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Monday, August 27, 2012

"Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast"- Peter Drucker

That quotation from Peter Drucker succinctly explains why so many bullying prevention programs fail to significantly prevent and reduce bullying in schools.  In a healthy school culture bullying should stand out by being an exception to how people are treated.  It should call attention to itself because it is not in line with the cultural norms of a school.  This is not to imply that bullying doesn't occur in  positive and healthy school cultures- it can and it will.  This does mean that it doesn't blend into the culture or become camouflaged.  To put Drucker's statement into blunt terms, if adults in a school yell at students or belittle them as a fairly routine way of interacting or if people don't have a basic genuine respect for each other, a  bullying prevention program will do little good and could do harm because students will view it as being hypocritical.  Instituting a bullying prevention program in such a school will not change the school culture and it is serious mistake to think that it will. 

Changing a school culture is hard because the people in the school have a hard time recognizing/seeing their culture-it is like the air they breathe.  It is just there-it isn't "culture" to them,  it is just the way the school is and probably the way most schools are in their mind.  Even if a school could recognize its culture and see it for what it is, attempts to  change it are often viewed as criticisms of the current culture. It is very difficult to expect people in even the most dysfunctional organizations to admit that things need to change-it is very threatening to them to realize that what they have been doing and saying for years has not been justified and warranted by their circumstances.  This why Drucker also says:  'Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one.  Try instead to work what what you've got."

This is the conundrum.  If it is true, to paraphrase James Carville, that : "It's the culture, stupid." and we follow Drucker's advice to never try to change one, what can we do?  The answer is to avoid a quick fix strategy/program that will  try to change things and instead understand the change process and become "strategic" in working with the people who "live" in that culture. 

As a retired principal who worked in schools for over 35 years, I find it frustrating to see the trend in education to rely less on building the capacity of people and more on finding programs/strategies to get people to follow.  Maybe this is because "the problem" is attributed to the people in school who can't be trusted to solve what they "created".  The logical alternative is to take control away from them and instead try to get them to follow a script or a blueprint spelling out their moves.  I have never seen anything positive emerge from negating people's basic need for autonomy and  minimizing their degree of control on how they do their job.  This approach often at best just gets surface compliance and very often  produces a passive/aggressive response from staff.  The alternative to imposing a program doesn't mean leaving people to their own devices and becoming resigned to the status quo.  It does mean expecting positive change to come out of empowering people and providing the right conditions for them to move in the right direction. 

Businesses know that leadership is the key to change and the best leadership is type that promotes leadership in everyone.  Read about the "best" companies: Southwest Airlines, Toyota, Google, Costco and you will hear stories about people being empowered by leaders who recognize and value what each person has to contribute to the whole enterprise.  These are  companies that are always growing and learning because the people in them are learning and growing together.  Schools  shouldn't be viewed as businesses, but they should be learning communities- not places where people just do what they are told or just follow the program. 

I recently facilitated a workshop about leadership and change and thought of a good analogy: sailing.  I have very limited experience as a sailor but did enough to learn the basics.  There are three main components of a successful sailing journey: knowing the destination, reading the wind, and keeping a steady hand on the tiller. 

Too many change initiatives  are based on the mindset of "we don't like where we are so we need to change" (this is usually decided by others  outside of the school and not the people in the school).  Too little time if any is devoted to having  a clear idea of where we want to go-what type of learning do we really want-what does it look like and sound like.  Rather than just wanting to solve the problem of bullying, school leaders should help people  talk about what type of school  they want to have.  This vision or destination may not be clear in the beginning but it should come into clearer and clearer focus as the school learns  (sails) together. 

The "wind" is the change process-knowing how people change and the conditions needed for change to happen.  This means affirming what people are already doing, inviting their input, involving them in the process, asking for help, and welcoming questions and concerns.  Failure to 'read the wind' usually means either heading in the wrong direction or being "in irons"-stuck going nowhere.

The "steady hand on the tiller" is leadership that is going in the right direction toward the destination and makes adjustments and navigates based on changing conditions. It also means modeling the change you want to see in others.

Bullying prevention is an opportunity presenting itself as a problem.  A good leader recognizes this opportunity as reason to  start a journey initially to solve a problem but ends up transforming the school into a better place for everyone-that is the culture is changed. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Trickle Down Theory" in Bullying Prevention

The Race to the Top initiative required states to adopt teacher evaluation systems that would raise the overall level of teaching competence and thereby raise student achievement.  This approach was supposedly an improvement over the NCLB, which relied on standardized testing to ultimately raise student achievement.  Both of these reform “strategies”, use evaluation to drive positive change and to motivate the people in schools to change how they educate.   The bottom line message of both approaches in “get better results or else bad things will happen to you.”  

In an earlier post, I talked about McGregor’s Theory X and Y of management: Theory X assumes that people are basically unmotivated and irresponsible and need to be tightly controlled and Theory Y assumes that people are basically motivated and responsible if they are given the right working conditions.  It is very clear that when it comes to school reform, Theory X "rules" for how teachers and students are viewed and treated.  The most blatant evidence for this was a Newsweek cover story that  read: “The Key to Saving American Education: Fire Bad Teachers”.

What does all of this however have to do will bullying prevention?  I think that it has everything to do with it and the fact that we don’t talk about these larger issues in relation bullying prevention is one of the main reasons that we fail to make progress in schools.  We, as educators, are so overburdened with things to do and are filled with anxiety that it is almost impossible to step back and look at the situation we are in and how so much of what we are told to do actually runs counter to what we know about how people learn and grow.  (I think however that most educators know this but feel fairly helpless about doing anything about it.)

I found an interesting book, Contradictions of Control by Linda McNeil written in 1988 long before NCLB or RTTT was even conceived.   It is a scholarly work that examined the underlying assumptions of the basic structure and organization of our educational system.  She explores the effect of school management on the teaching and learning that happens in the classroom:  “… when the teachers in today’s schools see their autonomy threatened by administrative controls, they are more likely to resist this loss by exerting greater control in the classroom…When students see this disproportionate attention to controlling functions, they too resist in their own ways.”  The only exception I have with her statement is that most students don’t resist they usually except it and have learned to “play the game of school”, which is do what you are told and follow the rules.  I do feel that she is absolutely right when she draws the connection between teacher autonomy and student autonomy.  As teachers have less autonomy and feel controlled especially by fear of “bad consequences” for not performing they will tend to give their students less autonomy and exert more control over them. Theory X begets Theory X.
Unfortunately this Theory X approach is so pervasive in our educational system that Theory Y approaches are seldom seen.  As result, any deviation from Theory X approaches is viewed as laissez-faire and inviting chaos.  (Interesting to note that Theory Y approaches are being used in businesses especially ones that rely on creativity and innovation, e.g. Pixar, Google, Apple, Zappos. Daniel Pink devotes a lot of his book, Drive, to explain why Theory Y is more effective in business.)

People who are bullied over time sadly become used to it and cannot even see it as bullying.  It is just the way things are to them.  When people’s actions are primarily governed by constant fear and anxiety and not by their own needs and desires, they can  easily ignore and forget their own needs and desires.  When  using fear to manipulate and control people,  i.e. bullying,  becomes institutionalized, it is no longer seen as bullying or abuse but rather as the rules and regulations that need to be followed “or else”.  Fear makes people think only about their own survival and less about others.  People become motivated more by avoidance of bad things happening to them and less motivated by the desire to learn and grow together.

Bullying can hide easily in organizations that are governed by the use of fear and anxiety.  Although policy makers may be motivated to achieve positive results, the ends do not just the means when it comes to education. When fear and anxiety is used to control educators, it becomes almost impossible for educators to act in accord with their original moral purpose of helping students.  They are put in a position to manipulate students to achieve results in order to keep their jobs and avoid shame and judgment.   Environments like that are breeding grounds for bullying. 

We need to be careful about how we go about getting change at the “top” because “trickle down” unfortunately  does work in education.  You really can’t bully your way to bullying prevention or to real learning.  There is however another way. 

A way that is based on a  simple common sense fact we all know:  when people feel in control of their lives and have meaningful work to do they have less of a need to control others.   When people feel connected as a community, there is no need to separate people into winners or losers.  It seems that  more and more  educational policies are promoting a type of learning environment that makes it more and more difficult for the optimal conditions for learning to emerge.  Effective bullying prevention shouldn't just be about controlling students to stop bullying; it requires us to give more autonomy, meaning and a greater sense of community to students and teachers.  These are the key factors for building  an "immunity" to bullying within a school: make a place where real learning takes place.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Principles and Programs

The Peaceful School Bus program will NOT solve a school's bus problems.  This might sound like a radical comment from  the person who developed the program, but it is something I deeply believe.   Programs are only as good as the people who implement them.  Programs are only tools not solutions or answers in and of themselves.  When someone creates a beautiful painting we don't attribute it to the paint brush.  Someone who writes a book does not attribute the accomplishment to the pen or word processing program.  In education, however, the search always seems to be for the right program or system that will override the effect of the people involved.

In many ways I think that the quest for the right program has been in reaction to the tradition of each teacher being independent of each other.  If a school is full of people who pretty much do their own thing how can there be any consistency in approaching any problem.  The answer to this inconsistency is to get people to follow a program that will tell them what to do and how to do it.  Teachers often balk at programs for this very reason.  They can interpret programs as an implicit criticism of their work, and there is a natural resistance to any attempt to take away their autonomy. Teachers do need to work collaboratively,  but a program is  not the way to do it.

A school leader who stands up in front of a faculty and announces that a new program (especially if the program is perceived to be something that make sure the school is in compliance with an externally imposed law or policy) is being put into place, is sending the wrong message to the people he/she leads.  The hidden message is "you haven't done a good enough job so now you need to do something else on top of all the other things you have to do."  This message does not energize anybody nor does it get buy in and sustained commitment.  Teachers who have been around for a while adopt a "this too shall pass" attitude.  No wonder that when the program doesn't work, the believers in the program blame a lack of program fidelity as being the reason why it failed.  Often the response to get greater fidelity is to use either "carrots or sticks" to get staff to follow it. Asking why staff might not being following a program takes a lot of courage because the answer to goes to the heart of why schools seem stuck when it comes to any change.   We as educators will not get anywhere and will remain stuck unless we understand the process of change and the human element of it: people don't resist change but they do resist being changed.

School leaders must first believe that if staff can see and know how the change will improve the lives and learning of students, they will be open to it.  It is better to act on that assumption and be proved wrong that to act on the assumption that people don't care be proved right.  If school leaders invested time in learning with their staff about problems and enlisted staff in exploring options for meeting needs, then staff will be more open to change and willing to lead the change.  Effective leaders tie the need for change to the basic moral purpose of education, not just as another program to follow or policy to implement.  As staff can come to see and understand a problem and how it affects the basic mission of education, they will be energized and motivated to do something.  This might be viewed as just being idealistic but true change really only emerges when people do aspire to do something special.  The best leaders are idealistic but also provide the practical strategies for channeling the energy and motivation for doing something great.  Focusing on a few commonly held principles and then exploring how to "make" those principles work in the real life of a school, is a way to bring people together without coercing them or making them feel like they are just following orders.

If ultimately we want students to take greater ownership and a more active role in their own learning, staff must first be empowered and enlisted as caring professionals rather than viewed as resistant independent operators.  When  staff work as team to understand a problem and then look for the tools and resources that will help them address that problem, then real progress can be made.  When a program becomes a tool selected by an empowered staff to solve a problem they care about-then and only then will it become an element for effective change.