Education Opinion

We Want to Be Good Soldiers

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 19, 2013 5 min read
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There is nothing more satisfying than working in an environment in which we respect our leaders and the direction we receive from them. Many of us have had that experience. It is an invigorating feeling to be able to have open and honest conversations behind closed doors and share divergent views and emerge with a decision that, whether we agree or not, we will support and carry out with enthusiasm. There is rarely a case where organizations of any size reach 100% agreement so the ability to generate the respect and trust necessary to carry on the essential work is paramount. Without this we feel like pawns on a chessboard being moved about by those with more power than we possess or like loyal soldiers given marching orders. In both cases, the work might get done but without enthusiasm and without the benefit of worker ingenuity. We are careful about our use of the words “leadership” and “leaders.” We differentiate these words to broaden them from those traditionally holding power. We do this because we have seen true leadership arise from leaders buried deep in organizations, without positional power or organizational authority. These sources know much about how to generate respect. They often listen well or have great expertise or have wisdom beyond their years, almost at a cellular level. They may be anywhere...in state education departments, school district central or school building offices, classrooms or union meetings.

No matter where we are in the system, there are always going to be decisions made that we are charged to implement. There comes a point in the decision making process where the die is cast, “Alea iacta est” as Caesar would say and rivers must be crossed. We have both had the privilege of working for and with those who did not compromise integrity and communicated brilliantly. They saw no need to harbor information and mete it out as if feeding birds in the winter. Survival didn’t keep us in line. The richness of the engagement, the character of the person, the passion for growth and the quality of the decisions were the motivation for the best work we could do. Those were good times. But, recently, we were contacted by a leader who reads the blog. He said, “These days, it is hard to be a good soldier.”

That one sentence says a lot. It captures both fatigue and dubious followership. History tells us that this is the breeding ground of discontent, of uprisings and revolutions. History doesn’t, thankfully, always become a predictor of the future but maybe a bit of attention should be paid nevertheless. Followership can be invoked or coerced, voluntary or compliant. Legislation requires compliance. For the past dozen years or so, education has been living under the domain of mandates. Compliance has been required. Frustration abounds. It is not easy to change a heavily entrenched system, with deeply embedded traditions and much past and present success. Perhaps that leads even well intentioned change agents to turn to force and punishment. But, we now feel the system braking under the weight. It is after all a human system. If we have turned a deaf ear to parents from poor homes and to children without advantage, shame on us. But, we are the experts and have, for centuries, produced a highly educated populace. Motivate us to do so again.

Understanding all of these federal mandates and implementing them in our schools, no matter where we stand on the ladder of responsibility is extraordinary work. Add to this the mandates and responsibilities incurred from each of our State Education Departments and now we have an environment like never before. Mandates are being implemented, for compliance sake, without deep and meaningful understanding. Hence, the calls emerge for a break in the testing pressure and personnel evaluation impact.

Understanding takes time. All the good field soldiers began to implement mandates to be in compliance believing that we would prepare more deeply along the way. But now, having seen the effect of some of the decisions, both the leadership and the field are making mid-course corrections.

Most of us have been “good soldiers.” But, the battle and the field of engagement have changed since we enlisted. We still want to be active in this field. But, our own leaders are asking, no demanding, that we use rules of engagement while we are on the field. Our colleagues are falling by our sides and the cheerful faces of the little ones now carry worry. We look around at others who have been our leaders in the field. They are challenging us on the deepest level about our desire to be “good soldiers”. So much of what has been implemented in these past few years has been hurried and imperfect, with mid-course changes being sent out in memos with corresponding timelines. We have begun to lose credibility on the local level...and with ourselves. So, as a result good soldiers are feeling crushed, depressed, unsure, confused and, most certainly, sad.

We can build a community of support around decisions with an understanding that we are, at least now, working with a house of cards. Should we be wrong, we need to be wrong together. And, if we are right, we need to be courageous and add substance to that house of cards so that it stands strongly in the face of opposition. The choice to stand with those who are making the decisions, no matter their place on the ladder of responsibility, is increasingly painful. Asking for compliance when the message seems unclear, or unsteady, makes us seem untrustworthy...even to ourselves. Demanding compliance without open and honest discussions and without negotiations to balance the value of the mandates with care for our students, their parents and our good soldiers is deadly.

Our leaders need to hold the tension between moving reform agenda forward and loyal questioning, between compliance and fear, between driving the vision and the courage to make adjustments, between anticipated joy and present weariness. Do you not notice that the good soldiers on the field are dividing, arguing among themselves? Do you not see the scarcity of resources turning us into survivalists? Do you not know that will harm the children? Can you not hear us?

We are the good soldiers, the ones who enlisted to fight the good fight on behalf of children, all of them. We are the ones who carry the flag of reform and labor to make the vision live every day in each child. But, we need leaders who know that this war cannot be won without good soldiers, thousands and thousands of them. Those soldiers need to be well armed and deeply motivated followers. The cause is right. The children deserve to be college and career ready. We believe this. But heed well...If you are not busily preparing our reinforcements in some hidden place, then we are the only soldiers you have. The trenches are ours. The children come here daily. We are the experts and some of us are creative if allowed to be. Help us to do the work that needs to be done. There is much noise on the communication line from the field to the command center. Can you hear the good soldiers calling?

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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.