Being 'Transactional' Versus Being 'Transformational' in Schools

Let's go beyond simplistic notions of reward and punishment in education policy, and move towards genuine collaboration and cooperation.
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Marshall Ganz, for whom I have a great deal of respect, offers an analysis of the recent election results in the LA Times in a column titled "How Obama lost his voice, and how he can get it back."

He focuses in on what he describes as the President's choice to be "transactional" instead of "transformational." It's a difference first coined by political scientist James MacGregor Burns, and one used by community organizers (which both Ganz and I have been). Though I agree with his basic points, I'm not as enthusiastic about how Ganz characterizes the difference between the two (I would summarize his description -- perhaps unfairly -- as transactional being "compromise" and transformational being "change").

I, and others, might describe the difference more this way:

Transactional leaders tend to look at the world through a lens of punishment, rewards, and or exchange ("horsetrading") for motivation, while transformational leaders focus on listening, collaboration, and leading by example.

I also think Ganz goes too far in describing it as an either/or choice -- I think an effective leader, teacher, and organizer needs to be able to do both -- with a greater emphasis on the transformational side of things.

Nevertheless, his highlighting of these two leadership styles provoked me to consider how they might be applied to schools -- in the everyday classroom, and in overall education policy.

In The Classroom:

We teachers have to deal with the tension between these kinds of options all the time.

For example, I have had students whose writing skills are so low that they would clearly not graduate from high school unless they make dramatic improvement. I could have chosen to be only "transactional" by pushing them "get by" just enough to pass my class. In the face of all the needs other students have, doing this kind of "triage" is not an uncommon strategy that many of us take.

Another option would have been to be heroically "transformational" (a la the teachers we see in the movies giving up their own lives to help their students).

The option that I chose, though, was one with more of a realistic balance. I had individual conversations with each of them (done, of course, in the context of very good relationships we had built). I began by saying that each of them had told me in the past that they wanted to graduate from high school and go to college, and asking if that was still a goal. After they each confirmed that it was, I bluntly told them that it probably wasn't going to happen unless they dramatically improved their writing skills, but that I would be willing to create special assignments that would require extra work from them but that should be engaging (they could help pick the topics they write about) and ultimately help them.

For example, I said, for next week I would want them to use the outline and graphic organizers we had been using to write a persuasive essay about the worst natural disaster to, instead, have them write about why their favorite football or soccer team was better than another one (one of their interests).

If they decided they wanted to do this extra work, they would need to continue to do our class' regular work, though I would temporarily reduce my expectations for what would constitute a completed assignment. I would also give them extra credit for completing their extra writing assignments.

I also told each of them that they were free to decide they didn't want to do the extra writing work -- I wouldn't be angry at them if they made that choice. They just needed to decide how badly they wanted to graduate and go to college.

Each one of them said they wanted to start doing the extra writing work, and things went well, though it wasn't quite as easy to get them to actually do the work all the time. But the stage was set for the motivation to come from them, not from me. I was able to regularly remind them that they made the decision, and say that they're the ones who say they want to graduate and go to college.

Notice that "transactional" and "transformational" tactics are all present in this strategy (with the transformational side of things having the upper-hand) -- there are the transactional elements of reducing regular classwork expectations and receiving extra credit for the extra writing assignments, and there is the core transformational elements of listening and collaboration. I made it practical (and not heroic) for me by planning to have them use similar scaffolding that we'll already be using in class and helped them increase their motivation by letting them decide on their own writing topics.

In Education Policy

The typical mantra of many "school reformers" is transactional (though they would certainly prefer to say they are transformational, using the word at face value). They wave the flags of teacher merit pay and punishing schools who lag behind the arbitrary benchmarks they set for them.

Though it's important to have the fair transactional elements of a decent wage for teachers and adequate resource support for schools, researcher Kenneth Leithwood emphasizes the need to have transformational policies in place, too, such as:

1. Helping staff develop and maintain a collaborative, professional school culture. This means staff members often talk, observe, critique, and plan together. Norms of collective responsibility and continuous improvement encourage them to teach each other how to teach better. Transformational leaders involve staff in collaborative goal setting, reduce teacher isolation, use bureaucratic mechanisms to support cultural changes, share leadership with others by delegating power, and actively communicate the school's norms and beliefs.

2. Fostering teacher development. One of Leithwood's studies suggests that teachers' motivation for development is enhanced when they internalize goals for professional growth. This process, Leithwood found, is facilitated when they are strongly committed to a school mission. When leaders give staff a role in solving nonroutine school improvement problems, they should make sure goals are explicit and ambitious but not unrealistic.

So, perhaps our schools should be less "a piece of business" (the meaning of the original word root of "transactional") and, instead, a place to emphasize the idea of "going beyond" (from the root of "transformational").

Let's "go beyond" simplistic notions of reward and punishment in education policy, and move towards genuine collaboration and cooperation.

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