Take Me to Your Leader

Schools are a lot like families.   Great schools, like strong families, function best when individuals do what they must for the common good. At home, we take out the trash, clean our rooms, and call if we are going to be late.  We do pretty much the same things every day at school, too. This is the only way anything gets done well, at home or in the classroom.

But cooperation and mutual respect and diligence don’t just happen, not in families, not on faculties.  Someone has to deliberately create an atmosphere where trust and love abound, where everyone can share equally in success and where missteps are learning ops, not failures.

At home, our family turns to my husband.  He has worked double shifts and nights and holidays without complaint. He moves kids in and out of tall buildings (though not in a single bound and not without some elevator rage),  makes me lunch every morning, handles the odd long distance automotive crisis, runs generators, and still has time for tea with our granddaughter. He remains calm and, as the kids say, he “knows stuff.”  Maybe best of all, he can keep me from shooting my mouth off by making me laugh at myself before I can make a fool of myself.

So, at home, we are truly lucky.  Our family is functional even when we are dysfunctional.  When things go wrong–and they often do– and people get mad, at the heart of our family is pure love.  It sometimes takes our leader to coax it out of us, but we all know it is there.

And at school, we are also that fortunate. We work in a building where professional support is the norm, where love abounds.  And we didn’t just get lucky to find such a perfect place for teachers to teach and for kids to learn.

Our principal leads by example every day.  No one in the building works harder than he does.  This week, he was part of the Geography Night on Wednesday, visited a neighboring high school on Thursday evening and chaperoned a middle school dance on Friday night, all in  addition to his day job, overseeing the smooth, safe operation of our building.   He respects his staff and his students. It’s not every day that you see the principal playing basketball after school with the middle school boys.  It’s not every day you see the principal helping the seventh grade girls sort out an over blown drama.

The result?  No one wants to disappoint him.  No one. He has given us all the great gift of a sincere and intelligent role model.  Teachers do their  absolute best because they respect him, not because they fear him.   Kids trust him to be fair and to hear their side of every story.   Some people even played basketball at a fund-raiser just because he asked.

New evaluations for teachers and administrators don’t have rubrics for this type of mutually respectful relationship. I know, supposedly it’s in there, somewhere in Danielson’s Domain 4.  Just find the box and check highly effective.  Now it’s now all about the data, supposedly reliable and objective. Reliable?  Objective?

Well, I for one am not buying it.  How can human relationships be quantified? I know I am not a math person, but I don’t think that this is even possible much less productive. People work best–are highly effective— when the person they work for respects what they do and supports their labor and cares for them as individuals.  It doesn’t take a statistics degree or an  MBA to figure that one out.

When we get together as a family, the “data” we keep coming back to centers on respect, confidence, love. We plain old like each other–most of the time.  And we take care of one another as best we can.  We also laugh together and play together and work together.
There is no “scale” to evaluate this.  You either have it or you don’t.

Lucky me, I have where I live and where I work.

Power Up

No phone, no lights, no motor cars,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
As primitive as can be.” ~ ~from Gilligan’s Island theme song

There is nothing like twelve days without electricity to remind you of your place in this world.

And if you are still not convinced,the power comes back on and you see the photos and footage of  devastation and human suffering.

At the height of Hurricane Sandy, just after the lights went out, the night sky glowed with green and blue and red auras, creepy remnants of transformers and live wires. The wind ruled the trees, snapping trunks. Surging tides devoured the shore.

And then there was only darkness and quiet. We live above a busy and noisy railroad crossing, but train service had been suspended. The parkway beyond the tracks was closed due to downed trees and flooding. Everything had come to a screeching halt.

For people used to instant results commanded by flipping a switch or tapping a screen, standing still is torture, being quiet a crime.  We have come to measure existence through perpetual stimuli: electronic beeps validate relationships and colorful icons convey emotions.  Our HD televisions keep us company even when nothing of interest airs.  Texts and emails keep us connected.

We want our MTV!

This is the only world our students know.  Their fingertips caress touchscreens out of habit. If they can’t contact any of their six hundred thirty-two Facebook friends, they are restless.  When cell service is disrupted, they are lonely.

Technology has given our students access to the world.  The miracles of microchips and fiber optics make it possible to introduce our students to places they would never visit, people they would never meet. In one class, they eavesdrop on surgeons making delicate incisions and take a walk through Anne Frank’s secret annex in the next. They can plug into a presidential town hall meeting and send the commander-in-chief a message about the state of foreign affairs.   Digital technology has shrunk the globe.

     Technology, though, has made the personal worlds our students inhabit smaller, too.  They spend as much time with their screens as they do in conversation and paradoxically, the same click of a mouse that opens the window to so much has closed our kids into isolated chambers where communication consists of abbreviations and emoticons..  Kids used to instant responses lose interest in tasks that require sustained concentration or effort.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my modern conveniences: my  cell phone, lights, motor car and most of all these days, I love my generator.

And clearly education has to adapt or die.  But finding the balance between instruction and entertainment has become a challenge.  Districts investing millions in technology demand to see their dollars at work  and too often what ends up in the classroom are bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors.  The kids are having fun, but are they learning? It is sometimes hard to tell the difference; far too often, it doesn’t even seem to matter anymore.

There are so many things technology can give and there is no doubt that our students must be skilled in using these digital gifts.  But there are so many times when learning isn’t about a link to somewhere or someone else.  If you don’t believe this, then you haven’t examined the Common Core Standards which are all about reading and writing the old-fashioned way: closely, slowly, for detail.

Twelve days in the dark have restored appreciation for what electricity has given us.  At the same time, twelve days in the dark remind me of the value of communication skills: reading, writing and, my favorite, plain old conversation.

In the Dark With Hope for The Future

Sandy has come and gone, but the devastation described in such agonizing detail by AM radio reporters will not soon be forgotten.

With the storm surge came mass  property destruction and loss of life.  Mementoes and memories were swept away with the tide.   An entire neighborhood in Queens was leveled by fire aided and abetted by the hurricane’s winds. Even the brash and  boisterous Jersey Shore-esque Governor Chris Christie– for whom I have no love–teared up and was moved to embrace–ahem– President Obama.

For  native New Yorkers like me, Sandy has been a grim and very personal reminder again that when we see images from “somewhere else” like Joplin, Missouri and Haiti, like New Orleans and Indonesia, that those are real people among those ruins, not just shock-fodder for the evening and morning news shows.

It has also been a reality check for those of us who might find the demands of daily life a little  irritating.

People all along the east coast want some sense of normal life restored. Passengers, who just last week, hated the MTA, cheered this morning when subway and commuter rail service was partially restored.

No one in my neighborhood is complaining about the price of a gallon of gas anymore; we just want to find a station that has both power and gas.

   Even the kids on my block are pining for school.  No fooling.  With no power, no one is gaming, no one is on FB. Their parents are limiting their texting to preserve cell phone battery life.

     Which brings me to my latest post.  I am at a work table in my local public library, sharing space with seven strangers. There is running water here. It is warm here.  There is power here for electronic devices: cell phones, laptops, e-readers.  And to score this coveted spot,  I had to be in line as library staff opened the doors. It seems that  one bright spot in the ruins caused by Sandy has been this unintended public service ad for libraries and for librarians, who seemed thrilled to have so much business.

I use this library all the time.   I know where the Vince Flynn books are and where to find the Miles Davis discs. A few of the librarians even recognize me by sight if not by name.  There is a part of me wishes that as a “regular,” I might be a member of a library priority club, that I should get first shot the seat at the table that I always have had.

But the other part of me, the English teacher, speaks much louder and is delighted that so many have found their way back to the local library.  We may be accessing e-mail or using the library to “work from home,”  but we are surrounded by books.  Among these shelves are classic works of authors I love: Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Hughes, Shakespeare and Steinbeck, T. S. Eliot, Jack London. Alright, I’ll stop now.

There are also the guides to do-it-yourself re-roofing and self-help for whatever ails ya.  From my seat, I see the reference section, marked by the 22 print volumes of The World Book Encyclopedia.   Behind me, I can hear the librarian issuing new library cards to new patrons, an abuela and her young grandson.

So while I mourn for the those lost in this tragic moment and I so desperately hope that humans will acknowledge both their limitations and their responsibilities, the future looks bright.