Jenn Binis joined us on episode 049 Multimedia Models and Administrative Dysfunction to discuss some of the problems in a paper’s approach to storytelling in a case study.
Laurence Woodruff: For our 2nd segment we read toxic culture and a wounded leader, a foray into dysfunctional educational community. By Ian Mette, published in The Journal of cases in educational leadership.
Michael Ralph: It was published in 2020. And we are so happy to be joined by a guest. Jenn Bennis is the president of schoolmarm advisors, a freelance editor, researcher, and fact checker for academic authors. She’s published in the fields of special, gifted, and middle level education and has personal professional opinions related to history, gender, and education and she appeared in previous episode 025. We are so happy to have you back. Welcome Jenn.
Jenn Binis: Thank you! This particular article hits upon all of my opinion areas, so I will freely share all of my opinions on Ian’s piece.
MR: So I cued this paper because I wanted to spend this month, in this segment, thinking a little bit about educational leadership especially as there are conversations about reopening school buildings, and what might happen in the next school year, and there are a lot of things where educational leadership conversations are happening, so I want to spend some time thinking about that. This paper presents a case study that is really a narrative of one administrator or one educator who is on a journey into administration and then accepts a new position in… It’s a protected story, so these are fictional names, but it’s a real story about a person who enters a new administrative role and is trying to affect the culture of an existing school district. It tells that story.
LW: This piece is an interesting piece. It’s written in a different way than most published literature. I’ve never read anything like this before. The way it is laid out is sort of a dramatization of a real story, where the names have been changed, the places have been changed, the people have been sort of rebranded a little bit. It tells a narrative from an individual’s perspective. This was someone who was a teacher for 4 years, became a principal and really enjoyed their work as a principal in the community that they were in, then life circumstances had them moved to another region, and then later in their life they were going to be able to come back to that original region, and enjoy being hired as an assistant superintendent in this area that sort of felt comfortable and homelike to them. This was definitely told heavily from this particular protagonist’s perspective and this story is about the challenges this protagonist faced when attempting to achieve not only his own professional vision but the one that he was hired for from his hiring superintendent’s perspective, to create a cohesive leadership culture that promoted teacher growth. He experienced challenges from the culture of the district in doing so and then eventually left the district because he was dissatisfied with his experiences. This paper then does something even further interesting, that after the narrative they propose discussion questions to reflect on the narrative as though it is a pre-written professional development activity.
MR: Jack is the protagonist he’s coming in as an administrator level position. He’s hired by the superintendent who is Jacob. He has coworkers, Matt who is another equal level administrative person, Heather who is another equal level peer of Jack. And then some other players we may reference eventually. There’s a lot in here. Which is why, as I was reading this, I was thinking we need to have some conversations and those conversations really overlap with what Jenn Binis spends her days thinking about. I reached out to her spontaneously, Earlier today I was like, “Hey are you willing to comment on this paper?” and she was like, “Yeah, I have some thoughts.” and I was like, “Will you tell us those thoughts?” and you were very generous to say yes. I appreciate you showing up with almost no planning. Honestly, rather than me suggesting anything about where we should start, I’d love to just hear you react. What do you think.
JB: Well the 1st thing was I had absolutely zero background knowledge about the Journal of cases in educational leadership. I knew nothing about this and I spent a few minutes reading about the journal to see if this was their typical approach, If they approach other cases in this way. I didn’t read enough pieces to get a sense, but my 1st impression is that the author has an incredibly heavy thumb on the scale in terms of how he’s telling Jack’s story. One of the things that I do when I read for clients or whatever the case may be, I look for, I don’t want to call it a bias, but I look for the author’s sense of language. One of the things that I noticed is that this particular author, he talks about gossip, he talks about the things that the woman administrator does, and how she, at one point he used a verb to describe how she said something, where it’s very clearly set up in such a case, in terms of Jack is clearly meant to be the hero of this particular piece, and one of the pieces where I got really frustrated, and where I had very strong opinions is in the discussion guide, which I’ve never seen attached to an article before, this was all very new to me. The 3rd discussion question says explicitly that Jack had been de-raced, de-classed and a few other things on how the author deliberately did not que the reader as to his race, but I’m wondering why he didn’t de-gender Jack. Why not use Jack as short for Jack or Jacqueline because the gender dynamics in this piece are just heavy heavy handed. I don’t know why, if he took the effort to de-race him, to de-race Jack, why not just de-gender the leader. That way they could truly remove gender identity as a variable. I don’t know why the author didn’t do that.
MR: Yeah. I got about 20 percent of the way into this paper and I thought about your comments from our last conversation about the glass escalator because it is laid out so verbatim in Jack’s story. Four years as a classroom teacher, immediately moved into administration, and then the youngest principal in the system at like 26. I was like that’s a little on the nose. That so obviously that thing.
JB:Yes. And the fact that when he goes back, quote, “Plus Jack had a bit of a connection he hoped to leverage.” In other words, Jack was saying, “I want to get on the glass escalator and I know how to do it.”
MR: He was already on the glass escalator. In his description of his previous progress, he’s like, “I had a relationship with this preexisting colleague and we hung out, we went to social gatherings, we played sports together, and we just had this really close relationship.” That’s literally part of the narrative, right? Literally part of the narrative. As I was reading that, I was thinking, this is a connection I think that I’m making, but what do I know about it. I don’t remember seeing very much about a description of Jack’s identities. I literally had to do a document search, and, oh, it’s not explained! Oh. Ok. It’s such, in my mind, if we’re going to understand a story, especially a story that, I feel, is really really clearly influenced by gender, and I suspect probably by other identities as well, although I don’t know them about Jack, the way it’s presented, that for me, I think that even the the de-identifying makes it easy to ignore some important pieces of the story. I think that they were ignored.
JB: Yeah and to revisit the idea of the glass escalator, Yes. The general concept came from an author named Christine Williams. Her premise came out in the early nineties. What she is saying is that when men step into a profession, if you focus primarily on nursing and teaching, they’re more likely to rise to the ranks of administration because of the network they create as being the only man. You know, the boys’ club. It’s human nature for people who are members of a group to find each other in a community. The reality of education is that they’re more likely to be men in administration, so men are more likely to reach down to another man and help him up than they are to help up teachers on that track. One of the key pieces about the glass escalator is the future research has shown it doesn’t apply equally to all men. It doesn’t apply to men of color. It also doesn’t apply to men who may be, for lack of a better word, lack hallmarks of traditional masculinity. Perhaps gay men, men who are transgender men. It doesn’t apply to men necessarily who don’t fit a particular archetype of masculinity. It’s not a universal experience for all men. Because the author of this piece used the word partner, we don’t know if part of what the tensions Jack is dealing with is that his colleagues are reading him as a gay man. That is influencing some of the things that are happening. On one hand, the article tries to de-identify him, but also, Ignores some of the tensions that are going on. Just to kind of re-stress that piece around gender in the piece, Matt was a jerk, Heather gossips. Even when presenting the tensions that Jack is facing in this community, the author is gendering the behaviors of the administrators around Jack. We’re led to believe that Jack is this wounded deep hero, who’s facing this toxic environment, but the author is using language to poison the reader against the environment. I don’t understand how that’s supposed to help people who want to be leaders. I don’t understand why the author did that.
MR: My understanding of this journal in this piece is, it’s written to be used by educational leadership programs. Future principals are going to be reading these sorts of case studies to practice the skills and build the tools that they will use in their departments, is just an assumption that I’m making. Interpreting this case, without some of what I think are the important details within the case, I think is going to be preparing them to use the wrong skills or ineffective skills. I think trying to sanitize the story is emphasizing some other components but is overlooking some of the important characteristics of the problem.
JB: I would be mortified if I learned that a principal friend of mine read this piece. The one particular thing that I want to kind of point out that’s a red flag is on page 22, Jack and Heather are meeting in Jack’s office. Jack says, “Is there a problem?” Heather says, “No.” Jack says, “Are you sure?” Heather says, “Yes, I am sure,” and then he demands the she says what he wants her to say. When she leaves she is described as storming off. It’s just this textbook example of banging through any intention to build a relationship, of consent, and he’s gendered as a man, he/him pronouns, if this woman doesn’t do what I want her to do, I’m not going to let up until she does it?
MR: There’s another piece of this that we haven’t mentioned yet, that is the way the leadership team is interacting with the teachers in the building. Which are predominantly female and the overwhelming disrespect and suppression and distrust in how they’re interacting with the teachers. The leadership team is male. Jacob and Matt and the way that they’re carrying on, the way that they’re treating the feedback, and the people who are in this faculty demands attention. It demands discussion.
LW: Yeah. This is interesting because one of the things that I think this paper is attempting to do is say that if you have an emotionally insensitive perspective of your employees in terms of “Well they should just do their job and deliver the curriculum. I can’t believe they’re incompetent.” If you’re not sensitive to the recognition that they say, “We’d like to improve his teaching and here are the things that we need to do it.” That perspective is villainous, counterproductive to growth as a District. This is problematic. That, sort of, I don’t even want to say hyperbolic, because even this is Reskinning of somebody’s real story, right? There is value in attempting to shed light on that as a mistake. We can validly critique this storytelling, from the embedded perspectives and potential biases that are in it, while also acknowledging that treating our employees, or treating our colleagues, or treating teachers, in a dismissive fashion so that we don’t meet their professional needs, is also inappropriate. Though Jack’s perspective may have contradictions and is overlooking dynamics and is definitely bias from particular perspective, we also have to recognize that what he is critiquing is also a problem systemically in education.
JB: What you’re saying made me realize, if it had been written in the 1st person, if the gist of this piece had been from the position of, I, Jack, I saw heather slam the door, I heard gossip about this, I feel wounded by this, it would read very very differently than this. Omnipotent, I think that’s the right POV, 3rd person omnipotent, Heather’s the gossip, Matts a jerk, Poor Jack is wounded. I think we could have got to some really really interesting things about how personal identity skews our understanding of events. There’s a difference between intention and the impact on someone. The whole way he handled Heather, quote-unquote “Handle Heather,” There’s a lot to talk about there, about when you say to somebody, “Do you have a problem with me?” and they say, “No,” you let it go. You figure out how to let it go. That could be talked about in a leadership class. What do you do if you and your colleagues are not friends? How do you find a healthy work environment in a district office when 2 people aren’t congenial. You can be collegial without being friends, without being congenial. There’s nothing wrong with that. Jack’s expectation that his work place would be a 2nd family, I don’t think that is ever said explicitly, but it is implied. Why? I don’t understand. If this piece had been written in 1st person it would make for a fantastic text to analyze Jack’s perceptions of the world, because the author acts as if he knows for sure that Heather is a gossip, and Heather did this, it skewes the reader.
LW: Also, if it had been in 1st person, it would have really, in big, bold, highlighted, underlined, really emphasized the point that it makes about vulnerability in the analysis section. Teaching and even leadership positions, require vulnerability to be effective and to grow in those positions. By dramatizing the narrative, we actually take a step away from vulnerability, which I think in the analysis section I agree with them. I think that you’re right, this should be a component to teaching, a component to leadership and a component of the education environment. Let’s also talk about the audience. If this audience, it kind of feels like it’s packaged as a professional development activity for administrators. So is there a white male gaze assumption that the people reading this are going to be white male gaze administrators, and this is what the stories that they need to hear to make progress toward meeting the needs of their teachers? Is that what is happening? I don’t know.
JB: I think it definitely is. I think because, especially when we talk about the analysis of Jack, the way the author has written this, they should describe how they perceive Jack including his ethnicity, race, spatial background, sexual orientation, other forms of identity, and so how they perceive. So he’s asking the readers to race Jack. If we wanted to perhaps shift the lens, we can say, well, if this is being read in a room full of all white future administrators, and one of them says, “Well I think Jack is a black man because he did this,” it just seems… I wonder as I keep struggling with what it is the author hoped to accomplish by removing race. Who exactly was picturing who’s going to be reading this article?
LW: On that note, because it was de-raced, I did imagine every character as white when I read it. When I went through this narrative, every character was white. Proposals, well the situation is different if the demographics are different. I hadn’t considered that yet. I hadn’t considered that so. I see what you’re saying. What was his goal? Whatever it was, was it met by doing it this way?
JB: This would be different if the author themselves was a person of color, was openly a person with a disability, if they were neruo-atypical, if they were trans. So the way in which the author has approached the scenario has been shaped by his, I’m confident, by his race and his identity, and I suspect his geography as well.
MR: This show, we try to make it a show about shoulds. If I imagine myself or anybody else, a possible listener, who finds themselves in a position of leadership of any kind, and they are in a position where they’re trying to navigate or even impact a toxic culture… I’d love to offer a should, or at least a follow up resource, for somebody who is interested in thinking about impacting a toxic culture.
JB: I think the 1st thing is that we should not mistake Toxicity for racism. If there are racist actions happening, it’s not toxic, it’s racist. If there is sexism that is happening inside the leadership team, there are explicitly sexist things happening, it’s not just Toxicity, it is related to gender dynamics. It is about sexism. I think the should has to be, to be thoughtful about when we label something as toxic, what is it we are saying is toxic? Because he is saying Heather not responding the way he wanted is toxic. That’s not toxic. That’s him being belligerent. That’s him not taking a woman at her word. The quote that kind of came to mind to me, there’s a passage in Robin DiAngelo’s writing. Robin DiAngelo, there’s always pros and cons to every text that we read, but she talks about an experience she had with a friend of hers, who was a black woman. Her friend said to her, never forget that I’m a black woman, but also, it should have no bearing on our relationship that I am a black woman. Never forget it, but also ignore it at the same time. What she is talking about is how you cannot de-race someone in service to building a relationship, because race is part of that relationship. I think the should has to be, if you feel as if something is toxic, we have to spend time unpacking what it is at the heart of the toxicity, and not just say, “Well, it’s because Heather is…,” and I’m confident the b-word was floated around to describe heather. Whether it was a 1st draft of the article, or that’s how we thought about her, she was the b-word. Not to say, “Well this is because Heather is a b-word,” and that makes the workplace toxic, but we should describe what we’re seeing in specific terms.
MR: Because the preceding segment was generally critical of the paper, we provided an advance copy of this episode to author Dr. Mette and the editorial board of JCEL, with an opportunity to comment. You can find their full response letter and follow up materials on the web page for this episode at twopintplc.com. I will share this quote which represents their group’s response in part, and I quote, “The cases are intended to stimulate discussion and debate rather than have determinative right v wrong conclusions or interpretations. JCEL cases are used by university faculty for classroom discussion, k-12 teachers, and leaders for professional development sessions, and to raise their thinking about critical issues relevant for their praxis. The cases are not designed nor intended to represent empirical research that is often used as a standard (or referred to as “case study research”) in other academic journals. With this particular case the intent from the author’s perspective was to provide a case for readers to question privilege of institutions with elite status, the rules of privilege (think of the recent reflections of Dena Simmons at Yale or Cornel West at Harvard) and the wounds leaders often carry as they move through their careers.”
MR: Hey we thank you for joining us. We really appreciate Jenn Binis. Thank you for joining us and having a conversation for our second segment. If our listeners enjoy hearing you and want to consume more of what you create or what you write, where can they find your material?
JB: The two best places are first on Twitter, I’m @Jennbinis, or on my website which is schoolmarmadvisors.com. I, there, have a collection of all my podcast, EdHistory 101, all my history writing, and links to some articles that I have written relating to race, gender and education.