, Salem, MA


March 15, 2014

Letter: Salem is failing its teachers

To the editor:

As a former student of the Salem Public School system, it’s heartbreaking to watch it struggle and search for answers. Salem just announced that it is considering hiring an outside firm to run Bentley School, which in essence, is an admission by Salem’s upper management that they themselves are incapable of providing the leadership that is necessary to turn the school around. Unfortunately, it does not appear as though upper management is truly taking responsibility for its performance. Mrs. Driscoll noted that “Anytime you’re in the middle of a turnaround and don’t have a principal at the helm on a daily basis, it’s a concern,” but that roadblock is something that those who manage the school system should quickly eliminate, rather than letting it linger for an entire year at the most challenged school in the district.

According to the Department of Education, roughly one in five students in Salem is on an individualized education plan. Teachers are asked to educate these students and manage their own unique plans with limited outside help. In that context, it seems reasonable to ask the district’s administration to develop and manage an individual plan for one school in the system that represents roughly 7 percent of the district’s enrollment. In light of this, it seems inconsistent to force the teachers from the district’s most challenged school to reapply for their own jobs without asking ALL the leadership above them to do the same. One characteristic of great managers is that they support and empower their people, but this approach seems to send the wrong message to the staff that they are the problem.

Those of us who work in the corporate world are accustomed to employee engagement surveys that, when done correctly, can be incredibly fruitful. To be effective, though, they must be anonymous, ask the right questions, embrace answers management doesn’t want to hear, publicly address the results and develop an action plan. The questions have to be hard-hitting, such as “Do you have the opportunity to contribute to decisions that affect you?” “Do you feel valued for the work you do?” and “Is communication encouraged?” Typically, in any organization that is struggling to achieve results, the answers to these questions do not tend to be particularly positive. However, the first step in fixing a problem is to quantify it and recognize that it exists, which is the purpose of an engagement survey, not to assign blame. Another common finding of these surveys is that those workers “on the ground” have some amazing ideas on how to solve some of the most critical problems that upper management faces. Unless organizations genuinely embrace crowdsourcing for ideas, those small voices with amazing ideas are muted. It’s human nature to lose sight of the greater picture when you get consumed in the urgent day-to-day happenings. While it’s just the opinion of an outsider, I truly believe the Salem Public School system has an incredible opportunity to find the answers it seeks from those who they already employ, not new partners.

Michael Grassia


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