“It’s always been done this way.”
This sentiment is one of the biggest “icebergs” that I’ve encountered in my career as an educator–for such a small little statement, sometimes underneath it is laden with deep emotions–happiness, complacency, pride, disengagement, frustration, nostalgia…the list could go on. Sometimes the status quo is an essential tool to school culture, but determining when to change the way things are done is a lesson that I think all school leaders are constantly trying to learn. One important factor to consider when addressing status quo is whether something is just an unwritten rule or if it is a deeply entrenched tradition. Obviously, some basic research and sleuthing may be needed to determine as such. There are three big questions that leaders could look to ask when it comes to the status quo before entertaining a change to the status quo or reworking a tradition.
- Is it habit, policy or tradition? Oftentimes, we mistake habit for tradition. Just because something is done regularly doesn’t necessarily make it a tradition. Habits, or what we might refer to as routines in education, certainly can turn into traditions but there are important factors that need to be in place for them to do so. These factors include people, motivation and time. If these factors aren’t present, then either something isn’t really a TRUE tradition, or it isn’t one that is likely to be sustained much longer. What if you encounter something that hasn’t been around long enough to be considered a tradition, BUT it has certainly become a well-developed routine or habit (status quo)? If that is the case, then you have to ask whether it has the potential to be a positive and perpetuated tradition, or if it might be better changed and/or modified.
- Who and how? This is actually very important when it comes to the longevity and sustainability of traditions. Who perpetuates the tradition and how they do it is very important to whether a tradition continues. Traditions only “live” if there are people to continue them, and that requires meaningful sharing and passing on to all who are meant to participate. For example, if a tradition began with a staff in the early 1990s, and that staff continued it forward until the mid-2000s but did not see fit to bring newer staff members into the tradition, then as the original staff left or retired the tradition would cease. Alternatively, if that same staff shared the tradition with each new staff member as they arrived, there would be a higher likelihood of the tradition surviving. The way in which the tradition is shared is also important for buy-in. Simply stating, “this is how its done” won’t foster motivation from newer staff who are meant to take up and continue a tradition–there has to be some semblance of mentorship involved, time dedicated for the sharing and then active participation in a tradition. This is where I feel a lot of traditions in schools especially fall short as those who are engrained with traditional are often loath to let others “take up the torch,” for fear of losing out on some unsaid power. Depending on the who and how, some traditions naturally see their end; however, expediting that end might be an option depending on the ratio of willing participants to casual observers.
- When and why? As previously discussed, traditions often begin out of habit (routine) or policy. When looking at whether a tradition has run its course, it is important to learn not only about how deeply embedded a tradition is amongst current staff (and students) but also how and why it came into being. Traditions do have a way of outliving their usefulness, depending on why they began in the first place; however, if the “who” and “how” of a tradition is alive and well, that may not matter. A staff survey regarding their knowledge and feelings about certain traditions might be a good start in order to determine whether a new option or “retirement” will be well received.
Changing traditions or letting them go isn’t for the faint of heart nor is it something that should be taken lightly. The status quo is some instances is the very glue that is holding everything together; whereas in other cases it has staled culture and created divides. Finding a way to balance change while respecting true tradition is the juggling act that a leader must learn to take part in, and unfortunately there isn’t a manual for how to do it successfully–every organization, every group of people, and every instance of status quo or tradition will vary.
If there was one tradition or unwritten piece of “status quo” in your organization that you could change, what would it be?