Saturday, December 29, 2012

Micropolitics in Education

Micropolitics is sometimes understood as the study of how things really work rather than how we would like them to work. It is often characterized more by alliances and coalitions than by status or power. But what happens when the interests of leaders and followers don't converge? How can the different alliances and coalitions be mobilized to build consensus?

In education, micropolitics often comes into play when the interests of school or district administrators run counter to the interests of teachers or parents. Men and women tend to navigate the politics differently.  Men will often resort to the power position," pulling rank", so to speak. They can get away with this in education because most of their teachers are women.  Women, on the other hand, prefer to distribute the leadership through and within relationships, rather than individual actions. They pay closer attention to the interactions, not simply the actions of individuals.  They acknowledge that the social processes at work involve give and take and that, by definition, leadership will involve not just the decisions of the leaders but also those of the followers (Spillane and Diamond, 2007).

As a one-room school marm, my grandmother had to learn to navigate the politics of a rural school board composed of men who had far less knowledge of education than she did at a time when women were not even allowed to vote!  My mother had to work within the narrow vision of a small town, post-war school board who still believed that a woman's place was in the home.  The irony was that the same women they had welcomed into the workplace during the war were now expected to subjugate themselves to men returning from the battlefield.  These same men were paid more for the same work and quickly promoted to positions of leadership over the women who had held these positions during the war.

But power does not always reside with position.  Successful women learned how to work within the politics of the system to enhance their social influence. As women began to exert more influence within the school community, the interpersonal and professional relationships between teachers and administrators often came into conflict. Teachers nodded in passive agreement to administrative mandates and then closed their doors and continued as they wished.

What those in positions of power didn't understand was that conflicts give teachers the opportunity to look at schools as they are and decide what they can become. Conflict offers a context for inquiry, organizational learning and change.  As colleagues air differences, build understanding across perspectives and seek changes enhanced by divergent thinking, conflict becomes constructive (Achinstein, 2002). As administrators and boards of education tried to control conflict, the vehicle for change was eliminated. The prevailing attitude was that if the current educational system was good enough for me, it is certainly good enough for my children.

Those who continued to question the system and push for change created unwelcome conflict.  For three generations of women in my family, this has been the norm. Each in our own way has challenged the status quo thinking of those in power and asked "What if we did things differently?" Each of us has independently chipped away at the foundation of a system in need of repair working within the micropolitics of social relationships and passing the torch to the generations of educators that follow us.