Recently minted Ethics Alarms participant Ryan Harkins has his first Comment of the Day, and when I read it, I knew it would not be his last. This one does what my favorite comments do: pick up the baton from my original post, and carry it down the track (or, in some cases, throw it into the crowd.) The topic was the classroom fistfight in an Atlanta middle school.
Here is Ryan Harkins’ Comment of the Day on the post,“Two Public School Educators Duke It Out In Class: What’s Going On Here?”:
Jack, the only quibble I have is when you say that you don’t care what the fight was about. I think it is important to learn what the fight was about, because then it gets us into the heads of the combatants, and that is what allows us to start the investigation that goes all the way up. The reason I think this requires a little explanation, so please forgive the lengthy rambling to follow.
I have to admit, my bias in this matter comes from dealing with incident investigations at my refinery, and the various training courses we’ve received in how to conduct such investigations. The one that really stands out the most is called “Latent Cause Analysis”, championed by Robert Nelms. The premise is that all incidents, even if we are speaking of a pump aggressively disassembling itself, ultimately are traced back to human causes. In the case of a pump, yes entropy will eventually have its way with the best-built pump in the world, but the reason the pump failed while it was in service causing a major incident is rooted in human causes.
Once the human causes are identified, we examine the gap between what behavior we actually had, and what behavior we desire. Then we ask why that gap exists. We try to understand the motivations of the stakeholders — those that had some role to play in the incident — to the point that we would make the same decision in their place. For example, that pump was not maintained, even though it was on a schedule. We can all agree that the pump should have been maintained, and that there was an ethical failing in not maintaining the pump when it was explicit in the instructions to properly maintain it, but that doesn’t close the gap of why it wasn’t maintained. Perhaps the pump was unique in the plant and parts were not in stock, and the supplier was slow in provided the replacement parts need for maintenance. Maybe the pump mechanic felt that if he tried to bring the problem to management, his warnings that the pump needed maintenance but couldn’t be fixed due to lack of parts would fall on deaf ears. After all, the pump is in a critical service, there are no backups, and taking the unit offline to fix the pump would put the entire plant’s product plan in jeopardy. So we have a problem with the pump mechanic who failed to report the problem so it could be properly assessed for risk management. But we have a deeper, cultural problem, in which this employee in particular, but perhaps employees at large, feel they are not being listened to, or perhaps even that speaking up is a risk to their employment. Then we have to examine management to understand (not condone, but understand) why the willingness to dismiss employee concerns is so prevalent.
Once the understanding is made, two questions are then asked. What is it about the group as a whole that allowed this event to happen? And, what is it about ME that allowed this event to happen? Once we answer those questions, we can produce a list of action items to hopefully improve the situation, that will close the gap between desired behavior and actual behavior.
So what about this case of two teachers fighting? True, we’re already at the human contribution of the incident, but what explains the gap between the desired behavior (professional attitudes, especially in front of children, especially in putting personal matters aside for the sake of the children) and the observed behavior (Jerry Spring Live in the classroom)? Suppose it was a fight over a man. Can we get into the heads of the combatants enough to understand why they felt that a physical clash in front of a young, impressionable audience was preferable to any of the alternatives? Once we start digging into those motivations, we might discover that the incident is a byproduct of a culture in which soap-opera dramas are considered the norm, and are being fostered by the administration at large. Or we might find that these are personal problems that have simmered for a great deal of time, and that two otherwise professional persons reached a breaking point, and the administration was actually innocent. Or we might find that these individuals had no clue that professional behavior meant keeping personal issues out of the classroom, that such antics were, to them, a norm, and the school’s vetting process utterly failed to pick up on that.
The point, though, is that even if this fight is a direct consequence of our failing school systems, until we identify what the latent causes are, we can never close the gap between desired behavior and actual behavior. It also makes it impossible to tell if this event is actually a consequence of a failing system (which, by the way, I do agree is failing) or a one-off, isolated incident.
It will be interesting if we get to see any of the rationalizations that undoubtedly will be used to explain the fight. While the rationalizations are themselves ethical dodges, what they are should be enlightening. So, if the teachers use the “everyone does it”, especially if the administration quickly tries to cover up incidents as they happen, while that doesn’t excuse their behavior, it does point to a larger cultural issue. We can start to ask why the administration tries to cover up the incidents. Is it a matter of power? Is it a concern over job security? Or is there a fear that if too many issues become public knowledge, the school will be shut down, and some of the people in charge find that so intolerable that they are willing to sacrifice ethics to keep the school open? If it is the case that the administration feels it is worth more to them to chuck ethics out the window than follow other courses of action, can we learn enough about the pressures they are facing that we can understand (again, understand, not condone) their decisions?