May 7, 2021

The Age of Dependency?

The Superintendents’ Corner:  

If you want to find some interesting (and appalling) statistics about cell phone usage, just type “cell phone addiction” into your computer and see what comes up.  Here are just four examples:

  • 47% of smartphone users say they could not get along without their smartphones
  • On average, smartphone users check their phones 58 times per day
  • 66% of smartphone users admit to being “addicted” to their phones
  • 75% of smartphone users say they sleep with their phones by their beds

Much of the literature on cell phone addiction is directed to the usage by children and to the effects it is having on cyber bullying, on the development on non-functional personal relationships and on language.  All of these are a matter of great concern to us as educators and even more to us as parents and grandparents.  Interestingly, however, there does not appear to be similar research done yet on the topic of the smartphone as a powerful agent in what I call “the growing culture of dependency”.

Let me start off with a brief anecdote.  When I was a superintendent in the Ontario school system, I always carried my cell phone with me – especially when I was out visiting some of my 22 schools.  There were four people who had my phone number:  my administrative assistant, my wife and my two children.  In the case of my wife and children, they understood that the phone was to be used for emergency purposes only.  My wife never called, and, upon occasion, my children did with an “emergency” which bore little resemblance to that term in the general sense of the world – but teenagers will be teenagers.

In terms of my use of the phone for professional purposes, I did want to be in regular contact with my administrative assistant and she with me in case issues arose that had to be dealt with in my absence from the office.  She used it sparingly and she always knew I would be checking in with her in the morning and afternoon before I returned to the office.  None of my principals had the number and were asked to go directly to my administrative assistant who was expert at screening calls.

Fast forward a few years to two years after my retirement.  I was working with a group of superintendents from a large school board, some of whom I had known through my years in the role they found themselves now.  Over the course of a two-day training session, I noticed that most of them were constantly on their phones, being drawn out of the sessions at various intervals to take calls.

On the second day, I managed to grab some time at lunch with two of the superintendents I knew well, and I asked them who was calling.  Most calls, they said, were from their principals.  I pressed them further and asked what the nature of the calls were – and I was taken aback at the responses.  The two that stood out for me were one in which the principal was asking what he/she should do about leaving the school flag at half mask because a student at the school had passed away at the local hospital.  The other one was from a principal who wanted direction on whether he/she should call the school council chair to consult with the chair about the fact that two parents had raised concern over the use of a piece of literature they deemed prejudicial in a Grade 10 English.  There were others in the same vein, I know, but I can’t recall them specifically.

Quite frankly, I was dumfounded.  I could not believe that the principal was making the call – and I was equally dismayed that the superintendent was permitting such a call to be made.  As a principal, I came from an era in which it was expected that the problem would be solved at the school level and that a call to a superintendent would be a last resort.  It was my practice (and the practice of my colleagues) to call the superintendent’s office to inform the superintendent of a problem, outline how it was handled and simply leave him/her with the information so he/she would be not be surprised if a parent took the matter past the school.  I made the decision, was not asking for guidance, and fervently hoped it had been solved – as it usually was – at the school level.

As a superintendent, I made certain that my principals could expect support from me in 99% of the cases (I felt strongly they were quite capable of managing their schools) but that I also expected they would manage the decision-making about their schools in their office, not mine.  I told them as gently as I could that I was not interested in running 22 schools myself!  I also said I was quite prepared to make a decision if I was forced into it, but the principals had to understand that if they asked for decision and got one they didn’t like, they had no choice but to implement it.  Point made!

So, what had had changed the culture so profoundly since my retirement only a few years before?  Provincial requirements for principal certification had not changed.  Most districts were using the same selection processes that had been used earlier and there was actually more in-house training for principal interns in the larger systems which, theoretically, made them more ready for the job.

Then I hit upon what I think is the culprit:  the omnipresent cell phone.  If principals could access their superintendents simply by hitting a number on the speed dial, why not call and get some advice – or a decision – instantly?  At best they might be able to get someone to make a decision (and thus accept responsibility for that decision) for him/her.  At least, they could get some advice.

I do not believe that this occurrence was the product of cowardice (though, perhaps, a lack of confidence), I believe the ease with which the contact could be made simply morphed into a culture of dependency.  Calling for assistance as an option became calling for assistance as a regular process became an over-reliance on someone else’s decision-making power and higher authority – all facilitated by the continuous availability provided through technology.

If one thinks about it, if we continue to allow principals to use the responding superintendent to make the decisions for them, let’s replace the principals with a clerk who simply (and at far lower cost) transfers the running of the school to an absentee school leader called a superintendent of schools by being in constant contact via a cell phone.

So where to begin?  Perhaps superintendents could change their cell phone numbers, make it available to his/her assistant only and force the principals to make the decision at their level – because there is no opportunity for instant response.  Let’s put the decision-making back where it belongs – in the principal’s office except in the most extreme instances.  We’d then be able to grow more autonomous and confident decision-makers in the school – and we just might save on phone bills!

 Dr. Dan

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