In order to start to adequately understand a phenomenon and affect a phenomenon, the development of a theoretical framework is necessary. E.P. Thompson wrote; “Reality is too complex to fully capture in abstractions. Every study selects particular aspects of the world to emphasize, necessarily leaving the rest in a shadowy background. In other words, we must choose what is generally called theoretical frameworks to guide our analysis” pg. 461(Thompson 2001). Frameworks help us understand how abstract ideas interact with one another and make things that are difficult to describe more rational and more easily analyzed. In the attempt to understand and intentionally develop schools into healthy learning environments, we will use the framework that I describe in the book Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division (TSC) (Muhammad 2009).
School Culture Players
TSC arranges the participants in a typical school culture into four primary categories: Believers, Tweeners, Survivors, and Fundamentalists. These educators have differing objectives and their differing objectives affect their behavior in unique ways. When not properly cultivated, these diverse agendas can lead to staff division and school dysfunction.
- Believers are educators who are predisposed to the ideas and programs that support the egalitarian idealism of education. They are willing, and in fact seek, the best professional models to support the universal achievement of their students.
- Tweeners are educators who are new to school culture. These educators are given a probationary period of two-to-five years to pick sides in the school tug-of-war. This group is critical to school improvement because, if high-risk schools do not retain qualified staff members, school reform becomes nearly impossible because long-term initiatives become impossible and there is no organizational memory.
- Survivors are educators with one purpose, survival. This group represents a small portion of educators who are simply “burned out” and so overwhelmed by the demands of the profession that they suffer from depression and merely survive from day to day. This group is much smaller than the other three and there is a general consensus that this group needs more help than can be readily accessed in most schools or districts.
- Fundamentalists are educators who are comfortable with status quo and they organize and work against any viable form of change. Their goal is to be left alone. They have many tools that they use to thwart reform initiatives, and without the proper leadership, they are generally successful. The fundamentalist’s personal needs and goals are more important than the needs of the students and the organization as a whole.
The interaction of these complex groups of individuals make school reform difficult at best and only disciplined and informed leadership is qualified to untangle this web and focus the school professionals on the singular goal of total student success.
Believers and Fundamentalists
The school reform research of Douglas Reeves, Mike Schomker, and Richard DuFour all agree that high performing schools have clear goals and high expectations for all students. In other words, they have a healthy culture. What is not clear is how did those healthy cultures develop and evolve? The TSC framework identifies two political groups called the Believers and the Fundamentalists jockeying for the control of the collective norms and expectations.
An analysis of the behavior of Believers and Fundamentalists reveal a real difference in philosophy and objective, and these differences drive their behavior. Jim Collins in his breakthrough work called Good to Great, identified why great companies and organizations consistently outperformed average or low-performing companies and organizations (Collins 2001). He describes the habits of great organizations in three processes:
- Disciplined People
- Disciplined Thought
- Disciplined Action
When dealing with the issue of disciplined people Collins writes, “We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats — and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage ‘People are your most important asset’ turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are” (pg. 12).
Collins concurs with the aforementioned educational researcher; people and their commitment, focus, attitudes and behaviors have to be aligned with the organizational objectives or progress is nearly impossible. I do not subscribe to the notion that there is a “right” person or “wrong” person. People are not innately or inherently “right” or ”wrong,” but I do believe that there is a difference between productive and unproductive organizational behavior, and thus is the case between the Believers and Fundamentalists.
Believers accept the fact that their role is to help the organization achieve its objective, success for every student. Their focus on the objective guides their behavior, so feedback that is contrary to their intended goal does not spark a defensive response. They are willing to be prepared instead of being in control. Simply stated, the organizational goal supersedes their individual goals. They are on the bus, in the right seats and ready to lend their gifts and talents to confront obstacles and achieve collective success. A Believer is a true team player; a “we” first as opposed to a “me” first professional. If every educator behaved this way, all of the great research-based structures and techniques would be implemented with fidelity, and we would see the achievement results that we crave as a society.
Fundamentalists have come to believe that their personal agenda is more important than the collective agenda. Protecting their personal and political issues becomes more important than the needs of the students that they are entrusted to serve. They play political games and lobby other members of the organization to buttress their power base, and any change or proposed behavior that is in conflict with their personal needs or desires becomes the object of their destruction. A Fundamentalist is a “me” first and “we” second employee. Their behavior would be what Collins describes as the behavior of the “wrong people on the bus.” I do not advocate targeting people personally; it is more effective to attack the behavior and transform that behavior into better and more productive behavior.
Schools are teams of educators with the goal of educating every child
John Wooden, the late and legendary basketball coach of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), who coached more U.S. college basketball teams to national championships than any other coach in history, was asked about what it took to be a good team player. His response was to “consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and the feelings of others before your own rights” (Orr 2009). Schools are teams of educators with the goal of educating every child; selfishness and personal agendas are harmful to accomplishing that collective goal of educating every child. Unfortunately, many schools have allowed adults, who consider their personal agenda more important than the collective agenda, to hijack the focus, energy, and commitment of the most innocent members or our society, our children. Fundamentalism and healthy cultures cannot coexist.
Leadership and Reversing Fundamentalist Behavior
School professionals who focus more on individual issues and pet peeves in lieu of focusing on the organizational objective of deep levels of learning for children are crippling schools everywhere. No one is in a better position to reverse this unproductive behavior than site administrators; principals and assistant principals. Site leaders have direct contact with teachers, students, parents, and central administrators. When leadership is strong and responsive at the school level, fundamentalism and its impact decrease. There are four behaviors in general that inspire educators to respond like Believers and avoid behaving like Fundamentalists. These behaviors include transparent communication, building trust, providing professional training and support, and creating fair and consistent systems of accountability. Fundamentalism is destructive, but when visionary and supportive leadership are the norm, schools tend to produce focused and ethical professionals, and students are the ultimate beneficiaries.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don’t. New York, Harper Business
Muhammad, A. (2009). Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division. Bloomington, IN, Solution Tree Press.
Orr, J. (2009). Our Top Ten Favorite John Wooden Quotes. Christian Science Monitor. Boston, MA.
Thompson, E. P. (2001). The Essential E.P. Thompson. New York, NY, The New Press.