Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
October 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2

Managing Polarities in School Instructional Cultures

author avatar
author avatar
Addressing the varied challenges facing educators today will require balanced and interdependent solutions.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

LeadershipClassroom Management
October 2022 Kise header image
Credit: STUART KINLOUGH / IKON IMAGES
You revitalize your learning teams to build collective teacher efficacy, but then teachers complain that they don't have enough time to grade papers or communicate with parents.
Your strategic focus on mathematics instruction pays off with student gains in math proficiency, but you lose ground on reading scores.
You provide resources for teacher self-care, but several teachers complain it's all a waste of their planning time.
Can you think of other examples where solid improvement initiatives had unintended consequences? If you consider trends in education where the pendulum keeps swinging from one "solution" to another, you'll probably spot several. These dichotomies often involve seemingly contradictory but equally valuable priorities that are actually interdependent. Barry Johnson (1992) first coined the term "polarity" for these dilemmas that can't be solved once and for all but instead need to be managed together over time.

Both/And instead of Either/Or

What is a polarity? Humor us for a moment by taking a deep breath and holding it. Continue to hold it … a bit more … just bear with us … and exhale. Now ask yourself which is better: Exhaling or inhaling?
When we lead this activity during workshops, inevitably at least one person replies, "Exhaling is better!" It's true, exhaling feels good. But if you only exhale, eventually you'll pass out. Inhaling and exhaling are equally valuable, and interdependent; you can only do one of them for so long without needing to do the other.
Education debates are full of such polarities. Professional learning communities involve balancing individual teacher responsibilities and collaborative team responsibilities. When we make progress in any one content area, we also need to pay attention to other content areas. To address educator burnout and turnover, schools need to confront organizational, societal, and environmental factors that affect educators as well as provide individual tools such as meditation and self-care.
Polarities operate whether we pay attention to them or not, but ignoring or mismanaging them can create huge problems. Further, you can't solve a polarity once and for all; achieving balance between two "poles" takes continuous effort. If you treat a polarity as a problem with one finite solution, you eventually get the downside of both poles and arrive at outcomes you were trying to avoid in the first place. Yes, educator physical, mental, and emotional health are all issues we need to address, but let's consider them through three key polarities that can provide strategies for a better "normal" in the future:

1. Health via Individual and Organizational Responsibility

Back in 2015, we began developing our Brain Energy and Bandwidth Survey, which we published in our book Educator Bandwidth: How to Reclaim Your Energy, Passion, and Time (ASCD, 2022), to help educators reflect on their energy and engagement and more effectively balance work and family. Since then, we've researched the most effective habits for staying energized, passionate, and engaged at work while still having a personal life. The individual section of the survey covers familiar areas of self-care such as exercise, sleep, and diet—the building blocks of physical and mental health (Aschwanden, 2021). We also discerned that how well individuals can focus, filter through information, handle social connections, and maintain attention to priorities were vital to job performance and satisfaction.

Polarities operate whether we pay attention to them or not, but ignoring or mismanaging them can create huge problems.

Author Image

However, individuals only have so much control over these factors because of the cultures in which we live and work. In our first data meetings with leaders, they said, "But we can't control whether people stay up too late or doomscroll on social media." And we replied, "That is true. But what norms in your school are supporting their ability to focus on complex tasks for the optimal 50 minutes at a time before taking a break?" (Bailey, 2018) or "Can they unplug outside of school, or are they expected to respond to emails at any time?" Often the answers were no, or silence.
In our survey, we found the statement that best predicts an individual's capacity for willpower, emotional intelligence, and dealing with stress—what we call bandwidth—is "Management where I work fosters a work environment that allows me to be effective." Here are a few examples of the actions leaders can take to better support how employees' brains function and give them greater bandwidth:
  • Normalizing walks during lunch or as part of meetings, as well as leaving the building on time.
  • Communicating to parents that teachers will respond to emails within 24 hours (removing the pressure to respond immediately).
  • Avoiding scheduling meetings on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.
  • Fostering good team relationships as a crucial component of handling stress (McGonegal, 2015).
  • Designating "do not disturb" areas where teachers can retreat for planning lessons or other complex tasks.
Consider similar organizational steps your school could take to better support a healthier work culture. What healthy norms have arisen in your community without conscious planning, and how could they be formalized? What gets in the way of people being able to balance work and personal life? With the common goal of energized, effective, and passionate educators, schools can bolster teachers' individual self-care efforts while also reshaping the learning community to better support bandwidth.

2. Parent/Guardian Input and Teacher Input

Another important community-connected polarity is especially relevant now, as the transition to distance and blended learning has resulted in a shift in the role parents and guardians play in their children's education. Schools increasingly must maintain the balancing act of inviting parent/guardian input while also honoring teacher wisdom as it relates to the needs of students. This polarity has proven challenging; many educators have recently reported increases in stressful encounters with parents (APA, 2022).
Schools have long taken a wide range of attitudes toward parent involvement. Past research has identified four possible narratives a learning community might consciously or unconsciously hold which affect their expectations and opportunities for family involvement (Kise & Russell, 2008). The Deficit Narrative assumes that poor parenting skills drive student struggles and leads schools to limit interactions with families to "remedial parenting skills." The In Loco Parentis Narrative assumes that students need skills their families aren't equipped to provide and limits parent involvement to nonacademic activities, such as fundraising. The Helicopter Parent Narrative assumes that parents are overprotecting their children, rather than helping them develop self-efficacy, and channels parent energy into nonacademic efforts such as organizing social events.
Finally, the Relational Narrative leverages the polarity of parent/guardian and teacher input and welcomes parents as partners, providing communication channels that work for everyone and that share clear expectations in multiple ways: online portals, open house sessions, handbooks, etc. Conferences, emails, calls, and other communication can then focus on the needs of the child within the classroom community. For example, "talking circle" meetings, where parents, teachers, administrators, and students share their view without interruption, can lead to better understanding of each perspective.
Ask yourself, how does your school's informal narrative about parents affect the parental involvement you seek? What actions might shift the narrative to improve parent-teacher partnership?

3. Outcomes and People

Many polarities can be described by one common polarity. For example, think how Part and Whole describes Child and Class, Teacher and Team, Team and School, School and Community. Outcomes and People is also essential, as it encompasses at least three polarities that are crucial to improving the learning and working environment in schools.
Academic Success and Whole Child Success. Student academic success and meeting the needs of the whole child are interdependent. If your learning community is debating how to recover from pandemic-driven learning loss while also meeting student SEL needs, you are already working with this polarity. Over-focus on academics can stress students and inhibit strong teacher-student relationships, but over-focus on the whole child can lead to too little time for academics. As internal and external pressures on classrooms and student performance continue to shift, schools need to attend to both poles.
Teacher Accountability and Teacher Support. Teaching is a highly skilled profession. New discoveries in learning science, increased diversity, and policy changes require teachers to engage in continuous learning and adaptation, but schools also need to support this process through individualized and community-wide professional development. For example, if teachers are accountable for using rubrics that provide feedback to students, but the last training session on creating these rubrics happened several years ago, how can schools support both new teachers and established teachers who need help mastering this practice?

A strategic plan informed by polarities is dynamic. It includes both actions for improving the current situation and simple ways to gauge the effectiveness of those actions.

Author Image

Goal Orientation and Engagement. This polarity can be applied to both adults and students in a learning community. People who are truly engaged generate the intrinsic motivation that propels them toward big goals, but those goals also need to be achievable to drive self-efficacy. Leveraging this polarity helps teachers build enthusiasm in their students to work toward mastery of a discipline by, say, guiding them to think like a scientist or design like a programmer. For example, goals for reading progress could include metrics that show not just increased proficiency but also increased love for books and literature, like the number of times students are surprised when you say, "Time's up!" at the end of silent reading.

Leading Via Polarities

So how can we leverage these polarities in school improvement? Johnson (2020) provides a simple yet powerful process for developing a plan that fosters real-time adjustments to classroom or school strategies. The acronym SMALL can be used as a guide through the process.
See the polarity. For example, in the return to in-person learning, most schools have recognized the tension between accelerating learning and social-emotional learning.
Are there other ways you might describe each pole in your school? For example, have you concentrated on growth toward standards as well as surveys of student social and emotional health?
Map what you value. What positive results do you hope to see from each pole? And what negative results might come from too much focus on either side? See Figure 1 for a summary of what this mapping process might look like.
October 2022 Kise figure 1
Assess where you are. Having a clear picture of, for example, what student progress toward standards and student social-emotional needs look like is central to knowing how best to respond to this polarity in your school. Knowing where you are ensures your next steps address your community's specific situation.
With 100 being perfect, 50 meaning you sometimes leverage this polarity well, and 0 meaning you are getting the downside of both poles—students struggling academically and emotionally—where are you now on this polarity?
Learn from how you got to where you are. Reflect on what factors contributed to your school's current polarities. For example, one school that Jane consulted with realized they were getting the downside of both poles because teachers were focusing too much on technology implementation even after most students had returned to the classroom and they had neglected to help students build relationships with classmates.
What policies or practices played a role in your current handling of this polarity?
Leverage, or plan for managing this polarity. First, consider which side you may need to focus on. Leveraging a polarity seldom means equal attention to each pole, and schools may need to work more on one pole than the other.
Second, define how you will spot an imbalance in the polarity, or early warning signs of possible tilt in one direction. These are real-time markers demonstrating that your action steps need adjusting. Perhaps, for example, teachers can monitor a few of their most at-risk students to see if frequent testing for academic progress is having adverse effects on engagement or mental health.
What action steps and early warnings might form the foundation for your strategic planning to foster both academic and whole child success?
A strategic plan informed by polarities is dynamic. It includes both actions for improving the current situation and simple ways to gauge the effectiveness of those actions. Your plan shouldn't wait for test results or staff surveys; it should provide quick, in-the-moment signs that continuously inform you of whether you are making progress.

Expanding Solutions

Learning to think in terms of both/and is a core leadership skill, according to the Center for Creative Leadership (2020). To get started, choose any one of the above polarities you can identify in your learning community. Use the SMALL process to explore how you might plan to better manage this ongoing tension. Perhaps share your thinking with someone you know who thinks differently. You can start using polarity thinking right away, and by reading books, engaging in further training, and sharing strategies with your community, your ability to rethink persistent challenges and expand your solutions will only grow.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Has your school or district encountered polarities? How did you identify them?

➛ How can understanding the balance between individual and organizational responsibility help expand teacher capacity and counter the effects of burnout?

➛ Do you have colleagues or community partners who think differently about organizational challenges? If so, how could you work with them to implement the SMALL process?

How to Regain Lost Time

This new book by Jane Kise and Ann C. Holm offers tools for reducing stress, avoiding burnout, and reclaiming time.

How to Regain Lost Time
References

American Psychological Association. (2022). "Teachers, other school personnel, experience violence, threats, harassment during pandemic."

Aschwanden, C. (2021). "Forget about magic immunity: Sleep, exercise and diet are the pathway to avoiding illness." The Star Tribune.

Bailey, C. (2018). Hyperfocus: How to work less and achieve more. Macmillan.

Center for Creative Leadership. (2020). "How to be a successful change leader."

Johnson, B. (1992). Polarity management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Human Resource Development Press.

Johnson, B. (2020). And: Making a difference by leveraging polarity, paradox, or dilemma. Volume 1: Foundations. Polarity Partnerships, LLC.

Kise, J. A. G., & Russell, B. R. (2008). Differentiated school leadership: Effective collaboration, communication, and change through personality type. Corwin Press.

McGonegal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it. Penguin.

Jane Kise, EdD, CPQC, founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates, has worked as a consultant for 30 years, specializing in executive and instructional coaching and professional development. She is also the author or coauthor of over 25 books, including Doable Differentiation; Holistic Leadership, Thriving Schools; Differentiated Coaching; and Creating a Coaching Culture for Professional Learning Communities. She holds an MBA in finance from the Carlson School of Management and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of St. Thomas, where she is an adjunct professor for the doctoral program.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Leadership
No More Vague School Action Plans!
Chris Briggs-Hale
2 months ago

undefined
The Difficult Job of Schools Leaders
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

undefined
Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher
2 months ago

undefined
Grasping for Less
Chase Mielke
2 months ago

undefined
Let's Talk Up the Profession
Jill Harrison Berg
2 months ago
Related Articles
No More Vague School Action Plans!
Chris Briggs-Hale
2 months ago

The Difficult Job of Schools Leaders
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher
2 months ago

Grasping for Less
Chase Mielke
2 months ago

Let's Talk Up the Profession
Jill Harrison Berg
2 months ago
From our issue
October 2022 Cover image
The Education Profession: Changing the Narrative
Go To Publication