Sunday, January 19, 2014

Chris Christie's Pronoun Problem: Lessons for Teachers and Education Leaders from Bridgegate

"I am not a bully." When I heard these words come out of the mouth of the Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, I had the same reaction as I did when I heard Richard Nixon say, "I am not a crook." I thought, "Oh, yes you are." I served for several years as the Anti-Bullying Co-Ordinator for a suburban New Jersey school district, and if there is one thing I learned from that experience, it is that Mr. Christie fits the bully description.

Last Sunday I read an excellent column by Frank Bruni of the New York Times entitled, "The I in Christie's Storm." Bruni's premise is that Christie has a pronoun problem. Even in his two hour apologia on Bridgegate, Christie was focused on "I", unable to see beyond his own nose. Bruni says that effective political leaders need a strong ego (certainly Christie qualifies there), but they also need to be inclusive; they need to address the issues related to the pronouns "you" and "we." The "you" in the political equation is a genuine concern for others. As a leader I serve "you." That is what Christie is trying to do with his hugging of Superstorm Sandy victims: see, I care about you. The "you" message is undermined by Christie's boorish bullying tactics and certainly by Bridgegate. The "we" in the leadership equation is the ability to convince others that what I want to accomplish is our mission: "we" are in this together. For Christie the "we" too often comes across as me, me, me. As he said to a New Jersey teacher who voiced a concern, "I am tired of you people." Ultimately, Bruni says, a politician's obsession with "I" leads to another "i" word - isolation.

I believe that classroom leaders (teachers) and education administrators can learn a lesson from Christie's pronoun problems. Let me explain.

When the Bridgegate scandal broke, I was in Honolulu, Hawaii (I know, poor me) visiting my friend, colleague and former boss, Earl Kim. Born and raised in Hawaii, Earl is currently the Head of School for the Kamahameha School, a large private school dedicated to the education of native Hawaiian children and the preservation of Hawaiian culture. Previously, Earl had superintendent positions at two school districts in New Jersey. He left New Jersey because he could not continue to work in the educational environment that was being engendered by Christie and his minions. To me, Earl was and is the finest representation of the balance of the I, you and we in education leadership.

As all leaders must, I believe, Earl had a well developed sense of "I." He had studied economics and public policy and public education. He had worked as a teacher, assisant principal, principal and superintendent. He was confident in his understanding of schooling and what was best for teaching and learning. This sense of "I" allowed him to set a vision for his leadership and a direction for the school district he was leading. But Earl realized that his expertise and his vision were not adequate for leadership. He worked very hard at the "you" of the leadership equation. His concern for the children entrusted in his care was exemplary. He was hyper-diligent in attending student activities. He often started meetings with stories about individual students he had met and what they were experiencing. The only time he exhibited impatience was when others did not seem to put the children first.

Finally, Earl embraced the "we" of this leadership pronoun troika. He valued and truly listened to the advice he received from others. His cabinet had his ear. So also did union leadership and individual teachers. Earl could admit he was wrong and change course when the evidence indicated it. He received criticism with equanimity. When teachers complained they did not see enough of him, he went on a "listening tour" in the various buildings. He was moved by these discussions and what he heard helped frame subsequent plans for the district.

In short, Earl Kim embodies the balance of "I", "you" and "me" necessary for great leadership. Christie, stuck with his overabundance of "I" is less leader and more demagogue. I have addressed Christie's demagoguery in another post here, for now suffice it to say that Christie's verbal abuse of teachers, attacks on teacher unions, efforts to undermine public education, and rhetoric about failure factories are all a result of an excess of "I" type self-aggrandizement. All this is about the self-styled truth teller, Christie, and not about the parents, children and teachers of New Jersey. The people of New Jersey, the "you" and "we" are left out of the isolated Christie's vision.

What can educators learn from Christie's excess of  "I?" First of all, unlike Christie, most educators suffer from too little "I." Those of us who go into the profession are generally team players. This can be dangerous when what we are doing is under attack. The truth is that as a profession we are very well-prepared and dedicated people who are out to do the very best for children. The education reform movement has managed to brand us as incompetent feeders at the public trough. The Common Core, teacher evaluation based on standardized tests, charter schools and vouchers are all direct slaps in the face of our profession. We need a sufficiently developed "I" to fight back at this lunacy, stand up for our profession and our professionalism and reclaim the high ground.

But while we need to assert the "I" in the equation, we also must remember the "you" and the "we." In education, if you are a teacher the "you" is the children. If you are an administrator the "you" is the child, teacher and the public. As teachers we must be sure to always give our best to the children. This is the essence of professionalism. If our lessons are not the best, we work to improve them because we serve "you" the children. If an individual child struggles we try to determine why, because we serve "you" the individual child with a particular need. If parents don't understand why we gave a particular assignment, we communicate with them as best we can because we serve "you" the parent. As administrators we serve the teachers by making sure that "you" the teachers have the resources and feedback you need to be the best possible teacher and we serve "you" the public, by insuring that we hire, retain and develop the very best educators we can find.

The "we' in classroom and education is the profession. As Ben Franklin said, "We must hang together, or most assuredly we will hang separately." We need to support each other in our profession. This means teachers helping other teachers, administrators helping other administrators, teachers helping administrators and administrators helping teachers. This "we" means never saying to a parent or community member, "Your child should have learned this last year." It means working collegially to improve our practice. It means presenting a picture of a profession that respects all the members of that profession and works at the top levels of its capabilities.

So there it is. Chris Christie has made his pronoun problem a problem for the people of New Jersey and for all who serve public education in New Jersey. Let's fight back by balancing our own "I", "you" and "we."