Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Test Many School Districts Failed Before The Pandemic Even Started

You’ve heard about an emotional bank account, a metaphor for the investments in personal relationships that keep them healthy and able to deal with the bumps and bruises that come along in any relationship. Build trust and deposit in the account in good times, make withdrawals in the lean times, and maintain a healthy balance. Organizations such as school districts have similar accounts, and 2020 is turning out to be the year some districts are finding out just how deep—or shallow—their reserves are.

Many districts are used to getting plenty of work from teachers without paying for it, either financially or emotionally. Teachers routinely work beyond their contracted hours, spend their own money on supplies, and fulfill many duties beyond simply instructing their students; all of this is part of the gig. Good teachers make regular deposits in the bank accounts of their district and their students. But district administrations have a wide variety of reactions.

Some districts are led by people who are appreciative and supportive, who look after their teachers and maintain conditions that help staff do their best work. These district leaders treat staff like valued, professional teammates. They build trust. They make regular deposits to the bank account.

Other districts are not so well led. Too may districts are bossed by people who consider the teaching staff adversaries, not to be trusted. For a while my own district was led by people who believed that if a teacher wasn’t in a classroom standing in front of students, she was wasting time (and the district’s money). The worst of these kinds of leaders manage with an inflexible fist, haunted by the fear that any concession or flexibility extended to staff somehow means that the administration is being taken advantage of. They treat staff like peons. They make no deposits into the bank account.

Making deposits in the account doesn’t require that administrators grovel before teachers and kiss their feet. Nor does it help to offer empty un-meant attaboys. Respect, trust and collaboration on a daily basis will do far more than hollow exercises that somebody learned at a management camp.

School systems are in many ways very different from businesses in the private sector, but in this managerial respect, they are much the same. When management fills the bank account, the organization runs more smoothly; when management drains the account, the problems may not be obvious because teachers, like other professionals, will put on their big girl pants and do the work. But when the account is empty, there’s nothing there to back calls to go an extra mile, let alone reserves for a rainy day. And now the Corvid-19 pandemic has provided the rainiest day schools have ever seen.

Going into the fall, money will be tight and needs will be great and teachers will be asked to make sacrifices of one sort of another. School districts must be clever and creative and flexible and adaptable. Districts that have cultivated an atmosphere of trust and teamwork with their staffs will be far more flexible and adaptable than those that have drained their accounts dry. As with any organization, years of quietly mediocre management become a big problem when they meet a large crisis. It’s difficult to get people to take one for the team today if you have spent years demonstrating to them that they are not actually members of the team. In a year that presents schools with unprecedented obstacles, it turns out that some schools are facing an obstacle that’s not new at all—the detritus of years of poor management. They’ve been taking this test of leadership for years; now they have to deal with the results.

Originally posted at Forbes.com 

1 comment:

  1. In 1978 I took a special education teaching position in a neighboring district after teaching for ten years in a district with a heavily top-down, adversarial, "my-way-or-the-highway" management philosophy. The district I went to had a team managerial approach in which all members, not just professional staff, had not only an economic stake, but an emotional one as well. The "emotional bank account" was AAA rated to be sure. In the early eighties there was a downturn in the economy which struck our area especially hard and I was laid off. Instead of "good luck to you" I received a full-time substituting job within the district that was not only economically helpful, but maintained contact and a degree of continuity with colleagues. Two years later I was recalled to my former position. Flash ahead to the late nineties. Many of the former managerial staff has retired, but still enough central administration to keep the "account" active, In time, however, the administration underwent a complete turnover and a new superintendent was brought in (much to the consternation of the teaching staff who had a chance to vet him). Not surprisingly he brought in a new central administration team, including several from the district in which I had formerly taught. Within five years the "account" was in bankruptcy. Along with many others I retired. I had both the misfortune and subsequent fortune of having experience in both types of management systems. It isn't difficult to figure out which one you're hooked up with. May you all persevere. Be strong and care for one another.