A Ship without a Rudder:
reconstructing a foundering middle school

©2004 Jason Finn

edited 8/21/11

Part I: A Change in a School

Let's consider a school, call it the Jamestown School, located in the suburbs of a large Eastern metropolitan area. Jamestown has been organized into a middle school since 1985. Over the course of its history, there have been only two principals. The first principal's tenure lasted for sixteen years and the community viewed it in high regard. This very credible leader encouraged and valued the staff's participation. One felt like part of a family working towards a common goal. With a dedicated, exceptional staff and various formal and informal opportunities to bond, 'The Jamestown Way' was transferred from veteran to rookie. Improvements were possible because there were various known lanes of communication and procedures were clear. Staff and students felt safe so the business of learning could flourish. In 2001 the first principal retired.

In the 2001-2002 school year, a new principal was hired. His management style is in stark contrast to his predecessor: he has delegated much that the previous principal was responsible for to his assistant principals. During the course of his tenure, the morale of the staff has fallen significantly. Conversation has become gossip and is often about how the middle school is a disorganized, leaderless entity.

The staff usually brings up how situations that were handled so smoothly under his predecessor now have become problems. The once positive culture of the school is disappearing and pessimism, divisions, and apathy are on the increase. The largest complaints stem from the perceived lack of leadership, credibility, and accountability of the administrative staff. No one seems quite sure what the protocol is for specific situations, such as student discipline, student dress, school detentions, assemblies, and lunch duty. Frustration and incompetence reign and adversely affect the education of the students. Significantly, the issue that has the staff most concerned is safety: safety for the students, the staff - safety for all involved. Though no one doubts the principal's integrity, many question his competence and vision for the school. The staff, out of necessity, is filling administrative gaps to keep disaster from appearing.

A Toulmin Model of the Concern

Claim: The performance of the administration is detrimental to the students' safety and well-being.


There is no formalized emergency plan.

The administrative staff follows the newly revised code of conduct that specifically outlines minimum and maximum action for infractions in a capricious and arbitrary manner; i.e. some students choose own teachers, skip class because of 'urgent' need to talk to principal, repeat offenders receive special treatment. A lack of communication is prevalent; i.e. reason for student discipline, action taken after student altercation, no set procedure for emergencies.

Administrative staff does not consistently follow the established procedures (lunch duty) causing disorderly conduct of students.

Administrative staff arrives after and leaves before many school functions often lack an administrator presence, and then administrators plead ignorance when asked for assistance in school programs.

Decisions are reactive in nature, changed often, and without follow-up (emergency evacuation plan).

Important information regarding students not conveyed timely; i.e. sick parent, separation, and other student and family concerns.

Administrators defer to head secretary and teachers for major decisions (staffing, teaming, student discipline).

Teachers bypass administrative staff when making decisions (do then tell).

Some teachers have formed an advisory council to advise administrators on safety concerns and follow-up is non-evident or slow.

The Spirit Team (an elite eighth grade academic and sport program) disbanded by its sponsors because of a dispute with the administrative staff over discipline and high behavioral and academic criteria for students to join club.

Several students arrested for breaking into the school and destroying thousands of dollars of school property.

Teacher aide verbally assaulted and student responsible received a 'talk.'

Two highly regarded teachers left the middle school for other schools in the district.

Increased number of Heart Referrals and Code 13's (emotional and suicide issues) as children have discussed issues of bullying and unsafe conditions.

Warrant: Educators have a duty to ensure the safety of the children and actions taken that interfere with that duty are objectionable.

An Analysis of the Cost-Benefit Allocations of the Jamestown organization.







Keep job

Loss of credibility

Health concerns

Loss of job








Teachers cont.

Few empowered


Loss of credibility

Effectiveness decreases

Job frustration

Health concerns












Secretarial Staff

Power increased

Effectiveness decreases

Job frustration Health concerns








For some -- limited punishment, less rules enforced

Safety concerns

Education quality declines

Chance to flourish diminished









Education quality declines

Safety concerns





Status Quo

Prestige lowers

Home values fall





Cue, Concern, Control Model Requirements:

Problem: The performance of the administrative staff is detrimental to the safety and well-being of the students and staff.

Proposal: The administrative leadership must reevaluate its performance to provide a formalized strategy forimproving overall safety of its students and staff on a daily basis and in emergency situations.

Cue: The staff complains about the inconsistent and reactive nature of decisions. There has been an increase of concern regarding a safe learning environment from staff, parents, and students. (Refer to evidence in Toulmin's model)

Indicator Relevance: The change in administrative leadership has decreased the ability of the staff to educate the students and the students to learn. Being safe is a crucial element to any learning environment. In Maslov's Hierarchy of Needs, safety needs follow right after basic physiological needs (air, water, food, and sleep) and must be meet before students develop their intellectual and social abilities. If the students do not feel safe then educators will have an extremely difficult time teaching the children. A lack of developed plan for evacuation and response to dangerous events in a post 9/11 world is inexcusable.

External Indicators: The former superintendent hired the current principal and would not allow assistant superintendent to rate his performance unsatisfactory; therefore, firing the principal is not a short-term solution.

Trustworthiness: The amount of evidence and personal accounts indicates the change is not part of conspiracy to sabotage administrative staff. Since no clear vision is articulated, the problem can not be from conflicting ideology.

Concern: How is it that anyone cares?

Interest: The staff is concerned with the continued safety and well-being of all members of the middle school community. If a change does not occur, the livelihood of all is threatened.

Obligation: The staff has a duty to educate the students as they, the students, have a right to a quality education in which they can flourish. All participants have a right to be safe from bodily harm.

Liabilities: If change does not occur to improve the administrative leadership, the staff, students, parents, and community will be affected by an unsafe learning environment, compromised education, and decreased value of real estate.

Control: Will the intervention help? Credible leadership, a safe environment, and clear policies and procedures are crucial to any organization.

Non-Naturalness of Intervention: Periodical examination of organization is mandatory for improvement.

Practically of Intervention: The benefits will outweigh continuing and escalating costs.

Optimality of Intervention: The status quo cannot continue and any change that occurs must involve all elements of the education unit.

Section Two: the ethical issues

Hinman (2003) states that people have a right to "well-being" and to have the "kind of physical security necessary to human flourishing" (page 229). Aristotle (as cited in Hinman, 2003) that human flourishing means having the opportunity to develop a person's intellectual skills (page 274). In Maslov's Hierarchy of Needs (as cited in Boeree, 1998) a person's safety needs must be met, especially from "fear and anxiety", before any social and intellectual goods can be achieved.

Hinman (e.g., 2003) explains that Immanuel Kant stressed that acts "must be done for the sake of duty" (page 177). We do things because we are suppose to do them (e.g., Hinman, 2003, 269). People should not use other people as means but that each person is an end within themselves (e.g., Hinman, 188). In terms of rights, a positive right entitles a person to receive an obligation from someone else and a negative right gives a person non-interfered opportunities to pursue his legal goals (e.g., Hinman, 2003, 206-207).

Middle schools need administrators that display "vision, autonomy, inspiration, and evaluation" (Ruppert-Bell, 2004). Kouzes and Posner (2002) stated that leaders must process credibility, which means they are "honest, forward-looking, competent (author emphasis), and inspiring" (p. 32). Middle schools also need to be safe as Ward (as cited in Moser, 2004) in his book Why We Hate that hate crimes have increased sharply since 9/11. Levin (e.g., as cited in Moser, 2004) has seen a dramatic increase in hate crimes in middle-class suburbs because communities are increasing becoming multi-racial and/or multi-ethnic.

In separating different elements of an organization and focusing on the structural frame, Max Weber (as cited in Elwell, 1996; "Fayol," n.d.) organizations need a firm structure to be effective and authority must originate from the top down. There must be a presence of a strong leader to instigate and provide direction for the entity ("Fayol," n.d.). A clear set of written guidelines concerning division of labor and conduct must be provided so as the employees know the protocol for each situation (e.g., Elwell, 1996). The key element is that if these items are provided so the organization can provide not only meet the stated goals effectively but also efficiently (e.g., Elwell, 1996). Without these elements the organization becomes what Miller and Friesen (as cited in Bolman and Deal, 1997) called a "Headless giant" (p. 72).

Henri Fayol (O'Connor, n.d.) explained that lateral communication is a crucial element in any organization. Supervisors at the same level must have opportunities to discuss organization structure and command so as to strengthen efficiency between middle managers or principals. In addition, Herbert Simon ("Biography of Herbert Alexander Simon," n.d.) emphasized communication in his work. He stressed the importance of knowing what people are going to do and what they are supposed to do in any organization. Instead, Simon (e.g., "Biography of Herbert Simon, n.d.) explained that employees will "satisfice", which means doing the best they can in situations with limited and/or complex information and burden with time constraints. Employees will resort to doing their best instead of striving for excellence.

In terms of human relations, organizations must hire people best fit for the job (e.g., Bolman and Deal, 1997). As stated above, Kouzes and Posner (e.g., 2002) explain that organizations need a leader who is credible. "Leaders are supposed to define the mission and protect it's [sic] character" (Rollag, n.d., para. 5). Those attributes tend to foster a strong, healthy bond between the employee and company while a lack of an company purpose and vision are highly damaging to the morale of the staff (e.g., Kouzes and Posner, 2002). In addition, leaders are more effective "having a clear and authentic message [which] is a necessary first step, yet the ability to consistency to deliver the message and act on it requires a high level of skill (e.g. Kouzes and Posner, 2002, page 63-63).

According to W.R. Scott (as cited in Rollag, n.d.), Philip Selznick holds that a leader's great task "is the maintenance of the integrity and continuity of the system itself (Scott, 1992, page 65). Talcott Parson (Rollag, n.d.) emphasized that stable and effective organizations need a high level of teamwork among the various teams and there must be a system that maintains the distinctive values that the participants have developed. The work of Chester Barnard (Allen, 1998-2002) argued that when employees think the directives from superiors do not match the perceived values that the employees have for the organization the authority of that superior is compromised. Chris Argyris (as cited in Bolman and Deal, 1997) explained that once employees are frustrated with the leadership and the organization the employees may physically and/or mentally quit, slow down, or look for other opportunities elsewhere. Employees need to be an active participates as leaders and view their contributions as having a positive effect on the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the organization (e.g., Bolman and Deal, 1997).

In the political frame and according to W.R. Scott (as cited in Rollag, n.d.), Amitai Etzioni found that "control is central to the concept of organizations" and "workers and managers are inevitabily [sic] in conflict" (para. 1). However, J.M. Burns (as cited in Bolman and Deal, 1997) explains that this conflict does not need to have negative consequences. Baldridge (Warters, 1995) argued that one of the features of destructive politics stem from the lack of a shared vision and clear goals, which causes inconsistency and struggle. Kouzes and Posner (e.g., 2002) wrote that strong leaders make others confident and secure by clarifying and explaining their vision and having a consistent decision making process, but the lack of a credible leader, makes others feel powerless and fosters political climates where defending actions or avoiding responsibility is paramount.

One of the major traits of a credible leader is one that inspires others to perform at their best, develops coalitions for shared goals, and shares power to strengthen others (e.g., Kouzes and Posner, 2002). Finally, Bolman and Deal (e.g., 1997) state the fundamental premise for a manager to heed by stating "you need friends and allies to get things done. To get their support, you need to cultivate relationships" (page 185). Without a clear authority command, new power centers develop ranging from those with the information and know-how, to individuals forming coalitions, to strong personal charisma assuming control (e.g., Bolman and Deal, 1997).

Symbolically, Deal and Kennedy (1997) characterize organizational culture as "the way we do things around here" (page 231). The symbolic frame is a highly complex entity as it interacts with all the other frames as well as other disciplines, such as psychology and sociology, and as organizations increasingly grapple with "meaning and faith" can not be ignored (e.g., Deal and Kennedy, 1997, 262). Jay Galbraith (as cited in Rollag, n.d.) stressed that "the best way to organize depends on the nature of the environment to which the organization relates" (para. 2). In addition, Lawrence and Lorsch (e.g., as cited in Rollag, n.d.) explained that uncertainty and high rate of change causes organizational difficulty and resource increases. Galbraith (e.g., as cited in Rollag, n.d.) agreed and added that "as uncertainty increases the amount of information required for decision making also increases (para. 8).

Karl Weick (as cited in Choo, 1991) explained that " …a plan works because it can be referred back to analogous actions in the past …" "Organizations continue to exist only if they maintain a balance between flexibility and stability" (e.g., as cited in Choo, 1991). Kouzes and Posner (2002) made "a spirit of community" one of their ten commitments of leadership. Celebrations and ritual being incorporated into the day to day, leaders being more visible and modeling credible leadership are crucial to developing that spirit.

Section Three: A Proposal for Improving Jamestown

The middle school administrative staff has committed a breach of ethics. By not fulfilling their duty to provide a safe and nurturing environment, they have reneged on the most basic obligation they have to the students. Given the lack of a healthy environment, the students can not flourish in terms of their social and intellectual capabilities.

The head principal must become a credible leader. The middle school staff is accustomed to a strong central leader, whose decisions are made from the top down and then tasks allocated with a clear set of instructions to his assistants to carry out. The first step to remedy the situation is for the head principal to assume a more centralized leadership role by reorganizing the administrative staff. He must become acquainted with all functions of the middle school and, in the short term, all the decisions must originate from his office, and most critically at the present, an emergency plan. This will provide the staff with a clear chain of command. During this three-month period a new clear chain of command, allocation of duties, and emergency plan will be discussed, written and implemented.

Copies of the school's organization structure and emergency plan will be made for all employees as a reference. This improved communication will set clear the responsibilities of each employee; especially the assistant principals, teachers, and support staff, so a consistency of decision-making, process, and support can form. This will not only allow the school to be effective in educating children but efficient as well. Each employee will know what their role is, what resources are needed for a given situation, and whose to seek assistance. Also, regular scheduled grade and school meetings are necessary to communicate formally and publicly questions and concerns. Once the organizational structure has been formalized, the head principal to can delegate responsibilities in a more effective and efficient manner.

The middle school staff believes that the middle school was and can continue to be a great educational institution; however, that enthusiasm is quickly fading. The first step to remedy the low morale of the school's staff is for the head principal to define his values, expectations, and vision for the middle school. These should reflect the first principal's era, but should incorporate a new approach as well as the school faces situations and problems that are entirely new or in need of review. The head principal and the administrative staff must meet regularly with the staff to ensure the vision remains true and to help in any areas needed. All successes need to be shared and celebrated and wisdom must be learned from mistakes. Adolescent children need structure and consistency, and this starts at the top.

Regular building, grade level, and department meetings must be scheduled to foster a healthier political atmosphere. As the last few years were flooded with negativity and pessimism, a return to optimism and hope is needed. As these changes are being implemented, the central office will review the health of the middle school environment on a daily and long-term basis. A survey will collect data concerning the morale of all employees based on their perception of the safety, effectiveness and efficiency of the organization. Each year formal data should be collected.

In addition, informal evaluation should take place in team, department, grade level, and school meetings regularly. Adapting and changing to continue success is imperative to any organization, but maintaining its sense of self is equally, if not more, significant. This restructuring will provide the school with a structured system allowing for a safer environment. Communication will be more direct and concise. Consistency of process will improve. This will allow time for proactive decision-making and goal setting. Since the overall effectiveness and efficiently of the school will increase, safety will increase as well.

The staff is ready for a new leader. A leader with his own knowledge and his own vision, and with the passion and energy needed to inspire all that come in contact with his. The head principal's ability to emerge as a powerful and motivating leader will inspire a great staff of individuals to become an extraordinary team of educators. If he has the ability to transform himself, I have no hesitation saying he can inspire the rest of the staff to follow his lead. The staff is ready to move from the shadow of the former principal and move into the 21st century with a clear vision and strong purpose. The morale of the staff will increase since the purpose and vision of the school will be communicated clearly, the process towards implementation tracked regularly, and all will be under the direction of a true leader,.


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