Friday, March 09, 2007

The rule of precedents...follow 'em, don't make 'em

Twenty five plus years in public education and six months here in France have made very (sometimes painfully) aware that there is such a thing as an administrative temperament and that this temperament is defined by one ... shall I call it a principle or a fear?... ok, one rule - avoid breaking with precedents, avoid setting precedents. In practice this rule comes out in language like the following:
That's not how it works.
Our hands are tied.
We've never done it that way.
If we do that for you, it'll open the floodgates.
What if everybody did that?

School administrators are trained and groomed to think inside the box even as they are trained to parrot cliches about getting outside that same box ie. ...
to develop lessons that open young people up to new experiences,
inspire them to surpass their own limits and transport them to new heights,
unleash their potential; engage their whole being etc...
Administrators usually don't put things in such terms; rather, they tend to say things like,
if you miss school you miss out,
hit benchmarks and improve student learning outcomes,
promote school spirit...
Their vision of success is a well run ship, calm seas, a smiling crew and passengers safely in their cabins and delivered to port. This vision is relentlessly and remorselessly and systematically pursued.
Now I've had the good fortune to work with some able skippers. I've also had the misfortune to work under some who might conjure associations with Captain Ahab and/or Gilligan's Island. I've been fortunate in my personal efforts over the years to be granted permission to pursue certain unorthodox lines of professional development. All in all, I've heard the word "Yes" from administrators as often or more often than you might expect. Not nearly as often as I would have liked, to be sure, but nevertheless...
This is all by way of prefacing my first experience with "No" from a school administrator here in France. It began with my noticing a posting on the wall in the salle des profs about Tuesday classes for all premieres (juniors) being cancelled due to final research project presentations called TPE (travaux personnels encadrés). These are juried presentations made by students in small groups of three. The jury consists of three faculty members in the social sciences. At the beginning of the school year, students choose from a menu of possible topics and then they form groups. They are required to do research and produce both textual and graphic documents. For the oral part of the project, each group member is required to speak for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 minutes. At the end, the jury may pose questions to the students if they so desire. I was very intrigued by this and I mentioned to my class of juniors that I would love to sit in one such presentation. On the day of the presentations a couple of my students from that class waited for me outside the salle des profs to tell me what time and in what room they were presenting. I was touched by the invitation, so I said I'd love to come. They told me to check with the profs in the jury. So I went to the cantine where they were eating. I said hello and then asked them if they were in the jury for Sophie, Charleine and Corantin One of the teachers jumped to the conclusion that I wanted the students that afternoon. "I can't let them go this afternoon. They have..."
"I know. I don't want you to let them go. I want you to let me watch them."
He was surprised by the request but not put off at all.
"Their theme is Propaganda." I added.
"Ah yes..." The teacher seemed to suddenly remember precisely who we were talking about. "They're going in flames today, I imagine." He looked at his colleague across the table for confirmation of this supposition. His colleague smiled and shrugged noncommittally.
"Really?" I couldn't help sounding surprised since at least one of the three students was far and away one the best ones I have although one of them was also definitely not one my most committed or serious students.
"We'll see." he said with a good natured laugh. "But be warned, an execution may be in the works."
In the cloistered environment of the teacher's cantine his humor, though black, was nothing that shocked me, accustomed as I was too the same genre of commentary in our own lunch room back in the States. Still, a part of me did note the emotional distance separating those who take the tests from those who administer them.
I arrived about five minutes before the appointed time and found the three students in the hallway surrounded by their props, a banner, a couple of posters and name tags. Their specific task involved demonstrating propaganda techniques in support of the proposition that the Soviet Union experiement had not been a failure; rather, it had been a success. The three students were pretending to be attending a conference on the subject, two of them were pretending to be historians, the third was coming as a member of the Communist Party.
I chatted with them in the hallway. They seemed cheerful, a bit keyed up, and glad to see me.
I asked them if this was a high stakes event. The response was strangely mixed. It depended, they said, on whether you needed these points badly or not. This was part of an ensemble of grades that were required to pass the Baccalaureate. In other words, if you had blown the term up to this point, this could be a make or break proposition. I looked at the one who was not such a serious student and I thought I detected a kind of false bravado in his manner. I found myself rooting for him but also wondering what the next hour would execution in the works?
Suddenly the door opened and out stepped the teacher whose words I had just conjured. He saw me and said, "Did you get authorization?'
"I got authorization from you."
He smiled. "We'll have to talk to the proviseur adjoint." He gestured for me to accompany him.
Off we went. Two minutes later, we're in vice principal's office. Apparently he's already been alerted to my request because he immediately puts to rest any hope of my attending the presentation. He then hastens to explain by citing past requests deinied and a long standing policy desgined to prevent outside parties from unduly influencing or interfering with final exams tied to the BAC. He finally closes by expressing (sincerely, I thought) his regrets but repeating the necessity of preserving the integrity of the policy. He doesn't relish saying no to me, and I wish I could invite him to take advantage of my special status - that of being unprecedented - to give himself the cover he covets to give me permission without feeling like he had opened the floodgates. After all, they've never had a Fulbright exchange here before, and may not have another one anytime soon. Instead, I thank him for his time and leave the office with my colleague.
He mutters under his breath as we leave, "Here is the other side of la Belle France."
I tell him that administrators are guided by the same concerns where I live. As I watch him go back without me, I am genuinely disappointed that I won't get to watch my three students make their presentation.
I had been looking forward to gaining some insight into the school culture here; instead what I got was insight into the school culture here.


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