So far, we’ve seen the challenges one hypothetical English Teacher (ET) has experienced in attempting to get his school to try an innovative procedure he discovered. The administrators involved (Administrator X [AX]; and Assistant Principal Executioner [APE]) have stalled (see “Healthy Confrontations”) and diverted (see “Roadblocks”) for two years of research and meetings, but finally, a year-long committee has recommended the school institute this new practice. Now what…
ET: Since the committee’s endorsed this, when can we get started?
AX: Well, we’re already in the fourth quarter, so we can’t get anything going until next school year.
APE: The materials and training needed for this program are expensive. Aren’t we already past the deadline for any new capital requests?
AX: Oh, you’re right—any requests for next year’s budget had to be made six weeks ago. We’ll have to make that request next spring for the year after next.
ET: Wha’? You mean after all we’ve gone through to get this approved, we have to wait another year?
AX: Money is very tight in this district. We can’t make any more requests for materials or training for this plan. Doing that would put some of our other proven programs at risk.
ET: Huh? Why’s that?
AX: You don’t understand how things work. If we keep going back for more, this board might get mad and cut things we’ve already got. We can’t take that risk. Superintendent Imso Timid has made it clear that he will not bring more capital requests to the board.
ET: So we can’t start this until year after next?
Or, ET’s plan could get sideswiped from another direction:
ET: Since the committee’s endorsed this, when can we get started?
APE: We have to be very careful how we introduce and integrate something this radical into our already superior curriculum.
AX: That’s right. We can’t go rushing in with all these changes.
ET: Rushing? We’ve been working on this for almost two years!
APE: You might have been working on this that long, but the rest of the staff has no idea what this is.
AX: So, what steps do we have to take?
APE: Each teacher is going to need training in using this technique. That could take all of next school year.
ET: Couldn’t we use our institute days at the beginning of the year for that?
AX: Oh no, teachers need that time to get ready for their classes, and administration needs whatever time is left for our agenda.
APE: Then there’s distribution of materials, training teachers, and making sure they get their questions answered.
ET: All they have to do is to read a twenty-page guide which explains all they need to know. This isn’t particularly complicated.
APE: Famous last words.
AX: Yes, you have to remember, E, that you’ve been working on this for quite some time…
ET: Over two years.
AX (unperturbed):…so your comfort with this is well ahead of everyone else’s. It will take much work to get everyone to the same place you are. If this has any chance at succeeding, we’ll have to plan the process carefully, which will take at least next school year.
ET: (inarticulate grumbling).
These two issues devastate even the most carefully studied ideas. Paying for new things can get expensive, and you have to remember that the point at which something becomes “expensive” in a school district can be ridiculously low. I witnessed a school board spend an hour debating whether or not to create a French National Honor Society stipend. This board controlled revenues of over fifty million dollars at the time, and paying the French NHS sponsor would have been exactly $600, .0012% of that budget. (After heated discussion, they rejected the stipend.) We saw how finances can dominate a school board previously (see “Financial Reactionary School Boards”), but suffice it to say that any cost whatsoever will make administrators fearful of board outrage.
Administrators don’t directly control much money; they request and authorize its expenditure, which means they regularly have to ask school boards for more. The grief they get for those requests can create a shell-shocked administrator who pares his cash appeals to the absolute minimum. Some people have the philosophy, “What’s the worst that could happen? We should at least make them say, ‘No,’ before we move on.” However, most administrators I have known operated differently: “When they say, ‘No,’ it makes me look weak. I’m not going to ask until I can be 100% sure they’ll say, ‘Yes.’”
This paralysis infuriates teachers seeking approval for new ideas: I, lowly teacher, couldn’t bring any initiatives to the superintendent or the school board unless my department chair, assistant principals, and principal had all unanimously agreed that it was okay for me to proceed.
Additionally, whatever I’d proposed would be presented by someone else as it moved up the ladder, especially if it was perceived as a good idea. New teachers, take note: You can gauge your odds for approval based on who’s presenting your initiative. If your principal is taking it to the superintendent or the superintendent is going to the school board, you have a good-to-excellent chance of getting approval. If, however, nobody’s told you, “No,” but everybody keeps pushing you to the front as the idea’s main advocate, you can bank on rejection eventually.
I’m not saying that administrators are credit-grabbing hogs, but they don’t advance if they’re shy about seizing opportunities. Just remember this when you’re designated as spokesperson for any committee or presentation: Make sure you wear clothes which complement concentric circles because you’ve become a target. Money just makes the administrative scurrying for hiding places more obvious than usual.
Nobody thinks costs are irrelevant to decisions to move ahead with changes. The waste and inefficiency of school districts in relation to their finances should always inspire caution when it comes to new proposals, but expense should be only one criterion decision-makers examine.
All too often, though, money becomes an excuse to avoid having to deal with the other implications of whatever is being considered. New materials, course offerings, training methods, technological advances, and organizational concepts can threaten the fiefdoms of various individuals—but as long as the money flag can be waved in front of those paying the bills, most initiatives get scuttled before they get serious consideration.
The other change-repelling technique ET encountered pertains to the logistics of starting something new. Getting all the pieces in place for fresh ideas is a daunting task. Bureaucratic systems fight, resist, circumvent, divert, and ignore change more creatively and efficiently than they do just about anything else. There will be problems that nobody anticipates when an initiative is begun. Those planning for something new should try to anticipate what problems will arise; they should try to think of every contingency and figure out how the various scenarios will play out; and they should organize, plan, and train to the best of their abilities before the new process begins.
Getting all that done, however, doesn’t mean something won’t be overlooked which will seem incredibly obvious after it emerges as a problem. What happens after that, however, depends on who seems most responsible for moving forward with whatever created the current mess. When powerful administrators are the driving force behind the initiative, glaring problems often get ignored or denied. “No,” the principal calmly told the science teacher engulfed in flames, “there’s no way our new Bunsen burners could explode.”
You’d think that nobody would ever get away with a flat denial of something that everyone knows to be true; but since healthy confrontation so rarely takes place in schools, pretending problems don’t exist works well for many in charge. If something does get so bungled that it’s impossible to act as if nothing’s wrong, then technology has provided an easy, face-saving out—the vague e-mail.
Years ago, my district instituted an on-line grade system designed for parents to check on their kids’ grades (common practice now). The program selected performed pathetically. Everyone who’d used another program in different districts said that this was the worst system available, that the many problems we were having never happened with other products. So, many complaints filtered up to those who had selected this inferior merchandise.
Did they acknowledge our pain? Did they rush out to find a new, better program? Did they have a staff meeting where they apologized for their poor choice? Nope, the first thing they told us was that there was nothing that could be done about any of these problems, that this was the program that we’d be using, so deal with it.
Next, they found complicated patches around a couple minor problems and praised themselves mightily for their “tireless” efforts to solve teachers’ issues.
Finally, when these steps did little to abate the flood of complaints, they sent out an e-mail which basically reviewed the first two steps of the propaganda campaign and thanked us for our “patience,” with ambiguous assurances they would continue to work on the problems, even though they’d already informed us in the e-mail that nothing further could be done, despite their heroic efforts.
In short, we were left to deal with the disaster they’d given us, without so much as a simple, “Whoops, sorry about that!” Instead, they attempted to make our requests seem unreasonable or technologically impossible (neither of which was true), praised themselves for working so hard on our unreasonable, technologically impossible requests, and then thanked us for our patience. Basically, the people who’d screwed up spun the mess into a testimony to their creativity and tenacity. Meanwhile, the classroom teachers limped along with a bad grade program.
Another way to avoid healthy confrontation is for things simply to vanish. Many years ago, the “block” schedule became popular. Some teachers in my district (myself included) got caught up in the concept that it might be better for classes to be longer than the traditional fifty minutes we’d been using…forever. What if, we speculated, we had classes that went for ninety minutes—wouldn’t we have more opportunities for in-depth study, for conducting more involved lab work, for using films as discussion vehicles instead of babysitters, and for stimulating teaching methods besides lectures. (Okay, I’m manipulating language here: “Stimulate” is educational-ese for “force.” When I make you do something, I’m stimulating your creativity. When you make me do something, you’re going fascist on me.)
We got many teachers excited about block. After all our work, however, we couldn’t iron out the problems: Math and P.E. teachers hated the prospect of seeing their students only every other day or every other semester. Teaching loads needed changing through contract negotiations. We had no schools nearby on which to model our program. And more than anything else, many freaked at the prospect of having things changed this significantly.
So we just dropped it. The Block Committee stopped meeting. Grand plans were stuffed in file cabinets. All materials, studies, contacts, and concepts we had evaporated. We never had a final autopsy—we just stopped working, talking, and thinking about block. Had anyone hibernated at the height of Block Fever, emerging later to see the wonders which had been wrought, he would have been shocked at how completely all block ideas had been abandoned. This was two years of intense effort, including a county-wide institute hosted by our district, attended by sixty other schools. Then—poof—it was gone; we woke up and it was all a dream. We all pretended it never happened and slinked off to other things.
I’ll slink off for now, but I will be back with some suggestions for how healthy confrontation should work in schools.