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Classroom Mechanics Fri Dec 17 2010

Classroom Mechanics Oral History Project: Mark Janka

classroommechanics.jpgMark Janka hunkers down in a booth at George's Family Restaurant & Pancake House in Oak Park. He self-effacingly curls against the window and somewhat slyly orders a francheezie plate from the waitress. The cold air outside presses against the restaurant's walls, but is offset by the warm hum of the diner's neon lights, which complements Janka's demeanor. He's soft-spoken yet demonstrably passionate, and comes off like a teacher who not so much commands a classroom as he fluidly guides it. Perhaps he's that teacher that allows the troublesome kid in back to crack just one too many jokes, but through some innate sense, that same kid feels racked with guilt for disrupting good Mr. Janka's lesson, and stays after class on his own volition to apologize.

Janka, a Naperville native and current Oak Park resident, has spanned the spectrum of schooling all across Chicagoland. As an upstart elementary school teacher in a parochial school on the South Side, a calming force at Westinghouse High on the West Side (before Westinghouse was closed and reopened), a National Board-certified English teacher and grizzled vet at Proviso East in Maywood, and now, an economics teacher at Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy, a Noble Network charter school, Janka has seen how various forms of the education environment work in a day-to-day sense. He speaks raptly about how the organizational dynamics and power infrastructure of a school inform success in the classroom, regardless of what structure -- charter, public, parochial -- the larger school may take.

"Some people in schools move up the chain of command because they are not successful in the classroom, they want to get away from the students, or they can't hack the teacher's workload," he states when asked why is it that some schools seem to create pools of nonperforming and/or disengaged leaders. "Some leadership is willfully ignorant of what it takes to run a school or a classroom because the job, especially for running a school, is daunting. Sometimes good leadership is run out of a job because of politics -- school boards can be viper pits. Sometimes good leadership isn't really given the power they need to do the job right. Their power to make decisions and enforce difficult culture changes is undercut by the community, the higher-ups at the district level, or -- I hate to say it -- misguided teacher unions."

When pressed if unions act as a disincentive to be an effective and innovative leader, Janka quickly reveals how nuanced the question really is, and how unions are often unfairly maligned targets. "I would say that is the case some of the time, but not as much as people from outside of teaching think and not as much is it is played in the media. My experience with the teacher unions I've been a part of is that most of the time they are fighting for good teaching and learning conditions. They are looking for policies that will help them run their classrooms effectively and that positively affect school culture -- the expectation that students are to be in class on time everyday, that a safe environment for learning is established and maintained, that class time is considered sacred, that learning and creating an environment conducive to learning is, above all other things -- the most important role of school leadership.

"Sometimes unions fall into the trap of protecting their poorest teachers, but my experience is that that is not really where union members want union resources used. They want an environment that fosters their success, which is to say they want environments that fosters their students' success." Again, he emphasizes the culture created by the authority within the school, and is quick to illustrate that one lot isn't necessarily better than the other. As an economics teacher, Janka often thinks about incentives, but when asked what incentives he believes encourages good leadership, in both public and charter forums, he steps back and says "It's weird to say this, but I honestly do not know what incentives school leaders have to oversee a well-performing school other than pride in one's work. Even poor school leadership gets paid quite well. I think the leadership I see at Noble Street is primarily motivated by the data that says they're closing the achievement gap and getting kids through college. Daniel Pink's ideas about mastery, autonomy, and recognition being strong incentives probably plays the biggest role."

Janka slowly finishes off his plate and takes a sip from his drink. He seems wired by his own thoughts on a subject that is obviously not just a profession, but a true passion. He often works over 60 hours per week, driven by a desire to immerse himself in the projects of his students, the school, and as he says "not to be the weak link in the chain." There's a self-check within the culture of Rowe & Clark that seems to elevate the intensity to which the teachers engage with their classes. In turn, the students have the opportunity to interact with a brighter frequency. The success of a school is derived from the structure that's put in place by the administration, which Janka believes is just as replicable in a public, private, magnet, parochial, charter, you-name-it school. It's all about the culture set within, and the tone in which it is carried out.

Before politely declining pie for dessert, Janka considers what it is that makes his current school work. "Attentiveness and prioritizing culture and discipline seems to be what makes Noble successful," he says. "Then, that has to be backed up with establishing measurements of student success -- ACT scores, students getting into college, students getting through college. I think the school/school system could determine their own standards for student success, the dogged pursuit of that success, and have the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen pitfalls and new hitches that arise to the plan you've laid out to achieve your goals."

The check is paid, and Janka stands at the entrance of the restaurant. It's Friday night, and he's ready to get back to work.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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