Rebecca Rider column: A little more conversation, please

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 18, 2016

The school system has been through a lot in the past few years. A new superintendent, increased technology, new assessment measures, a new strategic plan and more than a few debates have rocked the boat.

It can be stressful for a teacher, not knowing the full rationalization behind new initiatives, or not having access to the “big picture” of the school system. So I’m always pleased to see teachers at central office professional development sessions. I realize it’s time they have to take out of their day, and perhaps they’re not always pleased to be there, but I think everyone breathes a little sigh of relief when teachers are invited to be part of the conversation — because it doesn’t always happen.

Last Thursday, I was invited to attend a debriefing session for a professional development workshop. For the past few days, educators had been examining the school system under a microscope — looking at all of the initiatives and policies that were put into place over the past two years — and taking stock of where the school system was, developmentally, and where it wanted to go.

And teachers were invited. But more than that, teachers were encouraged to talk — even if it was to express disagreement. During a debrief Q&A, I remember that one teacher said that while he benefitted from the session, he felt that it had included a little too much patting on the back.

That honesty is a huge step. Administrative staff may say that they encourage input from teachers — and perhaps, they do. Perhaps, they do mean well. But it’s not always a feeling that trickles down to classrooms. In my half a year covering education, I have, overwhelmingly, gotten the impression that teachers feel like they cannot honestly and openly share their thoughts on the school system, and that they have little input.

Now, that may not be the truth of the matter, but emotions tend to trump truth when people feel like they don’t have a voice.

Last week I spoke to a teacher who was thrilled to be invited to the development session. She was a first-grade teacher at Hanford-Dole, by the name of Kathryn Bates, and she was so happy to be in that room — in the same room as principals, as other teachers, as the superintendent and members of the Board of Education.

She said she often felt like, as a teacher, her voice didn’t matter. But the development session was a chance for her to speak up — to share ideas and to bring everyone up to speed on the next steps for the district. It was a chance for her to be heard.

“We’re all on the same page, and that’s a good feeling,” she said.

And that’s what I kept hearing from teachers, over and over again. Everyone has the same goal, in the end — to prepare students to go out and meet the world. So everyone should be heard.

“We have to do this as a team,” Bates said.

So I encourage the system to reach out to teachers more. Sometimes, people need to be reminded that the lines of communication are, in fact, open. Sometimes, people need to be encouraged that they can express doubt, or a negative opinion, without consequence, without fear.

I’ve heard people use the analogy of a boat to describe the school system: everyone has to be all in, eyes on the prize. But I think that’s a false analogy. A school system is not a boat, or a tool — not right now, at least. It’s a puzzle. And it will never be solved if everyone thinks the same way, if everyone agrees with each other.

Respectfully differing, and even dissenting, voices are invaluable when you’re tackling a hard problem. They help you see the flaws in your own logic. They help you make a stronger solution. Sometimes, we all need to be reminded of that.

But, whether their feedback is positive or negative, the system won’t budge an inch if teachers aren’t more involved in major decision making.

Contact education reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264 or