Give a S***!

Image: Derek Wenmoth

I am in the habit of riding my bike along the local river trail as regularly as I can. It’s a shared trail that is used by other cyclists, walkers, runners and those walking their dogs – everyone appreciating the opportunity this great community asset provides.

Cycling is one of those activities that provides me with thinking time. This morning my thoughts were on the many dogs I pass on this trail each time I ride it, the different types there are, and the different owners I observe.

This morning I was reflecting on the inevitability of these animals taking a moment to relieve themselves at some point during their morning walk, and the responsibility that falls on these owners to deal with that.

My observations today led me to the conclusion that there are actually three types of dog owner. There are those who are diligent when it comes to scooping up the small piles of excrement their beloved pet deposits and there are those who simply look the other way and ignore that it has happened.

Then, this morning, I became aware of a third group. This group give the appearance of doing the right thing – they scoop it up in a plastic bag and tie the ends, but then, at some point along the way they simply place it on the side of the path – presumably hoping someone else might collect it and dispose of it for them I can only imagine.

I refer to ‘group’ here as it’s certainly more than one. In a 10km stretch I cycled this morning I spotted four such bags, so there were at least four people who fall into this category. Two of the bags were actually within 50 metres of a special ‘dog poo’ collection bin placed on the side of the track by the local council to encourage responsible dog owners to do the right thing.

So why use my blog to today to write about this? Well, because it its own small way, the way these dog owners deal with the inconvenience of having to clean up after their pets provides a small window of reflection about the things that bind us as a community, as a society. The social norms and mores we observe and adhere to that we might enjoy the benefits of a healthy, cohesive and sustainable social ecosystem. A place where everyone can thrive and enjoy the benefits that accrue from our collective endeavours.

Healthy, thriving, sustainable communities have always been characterised by a strong emphasis on complying with a set of behaviours that have come to be recognised and agreed upon as being important to the collective as a whole. Sometimes these behaviours have to be spelled out in the form of ‘rules’ or ‘reminders’ so there’s no confusion about what is expected. Whether the result of compliance with rules or driven by some sort of social altruism, this is how healthy democracies work. While there have always been a minority who choose not to observe these behaviours, they are generally far outweighed by those who do.

But what about this ‘third group’? Is this a more recent phenomena, or has there always been this group in our midst? These are the people who, while not wanting to be seen to be not complying, are actually just as disinterested and deflecting of their personal responsibility in all of this as the group who outrightly say ‘no’.

So what are the possible drivers for someone to act like this? Certainly there’s a driver for social acceptance – they don’t want to be identified as a ‘rule breaker’ because of their actions – thus they at least go through the motions of scooping up the excrement. But why not complete the task of then carrying it to the bin? It seems the reasons that lie behind this rule have completely escaped them – it’s something that applies to everyone else, but not them. The driver to actually do the right thing appears to be superseded by the driver to be giving the appearance of doing the right thing.

My thought drift here isn’t really about categorising dog owners. That was simply the catalyst for a wider reflection – back into the world of education and schools that I inhabit for much of my working existence. There we have the same concerns when it comes to both learners and their parents and whānau.

The recent government announcement to add a significant amount of money to help schools battle truancy is but the tip of this iceberg. In his press release for this, Education Minister Chris Hipkins said:

“Some of what the regional response fund will be used for is ensuring pathways are there for disengaged youth alongside iwi, schools, councils and community groups and providers. It can be used to support whānau-led responses to break the cycle of disengagement, or brokering services with other agencies to ensure students have the level of support they need to stay in school. It’s important and complicated work,” 

The focus on an ecosystem response (multiple agencies/organisations/family/whānau engagement) hinted at here is extremely encouraging – but might it end up being like the dog owners who simply place their bags of excrement along the track after appearing to do the right thing. “Oh well, we gave it our best shot!” they say.

The reality is that any solution to this problem must be an ecosystem response – no single entity (e.g. a school or a truancy service) is going to be able to address the escalating issue there is with non-engagement. Particularly when the measure of non-engagement is non-attendance. What about the increasing levels of non-engagement among students who are actually attending, but simply not engaged with what’s happening?

There are a myriad of reasons for this non-engagement becoming an issue – and a plethora of solutions to be considered. Schools could work to make their programmes more authentic, purposeful and interesting – that could be a start. The curriculum could be more current, relevant, inter-disciplinary – that would help. The Ministry of Education could provide more support, better resources and more expertise – there’s certainly been a decline there. These things fall within the locus of control of those within the education system – but what about those things outside of that? These students each come from a family/whānau context that may or may not be upholding the same expectations, they spend time in their communities where patterns of behaviour and expectations of their peers may have different drivers etc. etc.

We live in a VUCA world – this is the complexity we must grapple with if we are to resolve challenges such as the engagement one. We must work to establish meaningful and mutually beneficial ways of working, living and loving alongside each other.

We can’t allow this ‘third group’ mindset to grow – where the appearance of doing things right matters more than actually doing the right things! We’ve got to stop leaving our bags of s*** on the side of the road for someone else to deal with!

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