Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why Proximity Matters: A Message for Ms. Rhee

I recently found myself exchanging a several emails back and forth with Michelle Rhee.  Without elaborating about the content of these email exchanges, I found myself thinking about proximity and theorizing why proximity matters so much. I work out of a central office charged with matters related to curriculum, teaching, learning, and assessment.  It is work I have done for a significant amount of time in mostly urban and some suburban/urban public school districts.  Let me begin by saying I value the work that is done in central office and recognize that the variety of jobs are rather diverse and significant.  Additionally, I recognize that I would find it difficult to do any informed work and remain physically in a central office.  Proximity to teaching and learning matters.  The distance between the development of practices, policies, and beliefs that is often formed via central office educators and the location where teaching and learning happens needs to be close.

At one point in the email exchanges Michelle and I were representing different view points regarding the complexity of teaching and learning. She advocated that "it was not rocket science" and I respectfully disagreed, believing when she wrote "it" that she was referring to teaching and learning.  She then clarified that she was not referring to all of education, but rather indicated that rewarding our "best" teachers, making ineffective ones better, and dismissing ineffective teachers is not rocket science.

Whereas her comment alarmed me, I was not very surprised.  Situating complex human work of teaching into categories where ideals such as "best" and "ineffective" remain constant happens I suspect with greater ease the more distant one is from actual teaching and learning.  Now to be clear, I am not suggesting that physical distance represents the only type of distance.  I have witnessed teachers and administrators who reside inside schools situate themselves inside a similar duality.  The problem though is heightened when the person who holds these dualistic certainties as truths garners significant national power alongside marginal experience. Within such a scenario, children and teachers will be harmed and by extension, our democratic ideals. 

Allow me to digress.  Some years ago I was the director of literacy for a city school system.  In this city "ineffective" teachers were sent to "teacher camp"--a six week experience where teachers were sent, prior to tenure charges being readied, in a last effort for the system to "make" them better teachers.  There the "ineffective" teachers would be shown how to teach by "model" educators.  I never had much of a stomach for this scenario and was pleased to see it cease.  In its stead other interventions were organized.  For example, one primary grade teacher slated for "teacher camp" was given a reprieve when I asked that she be made part of a whole school literacy initiative I was beginning with first grade teachers across multiple elementary schools in the city.  For two years,  a reading recovery teacher conducted lessons in the back area of the first grade teacher's classroom and co-taught with the teacher on a fairly regular basis.  As a frequent visitor to the classroom, I too modeled lessons and co-taught as did others from my office.  This teacher was part of a first grade teacher cohort where we worked to refine and better understand our craft. By the end of the second year, all of the 37 students in this teacher's classroom were slated for a gifted and talented program that began in second grade. All of her students (yes 37 in one first grade classroom) were very able readers, most in dual language (English and Spanish). 

The story doesn't end there.  9 months later I happened to sit next to the teacher at a ceremony honoring graduates from a reading recovery program.  After the ceremony she asked to speak with me and told me that she had decided to retire at the end of the school year.  Her eyes filled and she told me that the last three years had been a gift because she learned that she was highly capable of teaching all students to read well--a belief she had not previously had in herself. 

I carry this teacher's story of claimed dignity with me whenever I begin to doubt others.  It's so damn easy to reach conclusions and to be wrong.  The future is largely unwritten and these last 29 years have shown me story after story of educators (myself included) who through work, collaboration, and reflection have improved their practice.

It is naive to think that educators arrive at a place where teaching, learning, and leading is easy and success is constant.  There is no arrival.  There is only becoming.    That is the message I wish Ms. Rhee and others who hold such power might learn.  I am not suggesting that all who enter our profession should remain.  I am suggesting though that investing in structures that locate learning as a primacy of the work returns far better outcomes for children than firing the masses,  especially if one believes that s/he can use value added schema to deduce the winners and the losers.  One only has to consider Heisenberg to realize the folly of such thought.

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