Education Opinion

Sandboxes and Honeybees

By Roland S. Barth — May 09, 1984 7 min read

It’s difficult to spell. Hard to pronounce. Harder to define. It’s hardest still to establish in a school. Collegiality. After a lifetime of residence in different sorts of schools, I am convinced that the nature of the relationships among the adults who inhabit a school has more to do with the school’s quality and character, and with the accomplishment of its pupils, than any other factor. The success of a school depends upon interactions between teacher and teacher, teacher and administrator, and all school people and parents.

Yet, strangely, collegiality and the ideas it connotes have seldom shown up in the effective-schools literature of the past decade. It is not listed with such factors as strong leadership, emphasis on basic skills, a clear sense of purpose, monitoring of academic progress, and an orderly school environment. Nor is collegiality part of the vocabulary of recent national studies of American education. It is recognized as neither part of the problem nor part of the solution.

I wonder why not. Most educators would probably agree that collegiality in a school is nice...but it’s a soft and fuzzy notion at a time when schools need rigor and clarity. Collegiality is nice, but it’s a frill when schools need to be pared to the basics. Collegiality is an adult notion when the lesson plan for schools should be prepared with students in mind.

I find that relationships among adults in schools--all schools, from preschools to graduate schools--take several forms.

One of them is described by a wonderful term from nursery-school parlance, “parallel play.” Two 3-year-olds are busily engaged in opposite corners of a sandbox. One has a shovel and bucket; one has a rake and hoe. At no time do they borrow each other’s toys. They may inadvertently throw sand in each other’s face from time to time, but they seldom interact. Although in close proximity, and having much to offer one another, each works and plays pretty much in isolation. This description serves remarkably well as a characterization of adult relationships in schools. Teachers and administrators develop subtle ways to influence the other group’s domain, but they seldom venture there. A 3rd-grade teacher on one side of the hall carefully respects the teaching space of the 3rd-grade teacher on the other side. One principal in a system seldom visits the school of another. University professors, too, have been described as a group of isolated individuals connected by a common heating system and parking lot. We all seem to have an implied contract: Don’t bother me in my work and I won’t bother you. Yet, in schools, as in sandboxes, the price of doing things the way we want to--of having personal control over what we do--is isolation from others who might take our time and have us do things differently (and, perhaps, better).

But, of course, not all adult relationships in schools are independent. I observe three different forms of interaction:

  • Adversarial Relationships. Recently, a Boston-area school principal made a sage observation: “You know, we educators have drawn our wagons into a circle and trained our guns--on each other.” When adults in school interact, all too often we attack one another. There’s no dearth of enemies outside education, of course, but somehow we manage to create opponents under our own roofs.
  • A decade ago, Harry Levinson, author of Organizational Diagnosis, writing about the workplace of business, used the phrase “emotional toxicity” to describe unhealthy businesses. He observed that “psychotic’’ organizations, like many psychotic individuals, are characterized by a siege mentality, a feeling of being under constant attack. This mentality is also marked by preoccupation with self-preservation, constant scanning of the environment in search of potential threats, and a desire to avoid any close contact with others. It may be that adversarial relationships among adults in school make “parallel play” a welcome alternative.

  • Competitive Relationships. The competition among adults in schools stems perhaps from a wish for all those in the school to succeed, or for the school to become better than others, but mostly it comes from a desire for me to excel.
  • Typically, competition takes the form of withholding. Most school people carry around extraordinary insights about their important work--about discipline, parental involvement, budgeting, child development, leadership, and curriculum. These hard-won insights certainly have as much value to the field as elegant research studies and national reports, but adults in schools have a strong reluctance to make these insights available to those who may be competitors for scarce resources and recognition--that is, to almost everyone else. Nor does anyone want to be considered pretentious by professing this knowledge. Few teachers, for example, want to subject themselves to the criticism of their peers by standing up in a faculty meeting and sharing a good idea about grouping children or involving parents. Consequently, all the talk each day among teachers and parents and administrators notwithstanding, a taboo prevails in schools against school people sharing what they know with others. Kevin Ryan, author of Don’t Smile Until Christmas, has referred to work in schools as an adult’s “second most private activity.” John I. Goodlad puts it more soberly in A Place Called School:

    The classroom cells in which teachers spend much of their time appear to be symbolic and predictive of their relative isolation from one another and from sources of ideas beyond their own background of experience.

    How can a profession survive, let alone flourish, when its members are cut off from others and from the rich knowledge base upon which success and excellence depend? Not very well.

    A day after watching the 1983 Boston Marathon from the top of Heartbreak Hill, I had the good fortune to sit on a plane beside one of the top finishers. I asked this young man how he did it. “How do you run and run fast for more than two hours, up and down hills, in the face of such extraordinary difficulties?” I expected him to emphasize competition or the pursuit of personal glory; instead, he observed thoughtfully that “I do it because of the crowds. The people along the side of the course. For 26 miles, everyone is cheering, giving me water, support, not interfering, keeping others from interfering, so I can run. I do it because everyone wants me to do it. I don’t want to let them down.”

    Competition has its place, but we school people could well use some of these same supportive conditions as we struggle up our own hills. Instead, all too often we find along our course a society that values and supports the product of education far more than those committed to providing it.

  • Collegial Relationships. The least common form of relationship among adults in schools and universities is one that is collegial, cooperative, and interdependent. Judith Warren Little, a researcher at the Far West Regional Laboratory in San Francisco, offers a good working definition of collegiality in schools. Collegiality, she says, is the presence of four specific behaviors. First, adults in schools talk about the practice of teaching and learning frequently, continuously, and in concrete and precise terms. Second, they observe each other teaching and administrating. These observations become the “practice” they can reflect upon and talk about. Third, they work on the curriculum together by planning, designing, researching, and evaluating it. Finally, they teach each other what they know about teaching, learning, and leading.
  • As obvious and logical and compelling as these ideas are, they find all too little following in schools.

    We are all familiar with the enormous risks and costs associated with observing, communicating, sharing knowledge, and talking openly about the work we do. Yet somehow most good schools I’ve been in are ones where parallel play and adversarial and competitive relationships among adults have been transformed into cooperative, collegial ones. It is possible.

    I am a beekeeper. I am looking out a window of a farmhouse in coastal Maine at three hives of Italian honeybees draped with a generous cloak of snow. Last summer, I robbed over a hundred pounds of honey from each of these colonies--more than enough to get family and friends (and bees) through the winter. I remember looking through this same window in August, pondering these remarkable little creatures and their complex social organization. In a hive of 60,000 insects, there are scouts always on the lookout in the fields for a new source of nectar. Fanners stand on the landing board during a hot day for hours at a time, beating their wings in order to circulate fresh air through the colony. Water carriers find a pond or stream and bring water back to help cool the hive and produce the honey. Nectar carriers bring in the raw material for the honey. Cappers seal the honeycomb in wax and others mate with the queen and sustain the hive.

    Observing these astonishing levels and examples of communication, sharing, and interdependence, I cannot help but compare the bees’ little society with schools. Perhaps it is unfair to compare “lower-order” creatures with “higher” forms of life, but the comparison suggests to me just how much adversarial and competitive behavior dominates our schools, how little collegiality we see, and how much our schools suffer because of it.

    On the one hand, it is a discouraging realization. But these little honeybees also suggest something else. They suggest just how great may be the power of cooperative behavior in the service of a common purpose. There is much we can learn from sandboxes and honeybees.

    A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1984 edition of Education Week as Sandboxes and Honeybees