Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 35 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. While he was the principal of Lynnwood Elementary in New York, he developed the Peaceful School Bus Program, designed to prevent and reduce bullying, and subsequently published The Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden, 2008). The program is now being implemented in schools across the country. He is the author of No Place for Bullying: Leadership for schools that care for every student (Corwin, 2013). Jim is currently an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated. He makes presentations and conducts workshops on a variety of educational topics, including instruction, classroom management, leadership, and supervision. Jim has presented at many local, state and national conferences. Jim's blog, The Peaceful School Bus is a Teach 100 blog.
This blog was originally published on The Peaceful School Bus on August 27, 2012.
"Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast"- Peter Drucker
This quotation from Peter Drucker succinctly explains why so many bullying prevention programs fail to significantly prevent and reduce bullying in schools. In a healthy school culture, bullying should stand out by being an exception to how people are treated. It should call attention to itself because it is not in line with the cultural norms of a school. This is not to imply that bullying doesn't occur in positive and healthy school cultures- it can and it will. This does mean that it doesn't blend into the culture or become camouflaged. To put Drucker's statement into blunt terms, if adults in a school yell at students or belittle them as a fairly routine way of interacting or if people don't have a basic genuine respect for each other, a bullying prevention program will do little good and could do harm because students will view it as being hypocritical. Instituting a bullying prevention program in such a school will not change the school culture and it is a serious mistake to think that it will.
Changing a school culture is hard because the people in the school have a hard time recognizing/seeing their culture; it is like the air they breathe. It is just there. It isn't "culture" to them, it is just the way the school is and probably the way most schools are in their mind. Even if a school could recognize its culture and see it for what it is, attempts to change it are often viewed as criticisms of the current culture. It is very difficult to expect people in even the most dysfunctional organizations to admit that things need to change- it is very threatening to them to realize that what they have been doing and saying for years has not been justified and warranted by their circumstances. This is why Drucker also says, “Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try instead to work with what you've got."
This is the conundrum. If it is true, to paraphrase James Carville, that, "It's the culture, stupid," and we follow Drucker's advice to never try to change one, what can we do? The answer is to avoid a quick fix strategy/program that will try to change things and instead understand the change process and become "strategic" in working with the people who "live" in that culture.
As a retired principal who worked in schools for over 35 years, I find it frustrating to see the trend in education to rely less on building the capacity of people and more on finding programs/strategies to get people to follow. Maybe this is because "the problem" is attributed to the people in the school who can't be trusted to solve what they "created". The logical alternative is to take control away from them and instead try to get them to follow a script or a blueprint spelling out their moves. I have never seen anything positive emerge from negating people's basic need for autonomy and minimizing their degree of control over how they do their job. This approach, at best, often just gets surface compliance, and more often produces a passive/aggressive response from staff. The alternative to imposing a program doesn't mean leaving people to their own devices and becoming resigned to the status quo. It does mean expecting positive change to come out of empowering people and providing the right conditions for them to move in the right direction.
Businesses know that leadership is the key to change and the best leadership is the type that promotes leadership in everyone. Read about the "best" companies: Southwest Airlines, Toyota, Google, Costco, and you will hear stories about people being empowered by leaders who recognize and value what each person has to contribute to the whole enterprise. These are companies that are always growing and learning because the people in them are learning and growing together. Schools shouldn't be viewed as businesses, but they should be learning communities- not places where people just do what they are told or just follow the program.
I recently facilitated a workshop about leadership and change and thought of a good analogy: sailing. I have very limited experience as a sailor but did enough to learn the basics. There are three main components of a successful sailing journey: knowing the destination, reading the wind, and keeping a steady hand on the tiller.
Too many change initiatives are based on the mindset of "we don't like where we are so we need to change" (this is usually decided by others outside of the school and not by the people in the school). Too little time, if any, is devoted to having a clear idea of where we want to go: what type of learning do we really want, what does it look like and sound like. Rather than just wanting to solve the problem of bullying, school leaders should help people talk about what type of school they want to have. This vision or destination may not be clear in the beginning, but it should come into clearer and clearer focus as the school learns (sails) together.
The "wind" is the change process- knowing how people change and the conditions needed for change to happen. This means affirming what people are already doing, inviting their input, involving them in the process, asking for help, and welcoming questions and concerns. Failure to “read the wind” usually means either heading in the wrong direction or being "in irons"- stuck going nowhere.
The "steady hand on the tiller" is leadership that is going in the right direction toward the destination and makes adjustments and navigates based on changing conditions. It also means modeling the change you want to see in others
Bullying prevention is an opportunity presenting itself as a problem. A good leader recognizes this opportunity as a reason to start a journey, initially to solve a problem, but ends up transforming the school into a better place for everyone- the culture is changed.
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