DeKalb superintendent promotes systemwide convocation as powerful and unifying

Teachers often contend the central office doesn’t understand the pressures of today’s classrooms where they struggle with fewer resources and higher expectations. That may be why DeKalb teachers are riled over a mandatory arena-sized convocation scheduled during the final hours of their back-to-school preparation.

There’s also the fact the last command performance 15 years ago turned into a sweat-drenched pep rally featuring the “Hokey Pokey.”

In late June, DeKalb teachers received a reminder email from the district about a convocation at the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth on Friday, Aug. 4. (They received an earlier notice in May.) Teachers usually devote that last day to finishing lesson plans and bulletin boards to prepare for students showing up Monday.

Soon after that email arrived, teachers reached out to me, lamenting as one did, “It is a waste of time; it is waste of money. It is a three-hour obligatory meeting when teachers should be getting prepped for the students who are coming Monday.”

When I brought up the convocation on social media, teachers were livid. (Some don’t routinely check school emails in the summer so they didn’t know about it.) The rebukes were immediate and numerous:

“That Friday before the start is critical for preparation. You can tell this sort of fluff is organized by people who aren’t anywhere near a classroom.”

“I don’t think the district is going out of their way to not be teacher friendly. I think their motives are actually pretty darn wonderful. The reality, though, is time is precious to a teacher.”

In a 45-minute phone conversation today, DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green defended the convocation, which he said grew out of discussions with school board members who wanted an event to unify the “DeKalb family” and highlight the progress and the work yet to come.

The school board was committed enough to approve $50,000 to stage the event at the climate-controlled Infinite arena and pay for buses to transport 12,000 employees from their schools to Duluth, he said. DeKalb does not know the bus cost as it will depend on how employees drive themselves. The DeKalb budget earmarks $100,000 for convocation.

“The sentiment was there needs to be a chance for the entire DeKalb family to hear the charge from the superintendent, to come together as one DeKalb in a collegial way and to see each other across boundaries, regions, geographic areas, north, south, east, west,” said Green. “So, there was a commitment early on to create that kind of synergy, knowing there would be opposition to it. But there was also a thirst and clamoring for it. There are tradeoffs for doing it and for not doing it.”

As a classroom teacher himself for 14 years and a former athlete, Green said he benefited from convocations that provide the same bonding and spirit building as a team huddle. “It is a way of pulling the team together for a well-planned, powerful kickoff. It is about getting the juices flowing and getting pumped up.”

Other educators reported their districts, including Bibb and Newton, have held similar gala events to kick off the new year. (Those teachers, too, would rather be spared the group affirmations and remain in their classrooms. As a teacher explained, “Personally, my strength and support always comes from my colleagues in my schoolhouse; they are all I need.”)

DeKalb’s decision to revive the tradition upset some district veterans given the infamous extravaganza in a Clarkston stadium orchestrated by newly hired school chief Johnny Brown in 2002. High school bands performed rousing marches, firefighters unfurled a giant U.S. flag, and motorcycle riders revved their Harleys.

But teacher reviews were largely negative, and the event still rankles. “The Johnny Brown event was a fiasco,” a veteran teacher said last week.

Board members understood the lingering resentment toward the 2002 convocation where teachers sweltered in 90 degrees and water was in short supply, said Green. “They talked about it and felt that was a different place and space…My own feeling was we have to break the shackles of the past and move to a different space and place.”

However, Green’s rationale for the upcoming rally echoes Brown’s 15 years go: To marshal “the power of 13,000 people” and inspire greatness, as Brown described it. Brown approached the gathering as fun and led a sing-along to “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

But two years later, neither Brown nor his board was happy; he was ousted for a list of missteps, including the pep rally, a bungled “Dress for Success” school dress code and the confiscation of a student newspaper that criticized his tenure.

That outcome doesn’t worry Green, who predicts his critics will change their views after the convocation, which will feature students and student success as the centerpiece.

Green said exactly how students will dominate the event “is part of the intrigue. I can’t imagine a teacher missing this. I understand the timing on the last day of pre-planning is not so good but it’s also perfect in that this is the Friday before kids come back – a reunion between educators and students. This will be a powerful experience for any educator who cares about kids.”

Green did not like my description of the event as a command performance, but said the expectation is that all teachers will attend as the convocation will serve as professional development. “There is the expectation for this gathering to be an opportunity for us to come together as a family, the message being we are one DeKalb.”

Teachers may be hard to convince, despite Green’s confidence the convocation program will impress them.

Retired teacher Diane Shearer, who taught at Avondale High for 12 years and then at Chamblee High for another seven, said, “One thing too many administrators never seem to learn is this: motivational speakers aren’t going to do the bad teachers any good, and the good ones don’t need those pearls of so-called wisdom from an overpaid speaker. They are already motivated and inspired or they wouldn’t keep doing this very hard job year after year.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.