Whose Class Is It?

Parents want to choose their children's teachers. A bright, iconoclastic teacher wants to ignore technology. Administrators wrestle with the meaning of "collaboration" in promoting student success. How will Dr. Edith Wiley communicate her vision of effective teaching and shared responsibility?

Principal Edith Wiley starts her day with an unnerving parent meeting.

Dr. Edith Wiley, Principal, Cedar Street Elementary School

“Look, my son Ralph had Miss Lowry for fifth grade and has hated school ever since. I can hardly get him out of bed in the morning. He doesn’t like to read, his grades are low, and he puts up a nightly fight about homework. I’m not going to put my daughter through this. I don’t care how inconvenient moving her is for you—or your teachers.” Rose Whitehouse was trying to contain her frustration. “My Mary is not going to have Miss Lowry.”

Edith could already see where her challenges would lie this year. There were just two weeks until school started, and she’d only been at Cedar Street Elementary since July. She’d known this parent meeting would be difficult when she’d heard from these parents during her first week on the job, and she regretted agreeing to meet with them as a group. Before she could gather her thoughts, Mr. Renfrew jumped in. “I agree with Rose. I won’t have my son William in that class either. Miss Lowry does nothing with technology, and she won’t let students turn in projects done using computers at home. I mean, that’s just ridiculous!”

Edith stole a look at the third parent—hoping for support—and got none. Taking advantage of the pause and not knowing what else to do, she rose from her seat and offered her hand. “Thank you for sharing your concerns. You have my word that I’ll look into this right away. But I can’t guarantee moving your children without giving this some more thought. I’m sure you understand.”

The three parents discuss the meeting over coffee.

Pulling into their cul-de-sac, Rose was pleased to see that the lawn had been mowed. Looking at the clock on her dash as she turned into her driveway, she realized she still had an hour before she had to pick up the kids at art camp. “Anyone wanna come in for coffee before you head out?” she offered.

Edith Wiley seeks the advice of Ross Austin, her assistant principal.

Whew! What a way to start off with parents. Edith redid her ponytail and ruffled her bangs. Then she called Ross, her AP, into her office. “Ross, I need some insight. I’m hoping you can help.”

Edith rolled her chair over to the table where Ross sat and filled him in on the meeting she’d just finished.

Assistant Principal Ross Austin offers some advice

“Well,” Ross began. “I think every principal in town has a story about Miss Lowry. She’s taught in five of our elementary schools so far. I hear things usually start off going pretty well, but by the third year or so complaints about grades, harshness, impatience, and her quick temper start. When things get heated, she requests a transfer. When she applied for her transfer here, I advised against it, but I guess Mr. Bowen—he was the principal then—figured it would be more trouble to keep her from coming than it would be to deal with her after she got here. So here we are.”

Ross sat up a little straighter in his chair as he was talking. He was flattered that Edith was asking for his advice. His last boss, Tom Greene, rarely asked for his opinion. Maybe this relationship will be different.

“Does she use technology, Ross?”

“Not that I know of. I’ve heard her say that some kids spend too much time at home online. She believes in the basics: reading, writing, math. She can be really adamant about stuff like that, and she’s pretty good at teaching those subjects.” He paused, shaking his head. “But, I’ll tell ya, these parents are no crackpots. I’ve known them for years, and they’re usually pretty helpful. And, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Last year some parents came in midyear and requested that we move their kids out of Miss Lowry’s class.”

Slumped back in her chair, Edith was thinking of the mess she’d inherited. No wonder Ross didn’t apply for the principal’s position! “Well, what happened?”

“Not much. Tom didn’t like controversy, so he sort of put the parents off for a while. They didn’t persist, so things got quiet.”

Edith does some sleuthing.

Wishing she’d left her car windows cracked, Edith cranked on the AC and headed over to the school district office after lunch to take a look at Miss Lowry’s file. “I see you’re getting to the difficult stuff early,” the HR secretary said as she handed Edith the folder.

See an excerpt from Miss Lowry’s personnel file below:

Leafing through the file, Edith began to paint a clearer picture of Miss Lowry’s work history: She’d taught in Clark County for 25 years, she was active in the teacher’s union, and served on lots of committees, especially textbook adoption committees. Notes on her evaluations showed she believed in the quality of her teaching, never missed deadlines on reports, kept careful records—and rarely handled criticism well. There were two reports in her file from Tom Greene. One showed that she had berated a student in class for his “stupidity.” The other concerned parental complaints about a lack of responsiveness to their phone calls and notes. The 10 observation reports were a little thin, but they were generally positive. There were also test score reports that Edith copied to study later.

See the fifth-grade test scores below:

Back in her office, Edith phoned Miss Lowry to set up their first face-to-face meeting.

Edith and Miss Lowry sit down together to discuss the parents’ concerns.

Florence and Edith meet for the first time

Edith arranged two chairs on opposite sides of the small conference table in her office, stepped back, and shook her head. She moved one chair over to her desk. This was no time to be egalitarian; it was time to take charge. No more calling her Miss Lowry! She sat down behind her desk and waited—but just for a moment. Florence was right on time.

Florence was on a roll. “And, you’ve probably also heard that I don’t let students turn-in projects they’ve done at home using computers, either. It’s true…there are just too many kids without computer access to give this advantage to a few. I think it’s wrong, and I don’t want to be a part of it!”

Click here to see data on student computer access.

If this is how she is with parents, it’s no wonder they complain! “Well, there are lots of ways to use technology, Florence. How about if I arrange for you to visit Mr. Leonard’s class at the middle school? I used to work with him, and he’s doing lots of different things with technology in his science class. I think you might like what you see.” Edith knew she was pushing it. “And, since we’re just getting acquainted, I’d like to visit your class next week.” Florence raised her eyebrows. Observations the first week of school weren’t a great idea, for lots of reasons. But if she was going to reply to these parents, Edith knew she’d better be informed about what was going on.

“Fine. I’ll be introducing the scientific method on Wednesday. I’ll get you my lesson plan in the next couple of days.” With that, Florence stood, gathered her purse and tote, and headed out the door.

See Florence Lowry’s lesson plan below:

Florence visits Ray Leonard’s middle school science class.

Two of Ray’s students work with technology and sound during their science lab

Thankful, at least, for the afternoon sub Edith provided, Florence headed across the parking lot toward the middle school next door. It’d been a while since she’d visited. The district had strayed away from the vertical teaming sessions they used to require between schools. Even so, she remembered how different the middle school felt, and was glad she’d stuck with upper elementary teaching. She hadn’t met Ray before, but she remembered reading about his “teacher of the year” award in the paper. After a quick handshake, she settled into a chair in the back of the room with the lesson plan he’d handed her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d watched another teacher teach.

See Ray Leonard’s lab plan below:

As she walked back to her school to pick up her things, Florence was confused. Was she supposed to feel inspired or intimidated by the lesson she’d just seen?

After observing Florence’s class, Edith thinks about her next steps.

She felt like her mind was empty. She was fresh out of ideas. Her observation notes just weren’t providing as much direction as she’d hoped.

See Edith’s Kounin system observation notes below:

Wouldn’t you know that I’d be called out for an emergency during this observation! Nine minutes of data didn’t provide a full picture. Still, in that time, she’d seen no “serious misbehavior” and few students who were “definitely in.” Edith decided to go back to Florence’s class after lunch with a more open-ended observation tool.

See the Goldhammer system observation notes from the afternoon observation below:

On her way back to her office after bus duty, Edith rounded the corner by the mailboxes and nearly bumped into Florence. “Two visits in one day! You really must enjoy my teaching.” Despite her light words, Florence seemed flustered.

“Oh, I got pulled away this morning, so I thought I’d come back and finish…” Edith wasn’t prepared to meet with Florence, not yet. “Do you have time to meet tomorrow morning to talk about the observations?”

View Critical Perspectives from:
 Debbie Drown, Nationally Distinguished Principal

 Dr. Daniel Duke, Professor of Education, University of Virginia