Friday, October 5, 2012

Dialogue: Ethos

I've been visiting my parents. I was talking to my father about his long experience in a private school linked to one of the major Protestant mainline denominations. G is fed up trying to make people work together, I say. I remember you often said what was most important about any school was its ethos, I say, and it's very difficult to provide a good education without one?

Yes, he says. It's very much how you tell a good school from a bad one.

How do you achieve a good ethos?

Well, he says, it takes generations to achieve. It isn't something you can do quickly. But I think much of it comes down to having a clear sense of what you are aiming at, a sense of purpose. In fact, I think that is much easier when you have a religious affiliation for the school. It somehow makes having a clear aim and context more obvious. That is where many of the public, state schools have difficulty, because they can't really find that sense of purpose.

That's interesting, I say. Pubic schools have to be much more neutral.

Yes, he says. You need some kind of aim or purpose, otherwise people can get completely self-interested. They end up only interested in it for the money, or are just going through the motions. You need to have something beyond immediate self-interest that people will engage with.

I think it's more than just education where you see this, I say. Take finance. Focusing just on money hasn't worked out well even in money management, brokerage and so on. There used to be much more emphasis on keeping one's word, character, or duty towards the client. One of the underlying reasons for the crisis is we drifted away from that. I think we've placed such emphasis on neutrality and impartiality in public life that we've lost a sense of purpose, or ethos. If the ethical side has gone off the rails, nothing in the economics is going to work properly.

Yes, he says. Sounds like something you should write a book about.

Later in the day, I ask, if a school is drifting, how do you fix it? Let's say you don't have generations to build up the ethos but have to try to improve things now? How do you get people to behave better and cooperate with each other? You need to put in a new head, he says. A new leader with a new broom to clear things out. It has to be someone who doesn't care if they're popular, who are going to make sure that things are going to change. You need the right person to do that. There can be a lot of inertia and resistance, from the staff, from the students too who don't like tighter rules and expectations.

But what do they actually do, I say? What do they clean out?

You tighten things up, he says. You start with the staff, and make sure timekeeping and reporting are good. You make sure students wear their clothes or uniforms properly. You make sure classes start on time and kids are doing their homework. You'll almost certainly get resistance. People don't like change. Some of the staff will have got lazy and may leave. So you get the small things right, as if someone cares about maintaining standards. And then it's a matter of expectations. Every student, every single one is expected to do as well as they can. Not all may be academic, but all can be expected to do as well as their potential. That kind of solid expectation matters.

Interesting, I say. It's probably why even the military spend so much time initially on observation of spit and polish. Yes, probably, even if its very different, he says. Just making sure little things are tighter tends to change the atmosphere and how people behave. Otherwise people get slack and lazy.

I think organizations have a natural life cycle, I say. Bureaucracy and time-serving and risk-aversion gradually build up. Yes, he says, you can even see it in things like churches, where you may get a wave of renewal. But then the next generation comes along that doesn't feel it and it all becomes routine and taken for granted. You need occasional waves of renewal.

What happens, though, I say, if problems in a school or other organization are really entrenched and you don't have the ability or tools to change people? Shut it down, he says immediately. Sometimes that's all you can do, things get so entrenched there's no way forward and you are much better off starting fresh all over again.

It's a simplistic question, I say, but why do some people more than others resist improvement or change? They get used to the routine and don't like change? Laziness, often, he says. I don't know why. Perhaps they forget why they went into a career or organization in the first place. Routine makes them forget. Some people just want security and don't want any risk or standards or change. I suppose at some level it is just personality. Some people really are just lazy.


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