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A column on education in Watkins Glen
The following was written by Travis Durfee, President of the Watkins Glen Faculty Association. It is the 16th in a continuing series of monthly columns.
What's going on in Watkins?
Did you find a new job yet?
I would expect to hear this question from my reluctant students.
Please, Mr. Durfee, no more essays, no more books. Find another gig!
But the students ask a different question:
Are you leaving, too?
I have heard both questions from parents, students, and community members this fall. The phrase “mass exodus” has been thrown my way as often as the question: What’s going on in Watkins?
The answer is a lot.
Under the leadership of our superintendent, Greg Kelahan, the district has undertaken a re-envisioning initiative. Last year the district adopted a new vision and mission statement, complete with concrete goals to track success. Last year’s rebranding led to this year’s changes.
Inside the schoolhouse, we’ve undertaken considerable change this year -- changes in scheduling, changes in programming and course offerings, changes in how special education services are delivered. We can grow and improve with change, but rapid decisions too often lead to growing pains. Many WGFA members started this year feeling sore.
Morale was low. WGFA members lamented the loss of their colleagues through retirement, reassignment, reduced positions, or those who sought employment elsewhere. Many teachers did not believe that their voices were heard in larger discussions about scheduling and course offerings. The rollout of new curriculum and instructional resources has been unnecessarily hasty. Our union decided to address the collective concerns of the professional educators we represent.
Earlier this year the WGFA surveyed its members about the climate of their workplace. Many expressed pride in their district, the programming we offer, their relationships with their colleagues. But there were some critical remarks, too.
Reflecting on the results, we see three simple principles we can use going forward:
Trust the Teachers: From developing curriculum to designing schedules, teachers should be trusted as professionals to exercise judgment about best practice.
Take the Time: Change requires the patience and the time to get it right. You have one chance at change, and hasty decisions can lead to major regrets.
Talk it Through: Communicate with teachers in a way that honors the free exchange of ideas, rather than pay lip service to the idea of seeking feedback.
Let me not paint a solely bleak picture. We have experienced some tremendous successes this year.
The superintendent and Board of Education committed resources to support visits to model schools to see best practice in action. Our staff toured and visited with members of industry to develop our understanding of the needs of the modern workforce. The development of the instructional coach position this year has been positive; teachers from both buildings collaborate with the goal of promoting a culture in which teachers drive alignment toward high achievement for all. Other teacher leaders districtwide have been studying important educational issues, such as grading-and-evaluation to ensure that best practices are reflected in the classroom. Some of the district’s scheduling headaches have been ironed out after conversations with administration that led to collaborative adjustments.
Earlier this week, the WGFA executive committee was invited to speak with the board of education at its regularly scheduled meeting. The district administrative staff was present, too, for a wide-ranging conversation during executive session that lasted 40 minutes. It was a very productive discussion that covered many of the issues noted above. The BOE showed its commitment to the democratic process in its service to community. Our superintendent deserves recognition for seeing the benefits to such a dialogue and arranging the talk. We look forward to more discussions in the future.
Education is a very human endeavor. The rapport you build with your students in the classroom greatly influences the growth you can expect them to experience throughout the year. The same is true of any organization. The type of collaboration that leads to a successful faculty-administration relationship should not be taken for granted. Trust does not come easy. But, by exploring different perspectives and proposing different solutions to shared problems, we build that trust. Difficult conversations can lead to innovative solutions. Issuing directives and demanding compliance is the work of bosses, not educators. We know better. And we will do better together.
Photo in text: Travis Durfee.
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Odessa, New York 14869