Thursday, May 19, 2011

Control in the School: illusions and realities

We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom. -- Stephen Vincent Benet (1935)

Back in those many years when I was teaching public school and studying nights to get a doctorate -- I was investigating procedures for predicting human behavior -- an old college chum of mine, an up-and-coming Philadelphia lawyer, asked me why I didn’t go into school administration.

I asked him why he thought I should do that. He replied, “So you can have more power, more control and influence.”

He was almost insulted when I replied that power, control and influence -- in public education, at least -- were only likely randomly related to administrative position.

One of the most boring jobs I ever had was as the headmaster of a putatively academically focused, private school. The most important thing I had to do -- which ate up time, futilely -- was to “lunch” with rarely interesting people whose only claim on my attention was their potential for donorship.

I was supposed to be agreeable to each individual member of a governing board who, in depth, differed greatly among themselves what the school was about. (It was all “hale, fellow, well met” at the slogan level, e.g. “Excellence in All Undertakings.”) Each individual board member tried to enlist me as an agent working for him against his less-insightful fellow board members.

Power, control, influence? Not much of that when the friends of board members could act as solicitors for special interests to have my quite ordinary decisions subjected to time-consuming review and reversal.

Teachers who have difficulty with difficult students are often criticized as “lacking control” or other presumably “normal” teacher skills. This criticism comes not infrequently from administrators who escaped the classroom so their own “lack of control” would not be subject to easy criticism.

Teachers who do have control, on the other hand, have to listen to administrators and fellow teachers tell them how “fortunate” they are to have “such good students.” No doubt such statements are intended to help skilled teachers to maintain a proper humility.

For references and to examine these issues further, see My First Classroom Teaching Experience

--- EGR