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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Shifting the Monkey: "Mine vs. Yours," to "Ours"

Shifting the Monkey: “Mine vs. Yours,” to “Ours”

By Dr. E. Scott England
Northside Elementary School
Fairfield, Illinois
Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Bad words. 
We’re taught from a young age not to use them. 
At the very least, we are taught not to use them in professional settings.  But what about a series of “good” words that come together to form bad statements? 
Allow us to explain.
We’ll begin with the phrase, “That’s my job.”  It’s innocent enough, to the point, maybe even said with a bit of pride and an inflated chest.  Innocence comes to a screeching halt, however, when one adds the word not. 
Our eardrums shudder when we hear someone say, “That’s not my job” or “That’s not my problem.”  Indulge us for a moment as we set the scene.
Imagine we’re at a restaurant.  It’s a busy, up-and-coming restaurant with a fresh menu and inviting atmosphere.  We’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about the Mediterranean salad.  We place our order, looking forward to the homemade sundried tomato vinaigrette dressing drizzled over the delicious salad topped with feta cheese.  As the server turns to leave, we remember: “Would it be at all possible to get that without olives?”  The server smiles and says absolutely.
Back in the kitchen, the server puts in the order with the chefs before rushing back out to serve another table.  After a while our order comes up in the kitchen ready to be delivered.  As our server grabs it, she notices it has olives.  Bringing it to the attention of the kitchen staff, the chef tells the server it wasn’t written on the ticket. 
The server apologizes. 
With a roll of the eyes and shrug of the shoulder the chef says, That’s not my problem, as he turns his attention back to cooking.  Not to be rebuffed, the server comes back with a quick, Fixing it is not my job. 
We now have a problem, and stuck in the middle of it all is our Mediterranean salad that is slowly absorbing the aroma of olive.
In the case of your salad—as is with most cases—someone will intervene to solve the problem.  Maybe it’s the disgruntled chef, the offended server, or even the owner.  In all honesty, even the maître dˊ is qualified.  But are there winners and losers?  Can we even really have a winner in this situation? 
Let’s apply the same scenario to education.
Imagine a teacher coming to a principal seeking guidance about a student with behavioral problems.  Obviously to us, a response of That’s not my job is not going to set well with the teacher.  It probably wouldn’t happen explicitly, but what about the implicitly?

Principal: “What I’m hoping that you’ll do is to talk with your mentor teacher about how to exhaust all of your best efforts before sending the student to the office and removing from class.” (That’s not my job)
Principal: “I’d be happy to send you to some professional development on Assertive Discipline.” (That’s not my job)
Principal: “Have you talked with the guidance counselor about the student?” (That’s not my job)
Principal: “Will you please let me know how your conversation goes with the parents?” (That’s not my job)

What all of these iterations have in common is one thing: An abrogation of responsibility.
More so, it WILL become the principal’s job when efforts fall short and that student does something to make an office visit, and more serious consequences, unavoidable. 

Instead, a principal might jump at the opportunity to serve as a teacher of teachers – to guide teachers through various classroom management practices and model them directly.  The same should apply with assessment strategies, communication skills, technology practices, and so forth. 
This is not-at-all to say that the principal should be the best teacher in the building, as many instructional leadership proponents seem to contend for effective principaling.  Rather, principals should be open, resourceful, and persistent in asking no more of their folks than they would try themselves, in full view of all around them.

For example: How about the irate parent? 
In this case, we are referring to the irate parent who, as a hobby, causes grief to anyone in the school district, more often than not without cause, and typically follows up his/her expletives with a rant on Facebook.  Well, circumstances often call for the teacher delivering a note or in some way communicating to the parent, with rebuff and retribution a certainty.  We would pose in circumstances where principals have considered effective modeling, and through such an expansion of their own job duties, teachers might be more apt to follow-through. 
In those circumstances of clear demarcation, the engendered faculty response might be stopping by the office to inform the principal that he informed the parent if there is any issue needing follow-up, an appointment can be made with the principal. 
School culture borne of leadership influence allows them to say, indirectly … That’s not my job! 
This pernicious perspective begets a complicated array of skewed paradigms and professional finger-pointing, all of which do nothing to bring schools and families together around the important, common interest of parental involvement toward a quality education for everyone’s children.  That’s not my problem becomes banter for both sides. 

Strategies for dealing with these situations and many others, once derailed, as well as how to prevent them altogether, can be found in our friend and colleague, Dr. Todd Whitaker’s book Shifting the Monkey (Whitaker, 2012). 
When That’s not my job! rears its homely utterance, the situation is typically associated with one of two phenomena: (a) A monkey is being shifted by a lazy, shirking employee (or possibly a good person working for a poor leader) or (b) A monkey shifting back to its correct spot but is being rejected by a lazy, shirking employee (or possibly a good person working for a poor leader). 
As you can see, these phrases (in most cases) bring negative outcomes.
This is not to say we as leaders shouldn’t, at times, think these thoughts.  It’s okay to admit how annoying it is to us when teachers pass off an irate parent for the sake of not wanting to deal with them.  It is okay to think This is not my problem. 
But imagine the detriment that ensues when a leader operationalizes these thoughts into behavior, either intended or unintended.  Shifting the monkey professionally, yet clearly, while modeling what needs to be modeled to assist in skill development along the way, lets others know, first, that the educational challenges that present themselves really are, OUR jobs, as is our success at rectifying them. 
Schools are busy places full of busy people.  A sure way to drive uphill in this congestion would be to allow the phrases That’s not my job and That’s not my problem to become more the rule than the exception. 
Leaders who take the time to educate their teams and staffs on how to handle situations they may feel unprepared to tackle (and thus, SHIFT THE APPROPRIATE MONKEYS as Dr. Whitaker teaches us) bring about an expansion of everyone’s job description so that a daily reality of “All hands on deck” allows everyone to handle our daily reality -- All Other Duties as Assigned.


Whitaker, T. (2012). Shifting the monkey: The art of protecting good people from liars, criers, and other slackers. Bloomington, IN: Triple Nickel Press.

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