An open letter to our teachers,
This letter may turn out to be a bit long, but if you are a teacher please take the time to read it. If you know a teacher, please forward this to them. I am hoping that you will support my candidacy for school board but whether you think my ideas are good or bad I think it is important that you hear them, and I welcome your feedback.
People have asked me what I am going to do to help our teachers if elected. They have asked me how I am going to hold the administration accountable. I would like to start this letter with my overall philosophy in dealing with challenging situations. I would like to explain why I have decided to run for this position and finally I would like to present to you some ideas that I have that hopefully will enable us to move forward as a district and work together towards the common goal of educating our children both academically and socially as they grow to take our places as adults in society.
I am by nature a “problem solver”. I don’t enjoy pointing fingers or assigning blame and I have generally found this to be counterproductive when trying to find solutions to difficult problems. My psyche is more akin to that of former NASA flight director Gene Kranz who famously mobilized hundreds of individuals towards the common goal of bringing home the stranded Apollo 13 astronauts with the admonition “Let’s work the problem people. Failure is not an option”. I don’t like to dwell on the past except as a learning experience, but I will be tenacious in trying to find solutions for the future. It may sound corny but the reason that I am running for this position is because I truly would like to give back to the community that I have lived in and because I am passionate about our school district.
When my daughter started school in first grade here at Madison, as a result of mismanagement of her preschool education, she was fully 2 grades behind in essential skills such as reading and mathematics. By the time she graduated high school she was a straight A honor student, a member of the National Honor Society and the recipient of more awards than I ever hoped to win in high school. She has now just finished her summer session at Wright State University as a mathematics and statistics major with straight A’s. This academic achievement was made possible by the extraordinary dedication of the men and women in the Madison Local School District and I am forever in your debt. Now it is my turn to try to repay that debt. There is also a simple practical reason for wanting a strong, high quality school district. It is better for the community.
When a new family is thinking of moving into a community, what is the first question that they ask? It is not “where is the nearest store”. It is not “do you have good roads?” The first question that almost every family asks is “how good are the schools?” Even for a family does not have any children in the school system, the better the schools, the more desirable the community and, consequently, the higher the property values. Those of you that know me personally know that I value our teachers as the single most important asset in our school system and it troubles me greatly that so many have chosen to leave, many of whom I have considered personal friends. We absolutely must “work this problem” and “failure is not an option”. Retention of quality people is vital in any industry and especially so in education. In general, there are 3 major factors that relate to retention of quality personnel: Pay, Scheduling and Autonomy.
Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly. Teachers are underpaid. Period. End of story. I’m not specifically referring to any given school district but just in general. When taken in relationship to other professions in our society and especially taking into account the real and potential impact on the lives and futures of the citizens of any community, anyone who feels otherwise, at least in my opinion, is delusional. I am grateful that the teachers that have had such a positive impact on my family were obviously there because they loved what they were doing and not because they expected to get rich. That being said, I also understand that passion for one’s profession doesn’t pay the grocery bills. I wish I had an easy answer for this one. I have said before that I am not going to pander to an audience. I’m not going to say what I think people want to hear in order to get their vote only to forget about those empty “promises” once elected. What I will promise however is that when it comes time for discussion about allocation of limited resources that I will keep what I consider our most precious resource, our teachers, at the top of my list of priorities. Those of you who know me personally, I believe, are aware that I don’t make promises lightly but that when I do it is a stronger reassurance than any written contract.
With regard to the 2nd and 3rd issues, Scheduling and Autonomy, and occasionally also impacting the first issue, Pay, I would like to introduce you to a concept which we have found to be extraordinarily successful in the healthcare field, that of “Shared Governance”. One of the biggest challenges facing the healthcare industry is retention of nursing personnel. Nurses, like teachers, are frequently underpaid in relationship to their contribution to society. They must deal with challenging schedules and, maybe even more importantly, in spite of their professional qualifications, have traditionally had very little control over their work environment. This has produced, in the past, significant job dissatisfaction and has triggered frequent career changes. Very undesirable in a healthcare setting. Is any of this starting to sound familiar? For those of you who would like a more in-depth discussion of this concept and its impact on the field of nursing I would offer the following link:
In industry, this concept has its origins in the 1960s and became more popular in the 80s and 90s. The goal is to increase “autonomy, empowerment, involvement and participation in decision-making” among the individuals who are providing the ultimate services. This concept, in the healthcare industry, recognizes that nurses, by virtue of their specialized knowledge and training are uniquely positioned to have a positive impact on the quality and cost-effectiveness of the services that they are providing. I have had intimate experience with this model and have seen it transform the work environment of our nursing staff. Over the years, the more familiar that I have become with it, the more similarities that I have seen between the healthcare industry in its relationship with nurses and the educational system in its relationship with teachers.
I recently met with our chief operating officer at Atrium, who was instrumental in implementing this program at the hospital, in order to discuss this idea and try to figure out if it was feasible to also apply it to education, since she is more familiar with the program than anyone I know. Obviously, the details of implementation are going to be different in the two industries but after that meeting I am more convinced than ever that this can work in a school district. There are so many similarities. In healthcare, outside organizations such as CMS and ODH set the standards that we have to adhere to just as in education state and federal agencies set minimum standards that must be met. Both industries involve direct contact with and provide vital services to people, patients and students. And, perhaps most importantly, in both industries those services are provided by specialized, well trained and dedicated professionals.
In hospitals, silly things can lead to waste and inefficiency. Transducers are ordered that aren’t compatible with the catheters that they are supposed to work with. In schools, silly things also happen, like the time we ordered textbooks that were not written to be used with the laptops that we already had and that were going to be utilized in that particular course. (Okay, this was quite some time ago but you get the idea) Who are the best people to protect us against these follies? The well-trained professionals who are providing the ultimate end-user services. You guys.
So how could something like this work? First of all, we identify areas where we could or should be doing a better job. Maybe it’s how we go about scheduling extracurricular activities so that a baseball tournament at the primary school doesn’t conflict with a musical at the high school. Or how we allocate capital expenditures. Should we be shifting funds from capital budget to operational budget or vice a versa. Or whether it is appropriate to have the same size class for a course such as Spanish-I as it would be for Introduction to algebra. Or maybe it’s something as simple as what time of day faculty meetings should be held. I don’t know the day-to-day challenges that many of you face but you certainly do.
The first step is for the rank-and-file teachers to identify aspects of their daily work environments that need to be improved. The 2nd step is to construct a framework within which designated “leaders” can work with other individuals facing similar challenges to try to flesh out solutions to these problems and the 3rd step is to provide a forum whereby these groups can present these solutions to the administration and participate in the discussions which ultimately determine if and how they are adopted.
Let me take a quote from the article that I cited above. “Governance models that are based on these ideals should translate into the realities of the organization through organizational designs that allow nurses the freedom to fully participate in the practice of nursing and in shaping the work environment in which patient care occurs.” Now, substitute “teacher or teaching” for “nurse or nursing” and substitute “teaching students” for “patient care” and you have the idea that I am proposing. For Pete’s sakes, this concept even worked for the Harley Davidson motorcycle company in the 1980’s when it was trying to recover from its disastrous association with AMF. Get the people who are doing the work to help you figure out the best way to do it. If this sounds a little radical for the educational industry, well maybe that’s an indication that the educational industry needs to catch up with the rest of our industries.
There is a 2nd part to this whole concept and that is transparency. Look, the reality is that none of us, no matter what job environment we are in, are ever going to get everything that we want. A negotiator once told me that when he settles a dispute, both sides usually walk away a little discontent but ultimately feeling that they got a fair deal. He told me that if one side felt totally happy with the result, he probably cheated the other side. In my career I have occasionally had to implement unpopular policies and frequently have had to live with policies that I found less than ideal. What I have learned however is that if you want people to buy into a concept, they have to feel like they have ownership in it and in order to feel like they have ownership of it they have to be involved in the creation of it.
When I am presented with a policy that I find undesirable, I rebel. But when I have been involved in the step by step the creation of that policy, when I have weighed the pros and cons along with my colleagues and when I have independently come to the conclusion that, undesirable as it may appear, it is the best option available, I may still not like it very much but I understand it and accept it. I sense that many of you are feeling the same type of frustration that I felt some months ago when a particular policy at the hospital was imposed on me that I strenuously objected to. It did not make any sense and I was amazed at the stupidity and shortsightedness of the individuals who put it together. And then I was brought into the loop. I became part of the team that was given the responsibility of redesigning the policy.
Well, the short version is that what we finally came up with, with some minor changes, bore a remarkable resemblance to the original policy that I objected to. I still wish there was a better way to do it but now I understand and accept why it had to be the way it was. I would like to bring as many people into the loop as possible in our school district. Not just because it will enable them to “see the light” and accept the inevitable but because maybe, just maybe, they might actually have a better idea.
So there you have it. Obviously, the devil is in the details and there is still a lot of work to do to turn this concept into a workable model but this is what I would like to bring to the district. I believe in this idea. I am excited about it. I have seen it work. I believe it would benefit the students, the district as a whole and the teachers as individuals. I would like to see our school district be the thought leader in this regard so that we can set the standard that other districts, after seeing our successes, strive to emulate. If the work environment is better, the people in that environment are happier. If the people are happier they stay in their jobs. If they stay in their jobs they keep the entire system more stable.
If these concepts sound appealing to you, I would appreciate your support.