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May 31, 2010

Letter # 3: The expectations of civility

Expectations are powerful. When people expect each other to behave well, most do. When we expect each other to behave badly, things go wrong. How does it work? - Very simply. We all sometimes have trouble controlling our emotions and thinking carefully. It is a given people will say silly things, and judge each other harshly. Such things will happen. However, once a thoughtless word is spoken, it is what happens next that is really important. A community that thinks of itself highly will treat a mistake as such – as an aberration to be sanctioned and then corrected. It won’t necessarily obsess about a mistake, or dwell on it; rather, it will be quickly dismissed and corrected as a mistake. A community that perceives itself as unstable, as prone to disintegration, will perceive each mistake as a normal action, as a further confirmation of its own negative self-perception. The expectations of civility do not simply reflect the norm, they create the norm. Therefore, if enough people go around and worry how things will deteriorate, they create the very condition about which they worry in the first place.
While the expectations of civility are a product of collective behavior, not all people in a social group have equal influence. Some are much more influential; they are opinion-makers and conveyors of social norms. They are the most important nodes of social networks. When these people’s expectations deteriorate, it may disproportionally affect the entire community. From my experience, most of these people do not realize the extent of influence over the community they actually have. Power is such a strange thing: everyone denies having it, and no one has ever admitted having too much of it.
To maintain high expectations of civility, the opinion-makers must recognize the extent of their influence. They do not have to be personally saintly; it is just a matter of articulating and upholding high standards of civility in dealing with each other. The expectations will be violated, but they still need to remain unchanged. 

May 21, 2010

The Lame Duck’s Letter # 2

The environment in which we work is changing rapidly; to thrive, you need to keep running and not hope the challenges will pass. Just over the four years I was at UNC, we have moved almost all graduate programs off campus, many of us acquired on-line and hybrid teaching skills, we redesigned largest teacher preparation programs, created several new ones, and moved most of operations and assessment into the digital world. This should not be an exception; the School needs to change and adapt. Change is the new normal. You should keep one eye on competition, the other on legislation, and the third on population and economic trends. Among the biggest challenges that I see on the horizon are:
1.       Colorado is still a growing state, with a significant need for new teachers. However, it cannot continue indefinitely, and UNC can start overproducing teachers. That would prompt the state regulators to raise requirements, or to limit the size of teacher education programs in some other ways. So, STE needs to figure out a way of expanding its in-service education business. You need to hassle the partner school districts until you can figure out what they want and what you can provide in terms of services. This is the only way to compensate for the shrinking demand for pre-service undergraduate teacher prep. We need to get back to the professional development business.
2.       All three Postbaccalaureate programs need to be revised to become smaller and less expensive, a lot more convenient and accommodating for working students, and more focused on field training. Those are areas of growth; UNC has a good name and good experience running those programs – you just need to maintain this position. But is cannot be done by doing the same thing over and over again. The elementary postbac, for example, has not been revised in 15 years – it has to be done soon.
3.       And finally, the biggest challenge is the growth of alternative licensure programs (which is really an expression of public’s dissatisfaction with us – only partially deserved, but real nevertheless). Instead of fighting them head-to-head by political means, UNC would do much better by radically redesigning its own model of teacher preparation. Strike the middle road; borrow what’s best in traditional and alternative programs. I imagine cohorts of students, with two mentors: one a university professor, and another a master teacher.  They follow closely a real K-12 classroom – both in person and via webcams. The mentor teacher explains what is going on and why, the university professors brings theory and research into the conversation. They do not take courses, but shorter, tailored modules taught by experts on specific topics: methods, assessment, child development, learning theory, classroom management, etc. Each of the experts will have to demonstrate the theory with clips from the classroom everyone is following. It is the “show and tell” model rather than just the “tell and hope they see it” model of instruction. I don’t know if this makes any sense, but one thing I know for sure: teacher preparation should find a way of linking theory to practice in a systematic manner. 

May 14, 2010

The Lame Duck’s Letter 1

Now that I am almost gone, some thoughts about what I have learned, and what I believe the School should do to thrive and flourish.
I’d stress the importance of institutions over personal politics. As I figured out quite a long time ago, there are two types of politics: one is based on personal favors, and another on some sort of an institutional authority. Every time I made a decision, I tried to treat it as a precedent. Many of my colleagues will recall my question: what is the story I can tell others justifying this decision? This is not just about our Charter (which may need some tweaks or revisions), but about a culture of appealing to the rules, to rational justification, and of demand for transparency. Looking back, I wish my decisions would be challenged more, and that people would read and use the Charter, the BOT Policy and other documents more often. Directors come and go, but the collective will and determination of faculty and staff must be institutionalized to maintain good political culture. The other option is to reduce the internal politics to that of personal favors and trade offs, of blocks and petty squabbling.
Our Charter and other university policy do cuments allow for a great flexibility, yet they spell out principles. For example, the Director has the power to assign people to classes. In addition, we have a pecking order of priorities AND the principle of rotating all perks and burdens (no seniority in class assignments). These three things balance each other. For example, when I assign someone to teach out of the pecking order, it is not an exercise in arbitrary power, not at all – I must have a good rationale for the decision. Not necessarily published or spelled out, but always ready if and when someone asks. My point is – people should ask; it is good for the system, and keeps the Director in shape. The same goes to all other decision makers. When a program coordinator says “I don’t want so and so to teach in my program,” there has to be a plausible rationale, some body of evidence, not just an arbitrary opinion. And was my job to ask for that. Many of these conversations remained invisible, mainly to protect someone’s privacy. However, all business should be conducted as if it could become public at any time. It is what Eugene calls the newspaper headlines test: would you like the story to appear in a newspaper, and would it still be defensible?
I am recommending one addition to out governing system: the Executive Committee consisting of all full professors, with advisory powers to the School Director, and with the charge to monitor fairness and transparency of major decisions. Some other schools have that, and I believe it would be good for STE, too. The committee would not have any actual decision-making power, but could help the new Director to get a sense of our history, traditions, and rules of conduct. It could be called as needed by the Director or any of the members. 

May 7, 2010


Yesterday, have accepted the position of Dean, Feinstein School of Education and Human Development, Rhode Island College. The major attractions are: this is very close to both of our children, and this is a bigger job at an institution that I really liked when I visited.
It was not an easy decision. I realized how much I love UNC and my friends and colleagues here. UNC is exceptionally open to people and open to change; from day one, I felt welcome here. I learned a lot about work, about people, and about myself. I could see something grow from a simple idea to a real program or project. This is probably the most satisfying experience: seeing ideas become reality. It is magical, really. Hopefully, I am leaving the place in a little better shape than what I found it in. And I will always remain the Russian Bear, remembering my years here with fondness. Thank you all for giving me this wonderful chance, for supporting me, for disagreeing with me, for driving me nuts and for giving me such joy. Thanks for everything.
The NCATE report will be turned in tomorrow; immediately after I will start working on an orderly transition, writing up things I know, making plans, and helping whoever will be appointed an Interim Director. It’s going to be just fine. We have good processes in place, good policies and traditions; we have great faculty and staff; things will be get done and get better. In the next few weeks, I will write about what I believe should be done next to keep the School moving ahead.