One Monday a month, The Girl and some of her friends participate in a special evening program that, when it was originally developed fifteen years or so ago, was designed to increase the number of “top students” from These Parts who attend (and receive big-name merit scholarships at) Well-Known Colleges and Universities. The idea was to choose the top fifteen or twenty students (by class rank) from each of the Local High Schools and help them prepare for the kinds of interviews, essay-writing, and other activities that Well-Known Universities use to select candidates for their Big-Name Scholarships.
“Oh, I remember that program,” said B, a former student who’s attending a Well-Known University and who received a Big-Name Scholarship from it. B is home on spring break this week, and she and her mom had wanted to catch up. “That’s the one where people stand up and tell you why you should attend Their Particular University for an hour.” And as The Girl, one of her friends, and I were driving to the site of this month’s meeting yesterday afternoon, shortly after I’d had that tea and conversation with B at a Local Coffee Shop, they confirmed the truth of B’s observation. They were also surprised to learn the original purpose of the program. “If they really wanted to do that,” one of them said, “they should concentrate on the next four hundred in each class, not the top twenty or twenty-five.”
I suppose it would be one thing if the Special Program were operated by graduates of Well-Known Universities. They’d speak the language and know the culture, and they’d be able to guide aspiring students through what can feel like an impenetrable maze. And in the beginning, when the school-level “coaches” were specially chosen, that was generally true. But times change, and priorities change, and Powers That Be change. And the school counselors who are now, often reluctantly, asked to “coach” the Special Program on top of everything else they’re asked to do? Most of them aren’t graduates of Well-Known Universities, but most are proud alumni and alumnae of the schools they did attend. It’s hard to give what you don’t have, and it’s even harder to encourage young people to pursue one road when you pursued, and loved, a different road. Divided loyalties are hard enough at the best of times, harder still when it feels like they’re being forced on you. So well-meaning Ms. X, who attended the Local University and knows it “needs and deserves” some “top students,” is highly likely to sing its praises, and kindly, but overworked Mr. Y, who went There and made lifelong friends, will probably talk about what a great school There is.
It’s not the original purpose of the Special Program, of course, but it’s completely understandable in any organization. It’s even more understandable in compliance-based, rule-based systems, where programs take on a life of their own and exist because they exist.
Divided loyalties can be painful, too. Twenty years ago, I taught at what teachers in These Parts saw as a “destination school,” the one they all wanted to transfer to and eventually retire from. The one where That Ms. X, the one I mentioned yesterday, wheels her oxygen tank each day because “it’s her whole life,” as a mutual friend puts it. That Ms. X obviously took her loyalty to an extreme, perhaps even an unhealthy one, but lots of colleagues from Those Days talk fondly about the special place and the special people, including students and families as well as teachers and staff. And many, now safely retired, look in wonder at younger teachers who are less loyal, who pursue other opportunities or put their own health or their families’ needs ahead of loyalty to the institution.
“You can’t let a false sense of loyalty keep you from doing what’s best for you, your family, and your career,” a wise Local Power said recently. “You have to do what’s best for you and your family, even if that means taking a job at another school or moving on to something completely different.” It was a meeting about the upcoming transfer process, when teachers can request to be added to a Special List that’s sent to the Relevant Powers who are seeking to fill teaching positions at Various Schools. And the Power In Question wanted everyone to understand that it’s OK to be on that list, that no negative consequences would follow for those who sought a change. I saw the suspicion in Ms. X and Mr. Y’s eyes, of course, and someone made a quick attempt to prove loyalty anyway.
In a factory-system, are loyalties always divided? Do people always play a loyalty game, making an appearance of extreme, even unhealthy loyalty while secretly scouting for the next opportunity? And how does loyalty relate to joyful learning communities and other post-factory-model organizational structures? By encouraging enlightened self-interest, as the Power In Question did recently, do you actually increase loyalty in the long run? And is loyalty, in itself, a desirable goal, or is it an outcome of service to a deeper ideal?
When you’re attempting to build and sustain joyful learning communities in a time of rapid change and institutional upheaval, those are important questions. I don’t have answers to any of them, but good questions are an important place to start. I wonder what other good questions will arise, and what answers will appear, today.