In Kafka’s The Trial which along with The Castle act as a secular bible for me, the final paragraph has the innocent Josef K. being made to die – to die, as one of the participants observed, ‘Like a dog! … It was as if the shame would outlive him.’ [The version referred to is Penguin Modern Classics, 2015.] In New Zealand, dozens of principals, just as innocent in behaviour, have their vocations made to die, ‘Like a dog!’ with the shame to outlive them.
The first sentence in The Trial begins with: ‘Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K. for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.’
This posting could well begin with: ‘Somebody must have made a false accusation against a New Zealand principal for she was threatened one day with a series of wrongdoing when she had done nothing wrong’ … indeed, was a brilliant principal, highly respected, and could be seen to have done a power of good.
It is an understanding of this posting that organisations should be viewed as having minds, and in having these, the ability to develop organisational narratives on matters large and the small, sometimes to devastating effect on individual rights and freedoms. It is the organisational mind that allows the education bureaucracies to act with such singularity and cruelty, enabling individuals to do terrible things in the name of the organisation they wouldn’t otherwise contemplate as individuals.
I know a long quote tempts the reader to skip over, but I earnestly request you read the following paragraph quoted unchanged from The Trial, first published in 1925. The questions I place in your mind as you read: Is this not an exact description of how the education review office and ministry work today? and, if so, what are we to do about it?
Josef K. is advised that (p. 96):
The only right thing to do was to come to terms with circumstances as they were. Even if it were possible to rectify certain details – but that was just a senseless delusion – the best one could hope for would be to achieve something for the benefit of future cases, but that would be at the expense of doing oneself immeasurable harm through attracting the particular attention of a bureaucracy which was always vengeful. Just never attract attention! One had to keep quiet, even when this went against the grain! And try to see that this great legal organism was always in a state of equilibrium, so to speak, and that anyone who independently made an alteration in his own area would be cutting the ground from under his feet and could come coming crashing down, while the great organism itself compensated for a slight disturbance by easily producing a replacement at another point – everything was after all connected – and remained unchanged, assuming it did not become (and his was probable) even more secretive, even more observant, even more severe, even more malevolent.
The following quote is one of my all-time favourites:
‘That still needs a bit of work,’ answered the court painter, and he took a pastel from a side-table and sketched with it round the edges of the figure, but K. found it no clearer. ‘It’s Justice,’ said the painter at last. ‘Ah, now I recognise it,’ said K., ‘here’s the bandage over the eyes and these are the scales. But aren’t these wings on the ankles and isn’t that a figure running?’ ‘Yes’, said the painter,’ I was commissioned to paint like that. Actually it is Justice and the goddess of Victory in one.’ That’s hardly a good combination,’ said K. with a smile. ‘Justice has to be motionless or the scales will waver and there’s no possibility of a correct judgement.’ ‘I’m only following the instructions of the person who commissioned me,’ said the painter.
The teacher organisations are failing us in not confronting bureaucratic bullying. In matters of policy they are like children playing with toys, paying attention for a time, then throwing them away as another toy comes into view. Teacher organisation office should be prized as an opportunity to make a difference, an historic difference, not a perpetual game of follow the previous leader. But the smugness and shallowness of New Zealand today is no-where better displayed than in how teacher leaders (including executive members) perform in office. Contemporary political and bureaucratic behaviour is an outrage but teacher organisations seem to have become culturated to it.
In the sprawling tentacles of malignity that is the ministry, education review office, commissioners, statutory managers, bad trustee practice, school trustee association servility, unchecked parental behaviour, embedded sources of propaganda, spying, media complicity, and unbalanced Employment Relations Authority practice – we have the horrifying situation of principals caught up in the unrelenting logic of an irrational system comprising unpassable demands with ever-changing rules.
It is a nightmare, perhaps one that is a spectre for our future.
In The Castle a superintendent says: ‘You ask if there are control officials?
‘There are only control officials.’
And as you will find in reading the terrible case to follow, that is very close to the absolute truth.
In a sense, the school intervention process should be seen as the National Party at work.
The anti-teacher drive is inherent in the neoliberal philosophy of the National government’s education policy, indeed, it is its touchstone – attacking teachers being the default position for National government ministers; there is the practice of political involvement that began with the review office punishing schools that stood out against national standards; there is the gratification and political capital to be obtained from schools appearing to need government ‘help’; there is the education review office’s raison d’etre being to wrest control of classrooms from teachers; there is the control, obedience, and browbeating advantages to be gained from threatening intervention; there is, on balance, boards of trustees mainly being National Party; there is the school trustees association being so adamantly pro-government; there is the unwillingness by boards to use proper complaints processes and the acceptance of that by authorities; there is the endemic spying, gossiping, and backdoor manoeuvring; there is the media being used by anti-teacher forces for propaganda purposes (including direct communication between the minister’s office and editors and, for a time, Whale Oil); there is the financial incentive by commissioners and statutory managers to support and prolong intervention; there is the Employment Relations Authority being government-inclined, making fair legal judgement unlikely until the full court level is reached; there is the inability by most principals to be able to afford prolonged legal redress; there is the cruel practice of making children pay for adult misbehaviour and nonsense (heaping additional pressure on principals to fold); and there is the discrediting and shaming of principals that occurs no matter the official outcome – accusing is losing.
The Kafkan power of the intervention process is such that there is rarely a genuine problem beyond that manufactured by the intervention process itself, meaning that those complaining only need to keep complaining for the intervention process to produce the Kafkan situation of irrationality so deviously favourable to their ends. Once the intervention is in place, the question becomes not what the problem was, but whether the principal is perfect in every respect? And the principal, no matter how insignificant the imperfection revealed or how irrelevant to the initial ‘problem’, is always caught out, and much is made of that, and is a goner. After all, those making the judgement are those arrayed against the principal from the beginning. It seems the advice given by a character in Kafka should have been heeded: ‘The only right thing to do was to come to terms with the circumstances as they were.’ And principals should ready themselves to have their vocations made to die ‘Like a dog!’ with the shame to outlive them.
And still the teacher organisations twiddle their thumbs.
All intervention cases share all the characteristics; and all have some of those characteristics exaggerated to terrible proportions. In the case that follows, the characteristics exaggerated to terrible proportions come from coffee house gossip, the bad practice by the board of trustees, the clumsy involvement of the local National Party member of parliament, the gross behaviour of the limited statutory manager, and the devious, dire behaviour of the bureaucracies.
I knew the teacher involved. Take my word for it she is beyond reproach – there was both no fire and no smoke; I urge you in the name of justice and awareness, to rid yourselves of the accuse-lose syndrome referred to.
She had an unblemished career as a teacher, in senior management, and as a principal.
Previous education review office reports and appraisal reports were outstanding, including a recent appraisal from Education Network, the well-regarded education consultancy company. The school had an excellent reputation for curriculum innovation which was published as a case study for other schools. The ministry complimented the school on its charter direction and the detailed data analysis provided on student achievement and progress. The school also hosted many visitors to the school interested in its work and established a number of influential international network contacts and research opportunities.
An exemplary school with an exemplary principal.
What could go wrong, well, remember, any principal is vulnerable because the process, as stated, is irrational.
The next posting will describe the miasmic context for grievances and their cosmic unfairness and irrationality.