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Leadership, Opinion, Policy, Promising Practices

Out of sight, out of mind?

Finding where policy matters the most

I grew up in a family where, as children, our opinions or perspectives were seldom sought. As I became more educated (and more opinionated) I was often frustrated that conversations were shut down before my voice could be fully heard. I can remember a time when our extended family had gathered for a summer afternoon around the pool. Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and parents were sitting around after supper and my father tried to animate the conversation by making a rather provocative statement about public education. My eyes immediately started to flash in response, but I said nothing. At one point in the conversation, my dad turned to me and said, “Stephen, don’t you have an opinion on this?” I calmly replied, “Oh I have an opinion…I’m just not used to being asked.” After a few seconds of awkward silence, the entire table burst out in supportive laughter. Everyone knew what had just taken place!


In a passionately written introduction to their recently released CTF report, The Far Side of Educational Reform, Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley observe, quite rightly, that teachers are often found at the end of the road when it comes to conversations about school reform:


Apart from students and parents, they are often the very last to be consulted about and connected to agendas of what changes are needed in education, and of how those changes should be managed. Educational change is something that government departments, venture philanthropists, performance-driven economists and election-minded legislators increasingly arrogate to themselves. Even when these policy-setting and policy-transporting bodies speak on behalf of teachers, teachers often have little or no voice. Teachers are rarely asked to speak on their own account. (page 1)


The result is that teachers often find themselves trying to support, justify and implement policies and initiatives that they have had no hand in helping to form. This doesn’t mean that teachers have no desire to be part of the conversation. Nor does it mean that they have nothing of value to add. Quite the contrary! Walk into any social gathering that includes teachers and what are you likely to hear? Talk about schools, students, curriculum and a strong vision of how all three can work more effectively for everyone. Teachers, for the most part, are passionate voices for authentic and transformative change, and system leaders would do well to consult them if they hope to see their policies supported and actualized.


I don’t think that policy makers and system leaders intentionally sideline teachers from discussion about change; I just don’t think it occurs to them to include them on the guest list. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons for this stems from a lack of regular contact with the places and people for whom their decisions will have the greatest impact. In my own professional life, I’ve had the opportunity to assume a variety of roles within the system and I know that you don’t have to be out of the classroom very long to lose touch with the day-to-day subtleties and nuances that make school life what it is: complex, unpredictable and dynamic! Seldom do new policy statements give any indication that those that have crafted them understand just what it will take to make them come to life in the classroom.


There are those who will argue that educators are consulted before policies are introduced. Some teachers are invited to be part of curriculum focus groups. Others are seconded to positions at faculties and ministries of education. Teachers are sometimes part of local and provincial writing teams. We know, however, that the main decisions affecting education in Canada are made many kilometres from the bricks and mortar of the schoolhouse.


But it wouldn’t be difficult to change that, but it would require getting our noses out of the local, national and international statistics and hauling our bodies off to the where policy really matters.


I would like to see more folks from various ministries, faculties of education and district offices spend more time in our schools, and in our classrooms. And I’m not talking about a quick walk through prior to a PR announcement, photo opportunity or graduation ceremony. I’m talking about losing the jacket and tie and coming in to work with real live teachers and real live kids in a real live school. I’m talking about staying around long enough to see what really happens on a daily basis in the very communities that their decisions will affect. I’m talking about meeting the actual students and teachers that will be responsible for implementing their policies and the results of their research. I’m talking about spending enough time in schools so that they walk away knowing some of our names, and some of our stories.


Come in and teach a grade five math lesson or a grade ten civics class. Come in and spend a couple of days with a struggling grade two student or a grade seven “gifted” class. Have lunch with a few teachers trying to motivate and respond to a group of teenagers who have somehow become lost in the system. Better still, have lunch with the students, themselves.


It might be a little uncomfortable for everyone at the beginning, but I think that the insight and understanding that could be derived from this type of “contact” would have a great impact not only on the types of decisions and programs that are developed to move our systems of education forward, but also on the way that they are received on the ground. It’s easy to pretend that we know; its more difficult to prove that we understand.


What would happen if it became a matter of policy to investigate where policy matters the most?