School Bureaucracy and Bob Marley: Redemption Song

I ride to work this morning. I think about bureaucratic rigidities, this straight jacketing of human responses, the numerous menial indignities and disrespect integral to daily life in schools, not the insults of person to person, but the anonymous slings and arrows that wear one down to uninspired obedience. One can succumb, as I’ve suggested, live one’s life, bring as much light and life to one’s immediate circumstances, but have no spark in any wider school realm but a defeated passivity, the prisoner within showing himself only with trusted colleagues or friends behind close doors to whom he says what he really thinks. Or one can choose to contend with, however in a socially and organizationally appropriate way, the many mini assaults on good practice that occur I think more frequently than we denizens in our benumbed state recognize.

There is danger in the latter course, because progress along it is halting, and one runs risk of being viewed as a negative element. One must respect others one wrestles with, because mostly they are not an enemy, but other prisoners in the bureaucracy that are truly doing the best they can. One has to husband one’s energies, and pick one’s battles, which is hard, because it means a heightened vigilance, and therefore an emotional exposure to mistakes in the practice of the hierarchy that one has to choose to ignore in favor of battle on another issue, another day. It is difficult to straddle reality in this middle way, and the danger is to fall again into obedience, or on the other hand into a strident aggression that will either be repulsed by bureaucratic defenses, by a supervisor, or perhaps one’s own recognition that he or she cannot survive emotionally in such a difficult setting.

As I say, I ride to work this morning. The great Bob Marley, who grows on me more every year, is on the radio with “Redemption Song”:

“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds.”

Listen to the song next you have a chance, those of you who labor in schools — teachers, counselors, administrators, secretaries, all. If you  experienced what I have described above with frequency in your school, if you have struggled to maintain your spirit and to do your darnedest to do well by the kids you work with, only to do so as a series of mini battles, then listen to Marley’s words.

Administrators are not the enemy. Though they often complain little to the rank and file of us, they are visited with burdens similar to those we face. We, all of us, work in a bureaucratic system that has a life and inertia beyond the sum of the parts. Some of this system is organizational necessity, but far too little do we live day to day in conscious recognition that the inertias of the system do not prescribe what is best for kids; good judgment of individual human beings has a better chance. It is a tragedy of the commons that many at all levels of the hierarchy recognize a higher alternative in many things we do, but lack the collective recognition that would humanize the bureaucracies we live in.

Honestly, as I write about these issues, and think about them with the frequency with which I have of late, I catch myself sticking my neck out, and experience a low grade fright, because I have been burned expressing my perspective in the past, because I know I would not be received well in certain quarters. Even though I have chosen to remain anonymous for just this reason, I experience apprehension whenever I voice a criticism that would be considered an assault on the order, because it is voiced.

Marley was a revolutionary of the mind, in lyrical and romantic fashion, and so side steps the practical consequences of freeing one’s mind and acting on one’s conclusions. Still, his words encourage me, and so I share them: “Bark, you dogs!”

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