Education Opinion

Evaluate Traditions While Leading Change

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 05, 2014 5 min read
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Tradition is defined as “the passing down of the elements of a culture, from generation to generation, especially by oral communication.” We have a more limited use of the word, involving the way we repeat familiar activities in order to relive fulfilling events. Traditions are important in families, in organizations and in communities, large and small. An unintended consequence of tradition is the firm grip we attach as we cling to the way things have been done. We hold to tradition and it, sometimes, shackles us from exploration of new things and ways.

As leaders, we struggle with traditions. We attempt to determine which ones serve our purpose and which ones constrain our ability to move forward...or, worse yet, serve another time and an opposing purpose. This distinction guides our decisions about the best ways to implement systemic change with a blend of sustainability and fluidity.

The trouble with tradition is, as we cling to it for the security and boundaries it provides us, all life requires change. It unnerves us and those we hope will come along on our journey. This season provided a metaphor for our relationship with tradition in education. Family memories that fuel this season are, for the most part we hope, happy ones. Calling back to our childhood, whether abundant or not, the gathering of family and friends, food, celebrations, school vacations, a trip to visit relatives are associated with these holidays. Our memories provide comfort and we work to recreate them. We partake in the intergenerational aspects of passing on and building traditions. We expect the season will bring us back to those good memories and allow us to live them once again.

But, all living things change. Children grow up, the toys that made little children easily happy no longer satisfy and the possibility of buying a surprise gift becomes more difficult. Older relatives are no longer able to travel, or have passed away. The joy that we experienced as children has become our “responsibility” to provide. Hard as we may try to create that happy time, something seems to creep in to remind us...this isn’t the same. Making the adjustment to a new tradition, a new way of celebrating is a difficult experience. But the holiday seems to still bring the hope of the joy we remember.

In education there is a similar experience. We are all products of an educational system. Some enter the field because their experience was a positive one and they want to reproduce that experience for others. Others enter the field because their experience was not so positive, and they want to make it a better experience for others. Both are motivated by a previous experience with a long established institution filled with traditions.

Jack Petrash in his TedX talk reminds us that while our schools need to change, we must be careful to remain focused on what students truly need to be ‘college and career’ ready. He reminds us not to be taken over by the shift to the Common Core as an academic shift and leave behind the social emotional experiences so essential to children in their development.

We suggest that our response against shifts in standards and assessment should not be to cling more tightly to old traditions and practices. We seek to enter the conversations about building something new, starting new traditions, meaningful to children and adults alike. The reason to allow for a reduction of teacher focused lessons, and increase the requirement that students inquire, think, and apply learning, demonstrating their knowledge in different ways should not be because the standards say so, but because we understand it will help them become better thinkers, with persistence and resilience. Petrash’s example of how we taught about asbestos is a good one. Because the world is changing so rapidly, we no longer can teach absolutes. In previous centuries, it could take generations before facts changed. Now, it can take less than a decade.

In our own lifetime, manual typewriters were replaced with electric ones. Fabric ribbons were replaced with tape and now by printers. Type bars were replaced by a spherical element (looked like a golf ball). Computers and word processors replaced typewriters. Digital resources began replacing books. The Internet came to be and commerce appeared on our screens. We no longer had to go to the store. Telephones came off our walls and into our hands...first in our cars, called car phones and then quickly into our hands, anywhere. Smartphones then gave us the capacity to carry and access information that earlier could only be accessed at our desks and in libraries. Social media appeared and is now used for respectable businesses, government, and educational purposes in addition to personal communication worldwide. Some of us made the adjustments easily; others are still having difficulty. As educators, we need to think about how to prepare the students we teach, for a world that will change even faster than the one we have experienced. We began in a slower world. They are beginning their lives in a fast one.

Our most important job right now is to manage the raising of standards and educational rigor while protecting the space and attention given to the social emotional aspects of learning. While we still face the challenges of teaching children in poverty, or with learning or language difficulties, we cannot be resisters of change. We need to lead change. The shifts that need to take place in our schools are obvious to most of us if we have deep and true conversations about it. Educators have been in touch with these needs for years. We want students to be more responsible, be engaged in our lessons, do their homework, respect each other, do good things, and participate in activities as a rehearsal for their participation in their communities as adults.

We cannot accomplish that by clinging to every tradition. Our arms need to be released because there is some heavy lifting to be done. Our energies are now spent either implementing the changes and demands of the day, or fighting against them. We need to take the time, make the time, to use the collective knowledge in the field to present a better idea. And while we are doing that, perhaps, locally, we can figure out a better way to usher in the change needed, with leadership skills that include compassion, empathy, wisdom, tenacity, and love. If we can do that, then we become the models for establishing new traditions.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.