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10 Rules of Educational Process

Rules of Educational Process

    I believe in public schools.  I am a product of public schools, my children graduated from public schools and my grandchildren currently attend public schools.  My experience and beliefs tell me that public education is a strength of our nation, and that a strong system of public education is the primary means of salvation for the vast majority of students.  Abandonment of that system through privatization and market based solutions, euphemisms for “let politicians and their cronies use public money for personal gain” will abandon a significant percentage of our student population, primarily poor, rural and minority students, to subsidize the education of a select few.  Our system is far from perfect, but is the only hope for most of our kids.  Our state and nation cannot afford to abandon the 90% of students in public ed for the benefit of the comparatively affluent 10% that are not; neither can we use public funds designed to educate that 90% to fund the private studies of  those that choose other avenues.  By the same token, public education must no longer act as if we are the only game in town.  During 39 years of service in public education as a classroom teacher at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, a HS assistant principal, a HS principal and small town superintendent I have compiled my personal list of non-negotiable guidelines for teachers and administrators.  Some are original, all are based on personal experience and observations, and some have been compiled from readings, conversations and a wide variety of unique sources.  I would also venture that these guidelines are based on common sense, but remain cognizant of Voltaire’s observation that “common sense is not so common.”  Education - especially educational policies at the national and state levels over the last decade - is proof of that observation.

Rule #1   Never assume that any decision at any level will make sense simply because the topic is education.
    We would like to think that decisions influencing educational policy would be well thought out, reasonable and ultimately made to benefit the majority of students and the educational process.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.  Learning this rule and carefully applying it to state and national policies will significantly reduce the amount of time teachers spend puzzling over legislative interventions, yet another educational initiative, another top down DOE decree or an additional parental responsibility delegated to schools and teachers.
    Many legislative rules and regulations, for example, begin as well meaning ideas that stem from one isolated incident in one small geographic area - usually a legislator’s home district - which the legislator attempts to translate into something wonderful for everyone.   Three recent examples in Georgia are the recent focus on bullying and the resultant anti-bullying statutes, the decision to give teachers medical license to use epipens at their discretion and personal health assessments schools are now required to implement for every student.
    It seems we are almost to the point that most behaviors once classifed as “male” are now determined to be “bullying”, and that schools and teachers are given more responsibilities for enforcing and governing whatever aspects of parenting that legislators, acting in loco parentis, decide to delegate.  I am not suggesting that teachers ignore these issue; I am suggesting that these behaviors are are not those that can be solved at school without parental involvement, and cannot be the focus of teachers to the exclusion of teaching and learning.  Teachers, in addition to academic proficiency in bubble-in tests, are already responsible for sex education, eating habits, cyber-bullying, dress code, cell phone enforcement, classroom discipline, attendance, disease control, implementation of a standardized curriculum with individualized instruction, IEP’s, 504’s, workplace readiness, college readiness, tardies, mentoring, contacting parents, testing and testing security, after school tutoring, make up work, food allergies, anaphylactic shock, remediation, departmental meetings, faculty meetings, sex trafficking, PTSA, coaching, extra-curricular activities, clubs, parent conferences and, in their spare time, professional development for whatever new direction the DOE decides on this week and whatever new initiative adopted this month by the Superintendent “guaranteed to improve test scores.”  Now, teachers are also required to become the frontline guardians of the fat police.  If this trend continues, teachers in the very near future will assume all parental responsibilities for every child and be required to sign adoption papers as part of the yearly contract process.  In football, this is called “piling on.”  In education it’s called “accountability.  In reality, it’s accountabilism practiced by accountabullies whose primary concern is not children or their education but access to the public funds used to educate them.

Rule #2  Discipline may not be personal.  To be effective, all education must be personal.  These statements do not conflict.
    If discipline in the classroom or in the halls is allowed to become a personal issue or is presented as a personal affront by the teacher to the student communication and learning will suffer.  Allowing anger to control behavior gets many 15 year old in trouble.  Education professionals do not have that luxury.  Teachers and administrators are expected to model behavior for students.  Make sure we are modeling the right ones.  Teachers and adults are expected to rise above anger and retaliation and personal confrontation as effective problem solving tools.  The administration of discipline may not deteriorate to the point where adults delight in the power they hold over the lives and behaviors of students  Much like the moral dilemma portrayed in in movies or comic books when Superman or Batman must decide whether to let the bad guy fall or give him a hand back onto the roof, teachers can manipulate an argument just to win or take the moral high ground and be the adult in the situation.  It’s not about winning, it’s about good teaching.  It is rather frustrating that many parents more often than not see teachers as adversaries rather than allies.  Corollary to Rule #2 - Anger does not solve problems or motivate people.  The results of allowing anger to control behaviors or expecting anger to control the behavior of others are never positive.

Rule #3  Teachers are the key to good teaching and student learning.
    To test this hypothesis, place a good teacher in a room with X number of students but devoid of equipment, furniture or books.  Learning will still take place.  Count on it, and reaffirm what you already knew but had forgotten.  Teachers teaching students is what is truly important in schools.  Administrators can administrate all day and student achievement will not improve.  Teachers are the key, teachers are the answer and policies that require more paperwork or interfere with teaching time, however well intentioned, are counterproductive to effective student progress.  Anything that gets in the way of what good teachers do best - positively influence student learning - is a distraction.  Anything that gets in the way of teachers helping each other become better at what they do is counterproductive.  Take care of teachers, make administrative decisions that facilitate their ability to do what they were hired to do and trust their professional judgement by allowing them the freedom to teach without micromanagement.  Observe, suggest, recommend and observe again, but don’t forget that good teachers make administrators look smarter than they really are.

Rule #4  A good teacher will succeed in spite of the system more often than because of it.  Hire good people and have the courage to allow them to teach.
    For far too long programs and initiatives have been allowed to define educational reform; we must recognize that effective teaching drives true educational progress.  Adding one more program for teachers to concentrate on - in the hope that this will be the one program that really, really works and increases those test scores and provides that magic silver bullet that overcomes the effects of poverty on student achievement - is looking at reform through the wrong end of the telescope.  District initiatives are usually based on the belief that the goal of teaching and learning is to improve test scores, and that “just a little more training” will assist teachers to be more successful in motivating those students to try just a little harder and bring those scores up to where we all look great.  True teaching and authentic learning have nothing to do with raising test scores and everything to do with helping children learn to figure out things on their own and giving them the tools to be successful.  Christmas tree programs - presented to teachers and turned over to teachers but never really allowed or expected to flourish or profoundly affect student learning - are added to that ever growing teacher “to do” list until teachers discover one day that all the queen’s programs and all the king’s staff development couldn’t help little Suzy learn to read or do math.  Only a good teacher can do that, and we don’t need another program or initiative to make that happen.  We need a teacher that cares enough about kids to talk to other teachers and find out what works and what doesn’t and who is smart enough - and is allowed the time and the freedom - to know the difference.  We don’t need programs or initiatives to provide mass staff development for teachers to “help” teachers learn to teach.  The same things that work in classrooms for kids will work for teachers in schools.  Provide them time to learn from and to teach each other and student achievement will improve.  We don’t need more programs to work on teachers, we don’t need more ideas to work on students.  We need administrators that aren’t afraid to allow teachers the freedom to teach each other and provide them the encouragement and freedom from the constricting, mind-numbing, creativity crushing reliance on test scores as the single measure of student progress.  We must have the courage to trust teacher measures and teacher judgement of student achievement as part of the accountability equation.  

Rule #5  Research based practices and shared decision making requirements too often begin and end at the building level.

    For verification of this rule, see VAM, RTTT and Common Core.  We could also throw in “work ready,” “college ready” and “no excuses” initiatives.  Our purpose in education is to teach students to think and reason for themselves.  We have, to our shame and sorrow, managed to effectively stamp out creativity and the joy of learning with multiple choice multiply administered tests that measure the amount of educational trivia and minutia students can hold in their short term memories.  There is no current research that says spending billions of dollars to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations has any positive effect on teaching and learning.  It would seem our educational leaders at the state and Federal levels are intent upon following the path of reform that benefits testing companies with little or no data to support this decision.  Their goal is for education to be data driven without their having to follow the same guidelines.  Their policies lack substance, research, reliability and validity and reflect the top down one size fits all stupidity that no parent would accept for their kid’s teacher.  The question is why do we accept it from those that pose as educational leaders?  Go figure.

Rule #6  There is an inversely proportional relationship between contact hours with children and the quality or effectiveness of decisions made about education.

    The further removed administrators or legislators are from daily contact with students the less likely they are to have any ideas that positively affect the educational process.  There is much more to creating effective educational experiences for students than simply having attended a school once upon a time.  One of the most enlightening experiences any of us can have is to talk to a truly good teacher and discover the depth of knowledge they have about teaching; about the strengths and weaknesses of the students in their respective classes.  Including teachers in the decision making process in a school, system, state or national level will provide a system of checks and balances that will almost guarantee the filtering of genuinely stupid ideas before implementation.  Truly effective administrators will put the paperwork aside at least once a day, cancel a meeting and get into the classrooms of their school or system.  Talk to teachers, talk to students, talk to parents and remind yourself as often as possible what is truly important and why you are there.  Perhaps one of the solutions to this dilemma is the preclusion of decisions concerning public education for anyone whose kids are not participating in public education.

Rule #7  Behavior is not changed by increasing consequences.  Behavior is changed by the certainty of a consequence.  (Read that one again.)

    Teachers and administrators may institute the death penalty for dress code violations, but teenager will find a way to challenge or subvert the rules adults make.  It’s their job.  It was our job to do the same thing when we were in high school.  They sag, wear revealing outfits and test boundaries on a daily basis with cleavage, morality, propriety, tattoos, tongue studs, eyebrow rings and unimaginably painful piercings.  All we had were bell bottoms, long hair, short shorts, miniskirts and sandals.  We really thought we were rebels - teenagers today have skated past our outrageousness without a backwards glance.
    We create, in our quest for conformity, unique, original and highly punitive plans to ban cell phones and other communicative devices.  Those plans won’t work either.  Our focus should be on finding creative ways to utilize the technology teenagers already have.  Their devices are usually four or five rungs up the technology ladder above what schools can provide, anyway.  When we focus more on conformity than on creativity we do so to the exclusion of more important things.  Our focus for years has been an insistence on compliance when our real goal must be engagement.  Remember the “zero tolerance” ideas for weapons?  Anybody want to discuss how a third grader with a plastic knife in his lunch box is a danger to society and his classmates?  That’s just another example of how “one size fits all” thinking works with people, and far too often we forget that students are people, too.  We also forget that the behaviors, morals and morality of younger generations have been topics of doom and despair for most successive generations.  We become our parents more quickly than we ever imagined.  

Rule #8  Model the behaviors you expect to see in others.

    Professionalism requires professional dress.  If our goals include teaching students that professional dress is important, why would it ever be OK for teachers to dress professionally four days a week?  If we expect to teach students that allowing a phone call to interrupt class is unacceptable and rude behavior, why are we leaving class to have a conversation in the hall?  If we expect students to treat us with respect, should our behaviors not reflect our respect for them?  If students are suspended for using profanity, is it OK for teachers to use “damn” or “hell” in the context of classroom conversations with students?  If students are given a consequence for being tardy to school or to class shouldn’t teachers be held accountable for their own timeliness?  I’m sure we all remember our frustration as youngsters when adults told us “do as I say and not as I do.”  Educational professionals cannot afford that luxury.  If we want to be viewed as professionals we must model professional behaviors every day in every way.

Rule #9  Listen.  Resist the urge to talk, comment or plan what you are going to say next.  Listen.

    As an administrator you will spend most of your day listening to someone.  It might be students, maybe parents, it could be a bus driver, it might be another administrator but most often it’s a teacher.  Teachers are human.  They have health issues, financial problems, family concerns, marital problems, kids problems and relationship issues with students and with other teachers.  They sometimes talk to each other, but most often they talk to you.  Their boss.  Their leader.  They look for suggestions, for guidance, for a sympathetic ear, for advice and occasionally for a loan (don’t do it!) but mostly they just want someone to hear them.  Learn to listen without having your mind race three problems ahead and without formulating an answer without hearing the whole problem.  When I was an AP my job was discipline.  I learned first that everyone has a story, and while you might not believe all that you hear the important thing is that you give everyone a chance to tell their side.  Eventually you will have to make a decision about whom to believe and what your actions should be, but your first job is to make sure you hear everything that’s said.  Kids didn’t usually mind a consequence as long as they felt like they had been listened to and heard.  They also appreciated the fact that I didn’t act as if they had personally offended me by misbehaving or breaking this rule or that code.  There was once a teacher that happened to be passing through the front office reading her mail.  She discovered her husband had charged a diamond ring on HER credit card and given it to someone else.  You can imagine the personal devastation that came with that revelation.  We spent quite a while in my office while I listened to her story, her disbelief and her sense of panic about how her life had changed just by reading her credit card statement.  I listened and said very little.  I was as supportive as possible and did offer a few comments and suggestions, but didn’t try to direct or control the situation.  She had to deal with it.  My job was to listen.  With one or two exception, every parent in my office wanted to make sure of two things: 1) that their child had a chance to tell their side of the story and 2) that they weren’t being singled out and were being treated the same as every other student.  Sometimes they got loud, sometimes they were mad (OK, usually they were mad) but after I listed to their story and listened to their frustration we could eventually have an adult conversation that centered on a child’s behavior.  Listening is one of the most important skills I have ever learned….and it didn’t come naturally or easily.

Rule #10  Be values based and data influenced.

    I’m guessing we all know Central Office people that proudly proclaim they are “data driven.”   Data is important, data is useful, data, like technology, can be an effective tool and data, under certain circumstances, can assist us in making decisions that influence direction, focus and outcomes, but educators are not in the data business.  We are in the people business, and students are not, cannot, will not, should never be data points.  Closely associated with the “data based decision making” idea is another great education myth, the “business model.”  The issue with both ideas is that students do not fit well into either category, and come to teachers with the issues, problems, flaws, handicaps, parents and limitations beyond their control and ours.  Businesses can control the quality of the raw materials they receive, teachers cannot.  Expecting every child to learn the same thing to the same level at the same time is an exercise in futility along the same lines as herding cats.  Students are not data points, and pushing these square pegs into the round holes of grade level achievement defined by chronological age rather than individual achievement level is a fruitless endeavor.  One of my favorite Principals operates his high school on the assumption that every child is the exception to the rule, and that creative, individualized, personalized instruction is far more important than following a rule for the sake of conformity.  His teachers find solutions especially for those kids that life has kicked around, and provide individualized instruction for every child because every child is different.  They use data but do not relegate students to the educational sterility of being known as just a number.  That’s one thing every parent wants for their child - individualized instruction tailored to their child’s strengths, weaknesses and skills.  
    Judging schools and students as data points or test scores misses the importance, especially in small towns and communities, of the schools and associated student activities within those communities.  Schools are centers of activity for those places, and bands, chorus, drama, sports, FFA, FBLA, shop, journalism and all the other activities that cannot be measured or tested are just as important to learning as academic progress in tested subjects.  Ignoring the contribution of these activities is selling schools short of their real contributions and importance in towns and localities.  They provide a sense of community that is important to the parents and residents and students.  It would be impossible to teach that all important sense of community if the only available activities were those that were measured by standardized tests.
    Data points are simply statistics, and can be manipulated to show practically anything to support any particular view or ideological bent.  Studies show, however, that 63.8% of all statistics are made up on the spot.  Just ask any politician quoted in the Washington Post.

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