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Culture and the Transit Strike

Back in the late 70’s, I lived in Brooklyn, New York and worked in Manhattan.  This meant getting up around 6:00 AM and catching a bus at around 6:45 AM and then a train at around 7:30 AM to get to work at 9:00 AM.  Each morning I saw the same people at the same bus stop and the same group at the same train station.  More often than not, I saw the same people on the train as well. We traveled each day, five days a week, in silence. People read books, read newspapers-did everything but talk to each other. As a matter of fact, most people did everything they could to AVOID speaking with others.   Communication was pretty much non-verbal—looks, a push, etc.

The Strike

In 1980 Transit workers went on strike, so no bus or train service was available. Most people in Brooklyn that worked in Manhattan secured lifts to the Brooklyn Bridge (via taxi, car pooling, etc.) and then walked across the bridge to Manhattan.  I saw the same people that each day I saw on the bus or the train, but there was something different. People were exchanging hellos; they were having conversations about the strike; about the challenges of getting to work; and even exchanging information about families and plans for the day. What had changed?

The culture had changed, but how?  It was clear that if the strike had never happened, people would still not be talking to each other despite a lot of common elements. We all lived in Brooklyn.  We all worked in Manhattan. We all traveled on the same buses and trains.  So what was it that transformed these non-communicative people into a group that did speak with each other? It was a common challenge that drew us together.  The interruption in our lives from our normal routine and the challenge of coping without mass transit changed the culture of our group.  It pulled us together first to complain, and then to joke, and finally to cope and solve.

Uniting People

Is a crisis the only way to bring people together? Is a common enemy the only way to create a group? No! This is where a leader’s vision comes into play.  Leaders must present their staff with a message that mobilizes them. Involves them. Makes them feel vital. Energizes them. Values them.  It should challenge them to raise the bar, to exceed what they perceive as their limits.  Encourages them to create and share information that will make them successful. Makes clear to them the benefits for both teachers and their students. And, leaders must provide them with a road map on how to achieve this vision.

Do leaders have to do this alone? Should they do it in a vacuum? No. One of the reasons why we want to bring our people together and create a positive culture is to draw on their input, experience and strength.  If leaders are successful in creating a positive culture, the mission, the change, takes on a life of its own—the mission moves from being the leader’s to being the group’s.

What Did I Learn?

If we don’t provide positive messages that people can rally around, we run the risk of that vacuum being filled by negative issues—lack of resources, resistance to a new instructional program, etc.  These may bring people together, but it won’t help you achieve.  Take some time to reflect on the issues that are important to your vision and have appeal to your staff and introduce them to each other. Make them a focus in your daily discussions, in your correspondence and even when you speak with your students.

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