Advice for the Next State Superintendent of Public Instruction (OK)
I should begin by saying that this post is in no way intended to advocate for one candidate or the other in this race. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little political editorializing – but this mini-trove of wisdom is here for THE WINNER, whoever that may be. If you want to talk substantive issues in depth, search Twitter – that’s what they do there. Or I guess you could go to HIS WEBSITE or HER WEBSITE and read up on the candidates yourself.
(We’re not actually big fans of that here in Oklahoma – the whole ‘inform yourself before you take a vitriolic stand on something’ – but, whatever. You’re reading this blog – that makes you informed enough, in my book.)
But Mr./Ms. NewSupt – let me help you out. You’re walking into a no-win situation in many ways, but that’s OK. We’re teachers and we know all about devoting time and energy to futile efforts. In order to help smooth your transition to power and better navigate the rocky political shores of #oklaed, I’ve compiled a handy dandy guide for your pedagogical and popular success.
This is not a countdown – you may move these around as you see fit and the blinding wisdom stays just as blinding. There’s no cost for these, either. I’m not seeking patronage or fiscal gain. This is for you. And our teachers. And Oklahoma.
This is for… *sniff*… THE CHILDREN.
(1) Pay attention to our teachers. There’s an enormous pool of talent and experience scattered across this state, much of it combined with the sort of missionary zeal necessary to teach here on purpose. Actively seek input from professionals actually doing the work in and around the classroom, and from the many different types of districts and classrooms you’ll find here. Strong leadership means being willing to listen, and learn – maybe even change some of the assumptions you had going in.
(2) Don’t pay too much attention to teachers. I love my profession and my peers, but there are some real weirdos in the mix, and they tend to be loudest. Besides, none of us can quite agree even what we think school is for – you can hardly expect us to have a coherent message how to best make it happen. Strong leadership means doing what’s best for the kids, long-term – not what’s popular with the entrenched majority. Sometimes teachers need to be willing to listen, and learn – maybe change some of the assumptions they’ve held for so long.
(3) High expectations lead to high achievement. You remember all that stuff about the Zone of Proximal Development from teacher school, yes? Kids are wonderfully gifted at doing everything possible to convince us that they’re the most helpless, hopeless, clueless little darlings on the planet, exerting all of their available resources merely to mouth-breathe. They want us to think they’re beyond stupid - so we can’t possibly expect much of them - and to their credit their methods are impressively varied and resolute.
But they’re not stupid. They're loaded with all that potential we talk about even when we don't always believe it. Many are actually rather brilliant.
No trophy or grade or diploma is nearly as rewarding as actually accomplishing something. Anyone who plays a sport, an instrument, or a video game knows this – the learning happens in the struggle, and the struggle is part of the reward.
(4) You can’t grandstand about ‘high standards’ and beat kids up with bubble tests and think it solves anything. Your constituency wants simple answers and ‘strong leadership’, but kids are complicated. Learning is weird, and a few platitudes won’t cut it. Some of the darlings entrusted to our care spend their two mites daily just trying to survive – emotionally, physically, socially, whatever.
The ones we too-easily reward need to be pushed and challenged and made uncomfortable; many of those we ignore or condemn need to be fed or hugged or listened to. It’s hard to give substantial damns about Algebra II when your world seems to be caving in on you, and our concerns are not always their concerns. “I’m sorry about your real life, but I assure you in three years this boring bit of otherwise irrelevant knowledge will be PRETTY IMPORTANT for your post-secondary pursuits, so let’s try to focus, shall we?”
Let’s not pretend that Social Darwinism or any other thinly veiled '–ism' is actually just ‘high expectations’.
(5) With great power comes great responsibility. The Epistle of James (that’s in the BIBLE, for you non-Okies who might be reading) says that teachers will be judged more harshly for the positions they hold. You are in that position a hundredfold. James goes on to suggest that anyone who can control their tweets has self-control in all things. Be aware that everything you say, post, or do, sends ripples across more time and space than you’d ever intend.
(6) You’re not that important. Don’t get too full of yourself, just because you have a fancy title and a little power. The state legislature is still necessary in order to do REAL damage to schools and students across the state (which they’re all too happy to do), and no matter what the reaction you receive when you show up somewhere, most of us go about our day doing pretty much whatever we want without actually thinking about you one way or the other.
(7) Throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix anything. Tons of statistics show little correlation between $$$ expended and student achievement. We can’t pretend it’s all about money. It doesn't buy happiness, and it's a poor substitute for hard work and good decisions.
(8) Starving out our schools is absolutely positively guaranteed to make everything worse. Tons of statistics show the correlation between adequate investment in students NOW and the fiscal impacts - positive or negative - in a decade or two. I’m sorry the state is poor, but we MUST have funding. We can’t pretend it’s not about money – funding and resources are ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS major factors.
People who don't think money matters always have lots of money which they hang on to as if, you know... it matters.
(9) Don’t limit yourself to people you like. Good people do stupid things. Counterproductive things. Evil things. Assume the best intentions of others – even when they’re annoying – unless they make it absolutely impossible to do so. Give those who disagree every reason to assume the best of you as well. The most irritating sometimes provide the most essential challenges or insights.
Resist the temptation to take the cheap, melodramatic road. Anytime we slide into ‘us’ and ‘them’, it’s over. At that point we can only ‘win’ and ‘lose’ – we can no longer create, solve, or celebrate. At the same time, your good intentions are no substitute for good decisions. The road to now is paved with good intentions, and they won't cut it any longer. We need right actions.
(10) Question everything. Are this set of standards or that set over there really THE KEY to Oklahoma’s success? If we can just find the right curriculum to post, are our biggest problems basically solved? Are “Oklahoma Values” something we wish to define and defend, or just something that sounds anti-something else? Is everything local wholesome and wise… everything national evil and dark? Are those of us raging against ignorance really SO willing to base future-shaping decisions on whether or not listing Thomas Jefferson in Paragraph 19 Subsection C is THE primary cause of Americans joining ISIS?
Maybe we can't hold back the muddled darkness, but need we embrace it so eagerly?
Surround yourself with people who challenge you and won't accept on faith every word you utter with dramatic conviction. Move boldly ahead, but with inner fear and trembling. Respect the possibility that you're so very wrong - or that if you're right, you are insufficiently so and it simply won't be enough. Treat this position not as a stepping stone to something greater, but as a calling in and of itself.
Sure that's melodramatic - but internal framing like that is about the only thing keeping any of us in this profession 'round these parts.
You're representing thousands of teachers and kids and possibilities and shortcomings and breakthroughs and nonsense and hope. Chances are good no matter what you do, we'll all have turned on you in a matter of months and will repeatedly mock and condemn you. Don't expect us to feel too badly for you on that count - remember, teachers here. That's our daily existence.
I hope you find this list helpful and insightful. Really, if you stick to these ten, you should be good. I am of course available for further insight and wisdom should you require my services. The link to subscribe to my blog should be up there on the right-hand side of the page somewhere.