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Sunday, April 21, 2013

On Not "Burying the Lead"

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act (The Dignity Act) seeks to provide the State’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.

Alberta, Canada-A board, as partner in education has the responsibility to ensure that each student enrolled in a school operated by the board and each staff member employed by the board is provided with a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a
sense of belonging.

These are summaries of the legislation regarding bullying passed by New York and by Alberta, Canada.  Both laws are necessary and represent progress in recognizing the importance of keeping students safe in order to learn.   Both provide an important foundation for school district to actively sustain a positive school environment.  There are some differences between the statements that are worth exploring. ( I do this not evaluate one against the other.)  How the law translates into action is what is most important, therefore exploring the words and their effect on subsequent action can be instructive.

 A law is a statement, a message to the community about what is important and necessary and it can and should trigger a wide range of initiatives and changes in school, that will ultimately shape and determine the type of experience that students have in school.   I think we all know that compliance with a law is not the ultimate goal for any school, instead schools should be in compliance as a first step, a minimal step in achieving the goals and the intent of the law.

We all know that there could be schools that are in compliance but fail to truly keep all students safe.  Conversely there are schools that could be out of compliance that are not only safe but great places for learning.  Laws can and should point in the right the direction and the words and their emphasis do influence how school leaders lead their schools.  Words, as they say, do matter.

I have looked at a lot of the written material that has come out of DASA, NY’s legislation and it seems that the emphasis is much more on stopping something bad from happening.  That is good and noble thing-who could not agree that it is good to stop a bad thing.  There is less of  emphasis on what to do in addition to stopping a bad thing.  The language connected to the law also reveals that the main responsibility is to make sure that schools stop students from doing bad things.
It is easier to know communicate about what shouldn’t happen.   It is a harder thing and requires more imagination to envision how schools could be different.  The vision of most laws is one that envisions the status quo but only without the bad the things happens in it.  It is similar to the medical model of disease being something that needs to be removed from the body so that the body can go about living as it did before.  In the case of bullying, when kids who bully stop bullying, the school can go about its business the way it traditionally has.  The school staff then just need to police the environment to make sure the law is not broken-sort like the police making sure no one breaks the speed limit.  They leave the people who stay within the speed limit alone. 

This is a good thing and is really what the law is all about.  The problem is bullying is not really a legal issue it is a moral issue and. as they say, you can legislate morality as much as one might try.  The problem schools are not designed at least on paper to address moral issues-it is not their job-it is the parents’ job, so if kids are acting immorally  there really isn’t anything a school can do (some might say should do).  It is hard to schools to do this job and even harder if they are left on their own to reimagine how they need to change who they are and how they should be.  One of if not the most important jobs of leadership is shape that vision and ask why not like Robert Kennedy said.

The Alberta provision is not a better but is just different and that difference is worth exploring.  There is no “not” in it.  Some could criticize it for not having the word bullying in it.  (They do in other places in the provision.)  They “lead” with a vision of how schools should be.  I am sure that everyone involved in writing the DASA legislation and every administrator in NYS would sign up for the statement of Alberta-they would say yes, of course that is the same thing we want.  If you look deeper into the all the words written about DASA and the resources that NYS provides, you could find a similar vision to the one articulated in Alberta.  I could easily be accused of nitpicking these statements, so why should I even bother.  I do so because of what  journalists/writers know: how important it is not to “bury the lead” in any type of story.  What is said in the first sentence in many ways determines everything that comes after; determines to a very large degree whether people even keep reading.
Like good writers, good leaders no how it important it is not to “bury the lead” of any story.  Good leaders, like good writers, know what story needs to be told and know the arc of the story and the end of the story-the story needs to be imagined so to speak in order to be told and understood.  All of that depends on the “lead”.  Alberta has not buried the lead.  They have put their re-imagined vision of school at the front (in the lead) of everything that  they want to come after it.  They have chosen the direction that they want people to go-have given them a vision as a direction-a positive image not just the same old with vision without the bad thing in it.

Ultimately however what happens in each school is up to each school and the people in that school.  Each school needs to determine its own “lead” in order to create the school they want.  It is easier not to reimagine the school as being any different from how it currently is except without the bad thing happening.  Good leaders know however that the best schools are always re-writing, re-creating themselves, re-imaging themselves and involving everyone in that process.  Good leaders know how important it is not to bury the lead, but to put it up front and make it very visible and then help everyone walk together towards it.

“If we are all facing in the same direction, all we have to do is keep walking” is a Buddhist saying that really says it all. Good leaders are the ones who believe this and lead in a way that turns that saying into a reality.  That would be a good lead for them to follow.

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