A School System That Needs More Sense of 'We'

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I stood outside Room 407 and saw something I had never seen before. Two of our teachers were teaching a Collaborative Team Teaching class, and each of the teachers had graduated from our high school. It is hard to put into words how proud I felt.

Phil Weinberg Phil Weinberg

I went back to my office and reviewed our staff list. Nine of our staff members, including assistant principals, teachers, aides and security officers, are graduates of our school. Six assistant principals taught at our school, and four teachers were student teachers here.

We want our school to be a place that draws people in, makes them proud, and makes them want to contribute to our continuing success. Those people who have committed to our school by returning to us as staff members signify that we are accomplishing just that.

Marge Piercy's poem “The Low Road” describes why creating a community is so powerful. It concludes with the following lines:

it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

The poem reminds me that you don’t have to have graduated from our school to be an integral part of the community. (I didn’t, and I’ve now been here for 25 years!) But you have to be able to say “we” and know whom you mean.

I think the people with whom we work say “we” with pride, and they know what they mean when they say it. I'm not sure the same can be said for the city and the public school system.

At our school, we believe that above all else we must establish an ethic of kindness to teach our young people well, and so our classrooms are welcoming and safe places.

We believe that in America education is the key to owning your own life, and so we push our young people to take classes beyond those required by the state to graduate in the belief that doing so will empower them.

We believe that our school’s successes and trials cannot be reduced to a data set but must be examined carefully and honestly, and so we see it as our professional responsibility to build on those successes and to learn from those trials.

Like all good teachers, we believe in our hard work: we know that only by investing much more time and energy in our profession than is required of us can we help the young people with whom we are privileged to work.

It is the responsibility of school leaders to help foster a sense of community in our students and staff, and to help everyone in our organization know what we value in common and what “we” means to us.

I think it is the responsibility of the leaders of our city to do the same for all of us who work for the Department of Education, and I worry that citywide we may have lost our sense of the common ideals which ought to bring us together.

The Department of Education’s community has been fractured by a culture of competition and by an organization that is constantly in upheaval. Our accountability system places far more value on competition than on collaboration.

Can there be a shared sense of who we are, of what our common goals should be, while schools are in direct competition with one another?

We know that as our "peer schools" struggle, our own progress report grade will rise, and, frighteningly enough, those grades have become the chief arbiter of quality in the school system.

The constant churning we have experienced in the last nine years, opening and closing hundreds of schools and repeatedly gutting and reconfiguring our governance structures, has resulted in the loss of our institutional memory.

I don’t think it is possible to create a shared sense of purpose in the midst of such upheaval.

I know we want to create schools and a school system in which people band together and support common goals. If, as Ms. Piercy writes, when we say “we” we know whom we mean, it will help our schools become such places.

Working toward that common understanding of “we” will be challenging, but the rewards for doing so will strengthen our schools for years to come.