Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Teachers Talk - Rosalyn S. Schnall


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



25 comments:

JoAnn said...

This sounds a little too one-sided to be of any real value. Sure there are problems with principals, but there's a lot more to it than that!!

Katherine said...

I am a teacher in Florida and while I am sure there are some bad administrators out there, I have experienced only one. In my current position I am blessed with a caring, understanding, and supportive principal. However, that does not mean the job is all good. There are SO many other problems in our education system that to place blame on only one aspect is like trying to fix a broken leg with a band-aid. If we're going to try to blame one group of people, I'm more likely to look to the politicians and legislators who have no classroom experience yet pass down laws and requirements that ask us to do yet "one more thing."

I've only been teaching 8 years and up to a couple of years ago, I'd say I was a pretty good teacher. Yet here I am, only 8 years into my career, and I'm so burnt out I'd almost rather live in a box than continue. It's become just a job and honestly, that's sad.

Our education system seriously needs some reform. I wish I knew the answer.

caite said...

OH, I just feel like causing trouble today...lol
I can come up with a whole list of solutions in the public school system and oddly not one involves spending more money. Personally, and I say this as a union member for over 25 years, a put a lot of blame on the teacher union, on a federal and state level. throwing more money at the problem? well, we in NJ have one of the highest per capita student cost in the nation...and some of the worse results.
blame the boss? yes, how easy.

farmlanebooks said...

Sorry to hear that there are so many problems in your school system. I'm lucky in that my local school is very good. I don't know enough to produce any answers for you, but I'm sorry this book didn't either.

Kimberly said...

I agree there are tremendous problems out there, and they're magnified in the school system as any issues reflect on our children and their education. However, I agree that this book seems a bit too one-sided to paint an accurate picture. On the flip side, the author is brave to confront such a political monster.

Susan said...

This was a very thoughtful and well-balanced review, Sandy. And I agree with you, we need to hear both sides of the story.

bermudaonion said...

Wow! Our son went to a public school that is considered one of the best in the country, and believe me, it had loads of problems from the principal on down. We could chat for days about this issue, but a lot of the problems with schools start in the homes. If you're interested in this topic, there's a good essay on schools and standardized tests in What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.

Serena said...

I think this is an interesting concept for a book, but like you said there are two sides to each story. Thanks for the honest review.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

How interesting but I think you're absolutely right that one needs to hear all sides!

Jenners said...

I agree with your assessment ... there is never just one culprit. And you are right ... bad bosses aren't limited to school systems. I'm sure this was a good undertaking but needs to be put into greater perspective to get real value out of it.

And how awful that you have to resort to private schools.

Trisha said...

I am absolutely 100% opposed to monetary compensation based on test results and I think that is a large problem with public education today. Just wanted to get that out there.

Personally I don't like the idea of a book with teachers ranting about principals. An unbiased research-based accounting of this issue would however be fascinating.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

A fair and fantastic review, Sandy. We all want to improve the public school system, but really, what answer is this book proposing? It can't be so simple as to fire every principle.

Lisa said...

Bad bosses will always effect the atmosphere of the workplace. But is the book suggesting that, for example, all of the principals in Orlando are bad? If so, why is that? Principals are stuck between school boards that want them to make do with less and to up test scores, government mandates that aren't funded, parents that expect schools to parent their children but totally handcuff them when it comes to discipline, and teachers that are only in the profession because they couldn't decide what else to do. I am certainly not bashing teachers--I love teachers! Most of them are wonderful.

Alyce said...

Wow, that must have been a real challenge to wade through! I am fortunate to live in a small town with good public schools. They may not be the most well-funded, but the teachers are wonderful and really connect and communicate with the parents and children. My son's school doesn't look that good on paper (test scores meet standards but are on the low end) but that's mainly because the school is 60% ESL kids. The amazing thing to me is that the teachers have managed to create an environment where everyone is learning. My husband and I pay close attention to how things are going at his school though, because he needs to be challenged in his learning. So far it's been a good experience.

We've always known though that if we move to a big city back east that we'd probably consider private schools.

The Bumbles said...

I bet you would enjoy Jonathan Kozol's "Savage Inequalities." A much better study on why some schools fare better than others. He focused on St. Louis.

I have a degree in teaching, though I was never able to use it. I did not have enough experience directly with principals to say anything on this book's claims one way or the other. I know teachers have legitimate issues when they do not have the support of their principal. But I know too that money is generally the root of a school's problems.

Matt said...

I don't think abusive principals could be the tipping factors. A lot of the problems with public schools should be traced back to budgetary matters, at least in California, where the state spends more money on prison inmates than a college student. I also see a gap in how insufficiently high school kids are prepared for college education. Education takes the cooperation between parents and teachers, and that kids should be encouraged to discover reading early on in their education because reading and comprehension seem to be a huge problem.

Beth F said...

Excellent points: a one-sided take can never be accurate and some of the problems with our schools have their origins outside the immediate school system.

Carrie K. said...

Very well-written review, Sandy - and I agree, you need more than just one side of the story to get to the bottom of something as big as this issue.

Zibilee said...

I agree with your thoughts on this book. To say that all the problems in the education system come from bossy principals is greatly simplifying things. The problems are many, and the solutions few. I think this would be an interesting read, but I don't think that I would believe everything that I read in it. Great review, you had some very thoughtful things to say about this book.

stacybuckeye said...

It's hard to take seriously any argument that only shows one side. Who doesn't want to vent about their boss? And what boss wouldn't want to vent about his or her employees? An interesting idea, but doesn't sound like great follow through.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

This sounds a little crazy. I'm all about investigating an issue but thing do have to be approached systematically and from different perspectives to be valuable.

Anna said...

Blaming the boss seems like such an easy out to me, but it sounds like this book gives you a lot to think about.

The Girl went to a private school from K-2, then spent half a year in public school and it was awful (for numerous reasons that I won't get into here), and she's been back in the private school since. I saw the difference in the curriculum, attitude, everything, and as long as I can afford it, she'll stay in the private school.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Frances said...

An oversimplification indeed. As a teacher in a struggling urban school system, I can tell you many more horror stories about abusive teachers than principals. And as other have stated, a lack of public funding as well as well-defined accountability. I feel things are on the mend though. Does the author recount any success stories? Would be skeptical of anyone writing about education that does not. One-sided.

Have you read the article in this month's Atlantic about what makes for a great teacher? Think you might enjoy it more.

Kathleen said...

I'm like you and opted to enroll my child in a private school. This book feels like what is wrong with the education system in this country. Everyone is too busy blaming someone else for the problems and not looking at how they can effect change. I don't think I could read this book since it would probably make me angry. I'm sure there is blame to place on teachers too. And lets not forget the parents to send their children to school and expect the education system to raise their children for them!

David Weaver said...

I just left education after 5 years with a school district in Texas, 8 years total. I am now self-employed. I find a little truth in every comment I read, but in defense of the book - I can say without question that I was given more respect and support as a
Wal-Mart cashier in college than I ever received from my school administrator. That's all I can say on the subject.