On Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

When I finished college, I had an Oregon teaching certificate to teach secondary social studies. However, since the only sport I could coach was chess, I took a job teaching in a self-contained school for children with intellectual disabilities. I happened to know what I was doing, because I’d taught such children in summer jobs throughout college, but I had a strong feeling that my teaching certificate, plus the ability to fog a mirror, was all my school required.

In mid-year, however, my school moved all of its children into local elementary schools. I refused to go. I had the lowest-functioning kids, and I had to change diapers. The school I was slated to go to could only offer the boys’ bathroom, whose only source of water was a fountain in the middle that gave out an unenthusiastic mist.

My principal agreed, so I was left with the only class still operating in my original school. The school phone was put in my classroom.

Answering the school phone gave me an unexpected insight into one aspect of schooling I had not known about. Every day, people would call to offer to donate things to the school. Things like used shoes or clothing, or old toys. Once someone offered fresh flowers. I accepted these, thinking they might be nice. But when hundreds of lilies appeared (they turned out to be from a funeral), my kids immediately pounced on them and started eating them.

In addition to useless stuff, I had regular visits from people sent by our county, such as an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. These were all very nice people, but I just met with them an hour or two each month only to discover, each time, that there was nothing they could do for my kids.

Skip forward many years, and I’m still astounded by how much of the time of principals is taken up nurse-maiding well-meaning people who want to help disadvantaged children. Recently, I heard from some Maryland principals that the State Department of Education sent them dozens of coaches and experts of all sorts. They were not there enough to provide any useful services, but each visit required valuable time from the principal or other staff. Further, they said these coaches never had the remotest idea what the other coaches were doing, and rarely if ever coordinated with them, so redundant or contradictory services were offered.

I remember being in a school in Memphis where a local men’s service club had some of its members reading to kids. These men were very nice, and the kids and teachers were glad to see them. But their presence in the building tied up the principal and much other staff just helping the men find classrooms and materials. Our staff were in the building to discuss specific, proven strategies for helping students learn to read, but this activity was greatly disrupted by these well-meaning men.

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Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing.

The well-meaning chaos I’ve observed many times speaks volumes about one of the structural reasons that schools for disadvantaged students have so much trouble making progress. Such schools are in communities that care deeply about them and want to help. Some of this help is helpful, but much of it interferes with the school’s core mission, which is to ensure that all children are succeeding in all academic subjects, especially reading and math.

In schools serving disadvantaged students, the mission is not just a way to improve school test scores. Success in reading and math is a survival skill for students whose only way out of poverty may be success in school. Principals should have the right, indeed the mandate, to decide (with their staff) which external services support their core mission, and which are unlikely to do so in any meaningful way. External services that provide frequent, targeted, reliable assistance that is well-aligned with the school’s efforts to advance its core mission, such as volunteer tutors who commit to substantial time working with children using methods and materials closely aligned with the school’s curriculum, can be a godsend. Occasional tutors who are unlikely to show up on all scheduled days or are unable or unwilling to use proven methods aligned with the school’s needs? Not so much.

Knowing when to encourage and even solicit help and when not to do so is an important part of school leadership. Principals and their staffs need to have clear goals and plans for how to achieve them. That has to be job one for the whole staff. External assistance that helps schools achieve their goals is great. And assistance to help achieve other valued goals, such as after school art or music or theater programs, may be fine if it does not interfere with job one. But external assistance that takes time and adds complexity? Maybe later.

Every superintendent, principal, and school staff has to have a laser focus on the core mission of their school. They have only so many hours in the day to accomplish this core mission. The government and private entities who support schools have to learn that schools must focus their energies on the main thing, academic achievement, and then help school staff to accomplish this goal if they can, and help schools keep the main thing the main thing.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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