Part II On Change: Us vs. Them

Binaries are comfortable for people: good or bad, right or wrong, us or them.

To collect and classify what we know into an either or an or makes us feel to be on more stable ground: if we can classify it, it won’t surprise us. By ascribing the big label (us or them, for example) we can line up assumptions about who and what falls into that category, and assumptions in our world today are given as much power as facts, if not more.

It is the us versus them binary that I hear about the most in my past work as a union representative and now as our EA president. And, because of my role within our district (I mentor new teachers and I also design and lead professional learning for both teachers and administrators) I am in the strange situation of seeing the line between us and them become very blurry. On both “sides,” I work with caring, professional, student-centered educators who are struggling to do the right thing. Likewise, on both “sides” I can cite examples of weak integrity, manipulation, and poor conduct. Neither “side” can be classified by a convenient set of universals.

And to be fair, the vast majority of professionals I work with recognize the fundamental similarities between “us” and “them.” The vast majority, at least when I speak with them individually or in small groups, likewise lament the prescribed roles that we feel compelled to inhabit when placed into a negotiating role.

So why do we do it this way?

I’ve been research the premise of “interest-based bargaining,” which to me appears to be a more collaborative manner of negotiating a contract. It has the potential to be solution-oriented and proactive, whereas more traditional bargaining feels more like a competition than a collaboration. My association, alongside our district leadership, has committed to do some side-by-side learning this winter and early spring to better understand this seemingly more-collaborative approach.

And to the person, every other leader I meet outside our school and community has proven skeptical. The skepticism is rooted perhaps in valid experience, but boils down to a fundamental assumption that negotiations are about us versus them, not about collaboration. In some cases, it is because a well-intended union tried to engage with a positive presupposition only to be shut down by a management addicted to “No, and we’re not telling you why.” In other cases, there was the sentiment that “they” had different interests than “us,” and middle ground was not realistic.

At this point, I have yet to meet a single person in a union leadership role similar to mine who has any faith that what I want to try will work. I always receive a little pat-on-the-head and “oh, you young, naive kiddo, you’ll learn the hard way that things don’t work out so nicely. You’ll wake up from your dream world soon…” The gist: “they” will do what they can to screw you, no matter what.

I guess my problem is that in this crazy role I have (where else does the union president train all of the principals on the evaluation law and practices?) I get to work so closely with both us and them. I get to see their strengths and flaws. I get to hear their hopes and fears. And I can’t conveniently pile us all into two neat classifications.

So this post offers no answers, only an examination of the situation. My next posts in this series will review some of the reading and thinking I’ve done recently and barriers to change both in teachers’ classroom practice as well as in systemic practices and policy…and my theories about how we as educator-leaders can work to facilitate change that isn’t simply for change’s sake.


This post is part of a series thinking about change and why it is so difficult both for individuals and for systems. Revisit the first post introducing the TTWWADIs.

3 thoughts on “Part II On Change: Us vs. Them

  1. Jan Kragen

    Our district did do interest-based bargaining for a while. It worked well and we were happy with it. Then came a lot of changes in staff at the district office and, oh my gosh, it didn’t work so well any more. I’ll tell you, to build that level of mutual trust and then lose it is really distressing.

  2. Mark Gardner Post author

    That mutual trust is why I think we are in a position for this to work in our district. We don’t always agree on everything, but I have confidence that both “sides” have respect and trust in the other. We’ve already started laying the groundwork with some proactive conversations and problem-solving.

  3. Pingback: Part III on Change: Levels of Abstraction | Stories From School

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