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Awkward Conversations with My Superintendent, Part One

July 6, 2016

I have shared some humorous stories about my principal, but what follows here is anything but funny.  It is an example of the steps teachers sometimes have to take for the good of their students, and why they are sometimes put in conflict with their leadership in order to protect them.

After 19 years in this district, I have worked for five different superintendents.  Two I would describe as competent and good people, one I would describe as incompetent but a good person, and one I would describe as possessing neither of these qualities.  Happily, she was finally “encouraged to retire” by the school board, but not until after six tumultuous years of poor decisions, wasted money, narcissism, cognitive dissonance and destroyed morale.  I spent two of those years as union president, and to say those two years were a nightmare would ludicrously understate the matter.  It’s no fun to realize that you are working for someone who cannot tell the difference between making a good decision or a poor decision, and is willing to steamroll over anyone who gets in her way to accomplish an incoherent agenda she is incapable of even describing.  It’s even less fun when you realize you are one of the few people in a position to stand up to her and try to get her to stop what she’s doing.  And stand up to her I did.  Sometimes I was able to stop her, and sometimes I wasn’t.  My colleagues paid a price for it, some worse than others.  Our students, though, paid the biggest price, because the quality of their education suffered.  The superintendent and many on our school board, though, never seemed to notice.  Or perhaps they just didn’t care.

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Enter Superintendent Number Five, who only has to not be terrible to seem like a significant improvement.  And he is an improvement in many ways.  He is not vindictive, and doesn’t seem to suffer from the same intellectual and emotional vacuity that plagued his predecessor.  Some of my colleagues were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; I, far too jaded from my experience, took an attitude of wait and see.  Yes, he’s saying all of the right things. Let’s see what he does.

Like many school administrators, the new superintendent is very interested in making decisions based upon data.  By and large, this is a good thing.  Data tends to more convincing than intuition, and reason tends to be better served by replicated examples.  However, in order for data to be useful you have to a) collect valid forms of it and b) have the ability to interpret it correctly.  I find many school administrators do not seem to have an understanding of these concepts, and certainly don’t seem to have them as part of their skill set.  This can be a very frustrating reality for teachers trying to use classroom data to make good decisions on behalf of their students.

It wasn’t too much of a surprise, though, that the first real test of the new superintendent’s leadership involved a decision that wasn’t the least bit data driven.  In fact, the only way to justify this decision was to ignore all of the data.  It was a choice that, had it been carried out, would have been incredibly disruptive to student learning, and likely would have violated some students’ civil rights. The administration had such little confidence in this resolution that some teachers were instructed to lie to parents about the reasoning behind it.  Teachers pleaded with the administration to explore other options, but they were rebuffed at every instance.  A deadline was set for when this plan would be instituted, and as that day approached, the faculty’s anxiety grew.

There was one option to try to stop what was happening: contact the state department of education and hope they would be willing to intervene and prevent the district from making a terrible mistake.  This call carried risks—it wouldn’t be an anonymous complaint, and if a representative from the state contacted the district, the superintendent would know which of his staff had made the complaint.  Thus, many of my colleagues were unwilling to take such an action.  They were rightly worried about retribution; indeed, they could be poisoning the well for a phone call that might not even obtain the desired outcome.  It was too dangerous.

In spite of those risks, I volunteered to make the call to the state.

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