We started this discussion (see “Healthy Confrontations”) with a fictional teacher attempting to modify some aspect of his school. This hypothetical English Teacher (ET) has found something he thinks might make things better for everyone, but Administrator X (AX) created extra work for him, arbitrarily slowing the change process. ET has found his way around these initial stall tactics (finding exact match comparisons and administrative contacts), but doesn’t realize he’s only begun to run his administrators’ obstacle course.
ET: Well, I finally did find a school in Michigan using this program that’s almost exactly like us. And here are the names of the four administrative program directors in each of the comparison schools. Everybody’s loving this program. We should start going in this direction.
AX: Again, I’m impressed with the work you’ve done on this. Although it is a problem that School D is in a different state (ET makes a motion as if to go for her throat), but I think we can overlook that. Let me give this to Assistant Principal Executioner (APE) so that he can contact these folks and we can get the real story on how this is going. He and I will get back to you.
ET has steered himself directly into a swamp. AX recognizes that no matter how many hoops she erects for him to jump through or how high she hangs them, he is determined to gain the leaping ability to make it through. So now, she has taken the initiative away from him and given it to someone who has much less interest in seeing where this idea might lead.
ET is no longer in charge; he has to wait for APE to act, and it will take a while for APE to get up to speed. AX will have to talk to him about ET’s plan, to fill him in on what’s transpired so far, and to give him all the data ET has collected. Then, APE will have to find the time to contact the other administrators and have his secretary transpose his notes for Principal AX.
ET’s in the awkward position of being dependent on somebody else to get something done on a project only he really loves. Not only is his baby in someone else’s arms, but he is professionally subordinate to that person. It’s no longer his running hither and yon to do AX’s bidding; he now has to wait on APE. No matter how long APE takes, it will seem too long to ET; but those of you familiar with bureaucracies won’t have a hard time understanding that APE will recognize this isn’t a top priority for AX, and he will putz around for weeks before doing much.
ET will be less able to put pressure on anyone, since he will have to nag one of his bosses to do extra work, essentially just for ET. Even if ET isn’t cowed by the prospect of bugging APE to get his rear in gear, ET won’t have the necessary levers to move him faster. It could be months before APE even looks at ET’s information on the project and months after that until he finds time to talk to his fellow administrators at the schools ET dug up. Finally, he will report back to AX since he’d never inform ET about his findings before briefing her. Two to four months later (after ET, through repeated contacts with APE and AX, has made it clear that he isn’t about to let this drop), the three of them will meet…
APE: I’ve talked to all four directors for this project at the high schools ET found. Although the reactions are mostly positive, I did find some problems that weren’t mentioned in ET’s initial report.
AX: So they’re struggling with this?
APE: Well, definitely they are at the school that is most like us. The other three have preliminary results that are moderately positive, but it’s too early to know for sure.
ET: But that out-of-state school’s principal imposed this idea on the teachers. Nobody did anything to prepare—they just dumped it on everybody. They also didn’t provide any training. Those are avoidable issues if we initiate this like they did at the other…
APE: That may be, but things are not going as wonderfully as you led us to believe. And since there’s no clamoring for this coming from any teachers besides you, we’d have to “impose,” as you put it, this on them as well. And the directors tell me that they are not entirely sold on this yet.
ET: Entirely? So we should just stagnate since we can never be sure that anything new will be totally perfect?
APE: We need to have better data before we go off on some expensive tangent. Your reports exaggerate how well things are going.
ET: That’s not…
AX: Gentlemen, let’s get back on track here. (With APE and ET at polar opposites on this program and a personality clash brewing as well, AX can play the conciliating peacemaker; although all three of them understand APE is really just carrying AX’s water on this.) We obviously have differences in how we’re looking at the data here. I agree we have a long way to go before we could move forward, but I don’t want to discount the preliminary, qualified successes that some of our comparison schools are having. I think the next logical step for us is to form a committee which can study this further and make some recommendations. And since it’s almost May, we’ll start this next year.
Now ET’s gone and done it! If ever there were a word that administrators love and teachers despise, it would be “committee.” I know—you attentive readers never cut me any slack, do you?—that I’ve suggested several new committees over the course of this blog, and I guarantee you that a goodly percentage of any teachers who might have read those suggestions collectively rolled their eyes every time I did. You see, committees created by administrators usually have only one of three purposes: 1. To rubber-stamp a decision administrators have already made; 2. To go through the motions of complying with some school board, state, or federal mandate; or 3. To give the illusion that an already-dead idea is being fairly considered. Guess into which category ET’s committee would fall. Regardless, hardly anybody wants to be on committees created by administrators, and that it will be known that this committee is ET’s “fault” will not enhance his reputation.
Most teachers who have figured out how committees typically function dodge them assiduously. Troublemakers (independent, forceful voices) don’t get asked to be on committees and have to push their way on by vigorously volunteering, usually with little success. Whom does that leave? That’s right—the meek and the inexperienced.
Some teachers wind up on almost every committee because they are reliably compliant and shy away from healthy confrontation. They agree to be on committees when asked because they worry about offending the requesting administrator; and during the committee’s decision-making discussions, they inevitably come down on the most conservative, administrative-pleasing side.
Inexperienced teachers are generally just nervous. They’ve heard stories (usually overblown myths) about other non-tenured teachers who got chewed up by committee work; so all they want is to be ignored, to make no waves, and to make administrators happy. Some are idealistic in that they want to do what’s best for the schools, but they don’t have much sway with the majority of the committee. And if those teachers aren’t careful, they can be labeled as problems— and depending on how recently they’ve been hired, this could mean their jobs in some school districts.
And so the committee is formed. It will meet sporadically in the beginning of the next school year. Depending on how obvious it is that it’s going nowhere, that might be it—it will fade away after a few meetings with its topic becoming one of those “names which must not be mentioned.” No closure will take place; after the meeting which turns out to be the final one, no further meetings will be scheduled, much to everyone’s relief.
This kind of passive, climax-free death occurs more often than most would suspect. Pretend that the committee never existed for long enough, and it will be as if it didn’t. Pretty spooky, huh? Come to any school near you to witness the incredible vanishing committee! Like other paranormal experiences, you can’t be sure exactly where all these poltergeist committees go or when they will rattle a chain or two, but every school has a few.
The committee could also come to the conclusion that ET’s idea is unworkable, too risky, or just plain stupid. Assuming ET is a member of the committee, he will know that things aren’t going well long before any conclusions are reached. He can either become a shrill voice of dissent on the committee, or he can strategically retreat. Either way, the idea dies, and we can only hope that the death was merited instead of administrative euthanasia.
Or, and least likely, the committee could recommend the school institute the idea. Despite administrative antipathy to change, the teachers are convinced this thing is worth a shot. To examine the challenges of reforming schools fully, we’ll assume that this is what happens here. ET’s euphoric, but he’d better not get too complacent as there’s still a long way to go before this tree will bear any fruit.
Understand that hardly any teacher-initiated idea ever gets this far. Most are abandoned after a single administrative meeting in which the teacher sees how tough accomplishing anything will be. For this hypothetical situation, we’re giving ET prodigious amounts of stubbornness, nerve, and time. I have only my experience to support this, but I would estimate over 95% of teacher ideas are timidly raised to be immediately shot down, 4% get some consideration before everyone loses interest in what appears to be a very long rode to hoe, which leaves under 1% which get thoroughly studied.
And of that percent, an even smaller fraction will get put into practice. The above scenario IS NOT typical of how the evaluations of teachers’ new ideas work. In going through this outlier of a case study, I’m showing you one of the reasons school districts are such bloated, slow-moving, static places, especially for crusaders who have ideas that might make things better. Reformers will be blunted, distracted, and harassed to the point that most learn to back off long before powerful folks get irritated. Since ET exists only on this page (although based on my 33 years in schools), he can persist, showing us how hard it is to get schools even to consider, much less to make, reforms.
Getting back to ET’s moment of jubilation, premature though it is, we also need to recognize how thankless his efforts have been. He’s been making phone calls, researching, writing up proposals, and attending countless meetings to do something that could improve his school. For his efforts, he gets a reputation as a troublemaker, annoyance from his colleagues who have to go to “his” committee meetings, and stress as he gets behind in his regular paperwork in order to spend his time on this.
Is it any wonder that so few initiatives come from the teaching ranks? As long as administrators view any new idea as a tsunami in their stagnant seas, the needed culture of experimentation, innovation, and openness to potential improvements will be impossible in public schools.
So you think that ET’s home free now that the year-long committee has come to the same conclusion he reached two years ago? We’ll see next time.