Opening Day Ritual

Each year teachers are herded into darkened auditoriums to listen to administrators, consultants, or a guest speaker present a new vision of learning, or a new mandate to be complied with, or a new program favored by the board. While administrators on stage drone on about excellence, the technique of the day, or protocols for an upcoming accreditation visit, teachers are busy exchanging class lists, reviewing purchase orders for the supplies they ordered during the summer, and whispering highlights from their summer travels. Periodically, an administrator standing in back of the auditorium will move to different aisles in the auditorium looking to quiet the murmurs from teachers anxious to get into their classrooms.

The source of the failure of the opening day ritual to hold the attention of teachers, to commit to working with new pedagogical models, or to renew their original motivation for entering the profession of teaching, are presentations that are thick on visions, goals, and due dates, and thin on purpose, resources, and training.

There are two strategies district and building administrators could employ to transform the opening day ritual from a recitation of administrative wants to educational oughts. The first strategy is a simple axiom quoted to me by a mentor of mine: “The faster you get teachers out of auditorium seats and into desk chairs the better.” What she meant by this comment was the purposes, the problems, the programs, and the vocabularies of administrators are far removed from the purposes, the problems, the programs and the vocabularies of the classroom. Unless these two worlds can talk and work on common ground, then let teachers get into their classrooms as fast as possible.

The second strategy is to tell a good story—one that is understandable, is emotional, and is memorable. There are three elements to a good story. First and foremost, you must persuade the audience why they should care about a schoolwide problem—teachers must perceive that WE have a problem. Using managerial vocabularies—data, programs, test scores, rules and regulations—will not draw the attention of teachers from class lists to the speaker on the stage. What will draw their attention to auditorium stages is naming a student, a parent, a teacher, a fellow administrator who experienced a significant social, emotional, or intellectual set back or success—one that schooling had some power to shape.

Secondly, the schoolwide problem must have an identifiable cause. The identified “cause” could have originated from a theory, from a data point, from a study group, from a consultant, or from members of the school community. It is vital to a good story that the cause be understandable and solvable.

Lastly, the story must answer the question on the minds of all the teachers seated in darkened auditoriums: “How will we do this?” The short answer to that question would include what theories, ideas, practices will be adopted; what organizational and instructional routines must change; what training regimes will the district employ; and what resources will be needed to achieve the goals of the strategy.

Above all the story must communicate a sincere commitment to resolving the schoolwide problem. That commitment is demonstrated when administrators know what they are talking about; when they appreciate the challenges of classroom teaching; when they participate with staff in the problem solving process; when they show an openness to changing organizational structures and routines to accommodate agreed upon solutions; and, most importantly, when they deliver the necessary resources required to implement an agreed upon solution.

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