The ghosts of education

Division based on difference of function is rational and consonant with democracy; division based upon mystique-supported status, rank, position is fundamentally anti-democratic.

-Sidney Morris, “Hierarchy in English Education”

I am often asked why I gave up a very secure career as an international educator in order to pursue a very volatile and uncertain career as a freelance writer and consultant.

The answer, of course, is not simple. But if I have to reduce it to one generalized reason, I would point to education’s inability to free itself from its own traditions. Last year, as I interviewed with multiple schools in multiple countries, I realized I could not commit again to another 2-3 years to a school that was bridled by its own institutional ghosts. And the ghosts were everywhere, despite each school’s administration trying to keep them at bay through reassuring jargon and buzzwords. Every school I interviewed with (and I mean every school) spoke about educating the “whole child” (although I have been searching for a school that educates the half or partial child), about approaches to learning, about inquiry, about the design cycle, about STEM or STEAM, about a constructivist approach, and so on and on and on.

However, we all know that ghosts haunt old structures and instill fear in its inhabitants. And the structures that nearly all schools are built on, in nearly every part of the world, are very, very old and instill a lot of fear. The inhabitants may be new. The approaches may be new. The curriculum may have shifted. But, the structure has generally remained unchanged because the fears remain the same. This forms a huge divide between the practice of what is thought of as modern, meaningful, and impactful education and the actual form of the educational institutions that retain and perpetuate long-standing hierarchies, divisions, and methods.

Risk averse hiring

Nowhere is this more evident than in my journey to be hired as an administrator. My professional trajectory, like my educational background, is unique. I began my career in education later, in my 30s, after a brief sojourn as an adjunct professor and jobs in sales and the culinary world. However, once I began teaching in schools, I quickly rose through the “ranks” to become an educational leader on the curriculum side of the organizational chart (HOD, IBDP coordinator, whole school curriculum coordinator). And being on the “curriculum” side of things would prove to be my downfall.

Regardless of how far I made it in the interview process (rejected outright, initial interviews, or finalist), the main reason for not hiring me was consistent: I had no experience as a vice principal or principal. No matter how complimentary they were about my knowledge of curriculum or pedagogy or leadership or how I relate to students or teachers, the final decision to not appoint me (or at least the one they gave) rested on my lack of experience. What an incredibly boring and prosaic reason to not hire someone.

To be clear, this is not a case of sour grapes on my part. Of course, rejections are both frustrating and sobering, but I am very happy with where I am at the moment. Regardless, the closer I got as a finalist, the more it illuminated a fundamental flaw of modern education: a reliance on outdated, stratified power dynamics for the positions that ultimately play a major role in the direction and culture of a school.

Experience versus Skills in Education

Currently, in more progressive educational circles and schools, much of the conversation revolves around the skills our students will need for an uncertain future world landscape and changing work environment. We see how automation, AI, and other technologies are rendering some jobs obsolete. We see how companies are moving away from rigid hierarchies and a “report to work” mindset to a more egalitarian, flat configuration of roles and often remote work spaces. We see how more and more people entering the work force are not satisfied or motivated to simply just clock-in and work. We see that the jobs of the future do not have a discernible pathway because many do not even exist yet. Thus, we are focused on developing students who can think laterally and apply their skills, understandings, and knowledge in unfamiliar situations.

But the typical school’s organizational chart and structure actively undermines this approach by modeling the opposite: in order to get to point B, you must have gone through point A. The pathways remain like an unsaid rule and circumventing them is a rarity. Schools continue to value “experience” and a normative “ascension” towards leadership roles (which at times even involves nepotism) over modern, innovative skills and aptitudes. The World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report” clearly articulates that the following skills will be at the forefront of current and future jobs: creativity, originality, initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, negotiation, attention to detail, resilience, flexibility, complex problem-solving, and emotional intelligence. However, very little time is spent in school interviews deciphering a candidate’s skill set along these lines.

In fact, in my own interviews, almost no time was dedicated to my transferable skill set or my emotional intelligence or my flexibility or adaptability. Instead, most of the interviews keyed in on my “lack of experience” and how I would overcome this obvious “gap”. When I would state that many of the skills I have gained in my education career as well as my experience in the restaurant industry and sales would easily be transferable to the role of a principal or head, I could see the disbelief wash over the committee or the head of school or the current principal. The one exception was when I was able to interview with a committee of teachers or students. In those cases, the teachers and students were more concerned with the “present” me than with the “past” me. Not surprisingly, those committees rated me high while typically the board or administrative committees rated me low.

The foundations cannot be shaken

One would think that education, particularly international education, would be one of the most progressive industries in the world. And in some ways, international education and international schools are driving modern education in ways that state or national systems cannot or will not. But as shown, many schools rely on archaic understandings to maintain a system that goes directly against the teachings and methodologies employed within the school itself.

Indeed, unlike many new industries, schools maintain rigid schedules, rigid hierarchies, and rigid space/resource allotment. Bell schedules may not have bells any longer but they certainly retain the schedule with tardies and absences still a major disciplinary driver. Principals may employ a “growth mindset” to teacher evaluation and may try to develop a more equal environment, but ultimately, most principals want to retain their status and role as a decision-maker. Schools may attempt to create flexible spaces and shared, collaborative settings but walk in the hallways of most schools and you will still hear, “My classroom…my budget…my textbooks…my supplies…” Combined with a prevalent top-down approach that emphasizes standardize test scores or college acceptances as a measure of success, the fear that change will result in failure only reinforces institutional norms. Thus, the ghosts remain and continue to haunt.

Inhibitors of Change

As a consequence, I do not see many schools moving forward and truly changing the narrative and this is why I have decided to step away (but not totally away). We, as educators, love to listen to inspirational TED talks (I am looking at you Sir Ken Robinson and Simon Sinek) and go to conferences to nod our heads when we see innovation or cutting-edge approaches. And we, as progressive teachers, love to contextualize learning because we recognize that purpose and meaning are developed through identifiable and applicable situations and scenarios. However, at the moment, most schools condescendingly tolerate inspiration, innovation, and cutting-edge approaches because the administration, either consciously or unconsciously, know the foundation that supports them will not fall. And most schools contextualize hierarchy and a false sense of meritocracy in their organization because they truly fear a change will usher in a loss of power. And until the foundation shifts, schools will remain predominately parrots of change instead of actual catalysts for change.

One way to circumvent the system

2 thoughts on “ Hierarchy in Education: how traditional roles undermine progressive education ”

  1. Well said. I’ve wondered how long this can last, sometimes thinking it never will, sometimes thinking it is slowly changing. Certainly, the vast majority of today’s schools preach one thing while modeling another.

    There is also a lesson on social capital here. Want to break through this structure without going the proper route? Do you have the correct relationship with the correct person? Ok then. No? Then forget about it.

    I do, though, find inspiration from schools that are breaking this up. But each instance I’ve found is a new school entity that isn’t throwing out an old structure, but rather establishing a structure where one did not previously exist. This might be the best source of hope of leading to significant changes in industry practices, but even this will take considerable time.

    1. I also find inspiration from some schools and how they are approaching teaching and learning. However, despite so many companies moving towards different organizational structures, most schools (new or established) still seemed quite frightened to do anything too radical. I understand this, to a degree. But what would happen if we really opened things up? If we moved away from “classrooms” and “schedules”? How would that school look like? What type of graduates would come out of such an environment?

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