I was chatting with a friend of mine online tonight. He lives in Pennsylvania, so we rarely see one another face to face; nor are we talk-on-the-phone kind of friends. Most of our exchanges take the form of IM sessions, and so we have to be careful about what we type, and how, so that we mean what we say and say what we mean.
Tonight I was discussing some of my frustrations with school reform, and how difficult and slow it was to get anything done. He asked me to explain, and I started doing what villains do all the time, at least according to The Incredibles — I started monologing. And true to form, he was quiet for a long time while I did so.
Then he reminded me that I’m a vested interest.
It was almost as good as a body-blow in freefall from Mr. Incredible. Because of course, he’s right. Even though I teach in a private school, I’m part of the educational system that’s steadfastly not being reformed by the vested interests. Why isn’t it being reformed? Well, because I — and thousands of my colleagues here and at other schools — like getting pensions. And summer vacations. And spring breaks. And living wages. And time for professional development. And private lunch time. And … well. You get the idea.
But it tends to bias me in favor of certain kinds of reform. Reform where those things continue to be possible. And not merely possible, but essential. Needful, even. Schools need budgets large enough to support teaching retinues so I don’t have to teach math, and only have to teach my beloved history — and just that section of history which is in my purview, history before 1453 AD, across that certain sector of latitude and longitude which exists from roughly Susa, in Iran, to Reykjavik, Iceland. And work just enough hours so that I get to coach fencing and (this year) track. A school needs reform, but it also needs staff so I don’t have to answer the mail, fundraise, run the website, fix the broken toilet, manage the finances, figure out DNS and server architecture, reshelve books, or collect permission slips.
And so I tend to see reform as coming in simple little packages — packages that just happen to correspond to what will fit within that pre-existing structure, and which will enable those comforts of my life to survive. And I would fight for the continuation of those things. I might put up with a year of frozen salaries and certain indignities, but I’m not sure that I would last forever in those circumstances.
But as my friend pointed out, those things that I’ll accept and those that I won’t allow make me a vested interest. I’ll fight tooth, nail, and claw to keep certain rights, push back against others, and expect radical change — as long as it does not really inconvenience me, wreck my tenure, or my pension, or damage my seniority.
That makes me a vested interest. And it makes me, and my colleagues, far less likely to vote for a radical reform — most especially if it threatens to make us redundant or unnecessary or volunteer labor.
So by all means, policymakers and policy leaders, hear us out, and think about what we teachers want in the classroom. But remember that we have stake in things as they are now.
We mustn’t forget that we — even those of us who are teachers committed to progressive reform and new styles of education n the classroom — are a vested interest. We may want change… but we want change that maintains as much of the existing infrastructure that assures our relative comfort within the system. And that’s hardly change at all.
It’s worth considering that real change — the honest-to-goodness reform we claim we want — may involve tossing many things out the window, including unions, tenure, and compensation packages with pensions and summers off. And these things may come to our classrooms soon, because of the traumas in the American economies, or because teachers as a profession have lost so much political good-will lately, or because the information economy’s disaggregation is a real threat to the brick-and-mortar school business as it exists now.
Word to the wise: What’s your fallback plan?
As a teacher, I hate to say it, but my fallback plan is simple: I have to make myself irreplaceable—or at least more irreplaceable than the next guy. I can do this many different ways, but the most important combination of factors seem to be these:
1) I must be perceived as flexible.
2) I must be perceived as smart.
3) I must be perceived as a team player.
4) I must be perceived as a leader who nonetheless supports my administration and who is willing to take on new roles and challenges should they arise.
5) I must be perceived as someone whom a majority of students respect and admire.
6) I must be perceived as someone whom a majority of parents trust and appreciate.
I know that sounds cynical, but there it is.
I think that’s the essence of it, Ben. Flexible and smart are particularly needed. Team player is also good — if the economy allows schools to continue to exist as aggregates. If we go to a for-pay model where ‘schools’ are actually collations of tutors operating out of the front rooms of their apartments, it’s less useful. A supportive leader, a trusted confidant of parents, a suitable role model that parents admire… there it is. And the truth is, we don’t need schools around us, as physical locations, to have those things. We want them, and we think we need them, and maybe we do need them… but we may not have that forever.