Friday, November 21, 2014


In a small town on the sparsely populated plains where pressure to succeed is high but the shift in culture triggered by technology is incomplete, signs of tension show up in schools.  Some are easily scandalized, others figure anything goes.  No one REALLY knows what should be taught because no one knows what tomorrow will require.

Little kids in schools are one thing: most people agree they should learn “propriety” enough not to disrupt the group, that they should acquire basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic, and nowadays keyboarding and basic tech management is essential.  But by the time schools are dealing with adolescents, they are in the position of the horse rider who can succeed only by persuading the horse to cooperate.  The use of force will produce “a rodeo event.”  Once a horse realizes it is much bigger than any human and has twice as many feet -- which are like steel-edged hammers --  simple “riding” is over.  No more domination by bluffing.  An out-of-control class of adolescents is not less dangerous.

Many institutions at the grassroots level are in four layers:  the “clients” (students, patients, etc.), the public who finances the function (education, health, police), the administrator who interfaces between the receivers and the immediate providers -- hopefully in a way that supports and guides both -- and, fourth, that bunch of immediate providers (teachers, nurses, coaches, cops) who may be literally “hands-on.”

Let’s stick to talking about public schools.  There is always a “generational” break between each layer in terms of goals, methods and over-all assumptions about what’s happening.  This is now complicated by the binary splits between conservative and liberal (not the best terms, but useful in a vague way to indicate the emptiness of the middle).  Because people get into management roles through seniority and advanced education, they tend to be quite different from the immediate providers, who are often much younger with different assumptions, but both might be radically different from the bottom layer, the students.  

Valier sit-in with Brent Nice, the superintendent

This week there was a brief arc of concern about a high school counselor, a female, local, stable, noncontroversial woman whose job was seen as “preparation for life,” more than addressing extreme problems.  Someone accused her of some kind of misbehavior.  Valier is a small town and there is only one counselor, so though the names of accusers, any kids involved, and the woman herself were all kept confidential, everyone always knows everything anyway.  She was suspended with pay pending investigation: the signals were 1) we take this seriously, 2) we are making a safety gap, 3) we aren’t going to penalize anyone by docking a pay check. In a day or so, the counselor was reinstated, but inquiry continues.

The kids themselves knew all about everything in that “string theory” way of every possible variation of reality and reacted in defense of the accused by staging a sit-in.  Somehow that hit the front page of the regional newspaper, the Great Falls Tribune.  The hammer feet of the media.  The kids were cheerful, focused, and polite -- the “Valier way.”  

I was surprised at my own rather strong reaction because I haven’t taught for a long time.  In fact, not since a similar incident in another nearby town where I simply resigned when it was clear I had a target on my back.  I no longer tolerate being mobbed.  The first time I was involved in one of these student protests was in the Seventies in Browning.  In that case it was the high school counselor, Bill Haw, who addressed the student body and persuaded them to end their strike.  When I working for the City of Portland later in the Seventies, there was a strike and at that time I was part of the administration, who asked me to photograph the strikers.  Even before face recognition programs, this was retaliatory aggression, something like asking a rowdy kid for his name.  

Again in the Nineties I was involved in a strike against the City of Portland, but this time I was marching as a striker.  No one took my photo.  To be in a march with a lot of big tough hefty streets and waterworks men was a kick!  They roared, they stomped, they demanded attention.  Of course, they were demonstrating for money, not some principle.

When I asked people around Valier for the backstory this time, I was reminded again that I’m in the “out-group” here, not part of the “good old boys” who take a special interest in the schools because it is the base of the town athletics and therefore their state reputation, the main source of identity and one of the few things that will get people out of their cocoons in the evening so that they feel part of a group.  But treating this incident with dignity and seriousness instead of covering it up or belittling it seemed like good strategy to me.

The relationship between Valier and Heart Butte, the nearby town on the reservation which is now the bigger of the two but which has no services, is fascinating in terms of school dynamics.  There are Heart Butte students who commute to attend in Valier.  Also, the relationship between the service area that extends out for miles around Valier and the core services -- of which the school is maybe the most vital -- is also interesting.  But few even think about these interacting and overlapping populations.  I was intrigued to see Tristin Bullshoe, a Valier senior, quoted in the GF Tribune article.  Those of us with rez experience know better than to tangle with any family of the “Bullshoe girls” who have been teachers and administrators for decades.  Female tribal power is not based on drinking together at conferences nor exchanging political favors, which among men is a Montana custom on and off rezzes.  

Much of my ministerial training was focused on organizational design and social patterns.  In some way it causes me to see ghosts and in other ways it reveals things that management level people are neglecting and that lie under the surface in public life until they erupt in some “perfect storm.”  (The media has just been recalling how Jane Byrne became mayor of Chicago because of a snow storm like the one just now in New York.)  Last night I watched “Let It Burn,” the story of MOVE in Philadelphia where the Mayor and Fire Chief saw a race-based social justice movement as a pack of criminals and ended up burning the homes of hundreds of innocent people who had nothing to do with it, as well as members of the group. 
A century of weather change

Over the last decades both churches and schools have sponsored one workshop after another about negotiation, “getting to yes,” including all “stake-holders,” and so on.  From one point of view it seems as though they’ve had no impact at all.  But from another, one could argue that without this little core of idealists things would be a lot worse.  The problem is that they involve some layers of the four-layered interactions and not others.  They are part of the culture shift of the younger adults towards more negotiation and less destruction.  And, as always, it is the level of immediate providers that often takes any damage.

The "fossils" are mostly in the public, demanding control, profit, and whatever it was we used to do, without facing the fact that the world has changed radically.  Better sit down with a teenager and see what they think.  A big part of their education is not coming from the formal schools or even from adults.  Not all of it is things the public wants them to know or realizes that they DO know.  They need to be included.  Reality is a tough teacher but we can’t get along without it.  

Rock City, created by millennia of erosion.
It's at the ultimate end of the street on which I live where it meets the boundary with the rez.

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