“School improvement is impossible when we give nondiscussables such extraordinary power over us.”Barth 2006
Spending an evening alone in Christchurch sees me catching up on professional reading around educational leadership and “transformative change”. The edu_articles I am reading seem obsessed with the rhetoric of corporate capitalism - market principles – new management structures, competition, changing demands, those “who moved my cheese compliance” strategies. They remind me too much of the leadership sessions at the conference in Rotorua last week.
The edu talk at Learning@School may well have been all about “transformative change” but despite all that "creating a vision" stuff - the approaches on offer all viewed change as Nadler’s “persuading massive numbers of people to stop what they have been doing and start doing something that they probably don’t want to do.” And because the strategies are answering the wrong question, I just know that unless I do something desperate with my life I will be sitting in a ground hog day leadership strand session in five years time frozen in an environment of glacially incremental edu_change.
Is why I got just a little excited tonight when I hit Barth’s article on the "nondiscussables" in schools.
“Schools are full of what I call nondiscussables- important matters that as a profession, we seldom openly discuss. These include the leadership of the principal, issues of race, the underperforming teacher, our personal visions for a good school, and of course the nature of the relationships among the adults within the school. Actually we do talk about the nondiscussables – but only in the parking lot, during the carpool, and at the dinner table. That’s the definition of a nondiscussable: an issue of sufficient import that it commands our attention but is so incendiary that we cannot discuss it in polite society – at a faculty or PTA meeting for example. Roland Barth “Improving relationships within the schoolhouse” March 2006 ASCD
I suspect that Barth is onto it in his change focus on relationships among adults.
“The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else.” P29.
Barth classifies relationships between adults in schools as based upon parallel play, adversarial relationships, congenial relationships and collegial relationships. Having been around schools for longer than I like to admit I concur with Barth - transformational change never stands a chance when adults are focused on parallel play and adversarial relationships.
So I reckon that the next time I am trapped in a leadership strand discussion instead of trying to imagine “our dream school” and making suggestions on “creating a sustainable learning community” I am going to propose we talk frankly about favouritism, incompetence, inequitable pay, rivalry, competition, backstabbing and bonking for management units - the “nondiscussables” – the things that make us unhappy about school, the things that mean we will never be a community.
If we identify favouritism, incompetence, inequitable pay, rivalry, competition, backstabbing and bonking for management units as the significant nondiscussables I suspect it wouldn’t take too long to identify the right questions to ask to make possible change transformational. Addressing the “nondiscussables” is all about finding ways to make everyone working in a school feel good about teaching.
I reckon if I let the conversation play we would get to a place where schools would be run in much the same way that Ricardo Semler “runs” Semco.
Imagine a school based on trust, freedom and flexibility, a school where:
teachers set their own hours, salaries and bonuses.
everyone has authority, but everyone is responsible.
there is no mission statement and five year strategic plan.
teams of teachers set their own budgets, and learning outcome goals.
release time, recognition, space, materials, professional learning opportunities recognise successful collaboration and are shared equally.
teams can hire and fire co-workers, team leaders, principals by democratic votes.
a small group of teachers could be free to set up satellite educational initiatives to the external market and negotiate profit sharing.
there are no secretaries, office staff, stationery room helpers.
there are no bulk IT purchases
all financial data is available to all employees.
all salaries are publicly posted.
all meetings are open to all school employees.
every six months learning outcome goals are assessed, new budgets are set and employees re bid for positions.
there are no parking spaces, executive offices or even individual desks
And then once we have imagined how this might work, we’d need to imagine how we might invite students to join us...