Redesign: Its no bull…

Redesign: Its no bull…

Recently in the KASB offices
we discussed what makes school redesign so difficult, and even scary. It can be
a dangerous business and requires a delicate dance of agreeing upon a mission,
establishing clear goals, planning strategies and tactics, teamwork,
adaptability in working toward a common goal. As often is the case with trauma
victims, it caused me to recall a moment from my younger days.  

In the early 1980’s, when my dad decided to become a
gentleman farmer/rancher, the decision was made to make a dramatic change in
breeds of cattle from the pet-like polled Herefords that were the family
tradition, to a more, shall we say, challenging cross between a cow and a
Tasmanian devil — the Brangus Breed.  

For those of you who are unfamiliar with our bovine
buddies, Brangus cattle are the result of taking a docile, pet-like Angus cow,
and crossing her with a fire-breathing, snot-blowing rodeo bull. When you arrive
at an offspring that can jump a five-wire fence flat footed and is mean enough
to chase you into the bed and over the cab of your pickup, you have a
Brangus.
  
A Brangus bull is a magnificent beast to look at and
admire, but a menacing monster to both man and beast. On the Heim farm, we
introduced a particularly fine specimen who was called “The General.” He
couldn’t get along with the other bulls, tormenting them to the point of
exhaustion, so the solution was to put a ring in his nose. Beyonce fans, don’t be confused —
putting a ring in it is way different from putting a ring on it. A bull’s nose
is very sensitive, so the nose ring makes it uncomfortable to brawl with the
other fellas.  
Eventually, reason won the day and the decision was
made to sell The General, but the buyer had a caveat — he wanted the ring
removed. One might say this was our mission, to get this creature as far away
from us as possible. I was not present for the insertion of the nose ring — no
doubt a banner day —  but I was there for the removal, and it was a day
that will forever live in infamy on the little farm on the Smokey River. Three
young men were assigned the task, my brother-in-law Brad, my brother, Woody,
and me. Three goals readily came to mind: Don’t anger our father, remove the
ring, and live through the process. We quickly arrived at strategy, tactics,
and roles.  
Step one was to get The General into a squeeze chute.
A chute that was at least 20 years old and not one of these fancy new ones, but
a wood-slatted creaky thing that I remember trapping my brother in when were
young. It was an ample design for trapping a 5-year-old boy, but not so much
for a 5-year-old bull. We got him in and squeezed him down. Every time he
inhaled it sounded like the slats would explode with his next breath. Every
time he exhaled I swear you could see fire in his nostrils. Adaptability and
teamwork came when we saw that flimsy chute trying to contain that big angry
beast.  
My brother-in-law is a master with tools and metal, so
he was assigned the screwdriver. My brother is quick-witted, so he was assigned
the gate to the barn exit and encouragement duties.  
I have few skills at all, so my job was to stand at
the barn door and if the other two came running out, roll the door shut before
the bull made it to the opening. Roles were assigned, and teamwork
ensued.  
The ring was brass and had a small brass screw holding
it together. Brass is a soft metal, and an angry 2,000-pound monster is an
unwilling accomplice, even in a squeeze chute. The screw head was quickly
stripped. Again, time to adapt in the middle of the plan. As with any plan, one
doesn’t always have the necessary resources at hand when handling a dangerous
problem, and problem-solving skills are imperative.  
Bolt cutters would have been a great option, but what
we had was a hack saw. The team roles were re-assessed and a round robin
ensued. Saw as hard and fast as you can without nipping the beast’s nose, then
hand the saw off, and rotate to the other two duties. My best and last
recollection is that men and beast were covered in blood and snot when my
brother-in-law mumbled something under his breath about how worthless his new
brothers were, grabbed the saw a final time, and willed that saw through that
ring in about three strokes. Mission accomplished, goals achieved, strategies,
tactics, and roles a success!  
School redesign isn’t as dramatic, nor physically
dangerous as what we went through. Making changes to schools is a harrowing
business nonetheless. Instead of a large snarling beast, boards and
superintendents work through a system that has evolved over 100 years to do a
great job with a lot of students. To achieve the mission of all students
learning, one must remove the parts that don’t work, while retaining the parts
that do. It is not as clear cut as the bull and the ring, but the system can be
just as angry about the process.  
Be deliberate in your process, bring the bull along
gently, have the courage to make the changes needed, and everyone will be
better off. But don’t be surprised if you get a little blood and snot on you
along the way.  
(Disclaimer: My description of the Brangus Breed is an
obvious exaggeration intended mostly to give my dad a hard time. Mostly.)