What’s the Message?

Recently I was conversing with several educators from the same district’s central office team. They shared with me that last spring a decision was made to send all central office staff into the schools six weeks before the state testing date to work with students around common reading skill deficiencies. Teachers identified the students with common needs and they were available for this crash tutoring opportunity.

The week of the test the central office tutors disappeared from the schools and the school life of the students with whom they had been working. As I heard this practice described, I tried to consider “what message” a tutored student would draw.

If they wondered “How important am I?”, I’m guessing the answer they’d reach is, “not very”.  If I were important to these tutors, they would not be leaving. Certainly my reading fluency or comprehension has not made a major increase. So, why did the tutor invest the time during these 6 weeks? Could it be that my test score is important to them? Perhaps, more important than I am.

(I asked one of the central office tutors, “What progress do you think you made with the students during this time”?  She responded, “ I think I had the students interested in reading. That hit me. What a terrible time to leave the learners.)

When teachers are in a staff meeting listening to the principal’s presentation on the test score results for the last year and what should be the focus as the new year starts, what message are the teachers receiving? Are they hearing in that message how critical student learning is in the life of the students? Are they hearing how important they are as professional, caring adults in the life of the students?  Or, are they getting a message that the test scores are most important to the principal….. perhaps, more important than the teaching and learning taking place in classrooms.

When central office staff are meeting with principals and discussing the results of a required state standardized test, what message are they hearing? Are they hearing how important their leadership is in building teaching and learning capacities of the teachers and students they serve? Are they hearing how the central office team is ready to support them in the critical work they do? Or, could it be they are hearing how important the scores are to the superintendent and the board. Perhaps, more important than the school leaders?

In the video How to Avoid Education’s Death Valley , Ken Robinson describes how education is an human system. He suggests that a command- and- control structure will not succeed in bringing about the student achievement results we desire. He says the real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibilities.

This week I challenged a team of central office and school based leaders to consider opening the year with this statement to their teams:

“If you ever feel that the message you are receiving from me is that the test scores are more important to me than you and the people you serve are, please challenge me. Either you have misunderstood my message or I have made a mistake and lost sight of my goal: To support everyone serving students in the quest for learning.”

 I’m hopeful that teachers believing this message from leaders would create the climate for possibilities in their classrooms…and that their students would blossom.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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