DOES EDUCATION NEED “THE GODFATHER” – SOCIAL OR MARKET NORMS?

Two Quotes from The Godfather:

Bonasera: Let them suffer then, as she suffers. How much shall I pay you?

Don Corleone: [shakes his head ruefully] Bonasera, Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then that scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.

Bonasera: Be my friend. Godfather.

[The Don shrugs, Bonasera bows toward the Don and kisses the Don’s hand.]

Don Corleone: Good. Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.

Bonasera: Grazie, Godfather.

* * *

Michael: Sonny …

Sonny: You’re taking this very personal. Tom, this is business and this man is taking it very personal.

Michael: Where does it say that you can’t kill a cop?

Tom Hagen: C’mon, Mikey!

Michael: I’m talking about a cop that’s mixed up in drugs. I’m talking about a dishonest cop…a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to him. That’s a terrific story. And we’ve got newspaper people on the payroll, right, Tom? They might like a story like that.

Tom Hagen: They might, they just might.

Michael: It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.

* * *

Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1

You’re at a party. You announce your intention to ring a taxi. You than ring. It arrives and takes you to you destination, where the driver asks you for the fare. It’s  approximately $26 which is fifty cents more than the last time you took a taxi from the same house.

Scenario 2

You’re at the same party. You announce your intention to ring a taxi. One of the guests you know hears you and says that he’s going soon and he’ll be happy to drive you. You arrive at your destination and the person driving you says, “That’ll be $15”.

Which scenario makes you more annoyed?

Chances are that it’s the second scenario which you find more disturbing because while you were expecting a financial transaction in the first, the second takes you by surprise. In the first case the extra money is mildly annoying, but in the second case, because you were expecting to pay nothing, you’re likely to find it outrageous even though you’re at least ten dollars better off than if you’d taken the taxi.

In “Predictably Irrational”, Dan Ariely talks about social norms and market norms. In social situations, we’re often prepared to help our and do things for no immediate payback. If you ask someone to help you carry something to your car, you’re unlikely to offer them payment or – The Godfather, notwithstanding – expect them to tell you that you now owe them a favour which they’ll one day collect. However, when a someone who runs a removalist business asks you to help him shift boxes and furniture, you’d normally expect payment.

Now, imagine an employee – let’s call him Trevor – approaches the boss and tells them that  he needs to leave early because his daughter’s school has just phoned  and informed him that she’s sick. The boss tells him that’s fine but he’ll have to put it in as sick leave. Is the boss being fair?

Let’s imagine that Trevor is a teacher. Would your expectation change if Trevor tells the principal that he won’t be able to attend the staff meeting because his child has suddenly been taken ill? To take it one step further, what if he announces that he’s missing the staff meeting because his partner is unavailable and he needs to miss the last twenty minutes of his class in order to pick up his children from school at 3-15 pm? Or what if someone announced that they won’t be able to attend any after school meetings or make morning briefing due to their need to pick up their children?

While some of you may consider it reasonable to dock Trevor’s pay in each situation, I suspect that  some people would have thought it wrong to penalise Trevor for missing a staff meeting when an emergency came up, but very few would consider it reasonable for him to miss all meetings in order to pick up the children or to miss his class without it being taken off his leave entitlements.

The big difference in how you perceive the situation will probably depend on whether you see the school as operating as part of a social norm or a market norm. While it’s obvious that a teacher is being paid, and is therefore expected to be present as part of the market norm, there are many occasions when social norms operate within a school. Apart from things like running classes out of scheduled times or volunteering to help out on various activities, teachers form social relationships with their colleagues and help each other out, not because of their salary, but because they see themselves as part of a group or sub-group within the school. When the chairs need to be stacked, some people will offer to help out. When going to get a coffee, some will ask if anyone else wants one. When the sets need to be painted for a school production, some will offer to help. They’ll be helpful, not because they see it something they’re paid to do, but because it’s part of the social norms of the school.

Of course, it’s when the line gets blurry that the trouble arises. While few people would think that a principal should just ignore someone missing their classes to pick up a sick child, many teachers would see missing the staff meeting as different because it doesn’t require extra work from anyone else and they can always read the minutes later. Yes, it’s part of the working week, but did the principal really have to be such a tight-arse as to take an hour off Trevor’s sick leave. After all, wasn’t Trevor here all day Saturday helping out with the working bee? It’s just not fair. I don’t see why we should do anything that’s not in our contract, if the administration is going to be like that!

It can be argued that the sick child situation is relatively clear: Trevor is expected to attend staff meetings and unless the expectation is that anyone is allowed to simply apologise and miss them, then he’s missing part of the school day.  However, there are a number of situations where the teachers are fluctuating between the two norms.

Consider the following and think about how you’d deal with each of the situations:

Jim steps over the line with his jokes during a Maths meeting, and you object. Later someone says to you “Hey, we don’t want to be all politically correct about it, do we, because, well, Jim’s a really good bloke and there’s no need to make a formal complaint, I’ll have a word to him, ok?”

Tina loses her temper in the English meeting and swears at you because you said that the work that Tina prepared on the text was too complicated and you won’t be using it in your class. Tina later tells everyone that she just can’t work with you and she won’t attend any meetings if you’re there.

You thank Sarah in the staff meeting for her help with a recent event and you present her with a bottle of wine. You’re later told that Natalie, who also helped with the project, feels unappreciated and ignored. 

Danny, who’s recently had a relationship breakup, has been arriving late and looking like he’s slept in his clothes. As you have the office near his first class, some days you’ve been covering his class till he arrives. 

Hayley has asked you to stay behind and supervise the deb ball practice. It’s fairly easy because a group of people come in and run the whole thing. You take the chance to do some marking. Two weeks later, she asks you to do it again. You say yes. Then somebody tells you that she gets a payment for organising the deb ball. 

Think about how you responded to each case. Did you respond according to a social norm or a market norm? Did this vary depending on the situation? Consider how it would have been different if you’d used the other one.

Do you think you would have responded differently depending on whether you were a teacher on contract, a teacher with a position of responsibility, or a member of the principal team?

Of course, different members of the school community will see the circumstances in which they work differently and this has the potential to cause irresolvable conflict, because the different participants aren’t operating from the same assumptions.

For teachers and administrators who see the school as primarily something that exists through a social norm, the subtext goes something like: “We give you payment so that you have the opportunity to come here and do what you love, but we all know that the salary is just incidental”. However, for those who see it primarily through a market norm, then there’s a core set of expectations and, while it’s inevitable that they’ll occasionally be caught up by social norms, their subtext revolves around, “Hang on, I didn’t sign up for this and it’s not in my job description!”

This is not to disparage the second group. In the real world, people will often fluctuate between the two mindsets, depending on who’s asking and what’s being expected. Indeed, if teachers don’t occasionally pull back and embrace the attitude of the second group from time to time, then they run the risk of being totally exploited. The point, however, is to recognise the different mindsets and to ask if the problem isn’t really a clash of norms rather than something more complicated.

Obviously, ideas such as performance pay for teachers belongs with people who think of schools as operating under market norms, yet anyone who’s read most of the research on motivation will know that money as an incentive is only effective in a limited number of circumstances. Performance pay is like asking people to help you weed your garden for free, while the person next to them is being paid.

The best schools will be the ones where positive social expectations dictate people’s behaviour, so the difficult question is how to ensure these without making members of staff feel exploited. It’s a difficult question, but one worth asking.

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