The Monday Evening Book Group spent almost two hours last night with the last chapter of our most recent book, and much of it had to do with Dwight Zscheile’s treatment of leadership in an age when corporate hierarchy (to borrow his term for a moment) is yielding to the network as an organizing principle for social structures. The conversation itself was non-linear and networked, frustratingly so at times for each of us. But it was an important conversation, and it helped me make sense of some frustrating, non-linear, but clearly connected experiences and threads over the past few days.
Z and Z got word about their punishment or consequence, and even though Ms. X or Mr. Y might have fussed about lenient and teaching them a real lesson, I thought it was the best possible outcome under the circumstances. Z and Z are also talented performers, and they both had major roles in a Special Production on Monday … a production so well-rehearsed, so owned by the participants, that a few hundred teenagers sat in rapt silence for well over half an hour to witness it. “It was the best performance,” I told Ms. V and Mr. N, the organizers, “that I can remember in all the years I’ve been here.” I also made sure to tell each Latin Family member involved, including Z and Z … who were both delighted and, after that, unusually focused for a chilly, rainy Monday. N, B, T, and several others apologized for how unfocused and distracted they’d been over the past few weeks. “We were just so worried about doing a good job in the program,” they said. And I promised them that over the next few days, we’ll do some things to take us back through the storylines they partly missed, the work they half-did, the learning they’re now ready for. That part of the day was imperfect, yet excellent … and so was the way the afternoon group helped to take down posters, move furniture, and get the Latin Family Zone ready to serve as a testing site for a Huge Standardized Test that will be given there today.
We’ll be relocated, and some of our members won’t be with us, and there’s a small possibility I’ll be called on as a backup test administrator. But life will go on, and learning will go on, and the power of joyful community will be strong. I’m intrigued that, near the end of his book, Dwight Zscheile calls on church congregations to become learning communities as they move out of an age of settled certainty and into a very different time.
Zscheile also makes an important point about hierarchies and bureaucracies. Faced with changing times and a loss of certainty, he says, they predictably react by trying to reassert control. I could feel that desire from both Powers and colleagues at our Monday afternoon meeting. “We need to refocus,” someone said, “and get back to some basics,” and then there was a long list of “basics” like enforcing the student dress code and documenting students’ tardiness to class. It’s the same list, of course, that Powers and teachers made in factory-model schools in 2004, 1994, 1984, and 1974 … and it reveals an unchanged paradigm of asserting control over things that, when you stop and think about it, can only be controlled by each person for himself or herself. G was wearing a non-approved shirt the other day, and I asked him why, and it turns out he’d been wearing a proper one, but spilled ketchup on himself while he was eating. “There are kids late to class all over the hallway,” moaned a Ms. X whose classes don’t begin with any kind of compelling hook that would make you want to arrive on time. “Those kids need to pay attention to what you’re doing if you want your test scores to be good,” someone said.
On and on went the list, and while there wasn’t anything unusual or original about each item (or at least there wasn’t if you have a factory-school worldview), one thing was perfectly clear when you looked at the whole list: Ms. X and Mr. Y are terrified. They’re terrified because it’s so obvious that 20th-century-style control isn’t possible, so out of habit, or fear, or not knowing what else to do, they reach for the control tools that haven’t been working, hoping that maybe this time will be different. In a comment about cheating, One Ms. X said something that surely didn’t mean that all forms of collaboration for learning are wrong … but that’s sure what it sounded like she meant. Someone else said something about background music that surely didn’t mean they thought it was bad for students or maybe bad for test scores … but that’s what it sounded like, too.
Of course none of the fear and anguish had anything to do with learning or with building and sustaining relationships. It was all about control, and measurement, and test scores, and the things organizations talk about when they (and the people within them) are scared to confront the real issues.
One great thing about a joyful learning community is that, as you build and sustain it, you develop some courage and perspective … sometimes even enough to have the hard conversations, to challenge what we’ve always done, to move in a different direction when that different direction is clearly right. That calls for the kind of network leadership Dwight Zscheile discusses … and that, in turn, probably calls for consideration in another blog post on another day.
How do we have hard conversations and move beyond what we’ve always done when people are clinging to what we’ve always done in terror? How do we expand joyful learning communities to embrace and sustain folks in panic? I wonder what new insights and discoveries await, and what answers will begin to reveal themselves today.