School Bureaucracy: Practical Suggestions for Parents and Teachers

Several of you, both parents and teachers, have expressed interest in some practical ideas for impacting the school bureaucracy.  I think we all know that big issues need big solutions – school reform will require a change in how we fund and manage public education – but local, grassroots actions can push the bigger process along.  And there are children in our homes and our classrooms who need our best efforts right now.  What can we do locally in 2014/15?

First, we can put ourselves in a position to have our voices heard.  If you are a teacher, volunteer for the superintendent’s council, the school improvement team, the Tier III team, or any other school and system-level groups that interest you.  If you are a parent, volunteer for the system’s parent advisory council, the parent/teacher organization, the school improvement team, the calendar committee, or any other groups that help advise and govern the school system.  Attend the meetings, do your homework, participate, listen and be heard.  Always conduct yourself in a rational, patient, calm manner.  Be aware of your nonverbal communication – your body language and facial expressions.  Sit up straight, lean forward, look at people, and show interest in what others have to say.  If you are a parent, do not attend school meetings in a tank top and shorts – you have significantly decreased your impact if you aren’t dressed appropriately.

In some district and school committee meetings, the agenda is already designed, participation is tightly controlled, and the group is led to a pre-determined plan of action.  In other words, the group is there to rubber stamp something that’s already been decided.  In these instances, all you can do is:

– ask if the group can have the agenda ahead of time, so members can prepare
– ask questions about the purpose of the group
– make suggestions to the group as a whole
– ask what the end product is supposed to be.

If the rest of the group just wants to get it over with and sees you as an irritating distraction, there isn’t much you can do.  If you choose to talk with the group leader about the problem, do so in private – confronting people in front of others does not win friends and influence people!

There are lots of other ways that parents can become a positive voice in the school.  Volunteer regularly, join the parent/teacher organization, attend programs and events, come to conferences, express appreciation, support your child’s education at home, learn names and let school staff learn yours.  I cannot emphasize this enough – if you want to be effective in offering ideas and expressing concerns, you have to be an active, positive member of the school community.

Teachers can also work to become a positive voice in the school community.  Do you whine and complain, talk negatively about the children in your class, gossip about other staff members, and do the bare minimum?  We have all known a few teachers like that – and if it describes you, you need to think about becoming part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.  Say positive things to others.  Refuse to engage in gossip and negativity.  Support your colleagues.  Offer solutions.  It’s really easy to become apathetic and cynical – and it’s hard to be a great teacher.  Don’t give up!

Anyone who is interested in school change has to get involved in the politics of public education.  Vote for the school board and regularly attend school board meetings.  Check out what the candidates for state legislature or governor have to say about public education.  Attend county commission meetings when the school budget is discussed.  Stay abreast of what’s happening with No Child Left Behind and other federal programs.  Communicate your opinions to the legislators who represent you at the local, state, and federal levels.  Keep track of where the money comes from and what the money flows to.  Remember that it’s your money!

Here’s a summary of steps that parents and teachers can take to work within the bureaucracy to make positive changes:

– Volunteer to work on any school committee that offers advice, makes goals, or sets policy – either at the system level or the building level.
– Do what it takes to become a positive voice in the school community.  Be the change you want to see!
– Spend your time and energy on positive solutions.  Anger and hostility are self-defeating and will not impact the bureaucracy.  Stay in partnership with those in the school community who can effect change.  Listen and consider the opinions of others with the same courtesy you expect in return.
– Be an informed, active citizen.  Learn about candidates.  Vote!  Go to budget meetings.  Express opinions – but do your homework and know what you’re talking about.

Bureaucracies resist change – it’s their nature.  So those who want to see change have to be in it for the long haul – it requires patience, tolerance, and the ability to work on a long-term goal.  Sometimes you have to stay in partnership with those you disagree with – so be it.  It’s the only way to have a voice.  Be positive, be informed, actively participate, and work from within.  Good luck!

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