The Things They Carried

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I was talking to a friend recently about the process of change in schools and all of the factors that seem lined up to protect the status quo.  In reflecting on the conversation, I was reminded of one of my favorite books from long ago, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In his book, O’Brien sought to make a point about the terrible costs of war. Using the Vietnamese War as his backdrop, he tells the story about the things that he and his fellow soldiers carried with them. These were not just physical things. Those were small things, easy to carry. Not so easy to carry were the emotional things, things that weren’t so easy to discard.

I begin each piece I write with a hope.  In this case, my hope is that the story I’ll share will open us to the possibility that it’s not the physical things like favored room assignments, favorite lesson plans, predictable schedules that make change in schools so hard. Sure adapting to these is not easy. But often it’s the emotional burdens that challenge us more.  I started to think about the sources of such emotional baggage. Some were obvious but I also recalled something that was equally important, precisely because it represented any number of things that affect our willingness to take risks and accept challenges. It was something that I recalled from my time as superintendent. Since I’ve been preoccupied recently with the concept of stories, I’m going to share one with you to illustrate my observation.

This will be a two chapter story.  Don’t leave yet. They’ll be short chapters, filled with drama, suspense and a happy ending. OK, enough suspense, it’s about contract negotiations. Still here?

Why in God’s name would I share a story about contract negotiations?  Because while almost all contract negotiations end in an agreement, they invariably leave us with emotional scars… things that Tim O’Brien calls emotional burdens.  Things we carry with us and that affect our openness to change.  Here we go…

Setting the Stage – Chapter 1

In case it’s been a while since you’ve been involved in the process, here’s a quick synopsis of how most negotiations proceedings work. There are two sides. Each prepares a list of “gets” or “won’t give’s” and the fun starts.  Most states that have legislation permitting collective bargaining stipulate that areas for negotiations are limited to “terms and conditions of employment”. These typically focus on work hours, compensation (in the form of salary and health benefits), and responsibilities. These topics are not surprising as most model contracts for “labor” came directly from the experiences of organized labor unions.  Remaining true to the tradition, boards of education are described as management, setting the stage for repeating the adversarial process which had characterized the relationships in the labor movement.

Enter stage left… the writing and thinking of Dan Pink who has achieved international acclaim for his work on motivation. In case you’ve missed it, here’s a link to the animated version  of Pink’s viral TED Talk.

Pink’s extensive research revealed that there are very different motivational factors at work depending on the type of work you do.  If you’re engaged in assembly line /production work, monetary incentives can improve performance. But in “thinking” kind of work, financial incentives actually reduce both performance and engagement.  Here’s what Pink’s research revealed. What matters most to workers in “thinking” jobs? Three things: clarity of purpose, autonomy (freedom to focus on what works), and the chance to get better at what you do.

While many of the architects of the “school reform” movement might think of teaching as production/assembly line work (explaining their love affair with performance incentives and punishments), most of can make a pretty convincing case for teaching as “thinking work”. So let’s circle back to the contract negotiations process and its impact on embracing change.

Here’s where the story gets personal – Chapter 2

From my very first teaching job, I’ve been involved in contract negotiations.  I have served as an organizer of the first “association” at a private high school for boys, the president and chief negotiator for the teachers’ (and later supervisors’) association and the chief negotiator for the board of education while I was a superintendent. What I’m going to describe comes both from what I experienced and what I’ve observed.

For the record, the process used and promoted by both the state teachers’ organizations and the organization representing boards of education is referred to as “positional” bargaining.  As I described briefly earlier, each side identifies positions of importance and proceeds to attempt to persuade the opposing side of the wisdom and fairness of their position, while simultaneously offering reasons why the positions of the “opponent” are unreasonable, unfair, unwise, etc.

Not infrequently the words used to “win” arguments are strong, often insulting, and grow in intensity as they are reported to those not directly involved in the process. In my own case and prior to my arrival as superintendent, negotiations in the district had resulted in protracted, contentious discussions, teacher pickets and demonstrations, as well as vilification of each side within the community.

This was not the time for a new superintendent to ask people to “go the extra mile” in support of program changes.  A culture that I had witnessed any number of times while negotiating as a teacher now had new meaning for me.  All parties in the process were “carrying things in their pocket”.  Kid performance stagnated, budgets failed.  It was not the time to suggest change.

Neither side liked the picture painted of them by the community.  It had become clear that using the same approach guaranteed a future that “didn’t work”. Some research revealed that there was an alternative to the positional bargaining that had resulted in this culture of separation and alienation.  It was a new concept in collective bargaining known at the time as win/win bargaining, more commonly referred to now as “interest-based” or “integrated” bargaining.   It was a process which relied on the identification of common interests and the ways in which these could be advanced via collaboration rather than argumentation. It worked. (At the end of this piece I’ll list some of the areas that were included in the contract for the first time in the district and, in one instance for the first time in the state.)  It worked because the process was designed from the outset not to focus on winning but on the identification of interests and the transparent efforts to acknowledge and find commonality within them.  This was accomplished by organizing the meetings as collaborative working sessions, by acknowledging the identified interests, by focusing on the commonality found in these interests, by working in teams comprised of folks from each “side” to find solutions which honored these interests, and by having the teams present their “solution” to the entire group for approval or revision.

The big idea…

This process and this story extend far beyond the impact of the periodic need to negotiate. They extend to the recognition and elimination of the policies, practices, and procedures which cause separation, alienation, and emotional burdens both for our colleagues and for our students – i.e., they extend to the creation of processes that aim for, and result in, connectedness rather than separation.  This process and others like it provide a direction for how honest efforts to recognize, identify and respond to the emotional burdens we inadvertently create can reverse the fear of change and increase the engagement in the change process.   In the event that anyone involved in this process is reading this blog, thank you for the courage that allowed us to acknowledge the collective hurt we carried with us and for the trust that enabled us to move beyond it.

 Addendum – Agreement high pointsWhile the items listed here reflect the context at the time this process occurred, the process and impact on culture remain timeless.

Summary of Interests:  interests identified and defined in the initial phase of the process – completed in large group setting with facilitator assistance.

Board of Education Interests

  • Change from the image of being the “bad guys”
  • Commit to and be recognized for attempts to be good stewards of the community’s tax dollars
  • Improve student academic performance
  • Improve the quality of teaching/instruction
  • Deal more effectively with poor performing teachers

Teachers’ Association Interests

  • Be recognized for their efforts
  • Receive and maintain compensation that is commensurate with similarly structured districts
  • Improve student academic performance
  • Create a more positive public perception of the district
  • Move away from the district’s history of implementing short term “fixes” to problems associated with poor student performance

 Contractual Agreements – Highlights of the main points included in the multi-year agreement forged via the Interest-based process.

 Revised teacher evaluation and support system

Teacher support systems based on need – i.e., more extensive support for new teachers (years 1-3 and beyond if warranted) including more frequent observations, peer observations; targeted support and support plans for teachers identified as in need of support with this designation resulting from self-identification, administrative identification, parental identification; less frequent observations for teachers recognized as “expert” (with mutually developed definition) as a means of gaining time to provide additional support for new teachers.  Teachers identified as needing support were to be assigned a support team consisting of building administrator, an “expert” teacher of the teacher’s choosing, an association representative, and expert teacher of the superintendent’s choosing (optional)…included was the development of a support plan and responses based on progress toward meeting the goals of the plan.  During the life of this agreement teachers assigned to this support response achieved the plan goals with one exception… based on mutual agreement that teacher left the district.

Teacher run professional development academy

Startup fund provided to begin the academy. Teachers selected by peers subject to superintendent’s input (but not approval). Course offered for credit would be eligible for movement on salary guide but not transferrable to other districts. Instructors selected from teaching staff and/or outside resources. Instructor to receive credits on salary guide in lieu of payment.  Outside instructors paid through tuition charges.

Performance based compensation plan beyond the base salary agreement

Performance target area determined jointly by board of education, administrative team and teacher workgroup.  Plan included the development of performance goals, professional support required, and use of locally developed performance assessments.  Award of performance bonus based in grade level growth from initial baseline assessment (Sept) to third administration (May). Initial target areas was math and included targeted professional development designed to improve math instruction and student performance.

Reimagining, not reforming. Are we saddened and embarrassed enough to do something?

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The recent events in our nation have occupied most of my intellectual and emotional energy. Mired in attempts to find sense in the senseless, I simply had nothing that seemed worth sharing.  Added to this, I felt constrained by advice I frequently heard a kid as (and apparently internalized)… “Never talk about religion or politics” if you want maintain relationships.

Watching our national “dialog” spiral downwards, I began to recognize that as really bad advice. I began to realize that it is precisely our inability to discuss such emotion-laden topics from a perspective of understanding rather than one of winning that is causal in our current disconnected and increasingly tribal response to “the other”.  And perhaps more importantly, it is precisely we as educators who have the opportunity to turn this around.  Certainly not by ourselves and certainly not overnight, but we have the opportunity.  I believe we also have the responsibility.

But I was struggling to express this. And then I received a posting of a piece piece on the Modern Learners site entitled “Designing for Learning” that broke the logjam.  It’s a fascinating piece about the implications of design thinking and references an even more fascinating video clip about schooling.  I urge you to read the post and to take time to view the clip.  I’ll buy you a beer if you think it was a waste of your time.

Design Thinking… What Is It?

The concept of Design Thinking has achieved educational jargon status.  Google reports that a search on the term “design thinking” yielded about 1,350,000,000 results.  Here’s a definition from Interaction Design. Interaction-Design 

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.

What stands out to you in this definition? For me, key terms here are seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and alternative strategies.  Hence, in exploring the notion of ‘designing for learning’, key pieces would be

  • understanding the learner,
  • challenging assumptions about schooling and learning, and
  • exploring alternative strategiesfor where and how learning can occur.

So what would this look like? 

First of all, it would look different. I want to tackle just a couple of differences here.They’re big and scary.

As I have shared here in previous posts and as is reported in numerous studies, the design of our schools and the schooling process is inconsistent with what we know about user learning.  In Will’s post, he notes

If we were really intent on improving learning inside the school walls, we would pay a lot more attention to how learning happens outside the school walls in the natural world and then build our practice based on that. So, at the risk of being repetitive, we know that outside of school kids learn with other kids and adults of all different ages. We know that they don’t learn in 45-minute chunks. We know that learning occurs without any contrived tests.

But what would happen if we didn’t think of schools as the point of delivery for learning?  Why, when we consider looking at how kids (and adults) learn in the world outside of school, would we not feel the need to change schools to reflect this?  Why wouldn’t we re-design schools into places where “real world” learning could be coordinated rather than delivered?  Why wouldn’t we promote the conversion of schools to centers for community learning?… places where learning could be supported, not controlled… places where resources for learning, both human and material, could be housed to supplement those found outside/beyond the walls of the school?

I know all of the practical, adult centered, logistical reasons why this can’t happen (OMG, what about the child care, custodial function, what would I do with 50 “You Tubers”? What if they didn’t want to learn Algebra?, etc. ). I see such thinking as simply an extension of a system that supports chunking learning into 45 minutes segments for the sake of efficiency and adult convenience.

Just as the Industrial Revolution spawned the creation of schools (and schooling as we have experienced it), is it not possible for the Technological Revolution to redefine that model to reflect not only the availability of learning resources and learning experiences, but also the places in which learning can take place and be recognized?

We have the beginnings of such user-designed places in urban community schools… places where the intellectual, social-emotional, and health needs of the learners can be coordinated and extended. Why not elsewhere?  If we are going to “design for learning” why would we continue to use an industrial model for the spaces and ways in which learning can take place?

And speaking of learning… Learn what?

Will continues his piece with the question about what our kids should learn, “What Do We Want Our Children to Be?”  What would happen if we asked the question “HOW would we like our kids to be?” instead of “WHAT would we like them to be?” I suspect that, from the extended description in the piece, the intent may well have been to mean “how” while using the term “what”; however, I think that precision in language is critical to help us avoid multiple definitions and multiple directions/solutions.

Remember back at the beginning I shared that one of the lessons learned in our previous story was to avoid topics of politics and religion.  This advice was based on experiences where such discussions went poorly.  So avoiding them became to be the favored response.  But there was and is another response… a response that forges connections rather than separation.

It’s empathy.

Empathy is the path beyond separation and is directly related to my reasoning for suggesting a focus on how we want our kids to be, rather than what they should be.  Does anyone else notice that we, uniquely, among rich, industrialized countries, have embraced a language of violence?  We fight “wars” on drugs, “wars” on illiteracy, “wars” on poverty and tragically ironically, “wars” on violence.  We define money raised by politicians for their campaign a “war chest”. We see such words as “American” as proud, strong, powerful and words such as “empathy” as soft, weak, and, in a patriarchal society, an even worse adjective… “feminine”.

It appears that suggesting how they should be as empathetic is seen by many as a rejection of the American story of competition, toughness, and hard work. There is a growing sense that this story should be rejected.  The acceptance of that story has created a culture of needing more, and needing more too frequently comes at the expense of others.  It creates and reinforces a sense of scarcity… a sense that whatever someone else gets is reducing what’s available for me. It results is sum-zero thinking.  I must win.  A natural consequence of winners is the reciprocal, losers. We have become a win-lose culture, not only in the acquisition of material wealth but also in the course discussion.  Prized are the winners, losers not so much.

We cannot continue to avoid the topics which divide us.  We cannot continue to “discuss” such issues while focusing more on winning the “debate” than on understanding what it is like to be the other person and how being that person has led them to conclusions/beliefs that differ from our own.

How does this change?  It changes with us as educators, as school leaders, as teachers, as members of our education community.  It changes with parents.  It changes with a generation of young people we are charged with preparing for what appears to be an increasingly precarious time. It changes by helping our kids encounter the world around them as it really exists, not as it exists inside the walls of a school building, not as it exists in programs that were designed for another time and a very different set of needs, not in programs designed by large publishing houses seeking their share of a lucrative education market place.  It changes with creating the habit of civil, empathetic discourse and discussion.  It continues with the creation and nurturing of a culture that rejects violence as the response to differences in thinking. It changes with the rejection of demonizing and vilifying those whose skin color or beliefs differ from our own.  It begins with a discussion that illuminates how empathy can be intentionally nurtured and developed in young people as a part of learning how to be. It doesn’t change by doing more of the same.

As always, be well.

A Digression

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Far Side Gallery – Gary Larson

Hi all,

I’m sending you a link link to something written by a blogger that I’ve been following for a while now. You might ask “why me?” While this guy is very edgy and will scare any number of people with his references to predatory capitalism and social democracy, he represents “another brick in the wall” of thinking that has occupied me for a while now. I offer this in response to an experience that I suspect is becoming increasingly common for many of us…  Conversations that center around the question… what the f*** is going on?

To save you some work, the author is a fairly well-known speaker (on a top 50 list of international keynoters), has a background in finance and business organization, has written for the Harvard Business Review, and has been offering his thinking on the downward spiral of the US for some time now.  Unless all of this research is based on false internet info, he’s got some street cred.

So what’s this about?

As noted above, with increasing frequency, I find myself involved in conversations in which people describe a growing sense of foreboding and concern about the direction of our society.  Some of these are school related discussions but, most are focused on a bigger picture – the erosion of civility, values, norms, etc., many of which we had taken for granted as a part of American exceptionalism.  I’ve recently had several, seemingly unrelated experiences which have been gradually “coming together”.  Reading Haque’s writings on his site Eudaimonia (see link above) has been one such experience.

Also, as some of you know, I recently attended a “gathering” of folks to interact with Charles Eisenstein.  Charles achieved a certain amount of notoriety after appearing on the Oprah Sunday morning show, following the viral response to his essay, “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story” which he wrote on the eve of the presidential election in 2016 and for his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Charles speaks about the ending of a story here in the US and the problems associated with living in what he terms, “The Age of Separation”… an age in which we are separate from other people, separate from our institutions, and separate from our planet.  This separation has been described by others as a descent into fragmentation, tribalism and polarization. In a soul-touching series of conversations, exchanges, and reflections, Charles shared during the gathering his thinking about living as “interbeings” – people living between stories. He suggested that the path to the  new story described in his book, lies with the cultivation of empathy… a topic in itself.

 Why Haque and Eisenstein? They seem like strange bedfellows.

Haque and Eisentein represent a growing body of thought that maintains that the direction of the US is not sustainable… that even superficial reviews of world history point to a repetition of paths that have led previous world powers to authoritarianism, to fascism, to ruin. I’ve shared the linked piece here because I saw in it a pattern that affirms what Haque is seeking to illuminate and which seems to demand a more active response. Here’s a quick look at the pattern he describes…

Listen. I get it. We’re all frustrated. Maybe we even feel powerless and weary. The system has failed us… Now, frustration makes us foolish. We lose our reason, our intellect. Our grasp on history slips and our respect for knowledge and wisdom erodes. Virtue becomes just that much harder to hold onto. We seek comforting lies to mollify us instead of difficult truths which enlighten us.

The pattern he describes and expands upon has both historical and individual applications.  He describes a process that is characterized by descent into frustration, finding/identifying scapegoats, demonizing those identified as “causes” for our frustration, acceptance of increasingly violent solutions to protect what we have and to gather more of what we perceive as “rightfully” ours.

Here’s what I saw as I read this essay.  I saw the patterns of our responses to the Irish, to the Italians, to blacks and I saw/see what appears to be predictable responses by these identified “others” to such treatment which tend to reinforce the beliefs and actions of the oppressors.  More importantly, I saw the need to share the exposure to people who both identify with this description of our direction/place and who might offer thoughts about possible responses.

Thoughts?

Be well.