyone about our education system today and very few will argue that it’s broken. Countless blogs condemn the “tyranny of the test”. An endless line of political candidates pad their popularity by proposing plans to “fix” education: Abolishing No Child Left Behind, increased spending, more time to plan lessons, more technology, digital textbooks, smaller class sizes, changes in instructional delivery like flipped classrooms and blended online learning. Don’t get me wrong, these are all good ideas, but I think they are ignoring the main issue that is undermining our education system. Unless we deal with this issue, I believe any strategy to repair education in this country is doomed to failure.
The issue is TRUST.
The system itself doesn’t trust it’s teachers. When you use standardized test results to determine “merit” pay you are telling teachers you don’t trust them. When you offer incentives like “Race to the Top”, you are saying that you don’t expect them to do their best because it’s the right thing to do, you need to bribe them make them try harder. When you mandate endless evaluations and “hoops” that teachers must jump through to make sure they stay accountable, you are telling them you don’t trust them to be responsible. (Downgraded by Evaluation Reforms) Did you know that in Finland, there is no word for “accountability”? “Accountability is what’s left when you take out responsibility.” (Accountability vs. Responsibility)
We look at Finland as an example of a system that works. So why can’t we make our system more like that? First, we have to get back what we’ve already lost – TRUST in each of our schools and our teachers to be professionals and do what is best for each student. (What the US Can’t Learn From Finland)
“Trust takes years to build and seconds to destroy.”
Once lost, getting trust back is no easy feat. I’m not going to go into what needs to be done systematically and politically to make that happen, as I feel that may already be a lost cause. Instead let me offer a couple suggestions of what can be done at a school or classroom level to help restore trust in your learning community.
A few years ago, our newly hired administrator told us one of the most empowering things a principal could say to his teachers. He said, “If you want to try something new and innovative in your classroom for the benefit of student learning, then succeed or fail, I will back you up.” I can’t think of a better way to tell teachers that you respect them as professionals. How many teachers refuse to try something new because they feel they will be left “hung out to dry” if it doesn’t work? If you’re a principal or administrator I urge you to be a leader and stand up for your teachers. Let them know you’ve got their back – especially when THAT parent comes in to complain. I think you’ll be pleased with the growth that occurs when you remove the fear of getting cut down.
Be responsible. Do your best in all circumstances and stop complaining. Listen at least half as much as you talk. And be positive. When you interact with parents are they only hearing negative things from you? One of my mentor teachers told me this strategy for building a positive relationship with parents. At the start of every school year, he would observe each of his students. When they did something outstanding and praiseworthy he made a point to call parents and share it. What parent doesn’t want to hear how awesome their kid is? Especially from a trained professional teacher? In the event you eventually do need to phone home about a behavior or academic problem, parents are less likely to be defensive or feel like you’re picking on their kid.
These suggestions alone are not an overnight cure. It will take time and effort, but if teachers and administrators work together, stay positive, and lead by example we can begin to move forward. I really like this picture Diane Main shared on Facebook this week. (I wish I could find out who made it originally so I could give proper credit.) If we all, both administrators and teachers, worked to be “leaders” as defined below, then we are well on our way to regaining that trust.