Note: I borrowed the title of this post from a book by Ray McNulty. I had the pleasure of working with Ray for almost ten years at the International Center for Leadership in Education. Ray is currently the Dean of Education at Southern New Hampshire University. His book is a great read.
I’m going to share some thoughts about extending Ray’s concept of Us vs. Them in the classroom culture to the broader issue of adversarial thinking that often defines the relationships between and among the various participants in an entire school or school system. Additionally, I’m going to share a brief story of what can and did happen when these traditional Us vs. Them roles are broken down and replaced by a healthier focus on identifying and addressing common interests/concerns.
As many of you know, I’ve spent the last 12 years or so working as a consultant with schools, school leaders and teachers throughout the country. A friend recently asked which of the various things I’ve done in the field of education I had enjoyed the most. I thought for a second that this was a pretty hard question and then realized that it was so much easier than I first thought. It was the people I met and had the good fortune to work along side of. In each place I worked… as a teacher, as a school leader, as a district superintendent, as a state department official and, finally, as an “SOB from out of town with slides” (a not terribly flattering description of consultants)… I found dedicated, caring, incredibly talented educators. I met folks whose presence in my memory, even as I write this, bring joy and sometimes tears.
I also found something else, something less touching and more troubling. As I reflected back, I realized that, in each place I worked, I found evidence of a culture of adversarial thinking. Ray’s book focuses on the need to realize that the classroom should not be and cannot be a culture of Us vs. Them. And yet I found too often that this was just a logical continuation of what has developed into an unproductive reality. In the stratified structure of schooling, it is the Us vs. Them culture that dominates… that maintains the separation between and among the various participants.
- Too many students see the teacher as “the enemy”. “She hates me. She gave me a “D”.”
- Too many teachers see the administrators in much the same light. “They don’t know/remember what it’s like in the trenches.” Even the example implies warfare.
- Too many school leaders see the state departments of education as the problem. “Swell just what we need… another report to complete, another unfunded mandate.”
And so it goes, on and on and each example cuts both ways. There are levels of separation that exist in direct contradiction of public utterances extolling the merits of collaboration… collaboration between and among students, collaboration between students and their teachers, collaboration between principals and teachers, etc., etc., etc. Such cultures are frequently build upon positional thinking… thinking which reinforces opposing positions and which leaves all parties feeling increasingly disconnected from the others.
We know that adversarial relationships and positional thinking rarely produce good results. Such relationships dominate our system of education and continue to contribute directly to the fabric of disappointment and frustration with that system. Cultures that describe and stress differences do not thrive and don’t often end well. On the contrary, cultures that are built upon the identification and nurturing of commonalities offer the best examples of success… success in adult and student engagement, success building circles of trust and safety, and success in defining and intentionally building genuine learning experiences for all members.
We are facing unprecedented attacks on the idea of public education. I wrote previously about the “Perfect Storm” that continues to intensify.
Obviously, there are external forces at work that are beyond the capacity of any school community to successfully address. There are, however, concrete actions that can be taken in any school community to acknowledge that (a) Us vs. Them thinking is a choice, (b) it is changeable, and (c) there are concrete steps that can be taken in any district to move beyond it.
To illustrate the possibility, here’s an anecdote from real life. It is about a group of good people who came to a crossroad and chose the road less taken. It is grounded in the decision of people who typically inhabited adversarial positions (board members, teachers, and superintendent) to explore alternatives to a practice (the periodic collective bargaining process) which promised to yield more of the same dissatisfying and emotionally draining results as in years past.
Each entered with differing hopes… a fair and respectful economic settlement, a settlement that honored the commitment to be good stewards of the community’s financial resources, the need to encourage engagement in a number of improvement initiatives. You can match the hopes with the various players.
Historically, the collective bargaining process had left each group frustrated. Salary and benefit settlements were lower than desired. Contract costs were higher than hoped for. All involved were left more or less angry and less rather than more engaged in change initiatives. These results were typical and expected in traditional position based bargaining. A number of positive events had created a willingness by all parties to explore alternatives to the traditional process. Together all parties explored the possible benefits of what was then referred to as “win-win” bargaining, later to be more accurately defined as interest-based (in contrast to position-based) bargaining.
With the support of an exceptionally talented bargaining consultant, the process significantly increased the focus on common interests, reduced the Us vs. Them thinking and combined “labor-management” teams to develop proposed solutions to the resolution of consensus defined common concerns/interests. The result of the process was an agreement which included a performance based compensation system, a tiered teacher evaluation/support system (including a collaborative process for termination discussions), as well as a teacher run professional development academy. This agreement received broad support from members of the board of education and the teachers’ association.
I met recently with the teacher architects of the process and asked for their assessment of how/why this very unusual process was successful. They pointed to a collective intentionality to break down the Us vs. Them thinking that had come to characterize the relationship and interactions with the teachers, board, and superintendent. They noted that a critical piece had been the intentional efforts to include the teachers in important decision discussions and the evolving growth of trust within the relationships.
Did the gains last? In a happier world, I could say “yes”. In this world, no they didn’t. Changes in key players… turnover on board members, relocation of the superintendent, more traditional philosophy of the new superintendent… all contributed to the erosion of the cultural gains and a return to positional thinking.
What is the message? Why did I decide to write this after so many months of rejecting it? Some times I feel like I’m living in a real life version of Alexander and His No Good, Horrible, Very Bad Day. In my travels I’ve seen and listened to too many educators offer “other directed” explanations for the lack of meaningful change – i.e., if only the board of education would behave better, if only the administrators knew what it’s like in the classroom, if only the teachers would be more receptive to change, if only the kids would work harder, etc., etc., etc.
We are at critical time for public education. It is a time where “business as usual” will continue to inhibit the creation of the cultures we need and the changes our times are demanding. Our kids deserve and need better than continued rounds of ineffective and likely harmful reforms. Change is possible. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it. But it will not happen by hanging on to Us vs. Them thinking. We have to recognize that we can’t continue to rely on “we can’t” explanations that are simply proxies for “We won’t” excuses. If the process of moving beyond Us vs. Them approaches interests you and you would like additional support in making such a move, I’d be happy to share some additional detail.