Things I Know 281 of 365: Schools should stop casually dating their teachers OR Why schools should be more like frats

Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know.

– Thornton Wilder, Our Town

The more readings I complete for my courses this semester, the more it seems that American school systems see their teachers as short-term boyfriends or girlfriends. They invest just enough to keep the relationship friendly and interesting, but not so much as to risk vulnerability should the relationship go south.

While I am tempted to criticize this line of thinking as jaded or cynical, I stop short of it. The transience feared by many districts and schools if they invest too heavily novice teachers’ professional development was exactly what took place in my own career. My school district in Sarasota, FL invested thousands of dollars in my professional development as part of a pilot 21st century learning initiative. A year after the training completed, I was recruited away to teach in Philadelphia. With me went Sarasota’s investment.

Perhaps the district should have required a commitment on the part of pilot participants that they would spend a minimum length of time in the district following program completion to limit attrition to other districts. Even this seems implausible. I had no plans of leaving Sarasota prior to admission to the project, and would gladly have signed such an agreement.

Instead of shifting admission and selection practices for professional development, schools should stop thinking of professional development as casually dating all of its teachers and look for a model that better serves its purposes.

While the idea of teams as described by Richard Hackman in his examination of what makes a great team serves as a possible alternative, it lacks a specificity many schools would require for high fidelity of implementation. I agree with Hackman’s assertion of the importance of setting the conditions in which it is likely a team will work effectively and reach desired goals, and in applying this thinking to schools, we must consider the expectations for team membership. Specifically, how do we build successful teams that account for and accept member transience rather than working to play the odds of building a team around those members seen as least likely to depart?

In this space, I offer collegiate fraternities and sororities as models for the way schools should begin to think about their team members and how to support them. Such institutions are built around an acceptance of high annual turnover, the need to constantly pass on institutional memory, and build unique cultures attractive to a multitude of applicants in a system awash in options. Additionally, fraternities and sororities maintain loose networks across the nation and honor their individual histories while shifting to maintain contemporary relevance.

These organizations meet each of Hackman’s conditions for team effectiveness, account for annual turnover and allow for adaptability. What’s more, they thrive on what Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink identify as the three kinds of knowledge most common to leaders in Sustainable Leadership – Inbound Knowledge, Insider Knowledge and Outbound Knowledge.

By engaging all of these knowledge types jointly, fraternities and sororities create the kind of stability, boundaries and adaptability Hackman describes and set the stage for reversing many of the negative trends in professional learning.

What I want to know is how this shift in paradigm could best be brought about. SLA gave me a fair bit of this feeling. Though not a teacher there anymore, I continue to feel connected to the school and the people. I continue to feel a sense of ownership and stewardship in a way I might have if I’d rushed a frat in college. If this is how SLA was designed, how can an existing school shift its culture to bring about those same feelings of belonging?

4 thoughts on “Things I Know 281 of 365: Schools should stop casually dating their teachers OR Why schools should be more like frats

  1. Sorry, Zac, but when I hear the words “sororities” and “fraternities” I think of hazing, conformity, and stunning group think. These are NOT the traits we want in the nation's teachers. I guess I see your point, even if somewhat tangentially, but I'm not convinced that sororities and fraternities are the models we want ANYONE to emulate for ownership and belonging.

  2. I'm curious why you chose fraternities as your models and not schools themselves. I have relationships with my high school teachers, high school classmates, and college classmates that have continued and evolved as I moved into new phases of my life. I don't feel like I missed any sense of connection by not being in a fraternity. (I deliberately chose a college that did not have any.)Of course, in both of those cases, the organizations are designed with the goal and expectation that its members will leave, so the departure is a milestone to be celebrated. On any teacher staff, there's going to be a greater sense of mixed feelings, and that would need to be accounted for.

  3. Four years ago, my sister Rachel started her freshman year of college. At some point, we were talking about how things were going, and she mentioned she was considering rushing a sorority. I'll admit my initial reaction was, “Really?”Her answer was, and continues to be, “Yes.”Rachel is one of the strongest, most thoughtful, most independent people I know with a tremendous sense of self and what she believes. In watching as she selected, joined and became an integral part of her sorority, I got a re-education in the process and what it meant.I admit freely to having the same concerns and preconceptions as you, Debbie. And I realize they're not incorrect in some cases. But I also chose the example because of the tremendous sense of family Rachel feels as part of her sorority.I suppose, Dave, that's also why I didn't choose schools. While I know I've been fortunate enough to work in schools where I've felt a strong sense of family, I've also seen many schools and spoken to even more teachers who didn't have that sense of family. The construct of school is not inherently built toward it. And, maybe many think it shouldn't be.For this instance, though, I wanted to write outside of schools and speak to something that more directly and purposefully worked toward the relationships you mentioned.I have the same relationships with high school teachers, high school classmates and college classmates and professors. For this post, I was trying to create a context that might be accessible to folks who didn't/don't have those. I've no idea what the breakdown is, but I was attempting to be mindful of folks I've met who've spoken of the opposite of the relationships you and I enjoyed.Most of all, I was playing with some ideas. Thank you, as always, for joining in and asking me to deepen my thinking. If I fell short here, know that I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond just the same.- Zac

    • That's a good point that not everyone gets those same associations from their schools. Some of my classmates have commented that they didn't feel the same bond to the institutions that I did, so even an institution that works hard to attain it is going to miss the mark for some of its members. I think it's a good idea, like you said, to come up with other examples. Would pro sports teams be another good example? Lots of roster churn, but an institutional framework that seeks to outlast its members?And to your closing comment – I hope I didn't imply that you were falling short. Starting a conversation is rarely a bad thing, and a lot of good ones start here.

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