Living in the age of incivility Part 3 – The Iron Cage that is the school system

The modern school system has, for all intents and purposes, come more and more to resemble and function much like what German sociologist Max Weber called the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a world driven by technological efficiency, rational calculation and control.

Paul W Bennett Globe and Mail, October 2, 2020

I worried most about this third article in my series Living in the age of incivility. I worried about this because I was going to take things personal, talk about a situation that occurred while I was a principal in the Ottawa Catholic School system five years ago.

In a tweet I never put out I wrote this:

In 2015, I was unjustly suspended by a school board I had worked for for 27 years. A disgruntled employee brought a whole host of false accusations against me. I have never written about this. In a time of such incivility, is it now time to expose the injustice of what happened?

Yes, it is time, but how do I make this a useful article? It would be very easy to become the victim in my own story or for the reader to think – maybe these accusations were not false, maybe he got what was coming for him.

If you keep the story as personal, if you hold on to the anger, the message gets lost, the story is blurred, people turn away.

Even a few years ago, I couldn’t write this story. I was too caught up in anger and shame. I have avoided any occasions that involve the OCSB for years now, including, to my shame, the retirement of a good friend, and my own board retirement party. But enough with that now.

What has given me the context for this third article is an opinion piece by Paul W. Bennett in today’s Globe and Mail. He is writing a summary of some of his ideas in his new book – The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools. I don’t have the book yet, but I will be reading this soon.

In his article, he starts out by writing how the pandemic has really exposed the inadequacies of our public school system, a system that has maintained the same structure for well over 100 years.

Beyond this crisis however, the pandemic has exposed a more fundamental problem. It has lost its connection with students, families and the wider community.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. Those voicing concerns about early reading, mathematics scores or school closings find the system resistant to change and regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings, particularly when trying to access the points of decision-making.

What they are very good at is shutting down innovation and smothering dissent.

Now, I enter the personal, but I do it briefly, because I am not the story here.

In 2015, I was the principal of a small urban school in the Ottawa Catholic School Board. We had a great school with wonderful children, mostly new to Canada. Our school had served immigrant communities for decades and this meant going beyond the prescriptive norms to give them the opportunity to thrive in a brand new world.

At the time, we had one employee who worked closely with me who used their position to create tension and strife amongst the staff. I was unaware of this situation until the staff member began to poll staff about their attendance in a board-wide PD day. This is something you just don’t do in a school – the principal can do this, but I would never take a step like this – I trusted the people I worked with.

I did call the employee out on this behaviour, but I did not know at the time it was just one in a series of ‘aggressions’ the staff member had taken out on the rest of the staff.

While generally we could have moved on from this incident we didn’t. The employee went directly to the head of HR for the board, brought in their union representative and left the school when I asked why they were escalating the issue.

This was a time of high tension in the school board. The employee’s union was on work to rule and incidents like this were happening in other schools as well.

Still, nothing really to worry about here. In the ensuing weeks, without my knowledge, the employee with their union rep held a series of meetings with the superintendent of HR and others and in those meetings a long history of my supposed infractions were laid out out. It must have taken hours and hours to come up with this list.

It was fanciful, but it was damming. When the list was complete and the meetings were over, I was called in to hear the whole story. I brought our association rep, a fellow principal. As principals in Ontario, we don’t have a union which means we are exposed and unprotected. Most principals have no idea how precarious their position is.

A meeting that I thought would be a 15-minute conclusion to a strange affair turned into a two-hour grilling that only ended when I had had enough. I told them this was ridiculous and I left.

There is a nine-page summary of the meeting written by my representative. Even now I can’t read it and my hands actually shake as I pull it up again on the computer. I also produced a 22-page document in my defence. I really don’t know if anyone actually looked at it.

As a principal, you get accused of all sorts of stuff. This is part of the job, but you do expect your supervisors to support you and believe in you.

Mine did not. A few weeks after this meeting I was suspended pending an investigation.

I don’t know if an investigation ever took place. Three weeks later on the last day of school before Christmas, I was reinstated with a hastily written disciplinary letter added to my file.

There was no explanation about what their findings were or if they had actually conducted an investigation. To this day I don’t know the results, but apart from the letter, there were no consequences. The employee was relocated and later it turned out that this person had done similar things at another school, but in the earlier case the principal was told to keep quiet. There has never been an explanation or an apology.

This is my story of the Iron Cage. A school board totally out of touch with their staff more than likely doing its utmost to stay clear of a strong union in a time of labour strife. A school board that placed little value on a loyal employee.

There is no question in my mind that the system of centralized power and incompetent managers needs to be reworked. The pandemic has exposed all of this, but I experienced this gross misuse of authority and power over five years ago.

In his article, Paul Bennett calls for a humanizing of the education system. We need to turn away from big schools that dehumanize relationships between educators, children and parents. We also need a system that has some real oversight so that power can no longer be abused by those who want to sanction others who do not follow the script.

One board official once told me I deserved what I got because my views on education were unconventional. With attitudes like this how can we not want to rework our system? How can someone think it is OK to say things like that?

My situation remains unresolved because I never received an explanation and certainly not an apology. I am retired now – writing this while working at a school would certainly lead to grave consequences.

Now I want a better system. Not for me, but for all those who work in schools, for all children and families and their communities. These old institutions need to go and we need to start considering alternatives. As paul Bennett writes:

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

This is what we really need to do. Humanize education, give power back to parents and communities, get rid of the bureaucracies that do everything in their power to protect what they have.

Education should be about people, it is not about power and institutions. When abuse of power happens so easily with no consequence for the abusers it is time to rework the system.

The Education Corporation

For me, one of the most interesting books has been The Corporation. I read it years ago and it still sticks with me. The Youtube version of chapter one gives a good summary of some of the main ideas behind the book. A synopsis of the book includes the following:

One hundred and fifty years ago, the corporation was a relatively insignificant entity. Today, it is a vivid, dramatic and pervasive presence in all our lives. Like the Church, the Monarchy and the Communist Party in other times and places, the corporation is today’s dominant institution.

The Corporation website

This is a really interesting study and I have thought for a long time that its analysis needs to go beyond businesses and should be extended to the traditional school system.

It is interesting when you take a look at their website that they are working hard to get their film into 1000 schools. I think it should be shown in schools, it is a great social commentary on how our society is currently structured.

Will any educator make the connection that apart from the pursuit of profit, there is little that separates the modern corporation from the traditional school board?

Probably not. We like to judge corporations as somehow a bit impure because they are motivated by profit and the wishes of their stockholders. I would argue that traditional school boards are motivated very much the same way as the corporation. It is simpler to call school boards what they are – education corporations.

The main motivator for the corporation is always to act in its own interests, to ensure its own survival. All actions are then justified because the corporation answers only to its shareholders.

The education corporation is in some ways worse – it likes to believe that it serves a higher purpose. This is especially true for Catholic school boards in Ontario where I live. Somehow saying that you are a Catholic school board gives license to all sorts of hypocritical actions.

Can we say we apply these great principles to the people who work in our schools?

Education corporations can be just as cruel and unfeeling as any modern-day corporation. It is very easy to find examples where people in powerful positions have treated others with less power in truly shameful ways. Generally speaking, the people who are being cruel justify their actions in the only way that makes sense to them – what they do they do in the best interests of the school board. They may give other justifications, but it comes down to their need to demand compliance and stay in power.

Unlike the business corporation, however, the education corporation does not answer to anyone. It could be said that there are public trustees who can call them to account, but at least in Ontario, trustees are underpaid officials who are totally captured by the senior staff that they depend on for information. They do not have the time or the resources to act as a counterbalance to superintendents and directors who really hold the power in the education corporation.

This allows for all sorts of abuse to happen. At the school level, poor administrators are simply moved to a new and sometimes bigger school when their actions become intolerable to a local community of teachers and parents. At the school board level, when senior administrators act poorly, there is no consequence, they are free to act with impunity.

There is the beginning of a climate change in our society. Only a few months ago it was acceptable for men (mainly) to use their power to oppress and abuse the women who worked for them. This bevaviour is no longer acceptable and this is a very good thing.

Will we ever get to a point in our society when those who abuse their power in other ways will be called to account? I hope so. Abuse of power in any form for any reason should always be seen as unacceptable.