For the first 15 years I taught in my current school I had a key to my room but I didn’t have a key to the building. No teacher did. The concern was that if one of us lost our key, the door would have to be re-keyed and a new set of keys would have to be distributed. What it meant was that if I wanted to work on a Saturday or Sunday or the evening, I would need to call my principal, go to his house, pick up the key. And then return it when I was done.
I’ll never forget the faculty meeting when our new principal said, “I have a gift for you.” At that moment one of the assistant principals came in to the room with a giant key ring with 100 master keys on it. I was stunned. The long-time Spanish teacher sitting next to me literally squealed with joy.
Oddly enough, in my career as an educator, which spans three decades, this is one of the most memorable things a principal has ever done for his or her staff. It was about empowerment, trust and autonomy.
I am not saying that other principals I worked for didn’t trust and empower me. They have. But If you ask me, public education is less about empowerment, trust and autonomy than it is about control. Public education is hierarchical, all the way from “No Child Left Behind” down to the way many teachers still arrange their classrooms. And I think all of this is a hindrance to the kind of learning and teaching processes that need to be occurring in 21st century schools.
What is the “key” to improvement? I have some ideas but for me it will start tomorrow in my sophomore world history class when I outline what needs to be done this semester and then ask my students to help me figure out how we are going to do it.