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Mark P. Murphy
Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Tuesday, October 14, 2008



Note: This narrative was authored by ECM and posted to the blog by the blog administrator.

As a middle school reading teacher, I worked as part of the middle school team. Because my district was tiny—fewer than 800 students—all the middle school teachers (grades 7-8) were on the same team because there was only one teacher for each subject area for both grades. Other members of the team included: the science, social studies, math, English, learning support and writing/public speaking teachers, and the blended and guidance counselors. The middle school principal, nurse, and school psychologist were also official members of the team, though they only came to meetings if necessitated by a specific situation. The team met every day for 40 minutes, during which time we discussed student academic, social, and emotional issues, as well as complaints about administrators, parents, and all the other issues that typically promote faculty grumbling. We also met with students and parents, held IEP conferences, and planned middle school events.

I should point out that while I considered most of my colleagues to be excellent teachers, my teaching style was quite different. My desks were arranged in groups of four; I had a reading corner with a lending library, bean bags and carpet; and my classes were largely based on small and large group discussions and projects related to text. My colleagues subscribed to the more traditional classroom set-up and lecture formats.

The extent of my participation in team conversations was determined largely by topic. On a number of occasions, our team got into heated arguments over policies, and responses to organizational dilemmas. At other times, the whole team would debate a student issue or school policy with an administrator or the school psychologist. Team members also argued issues directly related to the practice of teaching and to the students. One such case was the deliberation over the possibility of sending Maria to the alternative school, housed in a defunct garment factory next door.

I thought this was the worst idea anyone could ever have considered! Maria was a Mexican-American student who had just moved into the district one year ago and received learning support for a reading disability. (She was the only Mexican-American student in the school.) Her mother was a drug dealer who, after a drug arrest, purchased a bus ticket and went to Mexico to live with her boyfriend, abandoning her children. Maria’s younger brother (a sixth grade student in the elementary school) had overdosed on cocaine earlier in the year and was lucky to survive. Maria was taking care of her younger siblings with no parent in the house until Children & Youth finally stepped in and placed Maria with a foster family in the district who knew her and her family.

Because of all of these factors, naturally Maria had some trouble with authority figures. I sent her to the office on a number of occasions, myself, until I figured out how to relate to her. Other teachers could not make the situation work, and, consequently, Maria spent many after-school hours in detention. So, it was no surprise when three of the team members, including the learning support teacher (who had a very large teaching load), proposed that Maria should go to the alternative school.

The alternative school was tiny, bursting at the seams with students from our district and a neighboring district, ranging from grades 7 to 12. One and one-half teachers and an aide were in charge of the alternative school. Students completed their work online in the mornings and were free to play computer games, as a reward for good behavior, in the afternoons. The students in the school were mainly drug dealers and other habitual disciplinary problems. It was basically a dumping ground for those students who teachers could not cope with in the regular building.

I entered this debate with passion. Why would we send the abandoned daughter of a drug dealer to this building? What good would we accomplish by placing her with drug dealers? What would we be teaching her by abandoning her yet again? Didn’t we owe it to this girl to spend some extra time with her? My worries fell on deaf ears in our team meeting, so I met with the blended counselor on my own. She agreed that it would be a bad placement for the student, but the teachers and the principal did not want to deal with her anymore. I talked to the principal. He wanted to do what the team requested. The foster mother agreed to the move because Maria was behind in her coursework, and the principal assured her that Maria could make up any lost time (up to one school year) in the alternative education setting.

This was a really challenging interpersonal situation for me. While I was concerned about the impact of this decision on Maria, my colleagues were concerned about the impact her behavior would continue to have on their classes. We were arguing from two very different perspectives. I had the minority voice, so we shipped her off to the alternative education building mid-year. Two years later, I still feel that we failed Maria.

Step 1: Interpretation of the problem:

The stakeholders included the teachers, counselors, administrator, Maria, and her foster mother. Maria was voiceless. Her foster mother agreed to the placement because she thought Maria could make up an academic year in the five months remaining in the school year.

The following arenas of practice are relevant: self, professional, organizational, community, cultural, with conflict occurring between and within multiple arenas. Conflicts existed between the self and organizational and between the professional and organizational. My values conflicted with the values I perceived in the organization—order and conformity over the individual. I also felt conflict between my personal professional values and those of my colleagues—I was willing to spend extra time without an aide to help Maria with her coursework, but my colleagues were unable or unwilling, in some cases, to act similarly. I believe conflicts existed between the organizational and cultural, and community and cultural, as well, which made it so difficult for my colleagues to work with this student, many of whom were from the district community or a neighboring community, both with homogeneous rural populations.

Values in conflict included: flexibility, adaptability, obedience, authority, justice, conformity, teamwork. The values in conflict created some turbulence within the team as the blended counselor and I lost an impassioned battle over what we perceived to be dangerous social and academic risk to one student.

Step 2: Towards a humane response:

I think my colleagues were concerned with the self and preference, as removing Maria from their classrooms would create a less challenging experience in their classrooms. I think they were also concerned with desired outcomes—fewer distractions from Maria would mean more uninterrupted time and focus spent on content. The counselor and I were concerned with avoidance of undesired outcomes—we saw a move to alternative education as possibly disastrous for Maria’s future. Maria’s foster mother and the principal were concerned with perceptions of others and consensus among experts, which they largely received. The conflict was interpersonal, with colleagues differing in values, motives, and actions.

The human needs were, for Maria, the sense that people around her cared enough to spend the extra time required to help her understand content and develop positive relationships of caring. Maria’s foster mother had a need to feel that she was taking proactive steps to help Maria further her education and improve her behavior.

Step 3: Ethical action:

The actions taken by the principal—sending Maria to the alternative education building—maximized benefits for most stakeholders. Maria would no longer be a distraction in my colleagues’ classes. Keeping Maria in the regular school and providing her with increased counseling services and academic support would have respected her individual rights. A more open team system, in which colleagues shared effective practices in working with learning support or behaviorally challenging students, might have alleviated discipline problems concerning Maria before alternative education was even considered. The ends did not interfere with the means for the majority because sending Maria to the alternative building alleviated distractions in my colleagues’ classrooms. The ends would have interfered with the means if we were making a decision based on best interests for the student and her potential for academic and social success.

1 comment:

karen said...

First, I find myself wondering if your were the "new teacher." Even if you weren't, I'm thinking that teachers like you are the educators that have a strong teacher "ethos" that put students first and try to do what's "right" or in a student's best interests. Accounts like this remind us that good teachers often get discouraged and find themselves struggling when their personal values conflict with those of the organization. This may be one of the reasons the attrition rate for teachers is much higher than other occupations.

I admire your passion and am sorry it didn't pay off. Do you think that perhaps these other teachers need some diversity training?