Control vs. Trust

I have heartily struggled throughout my career with the line between controlling and trusting others.  At my core, I believe in the goodness of others and the idea that just because something isn’t done the way I would do it, completed within the time I would finish it, other people care just as much about projects and concepts as I do and they will do their best work.  I don’t believe in perfection, or a “right way” to complete something–instead, I believe in many ways and trial and error.  If I’ve trusted someone to complete something and things go awry, it’s a learning curve, not an epic failure.  I believe in learning as we go–watching things unfold and trusting they will head in a good direction.  Even more importantly, I believe that by raising up the leadership, knowledge, experience, wisdom, and efficacy of those around myself, success (by whatever measure) is a natural byproduct.

This was how I ran my classroom–I trusted that so long as I had a clear vision and could kind of steer the students’ experiences towards that direction, they would learn.  When I switched to an inquiry-based American Lit classroom, it was TERRIFYING because I felt so out of control.  I couldn’t monitor the kids or guarantee that what I wanted them to take away from their projects was what they actually would take away.  It felt chaotic and stressful having 26 kids doing 26 different things everyday, but day after day, when I worked my way from student to student conferencing and guiding, I saw they were consistently engaged.  They learned more from their self-driven experiences and from each other than I could have ever taught from teacher-driven instruction.

I feel the same way with the way I choose to view curriculum leadership.  I don’t believe in prescription.  I don’t believe teachers have to follow strict pacing guides.  I certainly don’t believe in checking up on teachers to see if they are following district courses of study.  Sometimes, this, too, can feel chaotic and stressful.  How do I make sure kids are getting what they’re supposed to for those tests (our grades, teacher evaluations, our community, our funding, their graduation scores, etc.) when I’m not monitoring?  If I’m not providing checks and balances accountability at the district level, who is monitoring curriculum?  The balance between the consequences of not monitoring curriculum implementation and wanting to provide autonomy is in a constant flux, but I think I err more on the side of trusting people, especially teachers.  When they miss the mark (like students), it’s not an epic fail, it’s a learning curve; I don’t expect perfection or the “right” way; I expect professional educators to make autonomous, professional decisions.

It’s because of the way I approach trusting others that I get the “hippie” nickname.  I’m strangely optimistic and fiercely defensive about what people can do when we give gentle guidance and freedom.  Leadership is raising others; leadership is trusting others.

There is, however, this frantic, anxiety-ridden manager monster that sometimes rears its ugly head in response to certain occurrences.  For example, when I feel like it’s taking too long to make a collaborative decision about something, my default sentiment is to make the decision for people to hurry things along.  When I know the theory behind a practice doesn’t agree with the way a practice is enacted, I want to manage the situation to be fixed.  When things feel too chaotic, out of control, or I begin to perceive that people are taking advantage of the freedom (perception, but not necessarily reality), I want to control it back into focus.  My perceptions of all the things that could and seem to be going wrong make me feel forced to make emotional decisions–things tend to feel quick, easy, clean when I can just manage them, control them.

I think this is a weird territory through which educators must constantly navigate in our own practices–When can/should I take control?  When is the chaos ok?  When are my emotions leading my decisions?  When is my philosophy of leading guiding my decisions?  When am I being true to who I am, and when am I letting external forces (consequential accountability) dictate my actions?

On a grander scale, I believe these are the very questions with which we struggle both as a system of American education as well as American society as a whole.  It is easy, quick, clean, clearwhen we can manage chaos–this is why we create so many processes, rules, expectations to control each other.  I put up my fence not because I trust my neighbor to mind his own business and stay out of my yard, but because I don’t trust him and I must control him into obeying my personal space.  In terms of education, policymakers know (see RAND research from the 1970s) that implementation of any federal- or state-level education policies are subject to chaos.  Implementation of such policies are 100% dependent on what local districts determine to be important, their priorities and focus, as well as how the policies meet or do not meet local needs.  This is why a single policy can be implemented in thousands of ways, with very little fidelity–subject to interpretation by so many people.

This chaos is the kind that policymakers (especially) cannot understand.  History (since the creation of the Department of Education in 1979) shows federal and state government’s desire to control leads to setting policies and then, when chaos occurs, mandating methods for accountability as a measure for controlling fidelity.  If I can’t trust you to implement with fidelity without evaluating your implementation, then I have to have a measure by which to determine your fidelity.

On a lesser scale, for every leader (including every classroom teacher), we have to constantly be vigilant about our own needs to control.  While we condemn policies that take away our autonomy and make us feel as if we are being dictated to, we have to be careful not to mirror these exact practices in our own classrooms, our buildings, our districts.

How, then, does a leader navigate the management monster while trying to be faithful to a trusting mentality?  How does a classroom teacher decide when to reign in chaos versus letting the chaos cultivate learning?  How can we be comfortable being uncomfortable?  We have to really dig deep (“critically reflect,” if you will) into the reasons WHY we make our decisions.  When I must manage, I have to think about what is truly driving me to need the control–is it what I believe in philosophically, or am I just tired that day?  Is it because I’m stressed out for issues unrelated to the decision at hand, or am I just in a rush?  And in thinking about the reasons behind our actions, we have to think of the outcomes as well:  What is the logical ultimate outcome if I just DECIDE FOR teachers that they will use this program?  How will that decision roll out in classrooms?  What is the logical outcome if I push this particular professional development program?  For teachers:  What is the logical learning outcome using this particular instructional strategy versus that one?

Such a precarious, and yet, such an important balance.


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