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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The Retreat: Reflections on the Psychodynamics of Destructiveness and Creativity in Changing School Culture

ISPSO Symposium attendees are invited to participate as consultants in a case conference conversation with a practicing school administrator regarding the psychodynamic relationship between creativity and destructiveness in school life. This symposium parallel session provides a unique forum to explore the psychodynamic complexities of managing change in school culture, and all the varied emotions and meanings that such changes can evoke in adult educators and their young students. The conversation invites participants both to apply psychoanalytic theory to the content of the case studies and conceptual formulations that will be presented in the paper and to be reflective about one's own personal experience in schools'as students, as teachers, as parents--and the fantasies that those reflections might stimulate. As the case studies will reveal, the title of the paper ''The Retreat'' serves as a metaphor for understanding the complex ways that creativity and destructiveness, progressive action and regressive behavior can exist simultaneously in the same act or process of organizational life. As the presentation unfolds, ISPSO Symposium participants will be given a richly detailed sense of how one particular school has struggled with a set of universal psychodynamic issues regarding organizational change, creativity and destructiveness that exist in all schools. More specifically, the paper will tell the story and offer reflective commentary on the school's efforts to integrate two of the central values articulated in its mission statement: the commitment to excellence and the pleasures of learning, and to create a learning environment where all students feel known and respected for their diverse interests and backgrounds. The efforts to uphold both values have created important collaborative initiatives among faculty, students and administrators. And, at the same time, these efforts have stimulated difficult conflicts, anxieties and questions about issues of power, authority and legitimacy in relation to the nature and process of change in the school's culture. Changing organizational culture stimulates in its members a range of creative and destructive potentialities. This is especially true in the organization of the school that, unlike many other kinds of organizations, must initiate and manage change processes that are attuned to the different developmental needs of children, adolescents, and adults of varied ages. The prospect of change in organizations can both stimulate brilliant creativity aimed at building structures for insight, imagination and freedom, and, at the same time evoke powerful feelings of and actions of resistance, envy and destruction. Change is the source of both growth and loss that can stimulate in some individuals and groups a robust sense of energy, possibility and stirrings that link them to ideals and values they hold dear and true. For others, change can be experienced as threatening, dangerous and undermining to their authority, status and self-esteem.This paper offers an in-depth, thick description and interpretation the events and processes'both creative and destructive--that took place in a high school where administrators, teachers and students struggled with initiating and resisting changes in the school's culture and pattern of social relationships. In particular, the paper tells the story and examines the dynamics of an attempt by administrators to respond to a concern that in each of the high school grade levels there existed tensions among students organized around issues of inclusion and exclusion in the school's culture. The school serves 900 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Many high school students began at the school at the age of four. Yet, many other students enrolled in 9th grade for their high school education. This divide among classmates can also be influenced by differences along class and racial lines. A school wide educational council strongly endorsed the creation of innovative programs to address this important community issue within the school. In response, a group of students, teachers and administrators worked to create a series of retreats for each grade level of students. These retreats took place away from the school's urban campus at a lovely rural facility designed for large group-cohesion building experiences. Each retreat included members of the faculty and took place over the course of three days and two nights.The implementation of the program was characterized by three distinguishing psychological features which will be explored in the paper. First, in response to a destructive pattern of relationships within the school culture, student, teacher and administrative representatives worked to build consensus and create a new approach that seemed hopeful. Second, for reasons to be explored in the paper, on one of the retreats destructive actions on the part of a few students tried to spoil the efforts to create new relationships in the spirit of building an inclusive school community. Third, in a faculty meeting that took place a week after this destructive action took place, a parallel set of dynamics erupted as teachers began to attack each other and the lead administrator responsible for organizing these retreats. Within the faculty meeting itself, a stunning and unwittingly repetition of the same regressive dynamic that spoiled the student retreat took place among teachers and administrators further dramatizing the need to address issues of inclusion and exclusion in the school culture. The divide among teachers was organized around a range of institutional and identity splits that exist within the faculty school culture and the history of the school. In the face of change 'the creation of retreats' student and faculty groups unwittingly, in an unconscious parallel process, retreated into regressive defenses to ward-off frightening levels of anxiety, resulting in the expression of destructive threats to the creative initiatives designed to bringing reparative action to the life of the organization.The implications for this inquiry speak not only to the essential question of complex, multicultural societies and organizations 'can institutions of long standing undergo change to incorporate newcomers' but also can the school, as a fundamental social institution, develop the cultural habits necessary to be flexible and reflective enough to initiate change, and manage continuity, in ways that resonate with the varied developmental needs of its multi-age population.The paper presents a set of events that occurred in school and asks psychoanalytically-informed organizational consultants to consider: Why did these events occur in the ways that they did? How might they be related to each other and to the broader culture of the school? How might the meaning of these seemingly disparate events in the wider organizational life of the school be better understood through the use of psychoanalytic understandings of human experience? What are the possibilities for progressive growth and development in the school's culture? And how are these possibilities related to the possibilities for regression and arrested development of persons and of the organization of the school as whole? The paper uses a set organizing principles drawn from the theoretical contributions of Melanie Klein, Heinz Kohut and Donald Winnicott, among others, as well as from a range of psychoanalytic theorists who have worked to apply these ideas to the study of organizations. The paper includes the following themes, among others, as it explores the psychodynamics of creativity and destructiveness in school life:- Possibility and Impossibility in an Impossible Profession- Narcissism, Change and The School Romance- Authority, Democracy and the Psychodynamics of Setting Priorities- The Potential Space of School Culture- Regressive Behavior in a Progressive School- Coherence, Fragmentation and Community Life- The Holding Environment of School Philosophy and Policies.The following summary informs ISPSO Symposium participants with a brief contextual background of the psychodynamic relationships of the school to its varied constituencies--students, educators, parents and the society-at-large--that will be explored in greater depth in the Symposium presentation. Freud named education, along with government and psychoanalysis, as one of the three impossible professions. Embedded in his comment is a sense of fatalism associated with these noble human endeavors. Freud's statement offers a worldview where joy and tragedy are the yin and yang of the human condition; where the possibility of human achievement is shadowed by the cloak of human limitation; where the potential for creating ideals and striving toward their fulfillment coexists with the very forces that may undermine their ultimate fruition; and where human experience is framed by the truth that present at each birth is the inevitability of death. Yet, despite the pessimism, fear and futility contained in these existential anxieties, and despite knowledge of the brutality and horror of murder, war and violence, people do persevere. Aided by social and psychological defenses, human perseverance stands as our resistance to the notion that we are doomed from the start. Parents still have children. People still desire the pleasures and pain of novelty and familiarity, and still find themselves in group or organizational relationships'personal and professional, voluntary and involuntary, local and global--that must continually find innovative ways to facilitate resolving, if only temporarily, the inevitability of conflicting human interests and perceptions where one person's gain can be another person's loss. And, if our human disposition to destroy is countered by our equally human capacity to create, there is no social institution (in modern, complex societies) more than the school that is expected to help parents raise children and prepare the next generation with the skills and self-confidence to create lives that, despite the anxieties of uncertainty, know, through their own immediate experiences, the possibility of hope, providing them with the psychological strength to persevere with creativity in the face of life's anticipated and unanticipated adversities. Today, the pressures on schools are as great as ever. As rapid and significant social changes have occurred, there is a growing perception that the family, the church and the neighborhood community have each weakened in their capacities to be stable social institutions capable of helping parents raise and educate their children. In this context, the public continues to turn to the school, wishing it to be that one stable, safe and secure place where children can learn and grow. Feeling fragmented by the increasingly complex demands of adult life, parents and policy makers continue to embrace the school as the key institutional solution to manage both general and specific feelings of hope and disillusionment. When the school is held to be an idealized place where so many of society's needs are hoped to be met, the stage is set for both the inspired fulfillment of that ideal and the inevitable disappointment the will result when such ideals confront life's everyday realities. The more difficult the problem the school is expected to solve, the more powerful is the wish to idealize the school's capacity to save society. The more powerful the wish, the more likely and more painful is the inevitable disillusionment. The more powerful the disillusionment, the more important it becomes for the school to be able to establish reliable structures for creating reparative processes. This dynamic is known as the school romance. The school has a special place in the psyche of public and private life. The school is idealized as a savior institution committed to the growth and well-being of children, partner to parents and society-at-large, and capable of shaping the next generation in accord with the highest values of character and citizenship. In this regard, the school is expected to present itself as an idealizable figure, worthy of the esteem of children and adults alike. In addition, the school is excepted to be attuned to the developmental needs of each child and teacher, capable of responsively mirroring the unique qualities each person carries with them. When schools can relate to students and teachers in ways that support healthy idealizations and empathic mirroring, they can contribute in important ways to the growth and development of the people it aims to serve.The school is also a special kind of organization because, unlike corporations, law firms or government agencies that function as adult workplaces, schools must be designed to serve the complementary and conflicting developmental needs of adults, adolescents and children of varied ages. Schools also invite the conscious and unconscious expression of potentially intense emotions largely because the school stands as a powerful symbol for a range of childhood hopes and disappointments. This is true both for the students who are currently in school and for the adults 'teachers and parents' who they themselves have all been to school and have memories and associations, both good and bad, to their own childhood and adolescent experiences as students. These adults are vulnerable to having a range of transference responses to their adult experiences in school. The school, while intended to be a a progressive force in society, also stands as a trigger for regressive reactions among children and adults. Consider the parent who feels infantilized merely by coming to the principal's office, even for a positive and helpful discussion. Consider the well-organized student who losses things and becomes unfocused upon the eve of separation that comes with the end of the school year. Consider the teacher who unwittingly gets into power struggles with a student who reminds her of what she herself was like when she was an adolescent. Consider the school administrator who assumes that her current faculty interacts their students with the same quality of disconnection and disregard that she believes was extended toward her own daughter who attended a different school many years ago. As much as schools are organized to support the positive and progressive development of its students and faculty, school administrators must continually keep their eyes on the boundary for the possibility of regressive behavior to occur. Kai Erikson, the sociologist, has noted that all cultures are organized around a tension between a culture's core values and its opposites. For example, the value of cooperation evokes notions of competition. The ideal of inclusion suggests the possibility of exclusion. The efforts to create coherence struggles against the pull of fragmentation. The ideal of the school as a symbol of hope confronts the reality of too many people's experience of the school as a source of painful disillusionment. The potential of schools to sustain promising ideals, and to overcome the inevitable disappointments that will occur even in the best of them, rests on those qualities in the school culture that can allow for reparative experiences to develop in a recognizable and dependable way over time. Essential to sustaining such a school culture is a commitment to cultivating an inclusive and participatory sense of community life to which members of the school community, regardless of role or age or years of seniority, can feel committed and connected. For many schools, especially large, urban public schools the gap between this ideal and the reality of too many teachers and students is sustained by a set of complex psychological dynamics and underscores the gross ambivalence and social injustice that defines the broader destructive environment in which the 'impossible profession' of education is expected to operate (see Howell Baum's ISPSO Symposium paper, 'Why School Systems Resist Reform: A Psychoanalytic Perspective' for an important look at this dynamic.) As the paper will discussion, community issues of inclusion and participation and are critical in creating democratic school cultures. Issues of conflict can clearly rise out of such involvement, especially when new ideas confront traditional habits and ways of doing things. And new ideas and ways of doing things, when implemented in ways that conflict with established processes for doing things, can also create conflict where some feel a sense of loss, and others feel a fresh sense of opportunity and connection.