Why Traditional Accountability Doesn’t Work

Leadership

Oct 25

Okay, here’s another embarrassing story about when I first became an administrator. I only ask that you remember how naïve I was back then and please be kind.

When I was a new administrator and eager to make an impact on the teaching and learning at my school.  I thought that in order to exercise my authority, I needed to go in and stamp out mediocrity wherever I found it. 

One day, a parent called me to complain that Allison, one of the reading teachers, had refused to allow her son to turn in a quiz because he used pencil instead of ink.  I immediately marched down to Allison’s classroom and asked to speak with her during her planning period. 

When she arrived in my office that afternoon, I shared with her the parent’s concern and asked her if that was indeed her policy.  She said it was and explained that she required students to complete their quizzes in ink because they corrected them in class and she didn’t want them to change their answers. 

            “But Allison,” I began to lecture.  “That is not fair to the student.  You penalized him because you assumed that he was cheating.  The purpose of the quiz was for him to demonstrate whether or not he mastered the material, not to demonstrate whether or not he could follow your classroom rules.”

            Allison tried to explain to me that she had issues with students cheating in the past and that she was trying to tamp down on the problem with the policy.

I listened to her for a few minutes and then told her that her policy was unfair and she should change it immediately.

She rolled her eyes and left my office.

So what happened next?

A week later, the policy was still unchanged.

“Now what?” I wondered as I took out my administrator’s handbook issued to me by the district and sought answers (Don’t laugh at me. I told you I was naïve).

The manual talked about the importance of creating a “paper trail” and proper follow up, so taking a page from the manual, I wrote up a “Memorandum of Understanding” that basically said, “Look, I gave you this feedback and I expect you to implement it. If I come back to your classroom again and see that it is not implemented, IT WILL GO IN YOUR FILE.” (Of course, I used more official sounding language but you get the point.)

Want to learn a better way to help teachers be accountable? Join us for Builder’s Lab 2018 and get a special bonus session on a failsafe way to help teachers be accountable and take more ownership over their practice.


The MOU Heard Round the World

I met with Allison the next day and pulled out my very official-looking “Memorandum of Understanding” and handed it to her.

            “What’s this?” she asked as she stared in horror at the paper.

            I smiled confidently. “It’s a Memorandum of Understanding,” I explained calmly. “

            She looked up at me blankly and shook her head, “I don’t understand.”

            “I am asking you again to change your policy. This is just a way to document our conversation. Just sign here saying that you received it and then it serves as an agreement of sorts between us.”

She looked like she was about to cry, and seeing the tears collecting in the corner of her eyes, I started to wonder if this was such a good plan.

            “So this goes in my file?” she asked softly.

            “For now,” I responded with way more conviction than I felt at the moment. Then I added, “But if you do what you’ve been asked to do, I will remove it from your file.”

Then I asked her if she had any more questions. She shook her head and quickly signed the paper, grabbed her things, and fled my office.

Can I tell you how terrible I felt? I felt like a bully and a fraud. 

If this was “accountability” I wanted nothing to do with it.

After she left my office, I sat there for a long time thinking. There had to be a better way. How could I get people to follow through on what they needed to do without being so authoritarian that I killed the trust and rapport?

I didn’t want to police people? How could I help them want to improve on their own?  At the same time, how could I make sure that people were doing their jobs because after all, I had a real responsibility to the students?

What I wanted most of all was not just mere compliance. I wanted teachers to actually take ownership over their own practice. How could I get teachers to want to improve instead of being satisfied by the status quo?

Want to learn a better way to help teachers be accountable? Join us for Builder’s Lab 2018 and get a special bonus session on a failsafe way to help teachers be accountable and take more ownership over their practice.


This is not what I came to leadership to do.

In the end, she changed her policy but I lost the relationship.  Allison feared me and flinched every time I stopped by her classroom.  When I tried to engage her in conversations about instruction, she watched me to see what response I was looking for and gave it to me.  And she resented that memorandum of understanding in her file.  She was terrified that it would follow her for the rest of her life.  

Did she comply?

Yes, but I damaged not just my relationship with Allison but my relationship with every teacher to whom Allison told her story.  Soon the teachers were all worried that they too would get a MOU in their file.   It took me months to undo the damage I had done and regain their trust. 

Want to learn a better way to help teachers be accountable? Join us for Builder’s Lab 2018 and get a special bonus session on a failsafe way to help teachers be accountable and take more ownership over their practice.


It’s not your fault

Maybe you’re like me and you’ve tried traditional accountability measures only to be met with fear, resentment, and distrust. Maybe you too wish that people would just “do their jobs” so that you don’t always have to be the “bad cop.”

Or maybe you’re sick of being “supportive” only to be met with more excuses, more delays, and very little change. Maybe you’ve been thinking you need to take a harder stance if you ever want to see progress in your school.

Perhaps you’re tried getting rid of teachers at your school before, only to have them call the union, get sent back to your school, and wreck your school culture in the process. All that paperwork, all that time, and no real change.

Well, if you are as frustrated as I was, I want you to know that it’s not your fault. The way that we’ve traditionally done accountability simply doesn’t work -- not if you are interested in building a cooperative school culture where everyone takes responsibility for improving.

That’s what I realized that day in my office. If I really wanted true accountability instead of blind compliance from my teachers, I needed something more. Over the next 2 years, I searched for an answer. I studied books on motivation, management, psychology, even the art of the “con” (I told you I was desperate for an answer).

Want to learn a better way to help teachers be accountable? Join us for Builder’s Lab 2018 and get a special bonus session on a failsafe way to help teachers be accountable and take more ownership over their practice.


Here’s what I learned

There’s a difference between holding people accountable and helping people become accountable. Holding people accountable leads to compliance. Helping people BE accountable leads to cooperation.

​In my next post, I am going to share with you how you can move from compliance to true cooperation and help everyone you lead consistently be accountable.

Along the way, I am going to share some of my favorite strategies and tools to build accountability into your culture so that you aren’t constantly chasing down teachers or standing over them for fear that if you aren’t constantly watching, the right things won’t get done.

​Also, one of the things we are going to spend some time on at The Builder’s Lab 2018 is accountability. In fact, ​there will be a special bonus evening session where one of the best tools for helping teachers become accountable and take ownership over their own practice​ will be taught. Right now we are offering an early bird registration special where you can save $100 off your registration but only if you secure your spot by November 1. Click here to join us at The Builder’s Lab 2018.

In the meantime, I want to know from you. What is your biggest frustration when trying to hold those you lead accountable? Let me know in the comments below.


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