DOE Can Learn From Teachers How To Lead

Teachers are leaders, first and foremost. We have to be, or we wouldn’t be able to do anything else. We can debate curriculum and methodology but if we’re not in charge in the classroom chaos ensues. This doesn’t mean we have to be dictatorial, and it doesn’t mean we can’t admit it when we’re wrong. To me, it means when and if we have to take control, we do.

The leader of the New York City school system is Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. Last week, Walcott determined that teachers should come in on Friday to “prepare for school opening Monday.” The reasoning behind this decision – and the way it was delivered to teachers – was problematic, at best.

Edubloggers had a field day conjecturing what the decision was all about. I, for one, did not need to travel to my school to prepare for Monday’s lesson. I had plans for last Monday, and they will still be valid when I return. If my students want to talk about the storm, I’ll let them do it. I’m a language teacher, and nothing stirs conversation like something people really care about. If I don’t get through my whole plan, I’ll use the rest of it Tuesday. I didn’t need a staff meeting to discuss this, and I’d venture few if any of my colleagues did either.

It would have been very different if we’d been called to help. If our schools were in trouble, we’d gladly show up and do whatever we could. Many in fact did just that. If we’d been called to another school that needed some kind of help, we’d be there with no complaints. But to use gas, in such short supply, to drive to the city and not teach seemed nothing less than profane.

On top of that, Walcott sent a message to teachers to report at 10 a.m.. He sent this message via email at 12:52 a.m. Monday morning. Perhaps Walcott thinks teachers check their work emails at one in the morning. Perhaps he thinks teachers check D.O.E. email before rushing off to work in the wake of the worst hurricane in our living memory. He should think again.

Walcott had days to plan for this, and if he determined a late opening was the best way to go, he could have given us more than sufficient notice. If he’d determined having us come in to not teach was a waste of time, he could have simply kept schools closed. Most teachers were at my school before 8:30 a.m., due to the fact that Walcott’s message failed to get through.

I’m at a friend’s apartment, since a flood ripped through two floors of my house. Some of my colleagues have seen worse. Having driven to Queens today for no good reason, and having driven all over to find the equipment I’ll need to turn on the electricity in my home this week, I wonder whether I’ll even have enough gas to get in to teach next week.

It’s not easy to be a leader. It’s even harder if you haven’t thought through what you’re doing. I know; I teach teenagers who don’t hesitate to share their opinions about what is going on in the classroom.

As school gets underway, and teachers return to their classrooms, let me say this: if I ran my high school classes the way Walcott runs the school system, I’d resign.