Teachers in a Pickle

Not long ago, two teachers asked me a question that I found rather poignant: How could they help make their schools successful when their principals have no interest in changing what they're doing?

The occasion was the National Title I Conference in Salt Lake City. I had met the two on a street corner outside the conference after a talk I gave to a large audience of teachers, principals, and district-level staff about the critical role that school leaders play in "It's Being Done" schools.

What, the two teachers asked, could they do to help their principals be the kind of leader I had talked about?

Both are math coaches in different elementary schools in the same district, and both have principals who, they said, were more concerned about doing the paperwork and maintaining the status quo than about leading academic success. Their schools -- which not too long ago had been primarily white and middle-class -- are now ethnically and economically diverse. The teachers said their colleagues were not prepared for the new student population, and the principals were doing little to help them.

"I do what I can," said one about her insistence that the school's students could learn at much higher levels, "but they mostly think I'm a troublemaker."

In their schools, apparently, it was common for the adults in the building to blame falling achievement levels on the kids and their parents. These teachers knew that there was a great deal more that could be done to improve instruction and thus the academic achievement of the students; their frustration with their colleagues' lack of expertise, and a sense of urgency was palpable.

"Should I just close my doors and do what I can with the students I can affect directly?" the teacher asked.

We stood on the street for half an hour discussing their dilemma, and I'm afraid I didn't have any magic bullets to offer them. Earlier that day I had cited the research of University of Washington scholar Ken Leithwood and his colleagues who had studied 180 schools in 45 districts in nine states and concluded, "To date, we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership."

All I could do was agree that my two street-corner acquaintances are in a pickle. They know the students in their schools can do much better, yet they control almost none of the mechanisms to help them -- budgets, schedules, professional development, hiring, assignment -- any of the levers used by canny school leaders.

Finally I fell back on the old standby. "Why don't you become principals?" I asked.

Neither wanted any part of what they called "administration," but they admitted that it was the logical step if they really cared about their students and their schools.

Each said she would think about it.

But I'd like to throw this question open to readers: Do you have better advice for those two teachers?