Don’t fence me in

Don’t fence me in

Building fence in the hot Kansas sun was one of those character-building experiences afforded to me in my youth. In Russell County, building fence often means working with stone posts. For the uninitiated, picture a chunk of limestone six or seven feet long, eight to twelve inches square, and several hundred pounds. The posts were quarried locally, many of ours from a spot northeast of Bunker Hill. My dad describes a process whereby his dad used a hand auger and a series of wedges to chip away these slabs of stone used for everything from building homes and barns, watering troughs, and fence posts.   

When my brother and I were unearthing these monstrosities from decades of use, we benefited from a tractor and the magic of hydraulics. The men who set those posts in the first place did so with their backs. One of the small wonders of rebuilding a fence row that was built decades ago was hoisting one of those posts out of the ground and seeing that two-thirds of it was buried over the years, sometimes with carved initials or names from now over 100 years ago. 

If treated with care, those posts will last another hundred years and longer. But the worst thing about working with those big posts isn’t how big and heavy they are, it isn’t even the fact that they make great heat-modulating devices for prairie rattlers. The worst thing about them is that if you tap them just wrong with a truck bumper, or a tractor scoop, or even a hammer, they will break off like fine china. A post that has served years of abuse, has been used as a scratching post by bulls as big as Volkswagens, will break off like a peppermint stick if struck in just the wrong way. 

In the last few months, we have seen a model of education that has served us well for decades can be a lot like those limestone posts. Built on the backs of our grandparents and parents, it is durable and can serve us for decades. But a sharp crack by a global pandemic can do significant damage and cause us to rethink the model.   

The next few weeks will be dedicated to figuring out where to set corners and boundaries. Some of those hundred-year ideas will still serve students well, but some will not. During the next few weeks, we will need to be thinking about fences in different ways. Fifty years ago, my grandfather had a coral in every pasture so cattle could be worked on-site. He used an electric fence only to keep the raccoons out of his garden. Innovation and the situation have changed on the farm. When my parents started raising goats, an electric fence became a great way to quickly and efficiently move the goats around to different areas that needed “mowed.” A farmer can buy a portable corral that is transferred to the pasture on a trailer and unfolded in a few minutes. Flexibility and adaptation are as valuable as 100-year corner posts. Fences and corals may be in different places every day.  

The same will be true in schools. We will be setting boundaries, enforcing rules, developing procedures, and setting policies that may change by the day. Hopefully, the virus risk will be reduced by new treatments or a vaccine. Until then, it will be up to school leaders to pay attention to the changing needs being placed on our education system. It will be necessary to balance safety, equity, learning, and societal needs as we make decisions.   

Significant changes in the boundaries mean that communication becomes critical. Now more than ever, school leaders will need to communicate with their staff and communities about knows and unknown. Leaders will have to be decisive about what they know and honest about what they do not know. Gathering facts will be necessary, but so will listening to concerns and fears. It might be OK to surprise a goat with an electrical shock to alert it to a new boundary, but it is not good practice to surprise staff, students, parents, and community.   

Now is the time to revisit your goals for the next 6 months, work with your community and staff, and design a flexible system to achieve them. The goals are your stone corner posts. Flexible systems are how you take the best guidance from experts and apply them to our new unstable environment.