What’s Essential?

Essential

When you’re teaching in a classroom, you never have to ask yourself whether your work is essential to the purpose of a school.  Yes, you wonder whether your instructional practice is effective.  Yes, you have days when you know, deep down, that students really didn’t learn much.  And while being in a classroom does not guarantee you’re having positive impact on student learning outcomes, it’s not very hard to draw a direct line between your daily work and the raison d’etre of the school.   

I felt much the same way as a high school principal.  I could see a clear relationship between my actions and the learning environment of the entire school. I had power to set the professional learning agenda, plus the benefit of engaging in daily interactions and cultivating supportive relationships with my students and their families.  What I missed from the daily interaction with students in the classroom, I made up for with a broader set of relationships and interactions across the entire school.  I cultivated a community of students, parents, and teachers – all with the goal of accelerating learning opportunities and outcomes for my kids.  Being a principal, while intensely demanding, was deeply satisfying.

And then I came to the district office.

I have to clarify.  I love my job, truly.  And I believe that my work is essential, and that I am having an impact on student learning.  But it is not the same work as being at a school.

There are no bells ringing once an hour.  You aren’t surrounded by hundreds of students engaged in endless exchanges of “good morning” and “great game last night.”  You don’t feel the crisis unfold in real time.  Typically, you’re not in the room when the tears come – whether it be from students, parents, or your staff members.  And just like you miss the minute by minute and hour by hour challenges, you only get glimpses of the triumphs.  You’re a step removed from the dailyness of school.

Often, teachers, and even site administrators, can come to the conclusion that anything outside of direct support to meet the daily exigencies of the school qualifies as non-essential dressing.  Indeed, when I’m rhetorically over here drowning in my classroom, I might not see how a district employee is essential to the success of my students.

I’m the first to admit that the work of a district office can be problematic.  I’m surprised every day at just how much compliance work goes on.  Most of it is tedious.  Some of it strikes me as necessary.  And even less of it feels essential to transforming learning outcomes for kids.  And while I agree completely with Michael Fullan, who suggests we move as much of the compliance to the side of the plate as possible, I guess we still have to eat our veggies.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a shift in how many district administrators think about their work.  The rise of the district effectiveness movement introduced the belief that the district could be the source of support for school level transformation.  In other words, teachers and site administrators mired in the dailyness of running school could benefit greatly from the focused support of district staff.  This movement flipped the compliance mandate, suggesting that the district’s primary role was to encourage instructional innovation and develop leadership capacity within the system.  In other words, the district exists to serve the needs of the schools, and not the other way around.

Which brings us to our current context in a district where a budget downturn is imminent, and hundreds of employees have already received notices that they might not have a job next year.  Embedded in the conversation of who will be laid off or downsized is a conversation about where the cuts should be aimed.  How deep do you go at the district office?  How much trimming can a school withstand before the reduction in services bleeds into a corresponding deterioration of learning environments and outcomes?

These are not easy decisions.

Sometimes we hear platitudes like “keep cuts away from the kids” or “focus on saving jobs” without really defining what is essential.  Basic services at the site level are critical, but so are the enrichment programs that give life and meaning to the student experience.  Safety is another paramount priority, but so is developing a welcoming and inviting learning environment where we can be attentive to the personalized needs of students and families.

As for what is essential at a district office, it seems clear that in the context of reduced budgets and staffing the only chance of navigating to a better place is through the development of a smarter and more skilled workforce.  Difficult financial times are precisely the times for focusing on building transformative leadership capacity and improved instructional practice across the system.

I don’t know exactly what the future holds.  There are a lot of dedicated teachers and staff who have similar uncertainties.  Regardless, it’s an opportunity for all of us to ask the hard questions about what is essential to ensure the best possible experiences and outcomes for our students.

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