When my daughter was seven they were on the knobs to the medicine cabinet, poised to make the nose dive into the toilet if my hand knocked 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 wound up, RUBBER BANDS, specifically ones for her hair, were all over my house. Since they played no practical purpose in my own life, I tended to think about them metaphorically. This is the sort of thing former English teachers do when faced with a reality. My daughter—a hair-banded whirlwind of activity—often reminded me, giggling as she spoke, that I am bald. Strangely enough, when she did this, I both loved her more and had 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 for vision, for faculty members, and for students to get ahead of us, but not so far out in front that the bond that holds the community together is broken.
“…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 for vision, for faculty members, and for students to get ahead of us, but not so far out in front that the bond that holds the community together is broken.”
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.