Yesterday, my wife Karen, daughter Talia and I were video interviewed as part of our school’s 50th Anniversary. With 42 and 41 years between my wife and I, my daughter’s 11 years as a student and 5 years as a teacher at the school, we have lots of stories to tell! In talking about the “good ole days,” Karen talked about how we made our own furniture and fixed broken things and went to second-hand and scrap stores to scrounge material.
Our weekly elementary school meeting used to take place around a peanut-shaped low table that someone made, us all sitting on the floor with cushions and discussing whatever needed attention with the kids, our classes, the school as a whole. With just eight to ten of us, conversation was informal, fun, spirited, inefficient, maddening, sometimes difficult and all of the above. But what felt wonderful was that we were the beginning, middle and end of decision-making, with input from parents and constant feedback (not always verbal) from the kids. We were making it all up as we went along, learned to trust our instincts, picked ourselves up when we fell down and moved on to the next thing when we got it right.
There are two models of institutions: one is built on relationships and the other on systems.
The relationship model is more family style, leans to informal conversations around the peanut table, invites full investment in all aspects of the community, from the color of the soon-to-be-painted bathroom walls to purchasing the new copy machine to organizing the all-school clean-up. The systems model leans towards elaborate charts of the decision-making process, committees, clearly-defined hierarchy of power and authority, papers to be filled out requesting a special class in the multi-purpose room. The first aims for depth of discussion, the second often values efficiency (which it rarely achieves).
You can feel me leaning in to the relationships model, but both have their up and down sides. Systems become more and more necessary when a community reaches a certain critical size and when done well, can help create an equity that is sometimes murky when relationships rule. And also free a teacher (for example) to focus more on a brilliantly conceived and executed lesson than the color of the bathroom walls. Or allow staff meetings to talk more about kids than go over budgets. A simple system, with room for flexible thinking and relationship models within it, can be a good thing. So in talking about the “good old days,” I have to be careful about false nostalgia.
But the central quality of those early times, when all was dreaming, creation, construction, was the sense that we (the teachers and two administrators) were the architects of our own vision. We were not merely inheriting someone else’s script and programmed dream, but actively shaping our own. And not only the architects, but also the carpenters, the electricians, the plumbers. We pounded one nail at a time to build the furniture of our dream school, connected the wires of our brightly-lit ideas, flushed out the things that didn’t work and plunged away when we got stuck. We were also the gardeners, digging into the moist soil, sowing seeds in faith of future blooming, watering, weeding. And the cooks, sitting down together with the kids partaking of the marvelous fruits of our efforts.
We were a family, both in terms of the warmth of intimacy and time hanging out and also the squabbles, upsets, constantly shifting dynamics. Systems aim for dry, clean and efficient, but relationships are perpetually messy and murky, go further to the edges of the spectrum of emotion, more life, more color. And that’s what kept so many of us teachers coming back year after year— a long list of 20/ 30 and even 40 year veterans.
None of this is wholly in the past tense. The San Francisco School is still a place of great warmth, vitality and color. But like all similar schools in today’s climates, the systematic thinking has come in and tried to take root and not always happily so. Everything is up for negotiation and re-negotiation. My only hope?
That the process take place sitting around the peanut table.