Saturday, June 10, 2006

No Confidence Vote For A Principal. Big Deal.

I get so tired of hearing teachers whine about how low their morale is. Why is it that military fighting units in gruesome battles can have high morale, but that teachers get all sourpussed about actually having to ensure that they're helping students learn?

The answer comes in the meaning of "morale", one of many terms misused in the education field. It doesn't mean "happiness"; I will state without definite proof that conditions in gruesome battles make people less "happy" than having students take a standardized test. A roommate of mine at West Point once defined morale for me as "confidence in your ability to get the mission accomplished". My handy dandy Webster defines it as "moral or mental conditon as regards courage, confidence, etc."

So when teachers say they have low morale, they're saying they don't have confidence in their ability to teach kids. Great.

Given that backdrop, you can imagine my response to this article about a meaningless "no confidence" vote in a high school principal. Excerpts:

Teachers at C.K. McClatchy High School took a vote of no confidence in their principal last week, less than a year after she was hired.

The significance of the vote is still unclear. Few details were available Friday, including how many teachers showed up to vote, by what margin the resolution passed, or even what outcome the teachers desire.

But the vote sent a message that some teachers are dissatisfied with Principal Cynthia Clark's leadership.

"Over this year, I've seen morale extremely low," said Marcie Launey, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

Cry me a river. Granted, lousy leadership certainly has an impact on military morale--a bad leader can get you killed. But honestly, how much impact does a principal have on your ability to teach students? When they don't enforce schoolwide discipline, or don't back you on your own classroom discipline plan, sure--that impacts your ability to teach. But that isn't what's happening at McClatchy High. What are the teachers upset about?

Although the reasons for the vote remain unclear, Clark may have alienated some of her staff earlier this year when she recommended firing four science and math teachers, Launey said.

Teachers from McClatchy protested Clark's recommendation at a board meeting. In response, Superintendent Maggie Mejia met with Clark, and three of the four teachers were allowed to keep their jobs, Launey said.

District officials offered a different explanation for the vote. Although the teachers at McClatchy work hard and care about low-performing students, Clark "is asking some tough questions about students that haven't been successful, and that's hard for any staff member," said Susan Miller, an associate superintendent for the district who oversees McClatchy.

Clark was hired in part because the district felt she was the right person to close McClatchy's racial achievement gap, Miller said. During her three-year tenure at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, where she was principal before coming to McClatchy, Clark emphasized discipline and the school's Academic Performance Index score increased 49 points.

"She had a very impressive track record of turning around a high school that had sort of lost its focus in terms of academics," Miller said.

Ah, so she actually focuses on academics and, horror of horrors, wanted to remove some teachers! I don't know if those teachers warranted removal or not, but apparently one of them did because, as the article says, only three of the four were allowed to keep their jobs. Another so-called problem is that she actually asks tough questions of teachers. Gads!

Is she the right person for the job, if the job includes closing the racial achievement gap? I have no idea. What I do know is that it's not uncommon for teachers (or anyone else, for that matter) not to like to have to justify what they're doing and how they're doing it, and we don't often like to take any responsibility for our failures. We'll blame the kids, the parents, the demographics--but don't accept any responsibility ourselves, none. We like the status quo, even if that includes hoards of failing students that we tried to reach and teach.

I don't know these teachers and I don't know this principal. The only information I have to go on is this one article--and of course my own experience as a teacher and a union member. I don't know anything about the leanings of the article's author, but the paper itself is moderately left-leaning (more so at election time!). Taking all that into account, I'm not too disposed to take the side of the teachers in this case. It sounds to me like we have a principal doing exactly what a principal should be doing--focusing on academics--and I for one support that.

Want to improve morale? Quit whining about how much you dislike your principal, quit whining about state-required tests that provide outside eyes on the teaching that goes on in our schools, quit whining. Focus on achievement, and get on board with the person whose instructions you're paid to follow. When you do this you'll have "confidence in your ability to get the mission accomplished". You don't want to admit it, but your whining causes the low morale, it's not a product of low morale.

Become part of the solution. Right now, McClatchy teachers, you are the problem. And I will stand by that statement until some of you can post about what horrible things she's doing to sabotage your ability to teach kids. If she's a raging you-know-what, tell me how that impacts your ability to teach kids. Remember--working in rose-petal-covered happiness doesn't mean you have high morale, it just means you teach in a pleasant work environment. There's a world of difference between the two.

Update, 6/12/06 1:57 pm: I emailed Principal Clark and received a reply. While not offering any further information, she thanked me for recognizing that there are two sides to every story.

She also said that high standards apply not only to students, but to teachers. Hear hear!


Mike in Texas said...


Both sides are playing this one very tight-lipped so its hard to know what the truth is on this one. I don't see why you would automatically assume the teachers are the problem.

We went through a very similar problem at my school. Our principal came up with a plan to completely disrupt the school and classroom locations. She could not provide us any proof that her idea would work, or that it had been successful anywhere else. When the site based decision making committee voiced opposition to the idea, she decided she would give us a "choice", as in her plan or two much worse plans to vote on. Nearly half the faculty refused to select any choice. Another quarter made the selections with notes attached stating their opinion that none of the ideas were good and they were selecting the lesser of 3 evils.

Our opposition to the plan? It was developed by herself and two of the 3 districts curriculum coordinators. There is one curriculum person we all respect but she was not invited to the planning sessions. Of the two, one has not been in the classroom in 8 years and was not respected as a teacher. In fact her nickname was "the packet queen" for the large stacks of TAAS preparation worksheets she would give out. The other was a junior high teacher who has never taught a day in an elementary school. Each make an administrator's salary.

Our principal's justification for causing such an upheaval was that our Math scores were stagnant. While they ARE stuck in the 80s the curriculum person has done nothing but force an even worse curriculum upon the elementary schools, starting in the 2nd grade. When the 2nd grade teachers complained the kids were not learning they were told 1)no one was interested in their complaints, and 2) if they didn't like it, leave. The new math curriculum is so bad that after trying to force its exclusive use, the principal has admitted teachers will have to supplement it to keep our scores up.

Sometimes, and it is hard to tell on this one, the teachers know what needs to be done but no one will listen to them. I've seen it happen.

Darren said...

I concede that the principal could be part of the problem here, and I invite the teachers involved to discuss what she's done that would cause an academic disruption.

Since the union is, like you say, being very tight-lipped, I have to wonder. I can understand why the district would keep quiet on specifics, but not the union.

rightwingprof said...

Story time.

Back when I was a grad student, we had a particularly nasty dept chair -- actually, nasty is a nice way of putting it -- who went out of his way to make every faculty member there other than the three in his little club miserable. The problem with being a PhD student in situations like these is that you're associated with a faculty member -- your committee chair -- and are often used as a target to get to your chair. Anyway, I was, and life was not good.


After a while, what annoyed me more than any of the obnoxious crap the dept chair pulled was the rest of the faculty. He'd call them in on a daily basis, pull something on them and rake them over the coals, they'd stand there and take it, then come back and whine about it. Not one ever stood up for himself, and nobody tried to do anything about it. All they did was whine -- for FOUR years. Every day. Whine, whine, whine.

It drove me nuts.

SMiller said...

Having just finished my first year of teaching (after 23 years of programming), I have come to the conclusion that if you put any group of teachers together, they will find something to complain about, with students and administration as the top two favorites. That was one of the most wearing things about this year -- I kept wanting to holler, "Either DO something about it or learn to live with it, but QUIT WHINING!"

I have since realized that I now whine about teachers' whining. **g**

Darren said...

Congratulations on completing your first year! I assure you, the 2nd year will go *much* more smoothly than the first.

At the end of my first year I had all these thoughts swirling around in my head about how to do things better next year. Turns out they'd already been written down for me--The First Days of School, by Harry and Rosemary Wong. Excellent book! It'll make your 2nd year go by even more easily.

And as for whining about whining--is that meta-whining? =)

Dana Huff said...

Darren, my principal was an English teacher for nearly 30 years before she became a principal. She is no-nonsense. She supports me completely, but she also demands accountability. I have had to show her what sorts of writing assignments I've given and how often. Some of my peers say they are glad they are not English teachers at my school because of the scrutiny we receive; I will admit that it is hard at time, but she has helped me become so much more effective as a teacher that I am glad for it. She does not praise lavishly, and when she does, you know she means it. She is not afraid to send ineffective teachers packing, and indeed, has done so. Her concern is that students receive the best education that they can receive. She has tremendous support for her faculty, but she will not tolerate ineffective teaching, either. As long as you are doing your job well, she is behind you 100%.

Darren said...

Sounds like an awesome principal.

How's your morale?

Princess of the Portable said...

Morale at my school was pretty bad a few years ago. We had a new principal (okay, I was new too and didn't see the big deal) and he was demanding that you did crazy things. You know, like follow the curriculum, finish it before the end of the year, nothing but crazy ideas.

Many of the people with low morale left that year. A few stayed. Their morale stayed pretty low when the principal kept doing crazy things like using data to inform instruction and you STILL had to follow the curriculum. By now, most have left.

The few that remain can be counted on to whine about anything and everything. There is no personal accountability - nothing is their fault. Heaven forbid you be in the group of people who think the principal's crazy ideas are dead on, because suddenly you'll find yourself in the principal's "pocket." It's awfully crowded in there these days.

Obviously, none of us know the full story behind this incident. If the whiners at my school had thought to hold a "no-confidence" vote during the principal's first year, I'm sure he would have lost.

My school isn't perfect, but in the 6 years I've been there, we've never stopped trying to make ourselves into a better school, led by the crazy principal.

Anonymous said...


My daughter attends McClatchy. I've had very limited contact with the principal, but she does seem very no nonsense to me. My view is that (1) she's trying to actually do somthing, like get rid of deadwood (Good) and (2) she can be very undiplomatic in her speech (Bad). This is reminiscent of the John Bolton and Larry Summers controversies -- a big beef (told to us by a couple of teachers) is that she's "disrespecting" her staff. Of course that makes it easier for them to defy her on matters of substance.

I always marvel that anyone even tries to do a good job in education.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher at Principal Clark's previous high school. While she hides behind the veil of attempting to improve school-wide academics what she actually does is attempt to divide and conquer the staff. Edison High School has always prided itself on the collaborative nature of its leadership. Prior to her arrival the teachers, to improve test scores, undertook a course of action. Yes our test scores did increase during her tenure. This increase, attributed to her leadership, was not because of her. She did make teachers feel like they were walking on eggshells every day they arrived at work. Her approach to leadership was extremely combative. It usually consisted of needlessly and publicly attacking the most respected and influential members of the staff. Her relationship with the student body was even more combative. She did not leave to pursue challenges elsewhere. She abruptly left, before the end of her third year, because of an incident in the classroom of one of the more outspoken teachers on campus. During an observation, when she took exception to a comment made about gun control in a Civic class, she made a hand gesture of shooting the teacher. This occurred in full view of the students in the class. This principal has a track record of abusive leadership. She was also principal of Soquel High School in the Santa Cruz area. With a little research I am sure you will find her departure from there was heralded as well. By the way, since her departure our scores have gone up even higher. Under the current principal’s leadership the staff is much happier, the students are happier, tardies and truancies are down, and scores are up. We are back to collaborative leadership.

Anonymous said...

The principal we had before was heavy on accountability. She had high expectations, even impossible expectations since we are a newcomer school. However, she was flexible and the school was able to make academic gains. The new principal doesn't know what he is doing. He targets teachers that question his practices. Some principals deserve a vote of no confidence because they really don't know how to run a school. It doesn't have to do with teachers being afraid to be observed. Most teachers are great and work hard to teach the kids.