On the value of being (and staying) in the trenches!
Of course, the metaphor of “in the trenches” is a bit extreme, but I imagine in every profession it exists. In my case, the metaphor stands for people who stay in schools to work with kids, parents, and teachers. Once you leave to work in central office, the university, or a non-profit, you have left the trenches of building level work. I need to start by saying that I find many folks in central office helpful and sometimes inspiring, deeply value the close work I do with a couple of professors at the university level, and am constantly impressed by some of the new education non-profits that seem to be sprouting all over these days. So, this is not an “us vs. them” dichotomy.
But when you live in the trenches, life can be tough sometimes. When we are working in a school day in and day out, we can deal with volatile emotions and behaviors that sprout up at a moment’s notice and come from unexpected directions. Our valuable think time and less valuable paper work time is done late into the evening or on weekends. That is just the way it goes I guess. So every once in a while, when you are in the trenches, motivation is important. I found two great examples recently.
One is the example of Principal Mike McCarthy of King Middle School in Portland, Maine. Mike has been the principal of King for a couple of decades and has implemented Expeditionary Learning during his time there and transformed it into a model school. His list of ten “must do’s” for school leadership are totally quirky and honest, a hallmark of someone in the trenches doing the work. I love number six on the list: Take Responsibility for the Good and the Bad
“If the problems in your school or organization lie below you and the solutions lie above you, then you have rendered yourself irrelevant. The genius of school lies within the school. The solutions to problems are almost always right in front of you.”
That is the creed of the “in the trenches” principal. We have no job description, really, except that we take responsibility and help people to figure out the way through issues.
Mike’s work has supported and validated me for years in a vicarious manner. Years ago, while teaching in Baltimore, Jeannette’s school worked with Mike and his teachers on developing interdisciplinary units. That was my first introduction to Expeditionary Learning and I have had the dream of implementing this kind of education for years and am now finally starting to do it. Mike also inspires me because he has stayed at his school for so long. In the world of education leadership and policy, many of us are constantly looking for the next job, promotion, speaking gig, whatever instead of focusing in on what really matters. Mike, obviously a talented leader, chose to stay. We need to recognize people like that more often.
My second bit of inspiration comes from someone outside of the trenches, Richard Elmore of Harvard. Writing in the latest Harvard Education Letter (unfortunately not fully available online), he decries the glut of education grad students currently who taught for two years and now want to change the world through policy and leadership. When Elmore sees these students, he wants to tell them “use your time in graduate school to become a better practitioner and get back into schools as quickly as possible. You will have a much more profound effect on the education sector working in schools than you will ever have as a policy actor.” Why do so many leave school though to become “actors” at another level. I would argue that the school work is just plain hard.
I am sure Mike could have been an assistant superintendent or policy expert but he chose to stay in his school and have a profound effect on students.
I do understand the desire sometimes to leave the trenches. When a student tears up my office in a momentary rage or after a day (or many) of spending inordinate amounts of time supervising the cafeteria, bus duty, hall duty (you get the picture) I sometimes think that I should be doing more than this.
When I am able to step back though, and think, and find some motivation from people like Mike, I realize that it is through that kind of work, the day to day “trench work”, that allows me to have the impact on students that I have and hope to increase in the future. It also allows me to have credibility with all of the people I work with without going through my credentials. That is a valuable thing to have and something I don’t want to give up for another twenty to twenty five years at least.