The Unintended Consequences of Reorganization

The churning of a school system and its toll on the professional staff

For the last five years, the lives of New York City public school educators have been governed by constant change. With certainty, every January or June heralded something new — restructured departments and offices, staff changes and new initiatives. While our professional lives were ruled by the rhythms of the school calendar, they came to include the expected announcements of changes in January and June.

One of the most interesting chapters in the history of the NYC school system unfolded in the spring of 2003 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein embarked on a major reorganization of the NYC Department of Education named the Children First Initiative. Its primary goal was to create more than 1,400 great schools.

JieZeng.jpgJie Zeng worked as a regional office administrator in the New York City Public Schools.

To make this a reality, 32 community school districts and high schools were organized into 10 regions, with each region overseen by a regional superintendent. The restructuring of the NYC Department of Education created numerous new positions that were not clearly defined, with staff members not certain of their own and others’ changed roles and responsibilities. Regional offices were left to interpret, negotiate and realign former policies to the changes stemming from the central system.

In one region composed of more than 130 schools organized into networks of 10 or more, each network was supervised by a local instructional superintendent. Regional instructional specialists and other staff formed the instructional backbone to the regional office.

A Peripheral Start
It is midsummer 2003. I begin my time at the Department of Education as the special assistant to the regional superintendent and spend the first few months of my job on the periphery, observing the organization and its members. While I know I am responsible for supporting the region in developing programs and initiatives, it is not clear to me what that entails. Like others in the region, I am learning the landscape of the new organization and where I fit.

For superintendents, the daily realities of their work are far removed from its original theoretical conception. Most of their initial time is spent brokering the demands of others in the system on matters tangentially related to teaching and learning. This prompts the beginning of many conversations about the equitable distribution of resources — financial and human support — in the office.

By August, we are preparing to launch a new school year under a new structure. In a conference room, 12 superintendents sit around a table with the regional superintendent and her deputy. There is a random assortment of individuals — some who moved through the ranks of leadership in NYC and others new to the city.

They come as former principals or deputy superintendents under the old organization with different experiences and ways of negotiating the space around them. A hodgepodge list of skills, interests and prior accomplishments emerges as they share their strengths and weaknesses. They all have initial questions: What is my work? What is the best use of my time and how realistic is it? How should I support my schools and the region? A picture of the region’s executive leadership team slowly emerges.

This was my first introduction to a group that I would spend four years working with closely. I came believing in the possibilities of this change and that the system needed enormous restructuring. I had fallen for the public perception that the system was highly dysfunctional.

The announcement of the second reorganization four years later heralds an end to a community that I have helped to develop. By the time the region closes, my perceptions have changed dramatically.

The Mayor’s Mandate
It is early January 2007, four years since the appointment of regional superintendents. The regional offices have existed for about 3 years. Elementary schools are in the midst of the state’s English language arts exam. In his state of the city address, the mayor unveils the next phase of the Children First Initiative, furthering his focus on empowerment, accountability and leadership. The chancellor paints broad strokes of another reorganization with significant implications for schools that must choose among three support systems.

The announcements confirm rumors that the 10 regional offices will close June 30, leaving principals to discern the differences among each of three support structures (four nascent learning support organizations, an empowerment support organization, or an approved list of nonprofit agencies) and determine which would best support them in their instructional needs.

In addition to the regional offices, the boroughwide operation centers are also slated for closure, but their work would be subsumed into new boroughwide organizations. Those at the regional offices are left wondering, “What next?”

Aching Silence
I return to the office a week after the chancellor’s announcement. It is 7:30 a.m. There is silence. I am the first in the office and unlock the doors and turn on the lights. While I experienced the first reorganization as an outsider, I experience this one while it unfolds.

The days that follow are punctuated by aching silence and manic tears coupled with a deep sense of sadness, frustration with and confusion about the meaning of what is to happen. We are asking “What does this mean for you?” What we do not ask though is, “What does this mean for your work?” Interactions become not about each other’s work but about emotions, our own and those of others.

I seek out other people’s company during the first hours of my return to the region, needing to understand the purpose of this reorganization. The first person I see is the regional superintendent. She explains that the state of the New York City school system is constantly changing. She shows her disappointment and resignation with the decisions that have been made.

We spend a few minutes in pregnant silence before moving on — how do we do this, where are the best places for staff, who do we need to be concerned about? I leave her office preoccupied with plans. In keeping busy, I effectively detach myself from considering the implications for myself and temporarily avoid the need to reconcile my own goals with needing a place that could serve as my new home.

Many of us feel angry and helpless. We wait. Some of us feel betrayed by a system that seemingly valued our work, yet repeatedly told us we were not doing what was needed to help our schools but made no efforts to understand what we were doing.

During this chaotic time we grab onto anything that offers some measure of solidity — furniture, a new position, each other. The rules by which we interacted with each other for the last four years are tossed aside. Our playground is disappearing and with that the rules and understandings that governed its existence.

A Grieving Process
By 4 p.m., the office is empty of staff who, prior to the chancellor’s announcement, had often stayed to work into the evening. I am the only one there typing out a last e-mail, checking off one last thing on my list. The silence follows me home — the people I count on to send e-mails in the middle of the night disappear. The questions we have been pursuing in our work and the plans we have made are suspended in time. We do not know how to move forward. The changes are all we can talk about, yet each conversation brings us no closer to a sense of efficacy, deeper understanding or closure.

How often will we have to adapt, learn and relearn the system as it continually changes, and when might the structure become stable enough such that we will have enough time to fully explore our initiatives?

While the region in which our initiatives are housed is closing, I hope what we have learned together will continue to have relevance to our schools so they will choose to continue that work on their own. I see the possibility of some things enduring beyond any one administration. Perhaps the time period leading up to this reorganization was meant to support our schools in understanding the different paths they can travel and the types of work they can pursue. I know some will be able to maneuver the changed landscape while others will have a more difficult time. There are some who feel this is the bureaucratic nature of the system with little ever changing.

A Nebulous Space
During this time of uncertainty, we have the opportunity to reflect about where we hope to be and what we would like to do within the larger context of our individual professional goals. Many of us are forced to define our future goals. For some of us, the box that bounds what we can explore is limitless; for others, boundaries are defined by their time dedicated to the school system and in turn the positions that are available under the reorganization. These changes cement some people’s decisions to retire, returning as consultants and limited only by their own terms. We are all in pursuit of a promise of more certainty by June 30.

We have our own criteria for judging what is important to us and different ways of managing our time. Some actively seek positions while others wait for more information to make better decisions. Some pursue positions indiscriminately while others choose to expend their energy only on those that appear to be a good fit. Some are approached by prospective employers while others are left alone wondering, “Where can I go and what can I do?”

In this process, we reach out to others for help, sometimes believing that someone else could make the better choice for us. We all have an internal timeline — a time by which we feel we should know things or have a decision. Our appetite for uncertainty, desire to use this nebulous space to define our own goals and vision, and confidence in our options contribute to how we choose to manage this time. The search for a place to anchor ourselves soon takes on the feel of a public litmus test of the worth of our work.

As the system continued to define its parts, would positions become available that would be a better match? We are uncertain as to how long to wait — would the next offer be better or closer aligned to what I want to do? At what point should I be concerned that an offer has not come?

Some accept that the next position may not be the final stop in their journey, but an interim, introspective period to discover their place in the world. Because the system is still largely unknown, we often find ourselves pursuing positions where there is little certainty as to the work we would do, who we would work with and the available resources and support. People’s expertise is lost within this scramble, including the purpose for their work. There is not enough information to know where best to place ourselves.

Some of us refuse to engage in this initial process of seeking out or of being sought. We ignore the noise surrounding the office, convincing ourselves that it is in our best interest and the interest of our schools to focus on the work we have set out for the year. However, this single-mindedness separates us from the things happening outside of work and affects our locus of control. Ultimately, though, we have to pay attention because the system is changing around us. As positions start opening, it is in our best interest to determine where we can fit in.

I begin the journey by ignoring what will ultimately happen to me, reasoning that I have the benefit of time. As the weeks pass, however, the distance between the present and June 30 quickly disappears and I have to consider what next. I rely on others for thoughtful remarks and questions or knowledge of possible positions and people. I interview formally and informally for various positions and am struck by the fluidity of some. One prospective employer tells me I might be hired for one purpose but it could change in a few months, in response to the reorganization. This does not feel right.

Purging Contents
While I accept the inevitability of the regional office’s closure, I struggle initially with knowing what to do when an organization is forced to close. Eventually, mid-June becomes my marker for shutting down and disposing of my files, maintaining the barest of daily essentials and two or three pending items. This space — this time period when we have only a few months left, where many do not know where we are going — is a black hole that eats our creativity, productivity and commitment. We become uninspired.

I am disengaged from my work and begin to purge my office. There are things I send home and others that I give away, sending artifacts of our professional development program to someone while also gathering professional materials to send to schools.

In this process, whole cabinet drawers are emptied without a peek into their contents. Someone spends a month scanning every document before throwing away the papers. Trash bins overflow. I discover a copy of Ish, a children’s book, in a large blue recycling bin. Inside is a heartfelt note from one colleague to another. I retrieve the book from the trash slyly, feeling like I am resurrecting someone else’s history.

Plenty of resources would have been thrown out if colleagues had not approached me asking for them. These exchanges were quiet — somehow the shopping for other people’s resources needed to be done stealthily. Only once did I dare to break this sacred silence, jokingly asking a colleague where she is going to put everything, including some of the artwork she had taken from the walls. In the end, we threw things out indiscriminately. If we could not make room in our home or car trunk or closets, we threw it out. The goal as we neared June 30 is to dispose of everything.

Skeletal Remains
It is June 30. The regional office closes. One moment we are sitting close with friends and sharing sentimental memories, the next we are pushing them aside trying to move this day along as fast as we can. Many are already gone, electing to leave midweek rather than stay until the last day. By the time we say goodbye, there are only the skeletal remains of our existence.

On my last day in the office, I drive out to a restaurant with three people — one who was instrumental in bringing me to the region and nurtured me throughout; one who shared with me her 30-plus years of experiences in the system and taught me about the politics of our education system; and one who shared with me her physical space and attended to my daily well-being. One will continue with her work, though with many questions; one will retire to join a nonprofit, working with a network of schools; and one will move on to an assistant principalship.

I will move to another borough after accepting a position with one of the boroughwide centers. In my six years of work in education, four with the city’s public schools, I have had to reinvent myself at least three times. Each time, I moved forward with anxiety, often waiting for things to happen to me, sometimes actively resisting with someone pushing me. During my time with the region, I learned the importance of knowing my own passions and interests and having them serve as my internal compass by which to navigate the continually changing landscape.

Questions Linger
Now it is July 2007. As I begin my position in another birthing of the city’s schools administration, the questions that follow me to the new organization are similar to the questions that were significant to me throughout the first reorganization. I wonder how unstable organizations move toward stability, how instability affects organizational efficiency and what mechanisms individuals use to successfully cope.

Coming to the system fresh, I was compelled to learn, observe and participate in creating; the regional office became my play area and laboratory. By the time I move to another borough, I am less enthusiastic and certain that my time is limited to one school year, affecting my energy and willingness to participate in the organization.

In pursuit of excellence, the mayor and schools chancellor introduced tremendous change to the system, first in 2003 and then again in 2007. This instability forced conversations of what was valuable and, in turn, where to divert the system’s limited resources. Despite having similar pieces across like organizations, the lack of clear boundaries or conditions eventually led to distinct entities with their own visions and missions. While this creative space allowed us to redefine what was essential to us, it also contributed to the tension where there might have been disjointedness or misalignment between organizations serving the same system.

We were given four years to seed, grow and come to full bloom. The first year, I struggled with questions and an overwhelming learning curve that included understanding the place I was in. My second year found me uncovering more questions but beginning to find connections and a place to explore those questions. My third year allowed me to begin engaging others in my questions and to help them generate their own. By the fourth year, I was heavily invested in the organization and our work and felt I knew where we were going. Where could we have gone if we had been able to continue to push the boundaries of our space?

Jie Zeng, a former regional office administrator in the New York City Public Schools, is a graduate student in urban education policy at Columbia University. E-mail: jyz2104@columbia.edu