It is not bigotry to be certain we are right;
but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

G. K. Chesterston

The minority is sometimes right; the majority always wrong.

George Bernard Shaw

Administration -
The process or activity of running a business, organisation etc.
The people responsible for this, regarded collectively
Performance of executive duties

Webster's English Dictionary

What is School Administration?

'Administration': the very word carries with it a ring of authority, aloofness, an antiseptic flavour. Starting with the word is therefore a poor start. Let us try a different starting point.

Schools have structures and processes. Some are intended, the product of thinking by the governing body or staff of school. Others grow out of nowhere, they are not planned. But they are equally real and tangible.

It may be possible to say that administration is 'attention to the intended and unintended' structures and processes. Particularly in schools, thanks to designations such as 'Headmaster' and 'Principal', the term 'administration' suggests that one person is in 'control'. Nothing could be less true. If administration could also connote the 'culture' of a school, the way things are done, then it becomes abundantly clear why it can never be in the hands of just one person.

Changing times and some implications for schools

We are now living in times of tremendous outward change. Cities are being reshaped. Work places are being transformed, and mobility is easier now than ever before. 'Life-long learning' as a metaphor and a reality is here. Access to information on the Internet, reaching across the globe with email & video conferencing, is giving new meaning to knowledge and understanding. Rather than demonstrate erudition, we are being asked to show our ability to learn and reorient as well as collaborate. Rather than remain with the assurance of established practices, we are being challenged to move away from old ground without the security that this is necessarily an improvement.

Our times wrench human beings from the known certainties of earlier times, even as new insecurities surface with painful regularity - terrorism, nuclear and biological warfare, and destruction of the natural environment. Society is in upheaval. Tomorrow promises inevitable change and demands reorientation at each step.

Flexible working hours, learning anywhere and anytime, are two important features of the new workplace, and these have immense implications for schools. The structural edifices of classrooms and timetables are under question, for they are being rearranged by these new possibilities. No school management can thus be blind to these shaping forces of our times.

A culture of consultation with colleagues is unavoidable. No one person can say that he has the best idea or the best solution. Questions of openness, prejudice, collaboration and shared intentions arise, and need to be addressed. Any proposed move comes under question - is it one of many, is it the best, or is it needed at all? In all shared journeys, such as that of educating students in schools, it is necessary to clarify intentions constantly. Patience is required to meet new views, difficult views and outrageous, exciting views. Our conditioning is continually challenged.

One may add that:

  • New ideas increase levels of individual discomfort, while holding out some promise.
  • New ideas have to be welcomed, in spite of difficulties in implementation.
  • Institutions need a culture of support & appreciation despite human failings.
  • It is vitally important to stay away from blame in our communications with each other.

Authority, as traditionally understood, has lost its momentum and efficacy, and is now recognized as a sign of backwardness. On the other hand, questioning as equals has gained acceptance. The computer age has ushered in the age of irreverent questioning in the traditional temple of success, the Organization. The new technologies, particularly the Internet, are making traditional intolerance for 'the other' view almost impossible. If dissent is not permitted, or is discouraged, it will find expression through other media, and the Internet can reach any corner of the world. The successful organizations are not the sweatshops, reeking of exploitation, or cracking the feudal or colonial whips to subjugate their workers; but those that proudly wear transparency and equality as shining principles of respectful human interaction and transaction.

Authoritarian principles are well established and well known; egalitarian principles are also well established but less well known. Schools, as crucibles of learning, need to be ahead of their times, anticipate the future and strongly embody these principles.

Before one moves further we must recognize that egalitarian functioning still feels strange in most places. Our individual personal history and mankind's history makes it difficult to trust it fully. Nevertheless, it is the only way ahead.

'Common Sense ' in school administration

In attempting to speak about school administration, perhaps the best thing is to follow common sense. It seems obvious that any administration must be constructed on a foundation of respect, fairness and transparency. All three may be put under the umbrella of care.

It should be remembered that lack of fairness in an institution weakens the fabric irreversibly. And fairness is to be seen by all, and felt in the air.

Working together is inevitable in shared spaces, such as institutions and organizations. Schools are no exceptions. The processes of school are not fundamentally different from those of any group working together, anywhere. The difference is in the way they meet situations. In his book Education and the Significance of Life, Krishnamurti writes:

There must be unstinted co-operation among all the teachers in a school of the right kind. The whole staff should meet often, to talk over the various problems of the school; and when they have agreed upon a certain course of action, there should obviously be no difficulty in carrying out what has been decided. If some decision taken by the majority does not meet with the approval of a particular teacher, it can be discussed again at the next meeting of the faculty.

No teacher should be afraid of the headmaster or feel intimidated by the older teachers. Happy agreement is possible only when there is a feeling of absolute equality among all. It is essential that this feeling of equality prevail in the right kind of school, for there can be real co-operation only when the sense of superiority and its opposite are non-existent. If there is mutual trust, any difficulty or misunderstanding will not just be brushed aside, but will be faced, and confidence restored.

If this one statement is taken into the consciousness of individuals in a school, and becomes a part of the institution's way of working, a very special culture will manifest. Unfortunately we usually approach this possibility with some apprehension, some trepidation, some uncertainty.

Some corollaries and elaborations of this statement can be stated.

  1. When different individuals work together there will be different perceptions and ideas. While these need not become barriers to a healthy mode of working together, most often they do. Institutional movement and capacity to move ahead depend on the strength of processes for handling these differing perceptions.
  2. For a functioning participative culture, it is important that differing views are welcomed and stated. At the same time, decision-making requires the putting aside of views.
  3. Thinking, discussing, questioning are important attributes of a healthy culture and all must experience this as a fact at all levels. Without watchfulness barriers tend to develop.
  4. Behaviour leading to exclusive group formation, particularly among decision-makers, while it may yield short-term results, weakens the institutional fabric in the long run. All too often there are barriers in institutions. Some are included, while others are excluded. Some are 'in' and others 'not in'.
  5. Encouragement is usually sustained through rewards and punishments. But, listening carefully to everyone seriously and respectfully is the only real avenue to creating an alternate culture.
  6. Some impersonal and widely distributed norms & principles help spread the intended culture. Some articulation of these can be avoided only at risk to institutional health. However, the danger of articulation is that, in the absence of sustaining processes, they become clichés. And empty clichés make hollow institutions.
  7. While espousing the notions of plurality and diversity, most institutions, at core, are extremely rigid and hierarchic. This manifests itself in how decision-making is carried out.
  8. Growing institutions may need to pick up or discover different 'tools' from time to time. Institutions often find themselves embroiled in the question: 'Is the adoption of new tools a 'betrayal' of institutional history?'
  9. Distinctness of a culture is always under assault from the dominant Culture. If an institution does not actively concern itself with intelligent leadership, it begins to stagnate or lose distinctness. By intelligent leadership, I mean the skilful and wholesome navigation through that which is given; finding and taking the next step.

The key processes of sustenance, regeneration & handing over are required for building leadership. Leadership building is actually an effort at sustaining a valuable culture, not merely survival into the future.

In 1995, Asha, a young, new colleague, was most alarmed at a certain decision that was being taken. After 3 rounds of meetings the school staff had decided that we would conduct a series of meetings with the senior-most students of the school. She voiced her objections: 'I think things are quite ok and there is no reason for such a series of meetings.' We could not move ahead without dismissing her view: that would imply that 'you are new and young, and your view is therefore uninformed', or, 'while we can listen to you, we cannot take you seriously.' This was an institutional crisis.

My colleagues and I looked hard at the fundamentals. We said to Asha, 'Thank you for speaking your mind. This is valuable to us as it means there is space for people to actually voice what they feel. It may be uncomfortable for us to hear this, but that is not your problem. Second, please hold your reservations, they are valuable. No one is going to try and convince you to change your mind. Third, how shall we move ahead? We have been discussing holding a series of meetings with senior students. You have an objection and think it is a bad idea. Can we consider holding one meeting and then reviewing our decision? Surely others would pick up your misgivings if they are evident.' Asha agreed and we were together in the decision. After the first meeting she said, 'All my misgivings have vanished. Let us go ahead.'

Is it possible for colleagues to say to each other:

  1. I will not try to convince you.
  2. Let us listen to each other carefully.
  3. As we discuss and listen we can together come upon what is the right thing to do.

Is it possible for teachers to say the same to students?

How dissent is located in an institution is crucial. Space for dissent is vital and cannot be denied. Each organization & institution experiences some struggles in this area. The culture of an organization, its humanness, its strength and character, are most defined, by the space and processes for engaging with dissent within its fold. Agreement on all but the most trivial matters is not easily found. Recognition of this fact and the manner in which colleagues, friends, teachers and students navigate this terrain is critical.

Krishnamurti indicates that:

  1. Views are not important, fact is.
  2. Decisions are made, not through authority, but 'thinking together' and
  3. There is a collaboration that is not around an idea.

Krishnamurti's teachings clearly move away from 'convincing' another, 'coercion' or use of 'authority'. The space defined by him as 'collaboration, not around an idea' is truly a transformational challenge, not just for the individual but for the institution as well. It may be interesting to ask if such a position is tenable in the 'day to day' running of a school or any organisation. The 'day to day 'metaphor assumes that there is an urgency in the matters to be decided, a hurry, a 'cannot wait'. Is this really so?

Decisions are made at all levels. If something resembles what was done earlier, we don't call it a 'decision'. However it is one - it is the decision to 'continue' as before. Most decisions are made through the need for fairness and consistency. In fact most institutional problems relate to

  1.  Not doing in letter and spirit what was done yesterday.
  2.  Doing the same thing as yesterday, mechanically; not recognizing the need for a fresh  approach.

A genuine invitation to express, followed by a careful hearing, is a vital, and yet often elusive, feature of human communication. In the daily life of institutions and organizations, people communicate hastily. Often the listening is inadequate, and the move ahead is unsatisfactory. It is thus not surprising that the shared space in institutions and organizations most vitally lives these challenges.

The challenge before us

The premise defines all else. The orchestra needs a conductor and the military a commander. Even in groups that practise democracy it seems extremely difficult to move away from 'dominant' or 'overriding' influences. Can schools and modern institutions conceive of vibrant alternatives? Can the working space in institutions such as schools carry a deeper quality of intelligence, and not a tussle for power and influence, obvious or subtle?

G. Gautama has been Principal at The School KFI in Chennai for over fifteen years. He has a background in engineering education from IIT Chennai, has worked as a research scientist and independent consultant and has held a directorial role in a school for the underprivileged. He has been exposed to the teachings of J. Krishnamurti from an early age. His thrust while working in school has been to seed sensible processes and to sustain them - finding the small steps that can take one far.