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When schools mine data to death, teacher spirit also dies


A frequent contributor to the AJC Get Schooled blog, Peter Smagorinsky is an educator, researcher, and theorist at the University of Georgia. He holds the title of Distinguished Research Professor of English Education. 

This piece comes out of his ongoing study of teachers. In an earlier blog essay that has been read by thousands of educators nationwide, Smagorinsky talked about how one of his subjects fled the profession out of frustration, but found her way back. Now in a different Georgia district, she found an administration focused on building relationships rather than data sets.

Today, Smagorinsky discusses another teacher in his study who has not changed districts, but transferred schools within her district. And she, too, has found a welcome shift from worrying about test scores to worrying about students. 

A theme in both pieces is that good teachers are drawn to working environments that treat them as professionals, that support them in innovative teaching and that believe relationships make all the difference.

The piece also reinforces the importance of principals who regard their position as more than a rung on a career ladder.

Given the increasing shortage of teachers in math, science, special ed and foreign language, Georgia districts have to figure out how to retain their top staff.  This essay provides insights into what makes teachers stay.

By Peter Smagorinsky, 

In this space, I have periodically shared results of a long-term study of teachers’ career pathways, now following three teachers for eight years and counting.

Most recently, I talked about a teacher who had quit her job out of frustration, then returned to the profession in a school that valued relationships over test scores, making teaching a much more satisfying profession to her. 

Would you believe a second teacher in the study also changed schools from one that viewed kids as data points to one that emphasized kids as human beings, and is also much happier? 

Most teachers I know would rather chew on a lizard than sit around in a room reducing the souls of their students to numbers. That seems to be the norm these days in Georgia school systems.

But not all. 

The teacher I interviewed had taught at one of several high schools in her district, one serving more low-income students and enrolling among the district’s most diverse student bodies. She had taken this position, and resisted opportunities to shift to one of the same district’s more affluent schools, because she felt she was needed more in the school serving the district’s least affluent students. And she loved the kids. 

But the environment was not as conducive to a good education as was available in the district’s award-winning school. After having her first baby about a year ago, she and her husband decided they wanted their own child in the school that afforded the best learning opportunities, a perk her district provides teachers. Somewhat reluctantly, she sought a transfer to the district’s top-performing school, even though it required giving up her position as department chair to return fulltime to the classroom. 

She still loves the kids. With regular-track teaching assignments, she’s ended up teaching very similar students to those from her first school. But it’s the overall school environment that has made her happy with her move. 

As often happens with kids in schools serving low-income populations, the administration at her first school emphasized data, data, data. At faculty meetings, data were mined to death, along with this teacher’s spirits.

It was hard to find a human being in the data points that got their endless attention. Developing solutions according to numeric profiles often misses the point, because the numbers tend to point to deficiencies and overlooks people’s assets and potential, and who they are as people. 

What a change she found in her new environment. In meeting new faculty, the principal emphasized three points: hard work, deep love of students, and continual growth. To students and teachers, he stresses: there’s no such thing as an unimportant person or unimportant day, so make the most of each opportunity. 

I’ve been around a lot of schools and administrators, and have become skeptical of many of their claims about being caring people. This principal, however, appears to be the real deal. He didn’t just issue these proclamations and let them stand as well-wrought rhetoric. He acts out these values every day. 

The principal, for instance, is present in the school. The teacher I talked to, like teachers in many schools, rarely saw her principal outside meetings in her first school. In contrast, her new principal is a hallway fixture.

Between classes, he’s out talking to kids. He’s not badgering them about being late or talking too loudly, but instead offering them encouragement about their studies.

He knows many students by name, an affordance of the school’s size but also of his dedication to centering relationships in his administration of the school. And to the teacher I interviewed, the emphasis on feeling cared about reverberates around the school. 

The principal also meets with students routinely to get their sense of the school. Many principals hold school-wide auditorium meetings, often to explain new rules, or sometimes to get kids excited about the upcoming standardized tests they must take. Few students find these occasions to help establish bonds to the school. 

This principal’s meetings, however, are unique in that he meets with segments of the student body, often by graduating class, without any other adults present. In these sessions, he engages them in conversations about how they are experiencing school. Listening to kids…who knew you could do that to run a school? 

The faculty respond well, too. The school experiences very little turnover in a time when faculty turnover is rampant; and faculty attendance is very high. This school is a place where people want to be. It’s largely because the people running the school value and foreground relationships and the ways in which relationships enable people to feel connected to, and aligned with the mission of, the school. 

One possible explanation for the principal’s unique understanding of what makes the school work is the fact he is homegrown. He’d taught in the school, briefly worked elsewhere, and returned to the place where he felt like part of a larger family.

It helps that many of the school’s teachers attended the school and care deeply about it and the kids who attend it. Feeling a dedication to the institution and community, and having those feelings reinforced through administrative leadership, makes this school an exceptional place to teach and learn. 

In both schools and universities, the hiring of administrators rarely takes this homegrown approach; Jere Morehead’s presidency of UGA is unusual. Usually, there’s a push to hire outside for someone with fresh ideas.

In my experience, that approach largely produces a series of career-climbers, people who don’t especially care about the institution, instead caring about how to use the position to advance their careers. 

Emphasizing data is a great way to advance yourself. But it comes at quite a cost to students and teachers for whom their school is a lifetime proposition. Emphasizing relationships is what you do if you’re already home and not using the people around you to get that next job on your career ladder. 

What makes a great administrator?

I increasingly believe the most important quality one could have is to love and care about the place where you are now working, and not use that job as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Love and care also appear to contribute to the courage it takes to buck the system and say its values are fraudulent, that they do more harm than good, that it’s the people who make schools into inclusive and respectful communities. 

If you don’t believe me, then check with the teachers who look forward to going to work every day in a school where they know their best instincts about what matters in human development will be honored and underscored as they go about the task of helping your kids and mine grow into well-integrated human beings, ready to take on the responsibilities of citizenship in a world that needs all the love and care it can get.


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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.