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Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Monday, July 28, 2008

All Things to All People

Once my children were of school-age, I decided it was time to pick up the threads of my own teaching career and actively searched for a teaching job again. My context was Ontario, Canada having just moved there from another province. The time was the late nineteen seventies when the public school system in the area was in a declining position – too many young teachers and not enough retirees. No jobs were available and thus I turned to the private system to see what possibilities there might be. I eventually got a job in a private clinic and school that specialized in programming for children with learning disabilities. I became very interested in this area, pursued a specialist and a master’s degree in special education, taught there quite happily for a few years as a teacher and was then offered the position of becoming a teaching administrator and a partner in this enterprise. Finding myself as a partner in a private school was not something I had anticipated as a former public school teacher. But, I took up this new challenge with relish. However, now as an administrator I was involved in setting fees and I was quickly dismayed that our fee structure had to be quite significant just to make ends meet – pay our staff, pay the rent and purchase teaching resources as needed. It was the wealthy clients who could primarily afford our service as there was quite a low pupil-teacher ratio. There was also a small group of parents who made significant sacrifices to send their children – valuing education over their own needs quite obviously. There were no subsidies available to offer clients who could not afford the service. The centre was well respected with students making very good gains. I rationalized the fact we had to charge the dollars we did as despite our fees, I was not personally taking a salary that compared to what I would make in the public system. We were making different kinds of sacrifices as employees to serve kids well. Truth be told, we also had different levels of autonomy and creativity in our programming as well.

I did not feel we really competed with the public system. Rather, it seemed that the public system was having a hard time being all things to all people. The stories we heard from parents indicated that they were looking for a much more personalized education – one which gave their children with learning disabilities hope and self confidence. There were many private schools around us – some ivy league and some small private enterprises like ours. At that time, quality control by the Ministry of Education was limited and only those schools which offered credits were inspected.

By the late eighties, the job market had opened up in the public system and I was ready for a change – a change in opportunity, a change in salary, a change in which I could return to a setting where all kids could be served. I rejoined the public system as a diagnostic and resource teacher and soon began a fortunate career in this setting, moving from teacher to vice principal, principal and superintendent. I completed a doctorate in educational administration in 2004 – focussing my own research on the complexities of collaborative work in a large school system. Large systems have many contradictions to deal with – more resources and many more challenges including how to help people work together in effective ways.

The challenge for me as an individual is to reconcile that at times, in the large system that I am now a part of, we are not able to personalize the education for many children in the way I was able to in a small private system. I am a more fortunate employee as a public servant but now lack the autonomy or creativity I had as private school administrator. The question I continue to wrestle with is what kind of a learning environment best serves students. The one clear advantage I had as a teacher in a private learning clinic was to develop a strong bond with each of my students and to know them really well – their strengths, weaknesses and interests. I would not see more than five to ten students at a time. The students had individual learning plans which were reviewed often. On-going assessment did drive our instruction as adjustments were made on a daily basis. And, as parents were clear advocates for an excellent education …..they were, of course, paying privately after paying their taxes, there was a clear accountability factor for me, as well.

As I consider how my experience as a private school administrator intersects with my public school experience, I acknowledge that the conflict I feel is an intrapersonal one – one which makes me question what the value added piece within large systems as opposed to smaller ones. What do we gain in the way we congregate our weaker students and what do we lose. There is not a clear cut answer in a large public system as to how to personalize education for all children. Our classes are diverse as is the expertise of our teaching staff. I love the bustle of a large school and the spirit that arises when forty adults work with students and create a warm and inviting school community. However, success is not guaranteed for every child in many public schools. Children who have the label of learning disability are often perceived as less able and expectations may not be set as high as they should be. History has shown us that kids do fall between the cracks. Mediocrity can survive in many settings unless there is a clear moral imperative to improve the school culture and student achievement for all students including those with learning differences. Unions often imprint expectations about teacher working conditions that impact student learning conditions and large systems create structures that shape relationships. By contrast, I did find that in a small private setting with a closely knit staff, the relationship with parents and students became quite an intense and closely tracked affair. Results were anticipated and expected while different pressures are felt.

Perhaps the issue is that there is no “best” setting but a need to create settings around the needs of our students and the price of this kind of a setting varies. Ultimately, we need public systems to become “all things to all people” and to develop the kind of flexibility and creativity to serve students in optimal ways. Finally, it appears that on a personal level, rationalization can become a coping mechanism and a way of integrating conflicting value orientations.

This submission was authored by Beate Planche, Ed.D. and posted by the blog administrator.


JTW said...

You make some very interesting and absolutely true comments in regard to public versus private education. Studies have shown that we must look at students through a multicultural lens making sure that special education labels are given to those who are truly in need of one. The disproportionality of minority students within the special education population is overwhelming and must be addressed. One must consider the student environment as to bias not only in the classroom but within the culture of the school. As an administrator it is our job to ensure that all of the factors (social, environmental, organizational) are taken into consideration and that interventions must be put in place before a child is given a label. Unfortunately as you stated quite well, often times in the public school setting due to financial constraints as well as other outside forces we are unable to provide our students with those interventions. It almost comes down to survival of the fittest, which goes against those of us who value the ethic of care. We want what is best for all, but yet is that possible?

Anonymous said...

Your post was heartfelt. Your dilemma of trying to be all things to all people, earn a living and make a difference in the lives of your students all intersected at a critical point. I left the public school arena to be a private preschool administrator and I know the sacrifices that are made on a daily basis. However, whether serving children in the private or public arena, an administrator who strives to have that personal connection with each child with their learning needs at the forefront, is to be commended.

ECM said...

I feel glad for your students in the public school setting--it's not often they are led by a teacher or administrator who has had experience with students with learning disabilities, especially in an intimate setting. Though you struggled with the structures of the public education system, I suspect that your experience in the private school better enabled you to see the public school systematically and optimize the structures of the public school. It sounds to me that your intrapersonal debate corresponds to a conflict between the self or profession and the organization, as the structures of each organization made it difficult for you to feel confident that each individual was cared for effectively.

Norm Miller said...

I enjoyed reading this blog. Having worked in a large school and a small school (both were public), I can say that there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Yes, small schools tend to be tightly knit whereas the larger schools can seem more like small cities. However, in the large public schools, administrators can create small learning communities to help to address some of the issues with students who might fall through the cracks. Additionally, larger schools may be able (especially in this day and age because of funding) to provide more opportunities for a greater variety of students. I agree with your statement that we need public systems to become “all things to all people” and to develop the kind of flexibility and creativity to serve students in optimal ways. I believe that both large and small schools can do this (public or private). I believe that we as administrators can create schools that truly strive to meet the needs of all students --- create a better blend of the large and small school (whether public or private).

karen said...

First, I think your school is extremely fortunate to have a leader who understands children with special needs and who also values serving students. My three children attended public school, but my grandchild attends a private Catholic school. I notice a substantial difference. In the smaller, private school there is more attention given to families. There is concern about students' overall well being, and achievement doesn't seem to be the absolute goal of the institution as it does in many public schools today as a result of NCLB. I truly feel my grandchild is in better hands in this setting where there are only fifteen students in a classroom, and where there are teachers and administrators that know her personally.
That is not to say that this can't be achieved in a public school with ideas like Norm offered in his post, but it's very difficult. You had the benefit of seeing the possibilities. Having worked in public education for 19 years, I would never have believed that private education would have such advantages. Don't do too much rationalizing. Keep seeing those possibilities.

Ty said...

Interesting blog, thank you for posting. I wonder why we expect public schools to be "all things to all people." Is that a realistic expectation given the resources that many schools and districts are given to work with?

Not having worked in the public school system, I am not familiar with the administrative structures, regulatory systems, etc. How would an administrator at a public school add flexibility and creativity into how things are done?

As jtw stated, "we want what is best for all, but yet is that possible?" I don't know if it is a public school's responsibility to be all things to all people. I wonder if filling the multiple needs of children should be left largely to parents. While that is not always possible, I would think it would be preferable.

Sam said...

This is a wondeful professional experience. You are resilient and relentless in making a setting to befit the needs of all people. What I have leanred from your experience is that I should strive to create a setting to become the "best" rather finding a best setting since one cannot easily be found. You have inspired me greatly. Thank you.


Keun Jin said...

You post shows the comparison between equality and diversity. These two different values are important to education. However, sometimes, only one value is emphasized and the other is ignored. I think public and private schools have thier own role in education.