Culture Wars

Much is written about schools, about school achievement, about school improvement, and about why schools fail.  There are MANY reasons; however, school culture is one of those “fly under the radar” reasons that schools crash and burn.  Sometimes the schools are referred to as “toxic”, but it’s deeper than that.  And truly, it’s one of the reasons principals want autonomy to fire.

I’m now teaching at my third school.  I’ve learned a lot from each school, each grade, and each staff.  One of the things I’ve most learned is that the school has a snowball’s chance in hell of making improvement if the staff is divided.  That division, my friends, is the culture war. At my first school, a very low-performing middle school in a downtown urban setting was one of the most dysfunctional environments I’d ever encountered.  While I could honestly tell you I liked my colleagues, I would also slip the knife in their backs by saying I felt their curriculum and/or their collegiality (really more like lack thereof) was crap.  We would enter into staff meetings, come to “consensus” and then people would scatter to their own corners to dissect the meeting, the ideas, and to essentially decide NOT to follow whatever edict we’d all “agreed” to.  I don’t even know that you could consider what was happening “counter-culture” since there were too many splits to have merely two opposing cultures.

Needless to say, this was NOT helping the school. Innovative teachers were not sharing ideas, burned-out teachers were not looking for inspiration, and bitter was flowing like it was honey in the promised land. The only real culture was one of anger, mistrust, and us versus them.  No one was looking to swim in the same direction.  It was a chaotic every-man-for-himself, don’t-get-in-my-way culture.  Then, as though to justify their own personal actions, we would hear about “it’s about the kids.”  Not a hint of irony, and goodness knows, I love the smell of irony in the morning. To really nail why the school wasn’t working, or that we all knew the school wasn’t working, we would take the staff list and start marking off the ones we figured were going to quit or try to transfer.  While it can be defined as a culture, it wasn’t an effective or working one.

My next school had many of the same issues.  Apologists (those who give reasons why the kids CAN’T learn, while supporting the philosophy that “all kids can learn”), burned out, boring, ineffective, innovative, brilliant, and amazing all rolled together.  Honestly, it was the most innovative ones that often would walk away.  Being brought down daily, not only by the difficulties in teaching low-SES, high-ELL, Hispanics, and being in a gang neighborhood, by their colleagues became too much.  Their philosophies weren’t meshing with the rest of the staff.  Rather than stay to fight out a culture war, when really there are more important things to do, they merely left to find greener pastures.

I think we see where this is going…

My latest school is one where I actively sought employment based on the new program that was devised.  The district was moving a school from K-5 to a K-8.  I believe in the K-8 model, although I don’t fully know how to foster it or differentiate it.  I believe in keeping middle school kids close, continuing to expand their basic life skills rather than having them taught how to behave by their peers.  It’s been a tough row because there have been differing cultures at the school.  However, last year I felt like we were getting there.

Now… NO.  I am not pleased with my new colleagues.  It started innocently enough with my asking for input from one.  The person claimed not to get email, yet my history on the mail showed its being read between midnight and two in the morning.  Obviously this person READS the email, the person merely doesn’t answer it.  I have a problem with that. Add to that the continuing late arrival at school — each day just a little later.  Pushing the envelope just enough.  Not trying to assimilate into the culture.  I really am annoyed by that.  Add to that the attitude of “I”m new so I can use that as an excuse” or “I’ll just pretend I didn’t know better” and I want to bitch-slap this person into next week.  Yes, I was forewarned, but I don’t make these decisions.

Unfortunately this is the “master teacher” who is modeling for the “Teach America” teacher, who has his/her own ideas of what middle school should be.  It doesn’t gibe with OUR vision or mission, but what does that matter?  Teach America teacher has  a two-year paid commitment spreading the Teach America gospel.  What does it matter if our school culture is lost in the cross fire?

Right now I’m beyond angry.  I’m in a school that can be creative, innovative, and a model for other schools.  Instead of our all taking up the mantle, we’re jockeying for position, being underhanded, and looking for ways around our very weak school culture.  We’re trying to get it set, we just need the plaster to dry.  However, we have elements coming in and taking out the foundation with carving tools and water.

I suspect in two shorts years, when our names are added to the many failed experimental schools, the song “Another One Bites the Dust” will be blasted.

We will have lost our particular culture war.


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