People and Systems

My fifth-grade teacher’s name was Mr. Slivka. To keep our rowdy class in line, he used poker chips, a bowl, and a board with nails on them.

At the beginning of the year, he showed us the board. The board had poker chips with holes in them hanging by the nails on the board. All of the poker chips had numbers on them.

He explained that we were assigned a number based on our name in alphabetical order. My number was 23.

During the day, if you followed directions, your number would stay on the board. If you were off task, you had your name written on the board, and your chip would come down.

When the day ended, all of the chips on the board would go into a bowl. Mr. Slivka would draw a winner, and the winner would get a prize.

  I am a school administrator. I spent the first half of my career as a classroom teacher, and now I am a school administrator. When you go to school to get your license as an educator, you learn that what Mr. Slivka did, is called a classroom management system. Amongst educators, you are now thrust into a debate. Some people would call what Mr. Slivka did a token economy that doesn’t teach children intrinsic motivation; others would say that what he did is an example of why schools are trapped in the industrial system, some will say that his practice wasn’t researched evidence-based practice. Another group would say that kids need discipline and structure.

  I know a lot of you aren’t educators, so before you say you don’t relate, hear me out. In specifics, the debate is about classroom management, but it is a debate about systems vs. relationships versus connections. Methods are needed in the organization. We need policies, so people get paid, systems so we are safe when we travel on planes, and systems to make sure we have the right parts operated on in a hospital. What I sometimes see in these debates is that people are defending the system more than they are the relationships involved to maintain the system. Then, when the system wins, people who don’t adapt to the system are often discouraged and forced to do something outside their skill set.

 Mr. Slivka did more than just run a classroom system. One of the prizes that we could choose was our name in wood. He would go home to carve a student’s name in wood; this would take him a considerable amount of time to do. 

 Here is one thing that I have noticed. Whenever I am in a conversation about systems, people respond to me telling me that we need policies and accountability. I don’t understand why I get these responses. Even after I tell people that I am not anti systems or anti accountability. I used to think that something was wrong with me. I just don’t get it. I am a troublemaker. I need just to fall and line. Is that true? Am I insubordinate? I tend to believe that I am creative.

What’s worse is that what I am describing hasn’t happened to me in years. I am trapped in an old story, past trauma that may be preventing me from accessing the positive stories I am living in now. Here is the lesson I learned about systems. A system is the same thing as a story. You get to choose which one works for you. When I walked into a classroom twenty years ago, I used parts of Mr. Slivka’s system. Today as a school administrator, I use his system. The lesson learned is that every system is a person who created it. Use the systems and take time to honor those who created them.

One thought on “People and Systems

  1. Hi Steve, you’ve got good commentary here. I’ll bet that since you posted this, you’ve had a few insights yourself.

    As a reader, I learned that there are many ways to manage a classroom/system. Also, that systems are a part of an ecosystem as much as the individual parts of it. Then finally, wow, that systems are also stories. This is huge. They really are! I’m feeling very fascinated about how arbitrary everything really is.

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