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against locking the doors. The other two housemasters actively favored cross-house course enrollments. King’s fourth interview was with Burtram Perkins, also a housemaster. Perkins, mentioned earlier, was a black man in his late forties who had served as assistant to the principal of Central High before coming to Kennedy. Perkins spent most of the interview discussing how schedule pressures could be relieved. Perkins was currently developing the schedule for the coming school year until a vice principal could be appointed to perform that job (Kennedy High had allocations for two vice principals and two assistants in addition to the housemasters).
Two bits of information concerning Perkins came to King during his “rst week at the school. The “rst was that several teachers were circulating a letter requesting Perkins’s removal as a housemaster. They felt that he could not control the house or direct the faculty. This surprised King because he had heard that Perkins was widely respected within the faculty and had earned a reputation for supporting high academic standards and for working tirelessly with new teachers. As King inquired further, he discovered that Perkins was genuinely liked but was also widely acknowledged as a poor housemaster. The second piece of information concerned how Perkins’s house compared with the others. Although students had been randomly assigned to each house, students in Perkins’s house had the highest absence rate and the greatest number of disciplinary problems. Smith had told him that Perkins’s dropout rate the preceding year was three times that of the next highest house.
While King was in the process of interviewing his staff, he was called on by David Crimmins, chairman of the history department. Crimmins was a native of Great Ridge, white, and in his late forties. Though scheduled for an appointment the following week, he had asked King whether he could see him immediately. Crimmins had heard about the letter asking for Perkins’s removal and wanted to present the other side. He became very emotional, saying that Perkins was viewed by many of the teachers and department chairmen as the only housemaster trying to maintain high academic standards; his transfer would be seen as a blow to those concerned with quality education. Crimmins also described in detail Perkins’s devotion and commitment to the school. He emphasized that Perkins was the only administrator with the ability to straighten out the schedule, which he had done in addition to all his other duties. As Crimmins departed, he threatened that if Perkins were transferred, he would write a letter to the regional accreditation council decrying the level to which standards had sunk at Kennedy. King assured Crimmins that such a drastic measure was unnecessary and offered assurance that a cooperative resolution would be found. King knew that Kennedy High faced an accreditation review the following April and did not wish to complicate the process unnecessarily.
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Within 20 minutes of Crimmins’s departure, King was visited by Tim Shea, a young white teacher. He said he had heard that Crimmins had come in to see King. Shea identi”ed himself as one of the teachers who had organized the movement to get rid of Perkins. He said that he liked and admired Perkins because of the man’s devotion to the school but that Perkins’s house was so disorganized and that discipline there was so bad that it was nearly impossible to do any good teaching. Shea added, “It’s a shame to lock the school up when stronger leadership is all that’s needed.”
King’s impressions of his administrators generally matched what he had heard before arriving at the school. Carver seemed to be a very bright, innovative, and charismatic leader whose mere presence generated excitement. Czepak came across as a highly competent though not very imaginative administrator who had earned the respect of his faculty and students. Housemaster John Bonavota, age 26, seemed smart and earnest but unseasoned and unsure of himself. King felt that with a little guidance and training, Bonavota might have the greatest promise of all; at the moment, however, the young housemaster seemed confused and somewhat overwhelmed. Perkins impressed King as a sincere and devoted person with a good mind for administrative details but an incapacity for leadership.
King knew that he had the opportunity to make several administrative appointments because of the three vacancies that existed. Indeed, should Smith resign as vice principal, King could “ll both vice principal positions. He also knew that his recommendations for these positions would carry a great deal of weight with the central of”ce. The only constraint King felt was the need to achieve some kind of racial balance among the Kennedy administrative group. With his own appointment as principal, black administrators out- numbered white administrators two to one, and Kennedy did not have a single Latino administrator, even though a third of its pupils were Hispanic.
The Friday Afternoon Meeting In contrast to the individual interviews, King was surprised to “nd how quiet and con!ict- free these same people seemed in the staff meeting he called on Friday. He was amazed at how slow, polite, and friendly the conversation was among people who had so vehemently expressed negative opinions of each other in private. After about 45 minutes of discussion about the upcoming accreditation review, King broached the subject of housemaster– department head relations. There was silence until Czepak made a joke about the uselessness of discussing the topic. King probed further by asking if everyone was happy with the current practices. Crimmins suggested that the topic might be better discussed in a smaller group. Everyone seemed to agree—except for Betsy Dula, a white woman in her late twenties who chaired the English department. She said that one of the problems with the
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school was that no one was willing to tackle tough issues until they exploded. She added that relations between housemasters and department heads were terrible, and that made her job very dif”cult. She then attacked Chauncey Carver for impeding her evaluation of a nontenured teacher in Carver’s house. The two argued for several minutes about the teacher and the quality of an experimental sophomore English course the teacher was offering. Finally, Carver, by now quite angry, coldly warned Dula that he would “break her neck” if she stepped into his house again. King intervened in an attempt to cool both their tempers, and the meeting ended shortly thereafter.
The following morning, Dula called King at home and told him that unless Carver publicly apologized for his threat, she would “le a grievance with the teachers’ union and take it to court if necessary. King assured Dula that he would talk with Carver on Monday. King then called Eleanor Debbs, a Kennedy High math teacher he had known well for many years, whose judgment he respected. Debbs was a close friend of both Carver and Dula and was also vice president of the city’s teachers’ union. Debbs said that the two were longtime adversaries but both were excellent professionals.
She also reported that Dula would be a formidable opponent and could muster considera- ble support among the faculty. Debbs, who was black, feared that a confrontation between Dula and Carver might stoke racial tensions in the school, even though both Dula and Carver were generally popular with students of all races. Debbs strongly urged King not to let the matter drop. She also told him that she had overheard Bill Smith, the vice principal, say at a party the night before that he felt King didn’t have the stomach or the forcefulness to survive at Kennedy. Smith said that the only reason hewas stayingwas that he did not expect King to last the year, in which case Smith would be in a good position to be appointed principal.
David King inherited a job that had broken his predecessor and could destroy him as well. His new staff greeted him with a jumble of problems, demands, maneuvers, and threats. His “rst staff meeting began with an undercurrent of tension and ended in outright hostility.
Sooner or later, you may encounter a chaotic situation like this that leaves you feeling confused and overwhelmed. Nothing makes any sense, and good options are hard to “nd. Can King avoid disaster?
There is one potential bright spot. As the case ends, King is talking to Eleanor Debbs on a Saturday morning. She is a supportive colleague. He also has some slack—the rest of the weekend—to regroup. Where should he begin? We suggest that he start by actively re!ecting and reframing. A straightforward way to do that is to examine the situation one frame at a time, asking two simple questions: From this perspective, what’s going on?
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And what options does this view suggest? This re!ective process deserves ample time and careful thought. It requires “going to the balcony” (see Heifetz, 1994) to get a panoramic view of the scene below. Ideally, King would include one or more other people—a valued mentor, principals in other schools, close friends, his spouse—for alternative perceptions in pinpointing the problem and developing a course of action. We present a streamlined version of the kind of thinking that David King might entertain.
STRUCTURAL ISSUES AND OPTIONS King sits down at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a pen, a fresh yellow pad, and his laptop computer. He starts to review structural issues at Kennedy High. He recalls the “people-blaming” approach (Chapter 2), in which individuals are blamed for everything that goes wrong. He smiles and nods his head. That’s it! Everyone at Kennedy High School is blaming everyone else. He recalls the lesson of the structural frame: We blame individuals when the real problems are systemic.