The View From Here

Out of Crisis, Community

by Jim Butterworth

Our latest budget crisis in education has spawned a good deal of anxiety and anger. Taxpayers are upset with administrator and teacher salaries. Staff fear reductions in force and a loss of security. Parents protest school closures, loss of programs and higher class sizes. All seek to preserve what they value and place the pain elsewhere. Problems abound but answers are in short supply. It’s probably little comfort but this has happened before, many times. The good news is that past experience provides us with productive ways to analyze and meet our challenges.

Thirty years ago, Scott Peck, the author of the acclaimed The Road Less Traveled, proposed in another work, The Different Drum, that people in social groups develop a sense of cohesion by passing through four stages. When times are good and the proverbial pie is growing, everyone can avoid hard choices and a form of pseudocommunity prevails. As conditions become more difficult, this veneer erodes and the group enters a period of chaos when individuals seek to preserve their resources at the expense of others. This atmosphere of conflict when a win-lose mentality prevails can continue for some time. If, however, the group comes to the realization that the earlier status quo will not return and that it must learn to live with altered circumstances, it may enter a phase which Peck calls emptiness. Here the group comes to understand that conflict and competition will not help it accomplish its goals or bring collective well-being. With this recognition, the noise level is reduced and there is a growing understanding that, as Benjamin Franklin said at the beginning of the American Revolution, “We must hang together or we will all surely hang separately”. It is then that the group may progress to Peck’s fourth stage and become a community.

Hopefully sooner than later, many schools and districts currently experiencing a period of chaos will be ready to move along in their evolution toward becoming authentic communities but leaders will be needed to guide the way. To be successful, leaders will need to appeal to everyone’s best nature, reminding adults that students have only one childhood and one chance to build futures, whether they grow up in good or hard times. They’ll ask teachers to recall why they chose their vocation. They’ll challenge community members to care for young people as they themselves had once been nurtured by earlier generations.

I have witnessed school communities rally for children in times similar to these we are now experiencing. Adults want the best for their children and for those in their community and when summoned will provide for them to the best of their abilities. Board members and superintendents will redouble their efforts to dialogue with their school communities. Principals will focus their schools on the needs of students. Teachers and staff will buffer children from the difficulties around them. PTA’s and booster clubs will fill holes in the school budget. Communities will initiate educational foundations to provide funding to preserve important programs. Regardless of the vagaries of federal and state support, adults in the local community will resolve to be there for their youth.

This response has occurred before and I am confident we will see it again because it’s human nature. People are hard wired to protect the young and to try to leave the world better than they found it. Children who grow up around such elders are rich, regardless of the size of their school budget.

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