“Us versus Them” in Special Education (Part 1): A Story of a Teacher Who Became an Administrator

I’m not sure why I’m struggling so much to get started on this one. I know I have plenty to say about the topic of “us versus them.” Maybe it’s a concern that I might offend someone or inadvertently reinforce the divide between administrators and teachers. Maybe it’s that I only have my experience, and thus only one perspective.

Well, here goes….

When I had the opportunity to move from a special education teaching position to a leadership role in a therapeutic day school, I was filled with hope for all that I might be able to change. I was driven by the frustrations and the disappointments that had been my prior experience of special education. As a teacher I often felt powerless and ill-equipped for all that the job asked of me. I did my best to seek support and to advocate for the needs of my students and staff, but I was left feeling hungry for a better way.

Entering the world of administration was not at all what I had envisioned. I came face to face with new challenges and a greater understanding of the broken education system. As a teacher my world was the classroom. Now as an administrator, my world was a school. The very problems that I faced as a teacher were magnified, and I was charged with finding the solutions.

First on my agenda: making space for teachers to feel heard. I had an open door policy and encouraged the staff to express their concerns directly. In the beginning, staff readily accepted the invitation. Perhaps, knowing about my experience in the classroom leveled the playing field.

I was somewhere between “us” and “them.”

Then, somewhere along the way, something changed. Fewer and fewer staff came to my door. I began to hear secondhand, third hand, fourth hand grumblings.

I became “them.”

How things shifted, I’m not certain. I just know that it felt terribly different. In a position of “power,” I now felt powerless to change the status quo.

Yet, I fought to regain that in-between status. I strived to be available and accessible to my staff. A few voices emerged from the grumbling, serving as advocates on behalf of the “us” group. At that point, I knew I would never regain my prior status.

I was “them.”

This “us versus them” mentality is a reality of human nature. We find our sense of belonging through shared groups, beliefs, and experiences. It is natural to cooperate more with your own group and to distrust or to oppose groups that are not your own.

I may be a dreamer, but I want something different. I want that place between the “us” and the “them.” I think we can all agree that the system is broken and that we want something different.

So, how can “we” solve this?


6 thoughts on ““Us versus Them” in Special Education (Part 1): A Story of a Teacher Who Became an Administrator

  1. Unfortunately what you describe seems inevitable. The best I can describe is to set up feedback loops. Folks really appreciate access to leaders, although I found a lot of resistance from my principals who felt I was encouraging staff to go around them…which shouldn’t be a problem if there is transparency in communicating. I found the principals who had problems with my setting up advisory councils were the ones who were most likely to have problems with their staff. There is no substitute for visibility and direct communication. I learned as a preschool teacher that participation in a successful group project lifted the esteem that the students had for each other. It works for adults as well. Having the group design, administer and analyze a school climate survey works really well in building a collaborative atmosphere. You have to be really careful to let the group decide what to do with the results, though. It’s also a great precursor to setting up a positive behavior program.

  2. Pingback: “Us versus Them” in Special Education……. A Story of a Teacher Who Became an Administrator | Story, Arts, Media and Education | Scoop.it

  3. Pingback: “Us versus Them” in Special Education (Part 2): When We Choose Hopelessness « Special Education: Conflict or Collaboration?

  4. Thank you so much for really being reflective about this process. My friend calls it turning to the dark side, I think that administrators sometimes forget the daily struggles of dealing with difficult students or trying to schedule/manage/assess the demands of the modern classroom. I want my leaders to provide guidance and understanding that we as teachers are acting in the students’ best interest or trying to at the time.

    I want an administrator that provides the necessary coaching for me to improve my practice, lets me consider the greater needs of the school and provides a safe place for honesty.

    Good luck and thank you.

  5. This is the norm. At each rung of the career ladder you have more authority to do affect change (do the right thing) but you have an equivalent increase in responsibility(do things right). Leadership is easily overshadowed by management.

    There a story about a boy walking along the beach tossing washed up starfish back into the water. An elderly man says to him “you’ll never be able to save all these starfish.” The boy picks up another starfish, tosses it into the water and replies “well, I saved that one.”

    As hokey as that story is, I think that is our calling. We can impact the lives of some of the kids before us. Probably not all but some!

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