Tuesday, January 26, 2010
A couple of months ago, I was contacted by Amy at Phenix & Phenix about the opportunity to review "When Teachers Talk". I was intrigued by its premise...that the book uncovers the real reason for the dismal state of the public school systems in America. Our schools are so bad in Orlando, my husband and I have opted to enroll our children in a private school. There are hundreds of theories on the underlying issues, and I was interested to hear another.
Schnall's claim is that the primary reason for the decline in public schools is abusive principals. She has interviewed 500 teachers, primarily from the Chicago area, and has transcribed these interviews, word for word, without edits, placing the topics in various categories...teacher's health affected, teacher attrition, unbelievable abuses, etc. This is dense information - over 500 pages worth. Pages and pages of teachers, varying in tenure, having their day in court, so to speak. Tales of power-hungry principals, asking teachers to falsify answers on standardized tests, covering up crimes that occur within the school walls, destroying teachers' classroom projects, and demeaning the teachers in front of other staff and students. As a result, children are not receiving quality schooling because of these distractions.
I experienced several different emotions while reading this book. First, I would like to validate the book's message. Yes there are issues here - ones we've all heard about in the news. The danger of standardized testing and linking principal compensation and school grants with the results of these tests. The absence of checks and balances. Poorly compensated teachers. The list goes on.
I believe, however, it is an over-simplification to blame it all on the bad boss. Because let's face it. There are bad bosses out there. In corporate America, where I worked until a handful of years ago, there were 10 bad bosses to 1 good one. Bosses that asked you to do things that were not only uncomfortable, but sometimes downright illegal. Bosses that were high on a power trip. Bosses that demeaned you in front of others, spread rumors, harassed, maligned and bullied. If you ever ask me why I quit my job, I'll give you an earful. It is not unique to the school systems, it is everywhere. This, folks, is the human condition. The unfortunate consequences of this condition, as it applies to schools, however, is that it does affect our children.
The book is chock-full of horror stories, but stories that are fraught with spelling and grammatical errors. Ones that often are not clearly-defined, but rantings and ravings of people on the edge. It is pretty intense, and must be read in small doses.
Missing from the interviews are the students and the principals' perspectives. There are always two sides to a story. How can one really get to crux of the complaints without it? How do we know if the teachers were meeting performance expectations, had attitude problems, or if they were exaggerating? I had plenty of experience with problem employees, ones that did not perform, made repeated errors, and led what I liked to call the "bad attitude club". If you would have interviewed them at any given point, you would have thought I was the Wicked Witch of the West, if I were not allowed to offer my side of the story.
I'm not saying that I don't believe the teachers' stories. But I think to provide validity to the argument, we need to hear from everyone.
Schnall has collected a tremendous amount of data that would serve well on a larger study. There is obviously a pervasive issue here, and we've only seen the tip of the iceberg. After reading this book, I discussed it with my husband and had hours of compelling discussion on the topic. There are no easy answers, but I applaud the author for this monumental undertaking.
2.5 out of 5 stars