Differentiating Traditions From Bad Habits

I have been thinking today about the difference between traditions and bad habits in schools. It can be so difficult to distinguish between the two that we don’t even try to untangle them from the larger cultural fabric of the school.  But we must try to do exactly that. It may be helpful to think of it this way: imagine that every school has a ledger that marks the long-term debt of bad habit against the revenue of tradition.  My fear is that an audit of that ledger in many of our institutions might reveal that bad habits are costing us more than we choose to recognize.

We are drawn to bad habits—they can be seductive, and we often provide them cover by calling them traditions. Bad habits give institutions practice in the arts of rationalization and self-deception. While traditions bring us together in ways that allow us to reveal our individual best as well as the best of the institution to which we are attached, bad habits are more likely to bring us together in a co-dependence that allows us to repeat myths back and forth to the point we think they represent truth itself.

As we engage the conversation in my school regarding how to become a sustainable Progress Culture, it is necessary to identify the real traditions and thus be ready to preserve them against all comers. It is equally important, however, to spot the bad habits masquerading as traditions. Sometimes what we call traditions are really only atavisms stifling our thinking. And dangerously, in order to preserve such bad habits, we siphon resources—financial resources, as well as resources of good will—away from innovation.

Perhaps the worst of our bad habits in schools is our tendency to tell ourselves what we can’t do (or what our constituents will never accept) even when we believe there may be better way forward than the way we have always done things. In so doing we limit our influence, and we diminish our ability to lead.  Conversely, if we work diligently to break this bad habit and drive it out of the school, we will extend our influence, and we will increase our ability to lead.

5 thoughts on “Differentiating Traditions From Bad Habits

  1. Bo Adams November 2, 2011 / 7:44 am

    Ross, what specifically can you identify already as bad habit versus tradition? Any particulars stand out?

  2. John Burk November 2, 2011 / 8:20 am

    I’m not sure if you’re looking for nomination of bad habits, but I’ll propose one—the notion of senior slide and their outright dismissal from school during the closing month of school. I’ve always found this “tradition” a bit odd. At previous schools, not only was senior slide discouraged, senior spring was expected to be the moment when seniors did their very best work, in classrooms, as school leaders and more. In fact the the entire success of the school often rested upon this. St. Andrew’s had seniors take intensive tutorial classless with 2 students and 1 teacher in the last 8 weeks of school, and we continued until the very last week to rely on them as residential leaders and more. Other schools have seniors do senior projects and present them to the school. Whatever we do, I think it’s vital to get the message across that high school isn’t a 3.5 years of working yourself to the bone, followed by 6 months of slacking. This might also be good fodder for some of your lunch time conversations.

  3. J Ross Peters November 2, 2011 / 3:14 pm

    @Bo…While my voice is relevant in the conversations regarding what are the bad habits and what are the traditions, it is only one of many voices. I am interested in challenging each member of the community to have a reason for what we do that is based on things more substantive than “it’s just the way we have always done it.” This means evaluating everything from our pedagogy to our academic schedule and separating out the chaff.

  4. J Ross Peters November 2, 2011 / 3:17 pm

    @John…I would love to have the conversation about how seniors should best exit the school in a way that honors both who they have become during their tenure here and also honors the community–the families, faculty, and friends that have worked with them along the way.

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