Education Opinion

Evaluations: Change Without Judgment, Cynicism, or Fear

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 13, 2013 6 min read
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Schools are complicated systems of people, processes, and programs. Implementing change continues to challenge our leadership capacity. We cannot escape dealing with the human factor in this environment, nor should we even try. In our recent post on blind spots, referencing Otto Scharmer, we discussed the first step into successful leadership as a social technology. After all, we are social beings. Scharmer talks about learning to be leaders of eco systems. How different this is from being leaders in ego systems! It requires us moving beyond our own blind spots, opinions, and bias to allow a more open, systemic view, inclusive of the perspectives and thoughts of others living within the system. We struggle with leadership challenges day in and day out. We (and others) have written much about the work we have to do. Let’s consider the value of Scharmer’s work as it applies to our current situation. It could help to inform some of the leadership choices that lie before us.

Our capacity to move from where we are to where we need to be is what counts. The quality of our awareness and our ability to be innovative relate to our ability to listen. Mastery in social technology leadership requires what Scharmer calls open mind, open heart, and open will. So, what do these three things look like in our schools and districts?

Major changes are taking place in our schools right now. We are presented with huge challenges. Let’s look at the evaluation process for teachers and principals as an example. It has been legislated from outside of our organizations. Its immediate purpose is accountability; its longer range purpose is increased student performance. It is partially subjective, although evidence is required. Evidence can be subjective. Training is limited. Timelines are challenging. Attention is varied. The results will be made public. No one is fully comfortable with the process.

In this initial phase of implementation, we have heard the three enemies of Scharmer’s open mind, open heart, and open will. They are the voice of judgment, the voice of cynicism, and the voice of fear. Yes, we heard resounding judgment when the laws were passed, when training took place, when the evaluations were being performed, and when they were completed. We cannot escape the voices of cynicism as they abound in the news, blogs, and letters to state education departments, faculty rooms, and cabinet meetings. And both judgment and cynicism are closely related to the undeniable fear of failure, embarrassment, humiliation, and loss of jobs and relationships. With these three enemies pervasive in our implementation, how can we possibly create a new healthy and robust environment as we lead into the future? So, let’s turn it around and look at the possibilities of implementation with an open mind, open heart, and open will.

Open Mind - The capacity to suspend habitual judgment
It is almost an automatic response to form judgments about changes we are asked to make. It is a hazard to progress in our profession. We receive change as an intrusion on our routine and make our opposition well known. But, what would it look like for us if we suspended that practice and accepted the work with an open mind. Simply put, we have new work to do. It may not be what we would have chosen but is ours if we are to remain leaders of public education at this moment in time. Without judgment taking up our mental time and energy, we would be left with the space to encourage creativity. Much time was spent in this past year complaining about new and unfair processes and practices. Yes, they have intruded upon our past practice and we have been unable to clear our minds of that resistant chatter. We need to be skillful enough to hold a paradox: the design of the accountability processes and timelines are flawed AND we must suspend judgment within the organization in order to lead, learn and implement the change. Without doing so, it becomes far more difficult to ignite the creativity required for us to develop the solutions we need. How we schedule our observations, the manner in which we speak with our teachers as we offer feedback and guidance will take creativity. It is our choice to either walk through the process, doing what is required, or figure out how to make it a meaningful process in our schools and districts.

Open Heart - The capacity to redirect my perspective from my viewpoint to someone else’s
An equally automatic response is cynicism. It is an enemy to the wellbeing of our schools and teachers. We have heard from all of our teachers and principals that the evaluation process has presented problems. Some of us respond by listening with one ear. Others listen and move on to the next thing with no acknowledgement the person has been heard. Scharmer suggests that we listen with empathy. Having abandoned our own habitual paradigm, listening with an open heart can begin to form common ground. It is only after we listen to what people are saying about their experience with the evaluation system that we can begin to uncover local solutions. The answers most often exist in the words of our teachers and colleagues. Listening better is listening with an open heart. Once another’s experience can be felt, the leader becomes a vessel of growing understanding. An example here could be found in the hue and cry... “There isn’t enough time!” Well, if we listen and nod and make no changes, then no time will remain no time. We need to listen deeply to understand what “no time” means. Are there meetings that can be eliminated? Can committees be combined? Does the school schedule need to be redesigned? AIS reconfigured? Staff deployed differently? Are we organized well enough? If we listen deeply, and ask probing questions, we may find some answers that just might make the difference.

Open Will - The capacity to let go and let come
Beneath all this is fear. In organizations as in our lives, fear causes particular responses. Our amygdala brain takes over. We will be unable to lead our schools beyond this chaotic year if we cannot overcome the power of fear. We must be able to achieve this for ourselves and lead others to see that something new is emerging and we can be its co-creators if we allow ourselves to relax our grip on our past. We cannot continue to lead by pretending that we can continually squeeze new things into our old model. We cannot be led by enforcers. How ironic that policymakers search for creative and innovative teaching and learning by demanding compliance. It is difficult, sometimes, to recognize our fears, but this evaluation system implementation has certainly raised fears in our teachers and leaders. How can we help them through this process? The fear of a “bad evaluation” is robbing us of the experience of working together to improve all of our performance. Fear gets in the way and prevents our moving forward.

In order to manage the speed of change we are, and will continue to experience, we need now tools. It begins with a personal journey inward. Suspending judgment, opening our hearts, and developing our own capacity to “let go and let come” allows us the capacity to lead our systems and let the future emerge. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

Scharmer, Otto C., (2009).Theory U: Leading From the Future as It Emerges. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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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.