Routine: The Boring Lifeblood of International Schools

“Who wants meatloaf? Does anyone want meatloaf? Katia, do you want meatloaf?”

“No, I want salad,” she says, looking disinterested.

“Last chance for meatloaf,” the veteran social studies teacher of 27 years repeats. She sighs, typing in the last two names. “Okay,” she says, “the meatloaf is really good. The rest of you are going to regret this.”

And so our day begins.

I’ve been trying to kill the lunch count since I started over a year ago. For a school with a 21st century mission, we shouldn’t have time for chicken sandwiches and lunch counts. My entry plan included a daily bulletin packed with more important information than you could shake a stick. There had to be more efficient ways to determine if the children wanted eggplant parmesan or rice so we could get on with saving the planet.

But of course, any leader worth his or her salt should know what not to overlook. Or dismiss.

Of all the systems changes and trends and grinding turnover, the lunch count, as inane and arcane as it seemed, had been in place since the school started in 1960. It had become, literally, an immovable feast. It was more than meatloaf. It was a time to connect, to slow down, to savor a few seconds of the day to think about the basic human need for nourishment. It was wellness before such a word became chic. It set the tone for the day.

Reading the report from the last accreditation was like dusting of an Egyptian papyrus. None of the names, initiatives, or projects were familiar. Everything had changed. And this was only five years ago.

Flipping through the report, all I could think about was all of the hard work that had gone for naught. All of the curriculum teams, the MAP benchmarks, the advisory programs, the new systems that were already defunct. Everything had drifted away like an ancient civilization.

It made me think about how much the constant reinvention and starting over held schools back. New Heads bringing new strategic plans and visions. New teachers coming and going with their suitcase curriculum. New boards bringing new priorities. And new IT personnel. Don’t get me started on what that does to school culture.

Disruption seems like so much fun. It’s creative. It’s trendy. It’s liberating. But it’s routine that anchors us so that these things can happen. You don’t just start chipping away at the foundation. That’s literally destabilizing to the entire structure.

This is not an argument for status quo. There are a lot of horrible practices out there that continue just because “we’ve always done it that way.” This is not an anti change argument. It’s a call for recognizing the simple but important routines that must be preserved so that the organization can move forward rather than constantly starting from scratch.

So, if something works and isn’t breaking the culture, then why don’t we have the discipline to honor it and put our attention somewhere else? I’ve been in this business for 24 years and I still spend far too many minutes of my life on attendance policies. “Ritualize the mundane, make room for the brilliant,” is one of my favorite quotes.

So, yes, the lunch count drives me mad. It makes me think I’m in a one room school house in Saskatchewan in the 1800s.

But it’s going to stay because it is an important constant, a cultural cornerstone of a small school that, in spite of its growth spurts, needs to keep it roots strong so it can reach for the sky.

I’ll have the meatloaf, thank you. And of course, mashed potatoes.

About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie (a specialist in families in global transition) in Croatia along with his daughter and son. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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