Post by the Supt.
John Puglisi Ph.D.
I just finished reading two books, both connecting me to a teacher I have known for some time (Judith Green) and to many other teacher ethnographers. We have many common threads that connect us all but surely ethnography is an elemental part of the weave.
The first book ties a variety of examples of writer/educators in describing ways schools, classes, teachers can get at “deeper learning.” They offer views into dialogic learning and critical thinking for students. The second book, an older text revisited, takes an ethnographic look at what it’s like to be a school principal. Both books connect me to many well worn though processes as well as new takes on being an educator.
Deeper learning is a worthy aim in almost any context. Deeper learning certainly avails the learner of practice in unpacking complexity through simple routines; observing, taking notes, thinking, thinking with others, and thinking about thinking. In this age of layers and layers of sometimes unnecessary societal complexity, I often see deep learning and deep work as essential to barely knowing what’s going on. What’s going on? The song asks…. Who and what is burying us in unnecessary layers and shrouds of complexity?
Who shall be practiced in weighing through the unnecessary layers? Who shall be elevated to decision making which chooses to unburden others of unnecessary complexity? Of course there is existential complexity at every level of consciousness and knowledge development. Schools and curriculum in America, though, seem so well designed in dumping the unnecessary layers and unbounded quantities of things to master. This condition often reduces opportunities to go deep and develop deep literacies which are at the core of social and economic mobility and flexibility.
Great teachers, though, are often great at wading through the challenges to guide learners on their own paths of deep learning while building the reading, writing, speaking, and scientific practices that serve the learner at every age. Most commonly, they do so through a great reverence for the value of the individual inquirer simultaneous with life and the universe itself.
The second book about being a principal and about the role of the ethnographer in school cultures is deeply connected with my own trajectory as an educator. From teacher to principal to superintendent and all the while with an ethnographic lens. The book, first written in 1973, brings to mind a time of my childhood while framing seemingly timeless aspects of the role of principal. Even then it suggested that principals, beyond being middle managers in school systems, were being asked to be change agents. It drew an interesting comparison between the principal and the ethnographer such that the principal worked to resolve, eliminate, and prevent problems while the ethnographer sought to find them and describe them. This really captured an internal personal conundrum. A never ending battle. It brought to mind educational leader roles in any position in the hierarchy as perhaps agents of improvement rather than change, agents of meaning making, agents of collaboration, agents of advancement of others. In its final chapters it suggested that principals are aimed more at stabilizing than changing as they provide the linkage between bureaucracy and the individual needs of all the many diverse people they interact with each day.
If we accept that everything is changing all the time. What does this ask the principal to do? If not stabilizing to sameness then perhaps helping systems, community, people find balances that too are always changing. Either way, two good books got me thinking, got me remembering, got me connecting to years of work and more than 34 orbits round the sun thinking about and acting on what schools, classrooms, teachers, teacher leaders and educators do and aim to do. 2 good books.