My Lesson in "Us vs. Them"

It was 9pm on Thanksgiving night.  My belly was bursting and my eyelids were heavy.  I was sitting on an Amtrak train back to Philadelphia after a wonderful evening in NYC with my family.  I sat in the window seat, and was joined shortly by a man with a laptop bag.

The train began moving, and he opened up his laptop.  Immediately, I noticed the School District of Philadelphia desktop background and I looked up from my book and said, "School District of Philadelphia?"  He said, "Yes."  I offered, "I teach at Bluford Elementary in West Philadelphia."  He replied, "How's the move going?"  I was immediately taken aback.  I rarely meet someone who has heard of my school, and no one ever knows anything about our temporary relocation.  He followed with, "I helped plan that move."  I was intrigued.

It turned out that the man sitting next to me was none other than the Chief Business Officer for the School District.  We proceeded to spend the next hour and a half discussing the School District's history over the last 8 years, starting with the State takeover, dissolution of the School Board and the leadership of Paul Vallas.  We discussed pay for performance and teacher pay in general. Stemming from my statement that in any other neighborhood with any other parents, our old building would have been a lawsuit waiting to happen, he even showed me a graph on his laptop showing how much the district spent on its facilities up until the last few years (let me tell you, it was pretty measly!).  He explained that the district had decided to pump more money into its buildings in the last few years since the money was there.  (For more on our former building, you can read my posts here and here.)

As the conversation unfolded, I began to realize that this man with an all-important job, who had worked for the Rendell and Street administrations in Philadelphia as well as in Harrisburg was acting with the students and teachers in mind along with protecting the fiscal health of the District.  Why wouldn't he?  Why is it that 'us' teachers in the classroom look to blame the leadership 'downtown' at the School District ('them') for all of our problems?  We teachers always talk about how 'they' forget the children, that decisions are never made with the students and teachers in mind.  We talk about initiatives that are poorly thought out and even more poorly executed by 'them.'  Why should we believe that 'they' don't want teachers to succeed or that they don't want children to learn?  Similarly, why should  the top of the administration chain ('us') look at the teachers ('them') as being incompetent in the classroom or in need of more supervision and mandatory support due to dropping test scores.

Most people don't get into education without good intentions.  What is it about this convoluted, huge and disorganized system that turns us against each other?  Even those who work in the upper echelons understand that disorganization reaches down the rungs and affects the teachers and students in the classrooms.  It's kind of like a hugely expensive and paramount game of telephone.

This brought up more questions.  Why does the state still run our school district?  Why don't the taxpayers and parents seem to have a say?  Why are my union negotiations behind closed doors while issues are negotiated for my best interest without my interests being voiced to anyone?  Are teachers and parents' voices being heard when it comes to budgetary concerns?

When Ackerman came in as Superintendent, she started an initiative called "Imagine 2014." I attended one of the community meetings to discuss and give input into the new initiative.  We were shown a PowerPoint explaining the initiative and then broke out into discussion rooms based around parts of the initiative.  When the final initiative came out, it was as if they used the fact that these 'listening sessions' occurred as a reason that the initiative was supported and created by Philadelphia constituents.  The intentions were good, but the result lackluster.  This feeds into the "Us v. Them" mentality, which I have been guilty of harboring for years.  I felt that my input into the meeting was wasted breath.

In addition, as an 'Empowerment School' (aka failing school) my school has completely lost control over all of its academic functions.  We teach scripted programs over 45 minutes to an hour a day, 5 days a week and we are told what we are to teach, when we are to teach it, and how to teach it.  We are told what needs to be hanging on our walls, outside our classroom as well as what page we're supposed to be on in our Teachers' Guides.  Talk about feeding the 'Us v. Them' mentality.  However, when looked at through the eyes of the implementers, they are helping us meet our students' needs since we have been failing to do so for so many years (disclaimer: we have made AYP once, so at some point we were heading down the right road without all of these 'supports').  No one has bad intentions, but initiatives that come down from above get caught in that game of telephone and end up a garbled mess.

All of this has made me rethink the 'Us v. Them' mentality.  It gets us nowhere.  The problem is not in the intentions, but rather in how people (don't) work together to achieve a common goal.  And yes, in the end, it is the people we serve (the children of Philadelphia and their families) who lose out.  I can no longer blame only the individuals, but I must blame the system in which we are all caught.

The first step in fixing this systemic problem is making the system smaller.  In Philadelphia, we used to have SLCs (Small Learning Communities) made up of regional schools to put more power back in the hands of schools, who know best what their students and communities need.  Of course, these were part of the previous initiative, Children Achieving (see Part III), which went out when Paul Vallas came in.  While new initiatives are hard to avoid, the idea of a smaller system in place to handle such initiatives can help appease the 'Us vs. Them' mentality.

What are your experiences and thoughts?

This post is part of the MAT@USC Hope for the holidays event. Did you have an experience or witness something in 2009 which gave you hope for the future of American education? If so, please see this post for more information on how to share it.


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