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If Georgia wants teacher-leaders, it has to grant them a real voice

Today, I joined education reporters from around the state at the annual Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education media forum in which we get a preview of the legislative session. We listened to the state school chief and other Department of Education officials, as well as legislators and advocates.

And we heard great ideas about programs and changes that could improve teaching and learning in Georgia.

But I always leave the annual event wondering about the gap between what's needed and what's possible. And let me share two examples from today.

GPEE policy and research director Dana Rickman outlined the top 10 education issues to watch this year in Georgia, including a new focus on the "teacher-leader." She explained that 70 percent of teachers say they’re not interested in becoming principals, but a quarter are interested in a hybrid role that allows them to continue teaching but also lead education reform from inside the classroom.

The answer, said Rickman, was "purposeful pathways to teacher leadership." I asked Rickman how that was possible in an atmosphere where teachers are afraid to publicly share their views, where even simple requests to teachers – their favorite holiday gift – have to be approved by district communications staff.

In my experience, many teachers fear speaking out even on innocuous topics. Another reporter stood up to concur; he said in the rural districts he covers teachers are terrified because of "dictatorial principals."

For many reasons, the culture of schools neither supports nor encourages a strong teacher voice. And that includes experienced educators with Teacher of the Year honors and excellent performance reviews. It is true for teachers in private and public schools. I've seen principals nudge effective but opinionated teachers out the door because they found their outspokenness an irritant. (I have also seen principals who make waves on behalf of their students pushed out by their bosses.) Many teachers have told me they "keep their heads down and do their jobs."

I assume it is a domino effect of weak-kneed leadership from principals, to deputy superintendents to  superintendents. Or maybe school leaders feel so beat up by the public and politicians that they squelch any criticisms from within, even constructive criticisms.

The second issue that drew a lot of discussion today was the pressing need for schools to provide social services to struggling families in need, something that DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green noted has fallen on schools because no one else is stepping up. "We can have the debate about who should provide the services. But schools are being called in more and more to fill in the gap," he said.

He's right, but schools are attempting to confront complex social problems for which they lack the personnel and expertise to resolve. I understand why Green and other panelists sharing the stage with him contend that kids can't learn if they are hurting, fearful or mentally ill. They can't.

But under current funding and structuring, I don't think schools can tackle addictions, homelessness, joblessness and mental health and still teach math and reading. Consider the American School Counselor Association recommends one school counselor to 250 students. The average ratio in Georgia is one to 450, and some schools have one counselor to 1,000 students.

I sat down a few years ago with an education researcher from France who observed that American schools attempt to be everything to everybody, offering sports, clubs, music and theater, after-care and summer programs. In her country, such programs and cultural enrichments are the community's purview. Schools concentrate on academics.

U.S. schools have let communities off the hook; these programs and extras are now regarded as school responsibilities. Yet, when schools do them badly -- nothing riles parents as much as poorly managed or underfunded sports teams -- no one remembers these duties aren't part of the schools' core mission.

The question isn't whether schools should do it, but whether they can and still fulfill their mission to educate children. As Green discussed the district's plan to hire more social workers and psychologists to work with troubled families, I received an email from an irate DeKalb parent whose child's class was still being taught by substitutes because the district hadn't found a language teacher.

I just don't think schools can do it all well.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.