Coffee Shop Musings

Fate and a boys’ schools meeting finds me in San Francisco on a sunny January afternoon, and as I sit outside a coffee shop, trying to read the newspaper, I can’t help but overhear the conversation at my elbow.

A man in his 60’s, with a smile on his face, apparent contentment in his heart, and a low fat blueberry muffin in his hand, explains to his friend, “It’s the administration. Oh, I still love the students, and I do miss the class experience, but the bureaucracy of the whole thing. I just said, ‘I’ve had it’ and walked out the door last June!” His chum gives him a hearty handshake as he congratulates him on his decision…

Even in sunny California, there is the tension that seems to be built in to the DNA of schools. After working in several, on both sides of the desk so to speak, I see this clash of perspectives in terms of a mixing of metaphors.

When I was a teacher, I saw my school as the mall. I ran the Gap. My fellow teachers directed the ChessKing, Starbucks, and LuLu Lemon shops. There were administrators, of course, but these were shadowy figures and somewhat inessential to the core work.

Administrators did important things like maintaining the mail system and providing chalk on a regular basis. Had someone asked me what the school’s “strategic plan” entailed, I would have suggested, “Staying in business.” (I need to explain: The first two schools I worked at are now condominiums. I like to think of my being at each as something other than a cause-effect relationship with their eventual destinies.)

Most administrators, on the other hand, see schools as Canadian Tire Stores. Yes, individual teachers have a great deal of autonomy; each runs his or her own classroom, play, team, and advisory group. But administrators tend to view each of these operations as part of a collective; they are akin to the hardware, electronic, and automotive departments in larger box stores.

You don’t need to be Roger Martin, of course, to know that there must be another approach out there, one that avoids the black and white of the either/or. There must be something that gives teachers the independence they need while also providing for the organizational direction that administrators view as essential. Because we don’t want to lose any more apparently passionate teachers, like my coffee shop companion, and we don’t want any more schools to become two bedroom condos with high ceilings.


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