School Bureaucracy: Teacher Rumblings

Many of my stories of bureaucracy have involved my own experience as a counselor, together with my history as a teacher, though I have ample reason for believing my emotional experience of a school bureaucracy is not unique. Recent rumblings from the teacher ranks reinforce that conviction, lest you begin to think all my writings are the ruminations of a crank.

Previously I mentioned that our staff has followed the dictates of administration with “intelligent obedience.” In fact, though we clearly inhabit a top down hierarchy, one of the interesting features of our climate is that the administration has generally hired competent people who communicate reasonably well, who like kids, and have a measure of professional commitment to their task. On the flip side, the hires as a group challenge authority only tentatively, and mostly remain in the cave and at the hearth of their fellow teachers, with whom the conversation remains private.

Historically, our teachers’ union and the school district have had a cooperative, only modestly adversarial relationship, but the calm has shifted in recent years with a more combative central office style and, more recently, a troubled state budget. The union has become increasingly aggressive, and staged a strike a couple of years ago, with mixed results. The new superintendent in town has yet to declare his colors, and the difficult economic circumstances has made better partners of union and administration as we have had our backs to the same wall.

Nonetheless, the district and administrative personalities have continued to push educational reform, not surprisingly, for their own jobs are on the line, and even morally, because to a significant degree we do not graduate enough kids into the job market with adequate preparation.

However, new initiatives inevitably put more burden on teachers, who are the front line, and always will be, of reform. Mutterings abound this fall on the part of teachers weighted with new responsibilities, and of the consequent difficult start to the new school year. Though administrators may rightly argue that the new initiatives are incremental, if incremental changes occur frequently, at some point the straw is added that breaks the proverbial back.

In this environment the union has asked all certificated staff to fill out a survey in an attempt to get a handle on the dimensions of the problem. Comments and questions in the meeting in which the survey is introduced in fact center around the manner in which required activity has been stretched beyond traditional boundaries, and obstacles these new responsibilities have placed between teachers and their ability to help students after the scheduled day is over. Lurking in the background, sometimes jumping to the foreground, is fear of retaliation if one is to resist the administrative directives. Statements are made about low morale.

I might add, hence the impulse to collective action, which is how unions arose in the first place, as a bulwark against administrative failure to protect worker interests, and in fact administrative tendency to run rough shod over worker interests, whether we are talking about factory workers or incipient professionals, such as teachers. Ironic it is that the alleged nemesis of most bosses, the union, has historically in effect been of their own creation.

In a rational world, some level of negotiation could occur that would cooperatively identify those changes most crucial to the mutual task at hand, and those practices that should be left behind, because minimally productive. Seldom are tasks deleted formally. More likely they are left behind or given short shrift in practice anyway because the practitioner simply can’t get to it, and so are left vulnerable to criticism by supervisors for required tasks not completed. And so the practitioner digs more deeply into her cave, complains to receptive colleagues, and then peers out, even vocalizes, when some sort of collective action seems in the wind.

Nearly simultaneous with the union meeting and survey was a department chair meeting at which a creative if difficult to implement initiative to provide extra help to struggling students was floated. The idea was to use an period out of the regular school day, similar to but separate from our existing advisory time, in which students with D’s or F’s primarily in science and math would go to their respective science and math teachers for extra help, rather than go to their regular advisory, which would become a study hall.

The intent was laudable – that is, to give students whose families lacked the ability to pick them up from after school tutorials, the opportunity for additional help during the school day. Moreover, the administration had been hosting a forum for a couple of months in which the format was discussed, so there was no secret, if still confusion, about the idea. The administration had also sought departmental input, via members at the forum.

Though I was not in attendance at the department chair meeting, I heard assorted accounts, which came down to skepticism about the help time mechanism and its numerous practical problems, and anger at the administration for formatting yet another change that would inevitably tax teachers’ already stretched energies to implement, this upon the heels of having been forced into time commitments twice a week to track and interpret classroom data. The principal, used to more muted criticism, seemed taken aback by the unaccustomed overt challenge to his stewardship, which by accounts was vehement and came from various quarters.

Full disclosure. We counselors about this time have been urged by the principal to promote and carry out a help session for parents to fill out their seniors’ FAFSA’s (Federal Financial Aid application), another new initiative, good enough in its own right, but which we initially were told would be no big deal. Several meetings later, the commitment has jumped from perhaps four hours apiece, the day of the event, to one or two trainings as well, and increased responsibilities and planning since the sponsoring outside organization seems to have overstated its ability to provide the entire superstructure of the program. So I, and my fellow counselors, are sensitive to the teachers’ reactions, for our own separate, but similar reasons.

In both cases, an arguably reasonable idea runs up against staff energies that are already stretched tautly by other incremental changes, often implemented by an assertive administration apparently blind to the effect on their subordinates, or at least dismissive of subordinates’ feelings of overwork and lack of power.

The lessons in these events are familiar ones. “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him” (John, Viscount Morley, On Compromise 1874 as replicated in the Ben Shahn poster). At some point people rebel, or at least vocally rebel and not always prettily, when they are stretched beyond what they perceive as reasonable limits. The lament is all the more acute because the change is done without input. Bureaucracies are poor at allowing instructive or discordant information from flowing upward, and then, when it does happen, usually fail to let such information inform decisions, even when the resulting directives and the proferred input have concordant themes at their respective core. When resources become scarce, as has happened in the current economic downturn, the stresses in these systems become more acute, and some breakdown in business as usual occurs. Administration and staff waste energy at odds with one another, when in the big picture both are committed to the betterment of the education kids are provided. The communication and mutual respect that might short circuit a significant number of these problems do not happen, because of ingrained and dysfunctional bureaucratic patterns, which stem from the hierarchical need to control and the perhaps unconscious assumption that subordinate point of view when articulated is an attack on the citadel.

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