The Bureaucrat’s Paradox

The older I get, the more awesome I was.

As I settle into educational bureaucracy, I can see some obvious growth in my thinking about teaching. But I see a dreadful pitfall too. In fact, every day I hear voices from the pit and I’m desperately struggling to avoid falling in myself.


In short, memory tends toward self-serving romanticism. My god, I have yet to meet a school principal, vice-principal, central office administrator or government curriculum writer who wasn’t the best freaking teacher on the planet. Geez, to listen to them talk, they provided the in-person student miracles that are the dreams of most hyperbolic Ted-Talkers on the tube (yes, I’ll talk about Sir Ken another day). I hope that I’m still close enough to the classroom to remember. But do be cautious, will you?

The thing is, every teacher has ideals. And every teacher can imagine him-or herself delivering the greatest lessons ever, leading students through the most amazing self-directed learning, being a super-duper role model, maybe even bringing peace to the Middle East over the lunch hour. What’s worse, they can see that not everyone else is quite so awesome. Smile and nod and take it with salt.

(As an aside, I have seen very few poor teachers in my almost 30 years in education. What I have seen is variations in how teachers teach, and some that were successful with more students than others. I have seen teachers who felt let down by the system and performed less energetically at the ends of their careers than at the beginnings. And more than anything, I have seen teachers over their long careers have normal human experiences—death of loved ones, trouble with family, health challenges—and they have struggled through hard times, only to finally emerge strong and ready to resume full-power teaching. Don’t get me wrong; there are no teachers that cannot improve their impact with students. But at the end of the day, weak teachers don’t stay for the long term; it’s much too difficult to keep going when you struggle at this profession.)

Where was I? Oh yes, the brilliance of refugees from the classroom. Right.

On the other hand, moving out of the classroom has given me time to honestly reflect on my own performance. Now that I do not have the practical and psychological pressure of teaching tomorrow, I can reflect on where I’m satisfied, and what I’d like to change. And this is the bureaucratic paradox. There are some great ideas coming out of those of us who are no longer facing the daily pressures. If I were to go back to the classroom tomorrow (I plan to return, but the date is uncertain) the first thing I’d do is increase my daily formative assessment. As I reflect on my practice, I know that I did it, and I know that I did it fairly often, but I am convinced that I didn’t do it enough. I want to try again. Second thing I want to do is to work harder on making a personal connection with every student every day. This has always been an important part of my teaching (and I’ll write on it soon) but I do not believe that I hit the maximum; there’s more gold in those hills.

And then we have new ideas. What can I get out of “flipping” my class? I’m not brave enough to go all-in, but I can see some good sense in trying it from time to time. And how about electronic devices? I think Clay Shirky is right, but how can I get the buy-in?

But then, maybe I’m just dreaming theory in Technicolor. Can you trust a bureaucrat like me?


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