In what can only be described as The Best Reason So Far for pursuing my doctorate, our class last night met at the one and only New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. For those unfamiliar with the company, the nut-shell version is this: More than just a company that brews and sells beer, New Belgium sells a “lifestyle.” My take on it is that they’re selling the Colorado lifestyle which, in my mind, is characterized by environmental stewardship and the pursuit of health and happiness through an active, outdoor lifestyle.
Of the many nuggets of wisdom that I walked away with last night, the one that stands out most is something that’s nagged me pretty consistently since I stepped into the role of “school leader.” I’ve kicked this around before I’m quite sure, but when I took my first job as an assistant principal, my biggest surprise by far was the simple fact that not every adult in the building shared my philosophy of working with kids.
What I am learning about myself in my fifth year in a leadership role is that mine is not just a philosophy that defines how I work with kids, but that frames every decision that I make. Moving beyond my own classroom — a place where, for all intents and purposes I had complete control — and beginning my first days as a leader, the sheer volume of rules and policies that we force ourselves to follow overwhelmed me.
I have generally believed that if left to their own devices, the vast majority of people (kids included!) will do the right thing. I’m not suggesting that we let total anarchy prevail, but let’s consider how much of our administrative time we spend based on a predication that is exactly the opposite of what I propose: that is, assume for a moment that left to their own devices, people will do whatever they want; whatever is best for them. Sounds a lot like McGregor’s Theory X, doesn’t it?
So how do we spend our time? We spend it positing scenarios and coming up with policies and rules because, well, if we didn’t control every aspect of everything then everyone would spend all of their time and energy figuring out how to take advantage of the system. (The use of sweeping generalization in the previous sentence is not just for effect.)
Take John, for example. John is in way over his head this year, having signed up for both physics and calculus. Truth is, though he’s staying up late every night, he is still likely to fail his physics class. But if we allow John to withdraw from physics without penalty (even though he may have a very good reason for not keeping up with the work), we will have “opened the flood gates.” Before long, some might argue, “everyone” will be coming down to withdraw from classes just because they’re too lazy to do the work. And since we let John do it, we’ll “have to” let them do it, too.
Imagine the horror! “Everyone” withdrawing from their classes! The underlying assumption here is flawed. “If we do it for one, we have to do it for all.” We spend so much time concerning ourselves with setting a bad precedent, but we’re missing the point. We’re not setting the precedent that we allow any kid to get out of any class for any reason, we’re setting the precedent that we are reasonable, caring people who will listen to our students’ concerns and come up with a workable solution.
For argument’s sake, let’s set some arbitrary number on my original assumption. Let’s postulate that something like 90% (though some who share my outlook would argue that it’s closer to 99%) of people will do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. If that’s the case, then we’re spending hours of our time worrying and fretting over 10% of the students who will try to game the system anyway. No matter how much time we put into trying to tighten down the rules, that same group will still try to find a way around them. So, essentially, 90% suffer in order to attempt to deal with the other 10%.
The happy medium here, of course, goes beyond simply throwing out the rules. At New Belgium they believe in running a company that is “values-based” rather than “rules-based.” They expect people to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because of the fear of some punishment looming over your head. Admittedly, this would take a huge cultural shift in most of our schools because it’s simply not where we’re used to coming from. If you need further proof of this, pick up (almost) any book on classroom management and you’ll see a discussion of rules and punishments. Or, sometimes, sugar-coated punishments called “consequences.” It’s behaviorist theory at its best. You’ll read a lot about students’ “choosing” to break a rule with the subtext that they’ve somehow “chosen” a particular consequence.
These sorts of cultural issues have long been a fascination of mine. What makes a student act one way with one teacher, walk across the hall and act completely different with another? Putting ourselves back in John’s shoes, what lesson does he walk away with if we “hold his feet to the fire” and make him “pay” for his “bad choice” to take too many rigorous classes? Sure, he’ll get an F in physics, but he’ll “learn his lesson.”
I would argue that he won’t walk away from this thinking, “Gosh – I should have worked harder! I made a poor choice.” More likely, it’s something closer to, “So this is the reward I get for attempting to take some hard classes? These people don’t care about me!”
Thus is the conundrum of setting up a system that addresses the minority. And you thought the only thing I’d take from a trip to New Belgium was a case of Fat Tire.