I don't have much to say lately. Even when I have the time to blog, I don't have anything interesting to report. Today happens to be an exception. First, let me quickly get the auto-biographical particulars out of the way. I am nearing the end of my first semester, still maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and registering for next Spring. There, now we can get on with the show.
Last Saturday I was invited to attend a conference on Teacher-Leadership held at Colby College in Waterville, ME. When I say that I was invited, what I mean is that the opportunity presented itself and I volunteered. (As with the last conference I attended, I was disappointed, but more on that later.) In addition to my desire to master the content I intend to teach, I am very much curious about systemic design of the current education system. From my lay perspective, it looks to me like many schools are still stuck in what is essentially a one-room schoolhouse paradigm. Although, there are more of those rooms under a single roof, the individual classrooms are run autonomously from one another, with little to no coordination between teachers. This self-isolation makes it very difficult for teachers to learn from one another.
Some schools are seeking to change that. They are transitioning into a new kind of structure, where teachers are encouraged to cooperate and "compete" in a less-superficial way. By "compete," I don't mean literally fighting for their very job, as the high-stakes testing/accountability advocates intend. I mean the kind of friendly challenge that helps both parties reach new and unexpected heights together.
That is what the conference was supposed to be about, and it started out well. The opening address was passionate and to the point. The speaker outlined what constitutes teacher-leadership. He pointed out the self-similarity between layers of a school. Just as students learn from one another and drive each other to greater standards of success, so should teachers. Currently, unlike students who are keenly aware of each others methods and their relative successes, teachers are in the dark when it comes to what is happening next door. Instead of the once a year visit from the administration spies, we ought to be volunteering to sit in on each other's classes and welcome peers into our own. Only in this way can we strengthen our own abilities and the cohesion of our departments and schools.
After that, it all went downhill fast. Immediately following the opening address was a panel discussion, only the panel was made up mostly of students with no real understanding of teacher leadership, so the audience questions went largely unanswered. Then we divided up into several break-out sessions which had been decided upon before hand. I had selected one entitled "What a New Teacher Needs," reasoning that I would soon be a new teacher and would like to know what I will need. Unfortunately, that question was never answered. The presenter based the session on her ongoing doctoral thesis, in which she interviewed first year teachers at several points during the year, and made note of their personal success and intent to continue. Now i know that sounds like a great opportunity to learn something, and I would agree, if the sample size had been greater than four.
That's right, four. Out of all the first-year teachers in the state of Maine, she interviewed exactly four. Two of them had never really intended to go into education in the first place and one of those experienced an unfortunate lawsuit during the first month of school. All told, only one of them continued into a second year. Now what can we possibly glean from all this? I was hoping to start with a large sample of eager, well-educated young teachers, find out what obstacles they might face, and some possible ways in which teacher-mentors can recognize and solve those issues. Instead, I got a lot of poetry and rhetorical questions. It was an utter waste of time, and I seriously doubt that her thesis will pass review.
After the session, and on the way to lunch, I fell in with a group of students and their teacher who were likewise disgruntled. It turned out that they were from the ETEP graduate program at my very own USM. I introduced myself and complained along with them. It was the highlight of my day.
Lunch was adequate and featured round table discussions of teacher-leadership from those in the field. It turns out that many teacher-leaders are unsure as to exactly what their job entails. They are also reluctant to take the responsibility, fearing that the nail sticking out is the one to get hammered down.
To summarize, it was a well-intended conference which from my perspective fell short. I am still very much in support of the concept of teacher-leadership. At some point, an organization grows too large and bulky for top-down leadership to work. There must be a combination of bottom-up and top-down for the system to reach optimization.