[Part 1/4] Mission-driven schools: a cult calling?

Cult. A word I have heard used to describe the two major educational movements I have been involved with during my teaching career, but what is it about these organizations that has resulted in them being labeled with this term? And to what extent should it prompt those in leadership positions to act?

 I’m not a leader of an organization, but if I were, I would not want the community that I led to be labeled as a cult. Indeed, as an “ambassador” and current employee of two debatably “cult-like organisations”, the reason I have decided to write this post is because this term does not sit comfortably with me. 

Defined as a “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing” a cult has numerous negative connotations. When thinking about why some organisations might be labeled by outsiders with this term, I identified the following characteristics, each of which I’d like to evaluate within my current context.

  • Diversity: or a lack thereof
  • Insider Lingo
  • Unapologetic Idealism 
  • Infatuation with an Individual

 The first of this four-part blogging series will focus on “Diversity: or a lack thereof.”

Diversity: or a lack thereof

 By definition, members of a so-called ‘cult’, are brought together through their shared interest in certain ideas.  Often, this can result in a community of people who seemingly lack diversity.  But is this a problem? In a school whose mission, in part, is to Unite people from disparate backgrounds, to what extent can we achieve this goal without placing emphasis on the diversity of our community members?

This discussion has arisen at my workplace lately, perhaps due to a recognition of the fact that the student body is, on its surface, substantially more diverse than the staff by whom they’re taught. But, why is it that we value diversity so much?  When considering the need for a diverse student body, I think the benefits are clear. UWCSEA is a school founded on the ideas of Kurt Hahn and, as mentioned in my previous post, has at its core the notion that learning is best when it is experiential. In terms of diversity, what better way to is there to teach tolerance, understanding, collaboration, and identity than to foster an environment in which a diverse community learn from each other? Perhaps the need for a diverse staff body is less well defined.  At UWCSEA, we pride ourselves on the notion that all community members are lifelong learners, does it then follow that the same logic given above for a justifiably diverse student body, can be extended to staff too?   Maybe there’s also an element of practice what you preach? Having a diverse staff body working effectively together would certainly model the behaviours and ideas we are trying to nurture amongst our students.

Organisational Diversity vs Organisational Identity

When it comes to evaluating the extent to which a diverse staff body is a necessary element of a school who has “uniting cultures” as a key part of its mission statement, I’m torn. As with many decisions in a values-driven organisation, I think it all comes back to our ability to build a strong culture to enable collaborative progress towards to the schools’ mission. In my experience, mission-driven organizations, who have a strong Identity, Culture and Sense of Self, often lack diversity amongst their members.  Nick Alchin, Acting Head of UWCSEA East Campus captures the dichotomy between diversity and identity well by stating the following, “I see organizational diversity as being in tension with organizational identity; the stronger and more focussed the latter, the harder the former.”

I’m not in a position where I hire staff, so maybe I’m not best placed to comment on this but surely, in order to build a strong culture and organisational identity, you must hire people whose values, goals and philosophies align with yours? And, unfortunately, due to deep-rooted divisions in global society – certain groups of the population are more likely to be represented in your selection than others. Can you hold this against an employer? Their goal is to hire staff who will help them achieve the mission, to hire the best person for the job. If those people happen to be from certain countries, be a certain ethnicity or have a similar educational upbringing, to what it extent is it the employer’s responsibility to hire others not based solely on merit but, in part, because they’re different? Should we be looking to adopt an affirmative action approach to help to diversify the school body? Should we have a quota of female STEM teachers? A minimum proportion of male primary staff? If we are even entertaining the idea of taking such seemingly radical measures, we really need to question, what’s so bad about a lack of diversity?

Groupthink: when consciousness meets interdependence

Could it be that one of the reasons people have a negative view on cults and their apparent lack of diversity, is over the fear of Groupthink – the potential normalisation of irrational behaviours or an over-inflated morale righteousness of one group over another? In my experience, whether Groupthink takes hold or not is highly dependent upon the level of consciousness surrounding this as a possibility by the community members themselves. If people recognise their similarities, evaluate the context they’re in and consciously try to consider alternative approaches and opinions, it follows that Groupthink is less likely to become an issue.

When the leadership team at UWCSEA talk about the recruitment process; high levels of Consciousness and Interdependence (along with the other states of mind) are top of their desired character traits. In terms of diversity, I think this means that people are able to recognise their similarities to one another and to work collaboratively towards a shared goal, yet it also means being able to acknowledge that because we are similar, other approaches do exist and we must be proactive in seeking and considering them as viable alternatives.

When it comes to a group being labeled as a cult, it’s worth noting that it is often an outsider labeling a community based on the externally observable traits of its members. Diversity is not just about visible differences. James Dalziel, Ex-Head of Campus at UWCSEA East, stresses the idea that just because employees share the same overall mission, it doesn’t mean their approach to getting to that endpoint has to be the same too. In fact, it should be celebrated when their approaches differ. Honouring people’s own perspectives, empowering them and trusting them to do the job you hired them for, is a key feature of the type of transformational school UWCSEA is working towards becoming.

Does diversity in approach strengthen creativity, collaboration, and collegiality – whilst diversity in values, the interpretation of the mission and goals potentially weaken an organisations identity?  I don’t have the answer, but in my experience, when good people with a shared aim come together, great things can happen.




1 Comment

  1. This is a super interesting post Nicola and I look forward to the others to come. It raises a couple of points for me:
    1) Diversity in staffing – I knew (without being told definitively) that UWCSEA would be trying to strike a specific gender balance in their hiring and I was concerned that this would work against me. Australians are a ‘dine a dozen’ on the international teacher circuit and I thought that UWCSEA would be crawling with us. This actually has turned out not to be the case at all. My previous school was so full of Kiwi’s that many students had a misconception that New Zealand was far larger geographically and population wise than it actually is. I wonder what assumptions our students make based on the diversity of the staff. It would be interesting to know.
    2) My second point is more general in terms of your overall theme about mission driven schools and ‘cult calling’. In the few short months that I have been at East I have had a number of people from both inside and outside the school community ask me if I have ‘drunk the UWC cool aid’ yet – some have used those exact words, while some have said something a little different but with the same meaning – have I become indoctrinated in the mission. It’s kind of funny, but also it’s kind of not funny. My feeling on this is that I didn’t need to get a job at UWCSEA to believe in the mission of the school, I was already there. And I feel that is probably true for most teachers.


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