Animosity in School District Causes Problems

Dear Dr. Sylvia:

Q. I have been reading your book, “Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades and What You Can Do About It” (Great Potential Press Inc, 2008) while I am also pursuing a second Masters degree in Educational Leadership (My first is an MS in Healthcare Management). The current district I am teaching is in vast need of your expertise. This is my first year here, but my 7th year of teaching. I am trying to find the right way to help this district get on the road turning the underachievers into the achieving students that I’m sure they can be.

What holds me back most is that this district is at war with itself. In spite of this obvious animosity and verbose disgust between teaching staff, administration and parents, the Superintendent is intent on having the teaching staff set up Professional Learning Committees. This requires full support of the administration and teaching staff in order for the idea to work, but both sides don't trust each other.

I get the feeling that the Superintendent doesn't care about the animosity, that feelings are very raw among the staff and it will take a lot on the part of the administration for this to be successful. It is frustrating to see this and stay to the outside. Do you have any advice about how to get both parties to clear the air? I ask because, unless this gets straightened out, I can't see my staying in this school district beyond this year.

A. Perhaps it's your work in your various Masters Degree programs that has sensitized you to the management issues taking place in your school, or maybe they're so bad that they're obvious to all. I don't know much about Professional Learning Committees, but your superintendent may be intending to use them to heal relationships between administration and teachers. Although it's obvious to you that there are major antagonisms as a first year teacher in your school, you're probably not in a position to do much about the continuing conflict. Although it may seem like the Superintendent doesn't care, he probably cares very much. While you may eventually decide to leave the district, I'd recommend that you don’t announce such threats or you may not be invited back just when you’ve decided you love your school after all. My experience working with schools is that either the animosity eventually diminishes or School Boards make dramatic changes.

The more important part of the answer to your question follows. You want to reverse underachievement and I know you can. Sometimes entire school districts adopt all or parts of my Tri-focal Model for reversing underachievement, but other times, teachers choose to reverse underachievement in only their classrooms. While it's easier if your colleagues join you, you can successfully reverse underachievement of one child at time, these children and their parents will appreciate your help and your progress will soon be known.

Don't let the conflict in your school prevent you accomplishing what you can--that is helping your students work to their abilities. In that way, you won't be an underachieving teacher. You can feel good about what you're accomplishing instead of avoiding the challenge by reason of a somewhat dysfunctional school. Your task is more challenging than it would be otherwise, but my message for your mission, is much like one that I would give to a middle school student who blames his or her underachievement on peer pressure to underachieve. Your determination to teach well is at least as crucial to you as the motivation for a peer pressured child to learn. Your students need your commitment and dedication and you will feel better about yourself if you can cut through the politics and concentrate on your teaching mission.