Saturday, April 24, 2004

Vision/Action Challenge:Defining Ours


Gerry has been the principal at Thomas More High School (TMHS) in the metropolitan Milwaukee area, for the last eight years. Gerry had also been a Special Education teacher certified in the area of Learning Disabilities for the previous 10 years. This legacy has allowed him to become entrenched in the school district both professionally and personally. The vision challenge for Gerry at TMHS was to develop a collaborative effort in how services were provided to all students: thereby creating a combined “full inclusion” model with the understanding that “best practices” will also some “pull out” or unique classroom designs. The vision was to incorporate the Special Education teachers into a combined “cross-categorical” performance description. Thereby eliminating the pre-conceived exemptions of placing the students with Learning Disabilities, (LD) only with those Special Educators who were licensed as Learning Disability certified teachers. This was also to allow for the Special Education staff to become more utilized throughout the student population as well as throughout the school. (The “pigeon hole” effect of only having the Emotionally/Behaviorally Disturbed, (E/BD) certified teacher working with those students identified as having E/BD needs; this would then continue throughout all of the specialized areas.) The plan would then have “case managers” of students for each Special Educator, but services for these students would be provided by all of the Special Educators in a combined collaborative effort.

As in all plans there are pros and cons. Gerry mentioned these in his development of his full inclusion vision. Pros: as dictated by the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) the students need to have specific services provided, this becomes difficult when a specific teacher has to meet with these students at the required hours of the day when the students are spread out among the classrooms. By utilizing “cross-categorical” staff these services can then be provided by any of the special educators at any time of the day thereby sharing the load of the students’ case loads. This allows for the students also to develop a positive self-esteem as they are included in all of the activities of the “regular” education classroom. The students get to have more people involved with their education and do not become singled out as working with the “special ed” teacher. (Indeed under this practice often the students do not even know what our title is and think of us as aides in the classroom as opposed to what they call the “retard” teacher.) The “case management” of these students then also becomes easier as the case loads are spread out amongst all of the teachers. Previously the LD teacher would have had 45 students, the E/BD teacher would then have 35, the Speech and Language specialist had 3, and so forth. This new model would divide the students equally so that everyone would be doing the same amount of extra work. Other pros associated with this vision would be that there would not be a need for individual “special ed” classrooms as the students would then be in the “Regular ed” classrooms. And more importantly a “shared” Learning Resource room would be established that would be utilized by all students in order to continue to remove the stigma of the “special ed” label.

The cons of course fall into the fact that the Special Educators would now be working with students who were not necessarily in their background strengths; because of the “case manager” style of IEP development the Special Education staff would not necessarily be experts on their case load and would then be at a perceived disadvantage in the IEP meetings. Also, time to collaborate would be needed in order for these educators to effectively pursue and meet the needs of all these students. The teachers would have to become transient in nature and can no longer have a classroom they can “call port” – this removes some of the identity and practicality of teaching away from the educators. A past insistence on the concept of “my students” or “my classroom” would have to be refuted, and a “team” approach to working with the regular education staff needs to be implemented. Which means that teachers who are used to doing things in their own fashion now have to collaborate. Also, the perceived notion that these “trouble” kids are now in their classrooms, and how they are not equipped to handle them would be an issue.

Who's sharing this Vision?

In order for this vision to work a the very least the special education staff needed to be involved in the shared belief of the collaborative model. The model is now in its third year of implementation. The questions/comments that continue to rise is prefaced “Gerry's vision of ‘full inclusion’ is …” the vision was not purchased by those who would be involved. Instead a “vision” a plan was developed and then implemented. Those involved in the implementation did not like the vision and from the very beginning tried to sabotage some of the implementation. Other factors, such as training or providing training for team teaching, collaborative settings, dealing with special needs students in the classroom etc were not provided. The belief was that the special educators would provided this service for the regular education staff. Simple feelings of “invasion” created unnecessary animosity between staff members as this party of special educators now came into the sanctuary of another’s’ room. Perceptions of “judging” or “evaluating” were born and teachers on both sides of the vision fence now became embroiled in carefully guarding their teaching styles and methods instead of sharing them. Indeed, my role – the umbrella under which I was hired – was to work with the “regular ed” teachers and teach them how to teach in a more constructivist, multiple-intelligences methodology that would not only support the special needs students in their classrooms but would also assist the “regular” students. Instead my “role” is perceived as the guy who Gerry sends into your room because you are not teaching up to par.

Analyzing the vision: symbolically

According to Bolman and Deal in their Reframing organizations: artistry, choice, and leadership: the Symbolic Frame represents those stories and relationships that are felt or understood without clarification within the organization. It is the unwritten or unspoken rules, the “culture” within the organization , that governs the every day. In the change process, it is assigning meaning that is the most difficult and the most significant concept. Too often vision becomes unfocused or blurry because the Symbolic Frame was not given thought during the visionary implementation. Each symbol within the organization means something different depending upon the perspective of someone. The core assumption of the symbolic frame are often overlooked. These are (Bolman & Deal, 1997):

  • What is most important about any event is not what happened but what it means.
  • Activity and meaning are loosely coupled: events have multiple meanings because people interpret experience differently.
  • Most of life is ambiguous or uncertain – what happened, why it happened, or what will happen next are all puzzles.
  • High levels of ambiguity and uncertainty undercut rational analysis, problem solving and decision making.
  • In the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, people create symbols to resolve confusion, increase predictability, provide direction and anchor hope and faith.
  • Many events and processes are more important for what is expressed than what is produced. They form a cultural tapestry of secular myths, rituals, ceremonies and stories that help people find meaning, purpose and passion.

What this means is that the reality is not what is but what is perceived. Truth then becomes how something wants to be remembered instead of exactly how it happened. Our overt symbolism reflects the care and understanding of the TMHS mission to our students. But what is not so overt is the myths, traditions, and stories held by our staff members as well as students. Too often change is seen as a method for erasing those stories and myths. It is important to understand what these stories are and how important these symbols become to the people who hold them in esteem. If you ignore the symbols referred you often anger people and even they may not know why. What is important is to acclimate new people to the histories, the heroes both regaled and fallen, who have gone before. Sometimes it is that quiet guy in classroom 102 who tends to shy away from everyone that you realize was the mythical hero of a change in gone by era. Bolman and Deal suggest , (1997) “Symbols embody and express an organization’s culture… it embodies accumulated wisdom from those who came before us. The strength is in the details, we are only as strong as our weakest link.

Missing strawberries

Gerry does not understand what has gone wrong, indeed he chooses not to believe anything is wrong. When pressed on the issues Gerry will often say ‘the shared vision’, or that ‘the collaborative process’ etc. When told that the collaborative process is not in fact in place he dismisses this and talks of his vision. Gerry believed he had a good vision and implemented it, believing that the goodness of the vision would speak for itself. And that since the goodness of the vision was inherent everyone would fall behind it and support it. Where we have fallen down is the understanding of what the vision is. And whose. It is important to understand the symbolism that has been neglected within our school. Without putting it into so many words in one swift symbolic fell Gerry told his teachers that he did not believe that they were competent, capable, experts in their fields and so forth. As I often tell my teachers: just because you enjoyed the lesson does not mean that the students learned anything from it. Ultimately it is the students who we need to be concerned about but if we cannot get the teachers involved in this vision, then what we are doing is a detriment to our students. We need to address each others’ concerns, find those things we can identify with, have a discussion concerning our fears and desires and how we can best move forward towards that goal.

Drastic measures are usually called into play in times of conflict. What has happened is a mutiny of sorts. That is not to say that the vision has been derailed. But in the last three years, and more significantly the previous, a group of teachers have taken to the vision and evolved it into their own. This has not come through in easy nor non-temperamental discourse. Feelings, egos, motives and ideologies have not only been called into question but have been irrevocably damaged in this process. But as history has played out (most notably in the epistemology of Sun Tzu “the enemy of my enemy is also my friend”.) While to say alliances were formed is a bit drastic this is somewhat what has indeed happened. It took some of the people who did embrace or at least understand the vision to begin to work with others, to demonstrate the prowess, the need and the effectiveness of the vision. Often this has led to duplicity, extra hours of working and healthy conflicts.

I have located those leaders that are symbolic in their existence at TMHS both in experience and those qualities that we cannot define. These symbolic leaders are the ones that people have respect for. Undefined, and often unknowingly – but everyone knows who they are. In demonstrating to them the benefits of the vision, in understanding their roles and how the extra work upfront will save them effort in the end. This is sometimes extremely easy yet often difficult: plan ahead, being proactive etc. While we exclaim these platitudes it is mind boggling how often we choose to react instead of plan. I recall an incident where a colleague had a lot of difficulty with me, to the point where she would not even acknowledge my presence and we worked in the same room together. This behavior this discord was so noticeable that the students would comment on it to others. Somehow I had offended this colleague – in a move of sheer brilliance one of the symbolic leaders I had spoken of earlier suggested an intervention. After hearing this colleague in an informal “court” of her peers it was recommended to me that a possible “fix” would be for me to apologize even though it was unclear what I was apologizing for. This is simple civility, simple humility, I therefore apologized at our next meeting (of course I also brandished chocolate delicacies) and viola! Whatever animosity existed no longer existed! In other situations the humility approach worked, when I first began at TMHS Gerry went about introducing me as “Dr. Kay” much to my chagrin. This left me with much needed patchwork, some of which have not yet and probably never will be mended.

Currently since there is a devastating division amongst our staff , I have been able to gain alliances via allying myself with these symbolic leaders. This is the bell ringer effect, now more people are on board with Gerry's vision and it no longer is being referred to as his. It is our mutinous vision (even though they remain one and the same) this new collected vision, our own defining allegory, has been able to move forward. Now we are beginning to find purchase. Perhaps this could have happened a lot sooner, perhaps not. Perhaps the buy-in is because of our attitudes, our humility, perhaps not. But I bought some ice cream, some chocolates, and I stole the strawberries sharing them all.


Bolman, L. & Deal, T. (1997). Reframing organizations: artistry, choice, and leadership.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Fair, G. (2002). Personal interviews.

Tzu, S. (2002). The Art of War. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

Wouk, H. (1987). The Caine Mutiny: a novel of World War II. Bethesda, MD:
United States Naval Institution.