At the beginning of this school year in my second year of teaching special education, I spent some initial lessons introducing the concept of values and exploring three values that we would strive to uphold in the classroom: integrity, empathy, and respect. I elected to do this because I wanted to develop classroom rules collaboratively with my students — as opposed to simply unfurling my own pre-made list — and as I was planning for this, I realized that rules are developed fundamentally upon the values that one holds. I felt that these values were rich and could be explored in subsequent content areas, such as in discussions of characters in books (for example, we had fruitful discussions on how Edward develops empathy in the story “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane“).
I often find the debates that are ongoing in the education policy world suffer from a lack of explicit acknowledgement of underlying values, even as those debates are really just a fundamental clash of values. As I read articles heralding the decline in union power and calling for budgetary bloodletting in public services, I might posit that some values that the authors would hold are that of efficiency, expediency, and force as an agent of change. As someone who has been in positions of management, I can understand the perspectives that channel from such values. We seek immediate and replicable solutions to problems, to make systems run more smoothly and efficiently, and to increase performance and productivity.
But there is another value I inherited from positions of management as well that often seems to get left out in these meta-level debates: empathy. (Notice that this is one of my three classroom values?) Empathy embodies the essentials of working with other human beings. As a leader, you must practice active listening, you have to be able to model the behavior that you want others to emulate, and you have to be able to foster trusting and meaningful relationships if you want to motivate and inspire others.
This isn’t just something I’m making up, by the way. Read most any literature on management and notice the focus on interpersonal skills (as well as on intrapersonal). Motivating others and inspiring high performance requires strong abilities to develop relationships with others.
Doesn’t that make sense? Strange that this fundamental value inherent in leadership seems to so oft be lacking in those who seem to speak (or act) in the field of education from a business-minded perspective. As Diane Ravitch explains in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” education leaders such as Joel Klein and Alan Bersin seemed to turn a deaf ears to their employee base as they rammed through reforms, as if this were effective leadership. Michelle Rhee has also most famously exemplified this style of leadership. Problem is, this is not effective leadership. Not in the business world, and most certainly not in the realm of education. At least, not in any sort of sustainable way. It might seemingly work for a few years — in that people conform because they have to —until the results start trickling in. Turnover will be high. Motivation will be low. And increasingly hostile rhetoric and a culture of mistrust will develop between labor and management.
The business and reform minded values of expediency, efficiency, and high performance are seemingly contrasted against labor and community activists, for whom the values of equity, civil rights, and quality of life take precedence. Though I don’t think we can accurately say that teacher unions are at all powerless nor voiceless (in New York, hardly so), they were formed to give voice to the powerless, and they continue to speak from a perspective of disenfranchisement; community activists similarly engage to counter the norms and dominant perspectives of those in power, whether management or policymakers.
I think we have to recognize that in any viable democracy, multiple perspectives and voices and values must necessarily come into conflict and seek to resolve their differences through the process of ongoing advocacy and dialogue. This is the messy and politically complex reality that we must undergo if we are to truly work with a diversity of stakeholders.
Let me bring all of this high level discussion of values back down to earth through an example of something trivial and mundane that occurred on my subway ride to work the other day (right after scribbling some notes down for this here post). As the train approached my station, I got up from my seat and wended my way over towards the door. A lady was standing at the corner pole with a large handbag jutting out, blocking my path between other passengers. I attempted to (gently) push past, as I assumed she was not getting off at my stop (generally, passengers give subtle body signals as they prepare to exit, such as gravitating into the space of the door). She called out calmly but warningly, “Hold on.” She let me know that she would be getting off, that she was ahead of me, and that she would not move. She advocated for her position. She spoke up. Thus informed of the situation, I then stopped where I was and waited my turn to step out the subway. I abdicated my own personal trajectory and needs to partner with her presence and needs. That’s the process of advocacy and partnership (I stole these two key words from Richard Iannuzzi in the latest issue of the state teachers union magazine, by the way). She spoke up, and I listened. Thus, we worked together to get to where we needed to go.
When dealing with a diversity of human beings, the path that is most expedient is in taking the extra time to establish meaningful relationships and trust. This is what makes for effective leadership, whether in the classroom or in the supermarket or in the office.
The values of management and labor do not have to be oppositional. We can operate more efficient and higher-performing schools by fostering trust (read Deborah Meier’s “In Schools We Trust” for more on this critical concept) and taking the time to build relationships, and most fundamentally by listening to each other and understanding where we all are coming from.
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