One cultural phenomenon which I believe has hurt all aspects of our society is the way disagreements have transformed from reasonable discussions into violent spectacles. Given human history, it shouldn’t be all that surprising we would take an everyday part of human existence and turn it into a coliseum event: When the Romans disagreed with their subordinates—be they Christians or revolutionaries—they didn’t explain, educate, or rehabilitate; they spun conflict into entertainment as their human problems got to interact with lions. Using that comparison, Fox and Friends and The Ed Show don’t seem quite so extreme, but those biased shows have contributed to the polarizing way we deal with subjective issues in recent years.
Just because you believe that my ideas are bad, is that any reason to yell at me, to interrupt me, not to listen to anything I have to say, or to drown me out? Apparently, from what we regularly experience, the answer is yes. Once you have determined your position, having anyone suggest revisions, different ways of thinking, or criticism of your views becomes a personal attack. You hate the person who dared contradict you, and you start attacking his character and opinions—not necessarily because you have any real problems with his character and opinions, but because his having to defend himself will keep him away from you. So, he’ll come back with something even more outrageous about you, and so on, while the original concept gets lost in the fray. How stupid are we? (Don’t answer that.)
“Discourse” is a wonderful word, rich in positive connotations and dripping with potential. “Verbal interchange of ideas” is the official definition that I have no problem co-opting as the basis for what I mean when I talk about healthy confrontation. Just because I disagree with you about something doesn’t mean I’m against you or out to make you look bad or want your job or intend to blow up your house. I exaggerate the progression to insanity, but only a little. Think about how many evil, vicious acts result from differences of opinions, be they religious, social, or political. Clearly, a blog on improving our schools has no business trying to solve the legislative paralysis we currently have in Washington, but this “us versus them” mentality permeates all aspects of our world; it should come as no surprise that our schools reflect this “red state/blue state” nonsense.
And it is total, unadulterated, 100% nonsense. Ideas are beautiful abstract concepts that should either fly or plummet into the sea on the strength of their wings or the skills of their pilots in avoiding soaring too close to the sun, not because of who created them. Determining if we are going to build those wings should also not be based on anything but the idea’s merits. While I have every right to be suspicious of something coming from an administrator who has come up with ten horrible ideas in a row, I still need to separate the concept from its source, no matter how suspect that source is.
Think of all the techniques we’ve developed to avoid serious contemplation of an idea: shouting it down, attacking the morality of its creator, manipulating statistics, fear mongering, and irrelevant associations are just a few of the many weapons at our disposal. And anytime we start to run low on ways to undermine the ideas which we don’t like (without resorting to facts and reason, of course), all we have to do is to turn on the television for state-of-the-art propaganda and subterfuge techniques as seen in commercials, reality shows, political campaigns, and (Lord help us) the news.
Schools pretend to be civilized places, so most of the cruder methods of eviscerating someone’s idea usually don’t occur. Plenty of administrators have resorted to the parental, “Because I said so,” line of reasoning, but I never had an administrator challenge my manhood, attack my personal habits, or spread rumors that I kicked puppies—although I can’t vouch for how many times they thought about going that route.
No, in education, the preferred methods are simply ignoring the idea until the person pushing it gives up or turning on the administrative fog machine. I’ve had my fair share of the patronizing, “You just don’t understand how things work,” discussions with administrators over the years, and they are deflating experiences. You’re all charged up with what you believe is a fantastic way to improve the way you and your colleagues do their jobs, and your enthusiasm gets demolished in a fifteen-minute lecture.
Even if you’re indomitable, the way you get treated makes it much less likely that you will come forward with another inspiration—no matter how incredible it is—because you don’t want to take the risk of getting shot down again. Even more irritating is when they give you a shred of hope that your vision might come to fruition only to reject it arbitrarily later. But worst of all is when you get threatened because you won’t keep quiet about your idea. At this point, all sides have completely shut down, bitterness has replaced whatever respect both sides might have had for each other, and the teacher must be careful not to allow his anger at his treatment to impact his teaching negatively or to get him fired. I’m compressing what can take years to occur into a single paragraph, so let’s look at how the process really works:
Heroic, handsome English Teacher (ET): …So that’s what I was thinking we should do. Do you think we could get this going?
Administrator X (AX): Hmmm, that’s very interesting. What do we know about how other schools are handling this? How’s this working other places?
ET: Well, my friend at School Y says that everyone there loves it. It’s working really well there.
AX: But that’s an elementary school, not a high school. Do we have any data on how this works in high schools?
ET: I’m sure that there is, but I don’t have it.
AX: Well, then why don’t you do a little more research and get back to me when you have some information on how this is working in other high schools.
“The Stall” effectively takes the wind out of the idea presenter’s sails. Asking for more data is a sure-fire way to make sure that this idea won’t come before you again for quite some time. Remember: the person making this suggestion is a teacher who has a full-time job with many responsibilities that will have to come before trying to find other high schools that have implemented whatever he wants for his high school. Assuming that ET can find other high schools using his idea, the administrator still has a few tricks up her sleeve before this innovation-crushing technique is exhausted.
ET: Here you go—I found three other high schools that are using this program, and they all love it. I’ve summarized my findings in a paragraph for each school as well as listing a contact person if you have any questions. You can read it for yourself, but the general reaction is extremely positive. They’ve also given me some pitfalls that we could easily avoid. It looks really good.
AX: That’s great, and I appreciate the work you’ve done on this. I do see, however, that none of the high schools you found are really like us. School A is in a unit district which makes its situation much different from ours. School B is significantly smaller than us. And School C is the wealthiest school district in the state—we could never compare with them.
ET: But this idea is succeeding in all three places. Doesn’t that show this works in all kinds of settings?
AX: That may be true. But before I take something this radical and far-reaching to the superintendent or school board, I need some hard evidence that this idea will work in a high school just like ours. I also see that the only contact people you have on your list are (vaguely derisive tone) teachers. You need to get principals or assistant principals in charge of supervising this program so I can talk to people who’re seeing the big picture.
You might have noticed that I cheated and crammed a couple of stall tactics into the same conversation. By now, ET has spent hours working (for nothing) on this project, simply because he thinks it would be good for his school. But the administrator keeps coming up with more for him to do. She’s not rejecting the idea, per se, but she keeps creating obstacles for ET to leap. Finding a perfect match for comparison can be impossible, especially if the idea is relatively new—how many automotive assembly lines could Henry Ford check out before he made his?—but that won’t stop AX from demanding that ET find one. If he can’t, then the idea could be put on indefinite hold until everybody forgets about it or ET retires.
Comparisons are extremely important and useful; don’t get me wrong. What AX is doing, however, is rejecting legitimate comparisons for frivolous reasons simply to avoid having to think about ET’s idea just yet. It could be that she hates it, or maybe she just doesn’t want anything upsetting the status quo (more on that later). ET will have to go on looking for that exact match or abandon his idea, which is probably starting to sound good to him about now.
The other stall in that hypothetical discussion revolves around status. By asking ET to find administrators as resources, AX is not-so subtly putting ET in his place. The input from lowly teachers is not especially convincing evidence, she’s saying. “Find some people whose opinions actually matter—people like me.”
And just like the previous tasks reviewed, this won’t be easy for ET. All Principal AX has to do is have her secretary call the secretaries of the principals of Schools A, B, and C; and she can have a list of administrative contacts in an hour. She probably already knows at least two of the principals from all those meetings administrators have.
ET, however, is definitely out of his depth with this request. He’s been immersed in his teaching for twenty years, with little reason or desire to know any other administrators besides the ones in his own building. As before, it will take him much longer to find the contacts this stall tactic requires.
But ET is intrepid (and did I mention, “handsome”?), so after another two or three months, he comes up with a high school very similar to his own and manages to scrounge up administrators in each of his (now up to) five comparisons. AX will have to come up with something else next time. But I wouldn’t bet against her doing just that.