Right … for Now, IV

One of the small, but kind and thoughtful things my school district does is to provide a bit of office-renovation money (when the budget allows) when a school receives a new principal.  With some creativity, some careful shopping, and some diligent bargain-seeking, Dr. B managed to redo not only her own office (which was in desperate need of attention) but also the reception area, which looked – until yesterday – almost exactly as it had when I started working there in 2001 … and some of which remained, unchanged, from renovations in the 1970’s and before.  The old, ugly counter – the “perfect” height to be unusable – is now gone, replaced by a much more inviting set of furniture … and there’s now attractive artwork on the walls that actually brings out the color in a carpet I’d long believed to be gray.  Displaced from her office while the workers were assembling desks, Dr. B was sitting in the faculty workroom for a while … and now she has plans to redo that, to make it a more comfortable, inviting place for teachers and other staff members to eat lunch.  And an old conference table, outdated but still functional, has taken on new life in a foyer area where it now holds an attractive, inviting display.

An attractive, welcoming environment … it sends a powerful message.

Ms. X may occasionally grumble when Dr. B reminds her that “deadlines are deadlines” … that, if Ms. X doesn’t accept late work from students, she shouldn’t expect to turn things in late herself.  But Dr. B’s leadership and management of the school are proving quite popular.  She has a clear sense of what the school should be, a clear plan to get there, and a clear commitment to the needs (and even the physical comfort) of her teachers, her students, and their families.

That’s a rare, but vital set of qualities for a school leader … and it’s especially critical, I think, at this transitional time in American education.  Even Ms. X, for all her desire to cling to what “always worked,” is starting to realize that those old, reliable worksheets aren’t quite as reliable as they used to be.  I haven’t seen Mr. Y recently, but he’s probably noticed that “Stop making me look bad!” doesn’t have the power over students that he once believed it had.

It’s not an easy time for factory-model schools, but it’s a critical one.  With enough visionary, but practical leaders like Dr. B, it may just be possible to save the buildings and a lot of the jobs and the non-academic structures, to rebuild the teaching-factories into something more like learning communities.

But are there enough visionary, but practical leaders out there?  And is there a shared clear sense of direction?  Or sufficient political and moral will to persist in the face of opposition, to engage with those whose visions are different, to seek common ground, to resist pain-punishment cycles when dealing with opposition?

Leaders at all levels, formal and informal, have a hard task in factory-model systems where management has long been seen as the most important function, where authority and control have been synonymous, where change is a buzzword, superficial change is constant, but deep change is a source of consternation, even dread.  Ms. X may “hate” to be told what to do … but she’s “always” been told what to do, so it’s comforting and familiar.  Her students may “hate” those worksheets … but they’ve “always” had worksheets, so it’s comforting and familiar.

Changing the paradigm, honoring the voices, striving for community – that’s hard, unfamiliar work.  It would be easier to make superficial changes, the equivalent of the new chair or desk that was, in all likelihood, the original vision of whoever developed the office-renovation fund for new principals.  I’m grateful that Dr. B chose the harder, more creative, community-building path, and I’m eager to see what the finished renovations will look like … and how they’ll affect the sense of community that she, too, sees as vitally important.

What will the community-building path look like for each of us today? 


Published in: on February 7, 2013 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  

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