An Interview with Michigan’s former State Superintendent of Schools Tom Watkins: Why Not Ask the Teachers?

Jan 2, 2012 by

Tom Watkins

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

Tom Watkins has spent his entire adult life as a youth advocate in both the private and public sectors. He has worked in roles from child-care worker, therapist, college professor to leading two major departments of state government (Mental Health and Education) served as the chairman of a state board of education as well as a board member of a large urban district. Even in the private sector he worked to improve public education through his work on “World Class Schools”, striving to close the achievement gap and advocating for a tax increase to invest in quality early childhood education.

I reached out to Tom once again after seeing a column he wrote about the importance of engaging teachers in making school reform work.

1) Recently, you wrote a powerful and eye catching column (Engage teachers in the education reform process  about the importance of involving the front line teachers in the classroom in the educational reform movement. What brought this about ?

Teachers, those individuals that touch our collective future by educating our children are feeling attacked from multiple levels. As one teacher recently commented, ” I feel like the gum on the bottom of a shoe.”

As a former state superintendent who  has advocated for change — often acting as a megaphone for great educators I thought it was appropriate to uses my fourm as a regular contributor to public policy debates to remind decision-makers to “listen-up.”

Often, when people push for school reform they do so from a perch as an editorial writer, columnist, business leader or politician. Far too often these calls for change come from those that are far removed from the classroom. It is both common sense and reinforced in many leadership and business books that the need to engage those that change impacts in the decision making process. Too often, the voice of the teacher is not taken into consideration when calls for change are put forth.

When I worked on the assembly line as a college student  many of my coworkers were without a high school diploma. Yet, when it came to making that assembly line run efficiently and effectively— they had their Ph.D.’s. They also knew how to shut the line down when they were not engaged and treated with the dignity and respect they deserved.

I learned at an early age to always engage those on the front line whenever I can; especially when it comes to decisions that directly impact them.

Listen– and you will learn.

2) From my point of view, involving some teachers from this great country, from Maine to Florida, from Oregon to Texas may be a good idea- but how do we get a good representative sample?

There are multiple ways to learn from teachers and to incorporate their ideas into policy decisions. It is easy, I should say, if the desire exists to do so.

Listen. There is an old saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth so we could listen twice as much as we speak.”

As state superintendent I would spend as much time as I could in schools. I would sit with the teachers in the teachers lounge and engage them in their classrooms. If I was asked to give a speech at a school I would only do so if I would have a chance to interact with the teachers— not just show up to “talk at them.”

We had an electronic suggestion box where ideas could be submitted to the department of education.

I created a state-wide support person of the year after attending a national teachers conference at the invitation of the state president. While at the conference in a meeting with the teachers union representatives and support personal union they pointed out we had a “Michigan Teacher of the Year”– but did not recognize support personnel, bus drivers, clerical staff, lunch room workers, etc that also added value to the learning. With their input, we created such a recognition.

At my suggestion the Michigan State Board of Education, in an overt effort to engage teachers, invited the annually selected Michigan Teacher of the Year to have a seat, but more importantly; a voice at the State Board table. The teachers’ voice is always the last heard prior to policy being enacted.

There are ways to engage teachers through their elected union representation and directly– if the will exists to do so.

3) You have served as a state commissioner of education, chaired a state board of education and served on a large local urban school board– yet, while clearly you are an “educator” you are not a “certified teacher.”

Knowing your work, I know you strive to engage teachers and truly value their contribution perhaps more than most that have held top educational leadership roles. Yet, I assume you have been criticized for not being a classroom teacher– right? How do your respond to those that hold the belief that only teachers should lead education?

Leadership comes in may shapes, sizes, gender, racial and ethnic backgrounds– and yes, professional backgrounds as well.

I have successfully lead the state mental health system—- and am not a psychiatrist. I successful lead a major business organization and I am not a MBA. I was a management consultant at a major CPA firm– and I am not a CPA.

I am a strong manager and leader who has demonstrated the ability to pull teams together across diverse sets of backgrounds and experiences to accomplish established goals.

By engaging others, setting a share vision and common agenda and tapping expertise within and without an organization there is little that cannot be accomplished. Diversity, in all facets becomes an organizations strength.

I was educated by great teachers as a child and was continually educated by them during my tenure as state superintendent.

No, the list of things I am NOT is long– but, my engaging the expertise of members of your team and not pretending because you hold the leadership role you are “all knowing” I have been an effective leader of multiple complex organizations with diverse professional staffs.

4) I would think that if we randomly selected some elementary, some middle school, and some high school teachers– this may really provide some real life input into polcy decisons made that impact the classroom – your thoughts?

Absolutely! Anytime you can gather input from those closest to the action– and in our schools, that is our teachers– they better the decision will ultimately be.

We need diversity of thought. As my first boss told me– “If we both agreed on everything— one of us is not necessary.” She is right.

Perhaps the best training I had to assure I engage those around me is growing up with 6 siblings, including 4 sisters that were very vocal about their voice not being ignored.

Look, be clear, there is a difference between input and decision making. In our schools through the union contract some decisions are negotiated. However,  the majority of the policy directions of a school district rests with the local school board and the superintendent. It does not dilute their authority or power by seeking input— and in most cases it adds value and enhances the ultimate decision made.

Research and common sense reinforce that quality teachers matter— and great teachers and thoughts can come from any grade level.

In the education enterprise we must always remember that teachers have the lead role (along with parents and students). The other parts of the educational food chain then sing back up to what happens in the classroom. The teacher is Diana Ross and the rest are sing “doo-wop.”

5) The one thing that I think teachers across the US might say is that they want ONE behavior problem or discipline problem removed from their classroom- good thing or bad thing?

I was ‘that’ kid growing up. I am happy great teachers never gave up on me.

We have a responsibility to educate ALL children.

Are there times when a child needs to be remove from a particular classroom or environment– absolutely. Yet, as educators and responsible adults we must seek the proper and alternative ways to educate that young person. We have to stop viewing education as Henry Ford viewed the color of the original Model T— when he said,” You can have any color car you like– as long as it is black.”

Finding a way to educate a child is our responsibility. It may entail moving the child to a different class, school or using blended, e-learning. We should strive to do whatever it takes to assure a child gets the education they need and deserve.

I approach the issue of “removal” as if it were my son or daughter. The question becomes– “remove to what?” I expect we will do all in our power to help educate every child.

6) In my mind, bypassing the unions might be a good thing–I am not sure how much they have helped teachers over the past 30-40 years—your reaction?

Teacher unions and their leadership are not any different than superintendents and school boards I have worked with over my career—— I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I have worked with all three.

One union leader, David Hecker, the president of the AFT-Michigan was a delight to work with. Not because he was a push-over or that we agreed on all issues– in fact, far from it. I valued my relationship with David Hecker because I know he cares deeply about kids, is a strong advocate for his membership, is smart and willing to work with management to find the best solution that can be obtained. He was always willing to find a compromise, a “win-win” solution to solve problems.

Perhaps one of the most cherished awards I received in my career was from the Michigan Federation of Teachers. There is a mutual respect for our respective roles as labor and management— but we never lost sight of why we existed– to educate children.

If a union contract exists it is both a legal and in my mind a moral contract to engage with the teachers. If their are provisions of the contract that are problematic management should attempt to negotiate appropriate changes. Remember, if it is in a contract—- it was agreed on by both parties and must be followed.

I believe we need to stop using “unions” as an excuse for lack of progress. Are there problematic contracts and are some union leaders more difficult than others– absolutely. Yet, I am sure they feel the same about some school boards, superintendents and politicians.

As responsible adults it is our collective responsibility to find ways to educate our children. Blaming one group or another will not get the job done.

7) It seems that we are still not providing, adequate, appropriate services for some kids with special needs. The other day I read about some child with autism being put in a duffle bag—-does the average classroom teacher need a HELL of a lot more training? Or is this an isolated incident?

It is clearly inappropriate behavior and thankfully these issues are isolated and few and far between.

Not all teachers (or principals, assistant principals, superintendents, school board members) are perfect. We are all human and all have frailties and make mistakes.

Yet, it needs to be made very clear– disrespecting, abusing a child- verbally/ physically or harming a child in anyway will not be tolerated– period.

8) Sadly, I also read in the newspapers, about a certain city that shall remain nameless–but in a one year time period, apparently 200 students were removed from the schools in this state in handcuffs. What have the schools come to ?

The bigger question is– What has our society come to? Our schools are A reflection of our communities and culture. There is far to much crime and violence in America and it is on steroids in far too many of our urban, suburban and rural school districts.

Schools are not THE reason for the societal problems but MUST be part of the solution.

We our going to sink as a nation if we do not stem the tide of dropouts and functional illiterates in our mists. We are living in a time where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly. A child without an education today is an adult without much of a future tomorrow.

Schools need to partner with other organizations in the community to combat crime and violence.

9) As we approach a new year- and hopefully some renewed energy and enthusiasm about education- what questions do we need to be asking school leaders?

We all need to become a two year old and ask– “Why?”

Why does learning have to be confined to the 6 hours of a school day, 4 walls of a building/classroom and 180 days of instruction?

Why can’t we more effectively use technology to personalize learning?

Why do we have an achievement gap between black and brown students and their white counterparts? And more importantly, what are we doing to address the problem?

Why are far to many school boards not developing a share vision and common agenda that places teaching, learning and children above power, control, politics and adults? How can local superintendents better work with their boards to this end?

We need to believe that if we can imagine a new reality we have the ability to make it happen— because we can. This is even more true when we pull a team of educators and the community together and we are all rowing in the same direction.

10) And what have I neglected to ask ?

Thanks for the opportunity to share my ideas. As usual, thoughtful questions.

Always happy to hear from great educators. Feel free to share your thoughts at: Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

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