In November of 2011 I wrote “Stretching the Rubber Band on a Progress Culture.” This post comes back to mind for me quite often as I reflect on how schools can become equipped to move forward strategically. The rubber band metaphor has held up for me as a way to conceptualizing healthy progress in an institution.
On the knobs to the medicine cabinet, poised to make the nose dive into the toilet if my hand knocks them on the way to the aspirin…on the coffee table peeking out from under the magazines and books…on the floor under the couch…in the corner of the kitchen counter grouped in the eddy where keys and purses and ball caps wind up, RUBBER BANDS, specifically hair bands, are all over my house. Since they play no practical purpose in my own life, I tend to think about them metaphorically. This is the sort of thing English teachers do when faced with a reality. My daughter—a hair-banded whirlwind of activity—often reminds me, giggling as she speaks, that I am bald. Strangely enough, when she does this, I both love her more and have a fleeting desire to sell her to the circus.
So…how can rubber bands help us understand what a Progress Culture will look like in a school?
Some school communities/school cultures seem surrounded by walls. Membership is predicated upon sharing a tightly defined set of static customs and expectations—they are built for continuity. I think of the Cardinals that meet in order to choose a new pope upon the passing of the Catholic Church’s leader. This gathering has changed little if at all over the last few hundred years—clearly one of the ways it defines its success is by the extent to which it has not changed its operation. Schools that share some of these characteristics experience change glacially if they experience it at all.
The opposite of a walled community/culture is one that can quickly disappear within the larger cultural context in which it exists. It is loosely organized and the factors that drive it are as fickle as wind. Not only does it not have walls, but the bonds it encourages are likely to be so loose as to be easily broken. For a school, the idea of quickly disappearing is hard to envision; however, schools that seem to reinvent themselves according to the whim of constituents are numerous.
While the walled school community/cultures denies the existence of the tide, the wall-less community/culture is washed up and washed away by it. In a school with a Progress Culture, I see a third option. We need to create a school culture that is held together by a rubber band. In order for progress to occur in a school, the strategic resolve, the entrepreneurial thinking of a faculty member, or the initiative of a student must be allowed to get ahead of the institution temporarily. Having participated in conversations at several schools about what language we will write that will describe the truth of the school and the aspirations of the school simultaneously, I have found that the tension between what a school is and what it desires to become is prerequisite to any lasting steps forward. To be a Progress Culture, we need vision, faculty members and students to get ahead of us, but not so far out in front that the bond that holds the community together is broken.
A Strategic Plan, a vision statement, an individual, or a small group can stretch the rubber band away from the larger group. As it stretches, tension builds. In the context of a school, that tension comes out in the form of hard questions—what does this mean for me? Will this diminish the desired outcomes of the school? Who will not choose to stick around to see how all this turns out? How will this affect what we already do well? Once the tension in this rubber band reaches a certain point the groups have to pull back together.
But which side will move first and where will the two sides meet? These are the questions that determine institutional resolve. If the people and ideas that got out ahead of the culture/community must do all the moving back, the school will have a difficult time being believable the next time it invites community members to stretch the rubber band, and the right next steps forward will be missed. If the established community/culture does all the moving forward, there is risk that the school will lose things of substantial value in their move to reduce the tension in our rubber band.
The good news is that when both sides engage this process thoughtfully and earnestly, a school can take great strides forward, while not sacrificing what should never change.