Thursday, March 11, 2010

Meetings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

The shit has hit the fan at the Morton School. Phrases like "worst week of my life," "career change," "utterly depressing," "all for nothing," and more are emerging from whispered conversations in the hallways and the teachers' lounge. It's the kind of talk one might expect to hear in, say, a SURR school facing a 50% budget cut in which one-quarter of the teacher and student population had recently, say, died.

Nothing of the sort has transpired. I tend not to say very much about the general environs of the Morton School to keep this blog as anonymous as possible, but what the hell. I took the name of this blog from Jane Eyre, the timeless story of a determined young woman who, among other things, does time as a teacher. The very name "Morton School" brings to mind Jane Eyre's little school, in which the strong-willed Jane takes all comers and, with her unique blend of smarts, toughness, creativity, and love, turns her students into self-respecting and well-prepared young people. She says of her school and her students, "These soon took a pleasure in doing their work well, in keeping their persons neat, in learning their tasks regularly, in acquiring quiet and orderly manners. The rapidity of their progress, in some instances, was even surprising; and an honest and happy pride I took in it: besides, I began personally to like some of the best girls; and they liked me." Later, when she concludes her tenure there, she says, "I had long felt with pleasure that many of my rustic scholars liked me, and when we parted, that consciousness was confirmed: they manifested their affection plainly and strongly.(...) Mr. Rivers came up as, having seen the classes, now numbering sixty girls, file out before me, and locked the door, I stood with the key in my hand, exchanging a few words of special farewell with some half-dozen of my best scholars: as decent, respectable, modest, and well-informed young women as could be found in the ranks of the British peasantry." I'll spare you any further forays into proto-Victorian literature; suffice it to say that this is largely how I see myself, my school, and my students (though perhaps the author Charlotte Bronte is a tad condescending towards Jane's students at times).

The Morton School, circa NYC in 2010, is a lovely school. Our building is kept clean and pleasant by all teachers and by a dedicated custodial staff. We are fortunate to have a very fine arts program that gives students a number of opportunities to pursue visual art, music, and dance. We have a beautiful library cared for by an excellent librarian. Of course, if none of those "frills" matter to you these days, take a look at our test scores. They're good. Great, in fact. We send a sizeable percentage of students, above the citywide average, to the specialized high schools year after year. You can say you work at the Morton School with a sense of pride, knowing that our school gets dozens of resumes every year for positions that are very unlikely to become open. How yours truly ended up there remains a mystery. But, if the numbers are any indication at all, I've held my own there.

So why is everyone at the Morton School so miserable?


Principal X has gotten the results of our Quality Review. And, apparently, it sucks. Again. How a school that operates like ours does and produces such good results ends up with such a lousy review is beyond me. After all, I'm just a village schoolteacher, as Jane might say. But it makes me wonder: What good is this doing anyone if, by any other measure you can imagine, our school is pretty darn good? What are we missing? Why are we constantly feeling pressure to fix that which is not, it would seem, broken?

I don't know the answers to these questions. But probably Principal X will deem more of the same to be necessary: More upheaval that doesn't help teacher or student; more meetings; more paperwork; more "you suck" as both implicit and explicit messages in feedback.

I'm not saying there's no room to improve at our school. There always is. But there's the idea of continuous improvement, because one wants to maintain the quality one has and expand it; and there's the idea of IMMEDIATE AND TOTAL REFORM BECAUSE EVERYTHING YOU ARE DOING SUCKS. Maybe Principal X and the quality reviewer mean the former. But the message we're getting is the latter. And that's not helpful for anyone.