The teaching- principal encounters a parallel universe of plunging necklines and fancy fingernails.

It was not until the middle of my first year as a teaching principal in a small, rural school district that I learned about grants and grant writing. I was invited, or rather, directed by the superintendent to attend a meeting at the Office of the County Superintendent to learn about this funding stream that seemed foreign and even arcane to me. At the meeting we learned about instructional improvement or curriculum adoption, adaption; or as it is currently known, implementation projects. With this approach the state or federal government could enhance or improve curricular areas that were important to the public good.

The format for writing these grants has remained pretty much the same over the 43 years of my career in education, from K-12 to university. There are basically 5 columns that are completed in order to (1) show need, (2) tell what could be and (3) tell what steps will be needed to get there and then (4) tell who is responsible and what they will do when. Finally you add a (5) budget that is padded for the cuts that the funder will inevitably try to foist on your project in order to prove to its bosses that it is being efficient.

The first column is easy to fill out. The main point is that everything is awful. The kids are suffering from poverty and low educational expectations. Their test achievement is abysmal. They read and compute below grade level. Their teachers are underpaid, underprepared, and depressed as proven by a questionnaire. In the second column, the problems specified in the first column are reversed. You assert that with the adoption, adaption or implementation of the program you need to fund, all of the issues you raised in the first column will be fixed. The lame will walk, the blind will see and the kids will be ready for UC Berkeley.

The grants when I started as teaching principal usually were funded for 3 years since it was generally recognized that change in a school required at least a 3 year focused effort. Finally, you had to invent a catchy title to your grant that also served as an acronym. Something like ‘Project Leap’ (Leading Educational Access Progress) would be a good idea because it showed a solid outcome that conformed to the cultural expectations of public school. But you had to beware the invention of acronyms that gave the wrong message, such as ‘Project Snore’ (Student Needing Outstanding Restorative Experiences). This one would be a real loser.

I couldn’t believe it when I found the perfect grant opportunity. A teacher in a southern California school district had started taking his students outside to learn about the environment through a series of fun and interesting hands-on activities. This man, John, seemed to be a genius to me. My school sat on the edge of town at the top of a canyon filled with all kinds of wildlife, a year round stream with side cuts that revealed fossils and much more. John called his project ‘Ecology Happening.’ This seems like a dated, 60’s kind of title today, but it was right on target in those days. After getting agreement from the nine teachers at my little school, I wrote the grant application. To my great joy, it was funded over a three-year period and we were on our way to adapt new and interesting outdoor curriculum. The funder was a Federal Program called, Title IV C. This idea, fund teacher ideas for curriculum to be adapted in a variety of schools over a three-year period seemed (and still seems) wonderful.

John came to our school the next Fall and helped to get us started in the environment that surrounded our school. We were well on our way to make plaster casts of animal prints, inventory the plants in our area and spot and record everything from birds to lizards and bugs. Fossils were dug up and dusted off and dragged back to school to be categorized. Parents were generally supportive but also mildly annoyed at the dirty clothes that resulted from our many field trips into the canyons. I fixed that by asking the parents to let the kids bring back up clothing including dry shoes. Most of the teachers participated and seemed to enjoy the outdoor education.

At this point, the grant called for me as coordinator to make a trip to San Diego near John’s district to receive guidance along with many other grant recipient school leaders. The meeting was in a fairly fancy hotel with conference rooms and restaurants. I flew into San Diego the night before and was eager to find out about the other schools.

After a quick breakfast I made my way to the conference rooms. I was early and felt I was having a problem finding the right room. In each room stood groups of women dressed as if they were involved in some kind of important business convention. I was dressed like a rural schoolteacher, brown corduroys and a short sleeved sports shirt. I sat down in the front row and one of the women approached me. She wore a long red dress and as she bent over to say hello to me, I noticed the dress had a deeply plunging neckline that was well decorated with a few tasteful gold chains. This experience left such an impression that I didn’t actually hear what she said. A bit embarrassed, I stood up and introduced myself. She extended her hand and I noticed her fingernails were incredibly long, painted and manicured.

This was a kind of culture shock to me. I was used to middle-aged women in polyester pants with chalk dust on their butts from backing into the chalkboard. How did I land among these high class and incredibly fancy women?

It turned out that these people were in charge of the grants in each region. They had once been schoolteachers but had left that life far behind when they entered the world of education professional developers and federal grant coordinators. Several of them spoke to the group of blandly dressed teacher types like me over the course of the day. Each wore earrings and other jewelry as well as shoes I never saw on a member of a school staff.

They passed out many papers with forms to fill out at various stages of the term of the grant, but I couldn’t pay attention. I was too amazed and curious about what these creatures might actually be. I wondered if they had ever actually been teachers or teaching principals? I also wondered why anyone in education would live a life that far from a school?

But it turned out that none of my questions mattered. John, the teacher who developed ‘Ecology Happening’ knew how to interact with this class of grant people and he helped me to manage all the forms and timelines and budget reports.

As I mentioned earlier, the man was a genius.