Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Regime Change

"The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy." --John Galsworthy
I had that quote posted in my classroom for years, but I am coming to see from a different perspective from when I first pinned it to my wall—with pins, on an actual wall. Some of the most significant moments in an institution’s history happen when the great big boss of everything changes. Each time I witness it I feel as though I learn everything there is to know about the peaceful transfer of power. Then a few years later I get to learn it all again.

It seems that every school I attended or worked in saw some version of this transition while I was there. Maybe I’m a jinx, or maybe turnover in these positions happens often enough that just about everyone experiences these transitions pretty much the same amount. It’s difficult to know other people’s experience when you’re as self-absorbed as I am.

I can remember when the nun who ran our elementary school was replaced by a different nun. I remember when the principal’s office transformed from an austere, fluorescent-lit cell of a room to one with soft lighting and plants. I remember being terrifically creeped out by the kinder, gentler version. Kids are rarely sent to the principal for a joyful meeting, so being greeted with the friendly warm glow of home in that space was fairly upsetting. Surroundings designed to put one at ease can amplify the sense of dread when so clearly out of place (see also: here).

Stylistic changes like these can provide a holistic picture of regime change, but it takes time to see the more substantive elements that go along. The chair of my college’s music department who started during my sophomore year advised that one should attempt to change nothing in the first year, since just the change in head of operations is almost more than an institution can bear. Even with this very sensible approach, our department chair was subjected to no small amount of grief in retribution for his most significant shortcoming--namely that  he wasn’t anything at all like his predecessor. Twenty-five years later, he’s just retired and someone else is being subjected to the same sort of scrutiny for a corresponding shortcoming.

Even though I've had the same job for over twenty years, I've still continued to be the cause of regime change fairly frequently, as all of my side jobs--including my part-time farming gig, community chorus jobs, and special contracts like department chair and assistant to the auditorium manager--have had predecessors and the expectations that go along with them.

From doing it myself, and having it done to me, I've learned some things that may come in handy:
  1.  There is something the previous guy (whom you hated) did better than the new guy (whom you may actually like). Sometimes the direct inverse will be true as well. Affection for an administrator may be strongly correlated with his/her competence, but it's delusional to think this is going to work out in every case.
  2. No combination of administrators is the same. Each person in leadership brings a specific collection of credits and deficits to the job (see also: here). There will be some flux in the duties while they take budgetary responsibilities away from the guy who never bothers to balance his checkbook. Meanwhile, he will take over planning office parties and organizing the Secret Santa exchange to take up the slack there.
  3. The inevitable resulting chaos is a great opportunity to seize power. If you're not one of those highly ambitious Slackers, you better hope that the folks who rush in to fill the power vacuum are people you can deal with. They're likely to be your unofficial overlords until the next shakeup in the upper ranks.
  4. It can be a great time to ask "Why is it that we still ___________?" We all know the parable of the young bride who cut off the ends of her roast. Sometimes the goofiest policies and traditions in your institution happened to be the pet project of your recently departed boss. Maybe it goes back further than that. There are certain questions that I ask every year anyway, just for maintenance, but at regime changes someone may actually think about the answer. 
  5. Plan for friendships to be affected. With great effort on all sides, this can be minimized, but when one of you can suddenly not only tell the other to knock something off, but now can put a letter in your file if you don't, that's gonna shift the dynamic. When your easygoing friend down the hall suddenly finds herself with power over everyone around you (and you), it may suddenly be weird for you to beat her at tennis or hold her hair after too much tequila.
There's a joke in my Church:
Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Three: One to call the electrician, one to mix the martinis, and one to talk about how much he liked the old light bulb better.

New administrators will always chalk resistance to their ideas up as resistance to change. It is that sometimes. And sometimes it's bad ideas that you've been kind enough to point out before they see the light of day. Figuring out which it is will only determine their future, possibly the future of your friendship as applicable, and the success of your entire organization.

Regime change is not optional, though. It takes time to make administrators, and consequently their careers are typically shorter than ours. Changes at the top often come with great awkwardness, confusion, and frustration. They can also come with exciting growth, renewal, and enormous opportunity for enterprising Slackers. When things are in turmoil, it is important to be leaning the right way so that you tumble in a desirable direction before things inevitably settle out again.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

There Oughta Be a Law

One of my trademark catchphrases for the past twenty years or so is "Abuse leads to policy." Recently, the horrors of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky, and the actions of some more locally recognized characters, have made this little axiom literally true. This isn't an entry about their actions, however; it's a analysis of our reactions. Not so much the abuse, but more the policy.

Making rules is easy, just:
1. Know in advance what bad thing people are going to do.
2. Figure out a rule that will prevent this bad thing
3. Make sure that everyone follows the rule.

Yeah, making rules isn't easy at all.

Rules aren’t made to be broken; rules are made when people break them in advance. Most of the rules I've made for my classes could have earned naming rights. Maybe I should invest in a little plaque inscribed with the student's name, offense, and the rule that resulted. For example, early in my teaching career I made a rule that one student of each gender could leave class at a time for the restroom, based on the assumption that they were headed to similar, but distinctly different, destinations. Then one day, word reached me that two of my students (one from each gender as, at the time, permitted by statute) did not utilize the restroom, but rather met up for a brief liaison. Hence, the resulting rule is: One student—regardless of gender—may leave for the restroom. I have no desire to first ascertain the dating status and sexual orientation of students before they head off to the loo. I have not named this rule the “Jack and Jane* Gender-Blind Restroom Regulation,” but I could have. That particular couple has long since broken up, so the rule named for them would have survived well beyond their love for one another--that is either poetic or horribly sad.

*not their real names

Just like I did with my restroom policy (I sometimes wish that I had a job that didn’t require me to develop a restroom policy, but school teaching isn't all bad), what we mostly do in the world is make rules in response to bad things people have already done. What we mostly do is build airlocks and buzzer systems after a stranger from the outside enters a school and does us harm. What we mostly do is install metal detectors after students bring weapons to school. What we mostly do is pass gun legislation after a mass shooting.

Uhm, maybe not so much that last thing.

I’m not saying that this is an entirely worthless approach. If you think about it, closing the barn door after the horse gets out is actually a good move if it keeps the cow in there. We can't know the future when we're making policy, so we try to arrange it so that we don't repeat our past exactly.

With some infractions, we not only make policy in response to bad actions, we feel that infractions require that a rule be made up on the spot. This is a useful strategy with minor and uncomplicated infractions. I have developed a habit of announcing perfectly common-sense things as if they are commandments: “STUDENTS ARE ASKED NOT TO GROOM ONE ANOTHER, OR TO APPLY PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS OF ANY KIND, OR TO ALTER OR ENHANCE THEIR SCENT THROUGH THE USE OF PERFUME, DEODORANT, OR EAU DE TOILETTE, FOR THE DURATION OF MY CLASS.” However, when the problem is more nuanced and the problem behavior is harder to nail down, rules made up on the spot are rarely sufficient, and rarely correct the specific problem. Some problems that develop when rules are made in this way:
  1. Institutional Memory - Organizations aren't so good at keeping multiple thoughts going at once, so as soon as a new crisis presents itself, everyone tends to forget about all of the previous ones. Those strangers from the outside are still dangerous even after a crisis perpetrated by someone from inside. They are still dangerous long after the students start sticking door props in the doors because it’s too inconvenient to go through the office when they forget something in their cars.
  2. Targeted Response - Reacting to a bad actor with a series of policies applied to everyone often means that the original target is rarely hit. My restroom policy change assumes that I continually have couples in my class who would do this, and that none of my students are meeting up with students in other classes. That first couple was only affected by the new rule for a few weeks at the end of their senior year, but every subsequent student has needed to live by this rule. How many teachers, coaches, and directors give speeches about attendance and punctuality to the very students who are in attendance and punctual. Huh? Oh, just me? Soooorrrrrrr-y!
  3. Demographic Targeting - Not applying policies to everyone, however, quickly develops a very slippery slope of its own. Maybe we can agree that every grandma and toddler doesn't present the same terrorist risks as members of every other demographic, but fairness is a high bar. Even if we agree that it isn't okay that preschoolers are stopped and frisked, the alternative is to impose increased scrutiny on a person because of gender, age, race, manner of dress, etc.
  4. Proportional Response - A national speed limit of 45 MPH would eliminate a high percentage of traffic fatalities, save fuel, preserve engines, and promote a more leisurely driving experience for all. It would also be exceedingly maddening to be on the turnpike with not a car in sight, on a road built for 70 MPH, and putter along at 45. The more straightforward a rule, the less likely it is to correct the specific problem, and doling out a ton of cure for an ounce of problem inevitably brings in some collateral damage.
Particularly bad actions or events often prompt the most immediate and significant response, and the rules that result are usually chock full of the problems listed above. The Patriot Act sailed through Congress because everyone knew that we needed an immediate solution. It instituted, however, some of the greatest challenges we face today--torture, Gitmo, unrestrained surveillance, and the War on Terror. I have come to view the words "pilot program" with a great deal of suspicion. Pilot program seems to be a method of instituting unpopular initiatives and deferring any outrage or criticism to an undefined point in the future (hopefully after everyone has come to accept the new regulations).   

All of that said, though, the worst are the rules that are not really even meant to solve a problem. Some rules are devised not to protect anyone or make things run more smoothly. Some rules--the worst rules, in my opinion--are tools for insurance carriers and to nurture our litigious nature. These rules don't provide any real protection, except to the backside of the institution that does the absolute minimum to claim they've done what they could. The new fetish for background checks (see: here) and an initiative called Safe Schools Mandatory Reporter training--a webinar recently completed by every Pennsylvania public school employee--are examples of this sort of thing.

The training is summarized: Don't hurt kids. Some kids are hurt by others. When this happens, you must report it. That bit of instruction, vital though it is, was condensed to three + hours of videos and quizzes that any person possessing the slightest amount of common sense, and more than a bit of test-taking chops (i.e. True or False: A person never doesn't lack the requirement to refrain from usually never withholding the lack of required information.) could easily pass without actually watching the videos.

The purpose of this exercise was to prevent another Sandusky problem. Actually, these videos wouldn't prevent any such thing. It may not even prompt more aggressive and timely action by the participants in the cover-up. The purpose is to be able to say at the indictment hearing that each of these people had been through three hours of training and passed three quizzes to be certified as a mandatory reporter.

Jerry Sandusky would have passed these quizzes. Jerry Sandusky would have passed the background checks until June 21st of 2013. Yet, Pennsylvania’s legislature and governor stepped up background checks so that they need to be repeated every three years, and schools now require them not only of teachers and coaches, but parent chaperones and host families. Background checks can't really look for people who do bad things. Background checks look only at people who do bad things, get caught, get indicted, and get convicted. Sandusky had abused kids, gotten caught, gotten reported, been spoken to, but still would have passed background checks.

Note: Like everyone else in the world, I'm not willing to come out against background checks. Other than imposing additional burdens on parents who are volunteering to help you out, they aren't actually harmful. The only problem with this sort of thing is once you have it, no one will ever make a move to get rid of it, lest people assume that you're arguing in favor of killers and rapists educating the children. I love background checks. Can't get enough of 'em.

Except, they're literally the least we can do. We don’t impose policies like this because they’re effective; we impose them because they’re easy for the institution. The problem with programs like the Safe Schools Initiative, and increased background checks, and whatever similar policy has already come along since I wrote this, is the illusion that we've made schools safer for anyone other than policy-makers and insurance carriers. Any softening of our resolve to find real solutions, any time spent patting ourselves on our backs to congratulate ourselves for doing something, any complacency that comes from a sense of accomplishment would be an injustice to the real victims of actual bad actors. Making actual progress on the evils that these rules are targeting requires a carefully assembled package of counseling, education, and policy making that is much more nuanced and targeted than the stuff we tend to do in the moment.