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Pyramid Stories

For years Maslow’s pyramid has been part of the education administration curriculum I’ve been teaching as a State University of New York adjunct professor.  We review Maslow’s needs theory, from the foundation of the pyramid (basic needs like food and shelter) to the tip of the triangle (self actualization).

Maslows-hierarchy color

We talk about how Maslow believed that individual needs must be satisfied at each level before each individual can progress up the pyramid towards being all he or she can be.  We talk about how that theory applies to school administration.  We give examples of what administrators can do to foster a sense of belonging, of interdependence. We discuss the need for recognition, for creativity, for opportunity.

 With the death of legendary coach John Wooden last week, I’m wondering if I’ve been focusing on the wrong pyramid all these years. Maslow focused on needs; Wooden focused on responsibility.  Of course, they’re not mutually exclusive thoughts, but I was struck by how little we focus in schools on some of the basics upon which Wooden insisted:  friendship, loyalty, initiative, poise.  

Wooden's pyramid

Oh, sure, some of this comes under “character education” in some schools, but it’s often seen as a course of study rather than a way to live.  Wooden focused on how to live, and that’s what his players remembered years and years later.



A National Conversation?

New York State has over 700 school districts, and nearly all of them have to put their proposed budget before local voters the third Tuesday in May.  A few fun facts according to a news release from the Council of School Superintendents:

√ The average increase in spending was 1.4%.

√ Voter turnout was up.

√ The average tax increase was 3.2%.

√ Expected state aid to schools will be 5.1% less.

√ Districts outside New York City anticipate laying off 4% of teachers (6,300).

And, of course, we’re still in a recession and the voters are ANGRY, as we hear every day in the media.  So here’s a really surprising fun fact:

Voters approved over 92% of New York State proposed school budgets. School voters  

According to lots of respected voices in education, our schools are broken, our schools are failing, our eighth graders can’t do simple math.  In her Education Week blog, Diane Ravitch says there’s a “paradox” in education reform, namely that educators hate some of the new initiatives like RttT and school turnarounds, but the media love them.  And The AWL asks, “Why Won’t the Angry American Voter Do What the Pundits Say?”  Does anybody agree about anything in education these days?

It kind of makes you wonder, is it possible that this “national” conversation about our awful, broken schools is taking place within a high thin layer of the stratosphere well above the daily lives of parents who send their kids to school every day? Or is the conversation only about big city schools?  Because outside some of the big cities, lots of suburban, rural, and even city schools are getting the job done. 

We all remember the survey in which people gave low marks to schools in general, but B’s and A’s to their local schools.  I’m just asking – in this time of sharp and vehement criticism of schools, are we forgetting that some are pretty effective?  Effective enough that 92% of them here won local support. 





The Question Ignored by RttT

Scales  Steven Brill’s article, “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand,” in The New York Times Magazine provoked lots of pointedly defensive letters in last Sunday’s edition.  In case you missed it, Brill described what he called “a frontal challenge to teachers’ unions” by the Obama administration and others who he said “argue that a country that spends more per pupil than any other but whose student performance ranks in the bottom third among developed nations isn’t failing its children for lack of resources but for lack of trained, motivated, accountable talent at the front of the class.”

Most of the letters, like Randi Weingarten’s, were predictable, blaming “the system” or kids’ backgrounds.  However, I was struck by a letter from Collette Cullen from Wayne County, Michigan.

 I am a teacher of 34 years and a union sister for 34 years. … I believe a key question is being neglected:  when will financing for our future students become equitable? I would give up my union, and my tenure, if and when all students receive the same amount of federal and local aid. I would willingly have my salary adjusted when teachers from suburban and urban areas are remunerated for their work equally.  Maybe we teachers are part of the problem in education, but I am willing to be part of the solution when tougher questions get asked.  Is it fair that some students are allotted more money than others?

Race to the Top, of course, exacerbates the problem of unequal funding, despite its enticement for individual states to rethink and redesign their respective systems.  The mission statement of the newly adopted Common Core State Standards says that the standards will provide “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so that teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.”  Assuming, of course, that the funding is there.

So great point, Ms. Cullen.  Is anybody listening?



Career Questions

Q:  As a teacher I often get invited to graduation parties for students with whom I’ve been particularly close.  The last few years I’ve been wondering if I should go.  The major concern I have is that alcohol is often served, and often the graduates are standing around drinking beer.  The drinking age in my state is 21, and all of these kids are no more than 18 or 19.  I feel compromised when I walk up to congratulate a student holding a bottle of beer in his hand.  Any advice?

A:  While you are not responsible for offering students alcohol, it’s easy to see why you would feel compromised in this situation.  Saying something about it seems somehow ungracious (after all, their parents are right there and know their child and maybe his or her friends are drinking).  Still, ignoring that bottle of beer might suggest tacit approval.

Beer  It’s an individual choice, of course.  If you do attend, I suggest arriving early, having nothing alcoholic yourself to drink, and leaving after a very short time.  You can congratulate the student and his or her parents, and then leave.  Folks are usually just pleased that you showed up, however briefly.  I myself decided to forego all parties a few years ago.  Under a worse case scenario involving students drinking and driving, I never wanted anyone to say, “Well, the principal (or superintendent) was there at the party.  She knew kids were drinking.”



Fifty Dollars Worth of Books

Good news for schools that have found it necessary to cut summer school for elementary students:  A new study shows that giving kids books to read over the summer is as effective in stopping “summer slide” as summer school.

KidsReading  USA Today reports that a study to be published later this year in Reading Psychology shows that low-income kids who received 12 free books of their choice over 3 summers had significantly higher reading scores that the control group of kids who didn’t get books.  Besides having better test scores, the kids who got books were more independent readers.

Researchers concentrated on low-income kids who may not have access to the library like their middle-income peers whose parents may take them to the library frequently during the summer. 

The program, which ran as an experiment in 7 states, will be extended to several more cities this summer.  In most cases the books are paid for with Title I monies, and Scholastic, my blog sponsor, offers the books at a discount.  Rebecca Constantino, a professor at the University of California - Irvine, says, "When kids own books, they get this sense, 'I'm a reader.'"

So, as Greg Toppo asks in the USA Today article, can $50 worth of paperback books do as much for a kid’s reading ability as $3000 worth of summer school?  Early research seems to say yes.



Test Prep for Little Kids

So how do most elementary schools prepare their students to do their best on state and standardized tests as the school year winds down?

Well, many teachers and principals will remind children (and maybe their parents) about the importance of a good night’s sleep and breakfast before the test.  They will give children breaks during testing, remembering that current studies show that kids do better when they have a little physical exercise.  They will encourage them to do their best, but remind them that it is, after all, just a test.  And if teachers have done a good job throughout the year, kids should feel confident they’ll do OK on the tests.

Tests  That’s what most schools do.  Except for one elementary school in Williamsburg, Virginia.  There the leadership believes that to ensure that kids focus on the tests and understand how REALLY IMPORTANT they are, it would be a good idea to cancel recess for two weeks during the testing period.  Oh yeah, they also cancelled all special area classes too – library, physical education, music, art.  Even the preschoolers in the adjoining modular buildings, who (thank heavens) weren’t subjected to testing, lost their outdoor playtime so as not to distract the other children holed up in their classrooms.

OK, so ignore the research if you want to.  But treating kids like this is unconscionable.  If you do your job throughout the year, you shouldn’t have to worry.




Mendon-Union High School closed its doors almost 20 years ago, so the alumni reunion at the Legion was decidedly gray.  Still, the 200 or so graduates or near graduates embraced one another and their memories with enthusiasm and nostalgia.

Tucked into the northwest corner of Ohio, tiny Mendon has seen better days.  The Class of 1960, celebrating their 50th reunion, graduated during the town’s heyday. By the time the Class of 1985 graduated, the town was in decline.

The Class of ’60 met for lunch at the Pirate’s Cove, named for the school’s mascot and festooned with old Pirate uniforms and class pictures. Across the street stores were shuttered and empty.  The owner of the  Mendon Union  Cove, Class of ’62, admits that he doesn’t make any money there.  “I just keep it open so there’s something on Main Street, ” he says.   He explains that he has a scrap metal business in the next town that covers the restaurant’s expenses.

Later that night dinner at the Legion features “The Real Son of Elvis Aaron Presley.”  He asks all the military veterans to stand while he honors them with a patriotic song.  I brace myself for the ubiquitous “Proud to Be an American,” but Elvis never sang that, so neither would his “real son.”  The Real Son sang “Dixie.”

The old building was torn down a few years ago, and the alumni association is selling bricks to build a memorial to the school.  It will stand at the entrance to a park and playground.  It will cost $30,000 and the association has already raised almost $25,000.  The donors, most of whom moved away years ago, attended the school a lifetime ago.  The school memorial will be proof that these sixtysomethings were once, like today’s high schoolers, young and foolish and optimistic.  

Career Questions

Q:  In the past few years, I’ve drifted to the back of the room at faculty meetings, not speaking up or defending my point of view to colleagues. Sometimes I feel like I’ve really lost my sense of authority at school. How can I regain that strength and confidence I used to have?

A:  It’s called “plateauing.” After teaching the same grade level or the same subject for a number of years, most teachers reach a degree of competence that no longer requires them to challenge themselves.  You know the material, you understand kids, and you know how the system works.  If you’re not careful, you can move your career to “autopilot.”

Plateauing is not unusual in careers that don’t allow a lot of advancement within the ranks.  A first-year teacher, for example, may have the same assignment as a 20-year veteran.  Some teachers may become department chairs or mentors, but unless you decide to change your career path and become an administrator, the possibility that each year will look just like the one before it becomes very real.

So how do you stay energized in your chosen profession?  Think about volunteering for a different assignment.  Change grade levels (I know, you already have all those materials.   Plateau  But that’s part of the “autopilot” thing.)  If you teach 9th grade English, ask for 11th grade.  If you have an interest in something outside your classroom – writing, golf, gardening, chess – volunteer to start a club.

Maybe it’s been too long since you’ve been out of the classroom.  Ask your principal if you can go to a conference to see what’s new in the field.  With summer coming, read those books you haven’t had a chance to open.  Join the gym or get out and walk every day.

All of these ideas take time and effort, but they can provide a new sense of purpose.  After all, it’s your life we’re talking about here.  Renew, refresh, revitalize!




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.