Rearranging Seats on the Titanic
By E. Scott England
First Grade Teacher
Sullivan (IL) Elementary School
Indiana State University
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Let’s take a quick trip back to April 15, 1912 in the Atlantic Ocean. Close your eyes and picture the layout of the ship, the Titanic, the best you can. White walls so recently painted a faint smell of fresh paint lingers as rich mahogany chairs and tables beautify the dining salon; wicker chairs and tables set upon brightly colored linoleum floor next to a view of the vast Atlantic Ocean, and leather upholstered loungers designed with eloquence and for comfort surrounded by intricately stained glass windows.
With your eyes still closed, rearrange the layout in whatever manner you choose. Let’s now do a quick check of your new arrangement: would the Titanic still sink?
Of course it would.
Regardless of any layout configuration, the sinking of the Titanic was not caused by the location of rooms or the furniture selected to adorn the massive ocean liner. What could have kept it afloat would have been a stronger hull or a leader more receptive to potential danger warnings (Ryan, 1985).
While this may seem a silly exercise of a few minutes we’ll never get back, it’s really more similar to what we do in K-12 education than many of us would like to admit. We oftentimes rearrange the furniture when the foundations are cracking in our educational organizations as well. Too often, a toxic work atmosphere is reorganized in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the toxicity. All that has really been done though is rearranged the same factors that made up the negative atmosphere before, thereby spreading the stink without really sanitizing anything.
In order to improve K-12 leadership for better schools, we might consider our need to restructure rather than to rearrange.
Before we continue, let’s take a moment to define restructure. Merriam-Webster (2014) defines restructure as “to change the basic organization or structure of” (def. 1, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/restructure). The keyword upon which to focus is change. Thinking back to the Titanic, can we see how change could have altered the course of history? If we were to have rearranged what was already there, we would have had no lasting effect upon the disaster.
Now let us think of a K-12 workplace scenario.
It probably isn’t too far from the truth to say that we have all experienced a toxic person, which for our purposes here would be a teacher, Ned Nasty – that is, one who has a negative demeanor in speech, actions, or in one’s general existence in the workplace. Taking this one step further, we will assume for our example here that others have side-barred with leadership about this person’s bringing down the atmosphere of the lounge during lunchtime.
Let’s examine a few choices:
First, a leader could simply rearrange the person’s schedule so they have lunch at a different time than those complaining. Unfortunately, this would result in Ned’s having lunch with another group of people that would soon share with leadership the same complaint.
Second, a leader could invite change to the way the person is behaving, in the structure of the interactions taking place. What might be a good first step? Quite possibly, it would be a heart-to-heart conversation, an open talk as it were. Could it be possible that Ned doesn’t see what he is doing is toxic? Maybe so. Maybe not.
More than likely a psychological need is not being met in Ned, and in the absence of the positive fulfillment of that need, Ned is unconsciously meeting those needs through distressed behavior, such as being critical, hyper-convictional, manipulative, or even reactive (Kahler, 2008). It’s not so much whether or not these behaviors are intentional; of course they are. It’s more important to understand that the person exhibiting the behaviors is interpreting their resultant effect differently than those who may be affected by them.
Rearranging would be for a leader to invite the person to consider that a more appropriate time and place would be appropriate for the behavior. Restructuring would be for the leader to help the person address the underlying, unmet need so that the person moves out of distress (Kahler, 2008).
Tragically, when a problem arises in K-12 education, the solution leaders often use involves rearranging previous pieces to create different variations of the same problem. Quite possibly, this rearranging is done to prevent feelings from being hurt, through a bit of avoidance, as restructuring takes much more time and attention, and often a critical conversation.
In extreme cases, it might result in a bit of severance. In First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, Marcus Buckingham and Kurt Coffman (2009) stated, “Sometimes the only way to cure a bad relationship is to get out of it” (p. 174). To be a successful leader, you may find yourself at times, making these types of decisions -- those that affect you emotionally. But a truly successful leader is going to act in the best interest of those dedicated to furthering the organization’s mission, rather than in the best interest of least resistance or expediency.
Think of the Titanic again as we ponder acting in our best interests compared with acting for the greater good. The Titanic carried the required minimum sixteen lifeboats plus an additional four inflatable lifeboats (Sinek, 2014). There was room for the more, but the decision was made to settle for the minimum. It wouldn’t matter how the lifeboats were arranged, the number was still twenty in all. That is thinking for one’s self.
Now let’s imagine that someone acted upon change before the Titanic set sail. Imagine that additional lifeboats were added to accommodate everyone that would sail on the maiden voyage. Even if the ship still struck the iceberg in the middle of the cold Atlantic, more lives could have been saved than lost.
We cannot stand idly by and watch K-12 staff morale sink as tragically as the Titanic. We must summon the courage from our leadership toolbox to begin the difficult process of restructuring. With hope and prudent stewardship, we can plug the hole and save everyone aboard.
Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Kahler, T. (2008). The Process Therapy Model: Six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler & Associates, Inc.
Restructure. (2014). In Merriam-Webster online. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/restructure
Ryan, P. R. (1985/86). The Titanic: Lost and found (1912 – 1985). Oceanus, 28(4), 4 – 14.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
E. Scott England and Ryan Donlan are looking for the longer-term solutions in K-12 education that will bring lasting improvements to how teachers teach and how students learn. They believe that these solutions start with a leader’s focus on people and the underlying structures of relationships and communication that influence how they accomplish what they do each day. Please feel free to join the conversation by contacting them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.