by Morris Lyon and Quintin Shepherd
This article originally appeared in the spring 2022 issue of TASA INSIGHT. Morris Lyon is the executive director of the Region 3 Education Service Center in Victoria. He has served as superintendent for 14 years at three school districts in Texas, and he is the former senior governance advisor at the Texas Education Agency. Dr. Quintin Shepherd is superintendent of Victoria ISD and works as adjunct professor at University of Houston-Victoria. He has served as a superintendent for the past 18 years in three states.
As leaders, how should we lead through the increasing polarization of our current educational landscape? Is there a way to turn the ship around? Not long ago, when it came to making an important decision, one could expect some of the community would not agree with the decision. Now though, it seems every decision comes with a growing and more vocal response to that decision. As we all have experienced, the polarization of so many issues has caused the community to bifurcate, and we find communities on opposite ends of the continuum.
Social media allows for echo chambers for these groups, further entrenching beliefs. This continual pressure and constant stress on education leaders have many considering retirement or other careers. At this moment in time, we need leaders who are focused on what we are calling “constructive depolarization.” Put simply, we must first recognize polarity exists and then deliberately find a middle ground.
In Merriam-Webster, polarization is defined as a division into sharply distinct opposites. While education has always faced clashing ideals such as centralized/decentralized systems, collegiality/individuality, mandatory/discretionary, student-centered/adult-centered focus, or product cost/quality, it’s not until recently that polarization has had an impact on educator retention.
One of the ways we often inadvertently polarize communities (both internal and external) is through the use of surveys. Surveys essentially lay out a problem to be solved and then ask people to vote on the correct answer. The act of selecting has a way of galvanizing an opinion. Once groups are fully galvanized, the leader steps forth and tells everyone which group chose the correct answer and, by extension, which group did not. Surveys are a highly polarizing tool. Other tools can be depolarizing. Ultimately, however, the tool does not make the carpenter. The best saw in the world will not make up for a lousy carpenter. Our musings here are not about tools; they are about the leader.
First, let us examine where polarity and contraposition originate on a conceptual level before moving to practical applications to depolarize. Freeman (2004) states that learning from and actively engaging the both/and polarity thinking and understanding the either/or logic will help with awareness and positively impact educational leaders and teams in stressful situations. Polarities are more complex than a common problem of practice. If one thinks of a problem in mathematics, there is a solution. There may be multiple ways to get to the solution, but there is a solution. This is known as a complicated problem or might be considered a technical problem.
With respect to the organizational context, polarity is a way to manage an unsolvable problem. Complex problems are the opposite of complicated problems. Complex issues are inherently unknowable. What is the best way to teach kids during a pandemic is an example of a complex problem and one to which many communities around the country discovered immense incompatible and contradictory ideals. Conceptually, it is essential for the leader to recognize the difference between complicated and complex problems and then further recognize that the more complex the issue, the greater polarity will exist. Q has often been asked how do you know how complex a problem is, and the answer is relatively simple. Just imagine a room full of people and ask, “How much disagreement will there be?” The greater the disagreement, the higher the complexity. Let’s move forward with some tactics for finding common ground.
In a publication by Johnson (1996), he describes a team-building workshop designed to polarize around performance as individuals or as a team. Johnson’s model split the individualism pole into two quadrants of benefits and challenges. Similarly, teamwork also created benefit/challenge quadrants. After the training, Johnson put all four quadrants together to facilitate a deeper understanding of polarizing ideas, which allowed the team to recognize and appreciate each side even though a solution may not have been created.
Managing polarization cuts across several disciplines, not just education. Burns (1999) identifies polarity management principles in health care, allowing leaders to manage ambiguities and determine multiple directions for action. Hirshhorn (2001) identifies project management in the tech world as learning to create a win-win solution and an awareness to know when polarity has interrupted the workflow. Collins and Porras (2002) suggest it’s crucial not to get caught in the “Tyranny of the OR” but embrace the “Genius of the AND.”
Other important organizational focal points to manage polarity include embracing a positive change, requiring significant stability, focusing on the culture, providing confident leadership, and accepting that sometimes to build, we must first tear back to the foundation. These organizational focal points are grounded in one common factor, the impact on our employees, because to build organizational synergy, we must focus on the individual.
The effect of politicalization and polarization in education is resulting in many administrators choosing to either retire, move districts, or leave the profession entirely. The outcome of this could be disastrous if left unchecked, but this is only seeing the ball bounce for the first time. The ball will bounce a second, third and fourth time. The ramifications are profound and will impact every inch of a district from the boardroom to the classroom because research tells us that the governance team has an impact on student outcomes, but the largest influence for student success comes from the teacher (Abry et al., 2016, Bartoletti & Connelly, 2013, Dennie et al., 2019, Nairz-Wirth & Feldmann, 2017, Rice et al., 2000).
Teacher retention is an already complex and challenging problem for every district in Texas, and the ongoing disruption in the top administrative spots has a universally net negative impact on the stability of the system. With massive system instability and over a large number of districts, we recognize a cascading effect on our ability to attract and retain teachers. This clarion call moment is to address the polarization found in many places.
To retain teachers, confident leadership is needed. Resisting the temptation to fall into the polarity trap and having an awareness of the viewpoints helps the leader to feel more confident and more effective in supporting teachers. Confident leadership also supports a strong culture. The organization’s culture is an influential factor in teacher retention, and the constant culture check toward polarization is also vital. If school culture is caught in the polarity trap of moving from one pole to the other, for example from collegiality toward individuality or from a student-centered focus to an adult-centered focus, it could directly impact teacher retention.
It’s the educational leader’s responsibility to keep a regular check on culture and to keep the polarity balance through creating acceptance and positive change. In some cases, positive change requires tearing down some habits or behaviors that aren’t producing positive results to build back new habits in a culture of staff ownership.The leader’s confident grasp of polarity management toward deepening staff learning and setting a theory of action toward depolarization could positively impact the school culture from compliance-based habits to new habits toward continuous improvement.
Constructive depolarization is a leadership priority at this crucial juncture in education. In many ways, the public feels separated from the district and schools. Our job is to bring the public back to public education. As leaders, we must recognize that polarity will occur with any complex (unknowable) issue we face. To bring the public back, leaders must recognize that when navigating polarity, it is essential to have one foot in both camps to understand the norms and boundaries to better navigate the landscape. Morris talks about this as finding our way through the wilderness, which is apropos here. Walking any path with your eyes closed is dangerous. Far too many are stumbling around in the dark and bumping into stuff along the way. Some are even getting hurt in the process. We must open our eyes and map the terrain.
Abry, T., Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Curby, T. (2016). Are all program elements created equal? Relations between specific social and emotional learning components and teacher–student classroom interaction quality. Prevention Science, 18(2), 193-203.
Bartoletti, J., & Connelly, G. (2013) Leadership matters: What the research says about the importance of principal leadership. National Association of Secondary School Principals and National Association of Elementary School Principals. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/ files/LeadershipMatters.pdf
Burns, L. (1999). Polarity management: The key challenge for integrated health systems. Journal of Healthcare Management. 44(1), pp. 14-33.
Collins, J.C. and Porras, J.I. (2002). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. HarperCollins, New York, NY.
Dennie, D., Acharya, P., Greer, D., & Bryant, C. (2019). The impact of teacher-student relationships and classroom engagement on student growth percentiles of 7th and 8th grade students. Psychology in the Schools, 56(5), 765-780. https://doi-org.ezproxy.uttyler.edu/10.1002/pits.22238
Freeman, P.D. (2004). Wrestling with both/and: A case study on the impacts of polarity thinking for a corporate leadership team. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of St Thomas, Minneapolis, MN.
Hirschhorn, L. (2001). Manage polarities before they manage you. Research Technology Management, 44(5), pp. 12-16
Johnson, B. (1996). Polarity management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems. HRD Press. Amherst, MA.
Nairz-Wirth, E., & Feldmann, K. (2017). Teachers’ views on the impact of the teacher-student relationships on school dropout: a Bourdieusian analysis of misrecognition. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 25(1), 121-136. https://doi-org.ezproxy.uttyler/10.1080/14681366 .2016.1230881
Rice, D., Delagardelle, M.L., Buckton, M., Jons, C., Lueders, W., Vens, M.J., Joyce, B., Wolf, J., & Weathersby, J. (2000). The lighthouse inquiry: School board/superintendent team behaviors in school districts with extreme differences in student achievement.