Student Well-Being Opinion

‘Bifocalism’ Supports the Work of Leaders to Improve Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 24, 2016 5 min read
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When an optician or ophthalmologist suggests you need bifocals, the reality of aging sets in. Some of you may have had that experience; for others, it is a long way into the future. But over time our eyes change and seeing close up and far away simultaneously gets harder without some help. Leaders who choose to lead for the short term and the long term know about this also and frequently it accompanies wisdom and aging. David Brooks wrote about this in a December 5, 2014 New York Times article.

First, there’s bifocalism, the ability to see the same situation from multiple perspectives. Anthony Kronman of Yale Law School once wrote, “Anyone who has worn bifocal lenses knows that it takes time to learn to shift smoothly between perspectives and to combine them in a single field of vision. The same is true of deliberation. It is difficult to be compassionate, and often just as difficult to be detached, but what is most difficult of all is to be both at once.” Only with experience can a person learn to see a fraught situation both close up, with emotional intensity, and far away, with detached perspective.

Educational leaders know intimately the need to hold the urgency and pressure of the urgent and its associated emotional intensity but they are keenly aware that they are surrounded by those who hold a more detached perspective.

The push to make America’s schools unsurpassed in quality, inclusion and comprehensiveness is part of the national agenda. The leadership required to make that aspiration a reality is our work. Public awareness about standards and assessment has risen; along with that has come a tremendous need for information and clarity. Leaders have had to learn how to use multiple vehicles for communication, including social-media, to create a continual flow of information and engage the community about what is happening, why and how the school will address new targets and goals.

Trust has either been eroded or built depending upon the leader’s ability to successfully invite the community into a two way process. Trust for schools and their leaders is the basis on which strong, productive relationships are built. Pervasively at this moment in time, trust is tenuous when it comes to public employees. Events involving some police, elected officials, and school employees have contributed to a growing mistrust and demand for transparency and accountability. Some choose to hunker down and push ahead. But that does little to lead, to ignite, and motivate the people within a system.

Two Truths
Two things are true about today’s schools. One is that there is a part of the student population who are served very well by schools. These students are active in their learning, participate in athletics and extra-curricular activities, and are thoughtful about their education, college and career. There is, however, another coexisting truth. We struggle to meet the needs of disabled students, students living in poverty, English language learners, students with mental health challenges, students who are black and Hispanic, students who are disengaged, students who are dealing with family issues, and students dealing with gender and sexual orientation questions. All of these students can slip off the radar and fall through the cracks of an otherwise well-functioning system. But, as the numbers of these students in our systems rise, so too must the responsiveness of our system to them.

Clear Sightedness and Perspective
Clear sightedness and perspective are essential now more than ever. What we see informs the decisions we make and how we proceed. Unless we are careful, we see things only through the eyes of our own experience. Then each and every one of us has a different perspective when approaching a situation. We search solutions for but cannot reach agreement and wonder why. We remark about what causes anger when we are not angry. Sometimes, we find it easier to coalesce those who have similar perspectives and move on. But, that leaves others outside and alienated from the decision. School leaders find themselves anticipating and strategizing, ready with more than one path, seeking more than one perspective, developing more than one alternative to reach the one all important goal.

Experience allows a person to be able to become detached enough to see things while holding raging emotions, biases, and blind spots in the peripheral view. It allows them to see things as they are. However, unless a person becomes adept at remaining “bifocal” the immediate and the urgent will narrow the view and important things ...or people...will be left behind.

Holding two truths at once is not easy. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Yes. It is that difficult. But these times are calling for leaders to become masters of ‘bifocalism’. While focusing on the welfare and education of those students who fall behind, we must not lose sight of those students who are doing well. While focusing on implementing new mandates in our schools, we must not lose sight of local values and the goals developed by our communities. While protecting the rights or safety or privacy of one, the rights and safety and privacy of all cannot be forgotten. While instituting changes in curriculum in the secondary school, focus on what changes in the elementary schools must take place in order to support the successes in the secondary schools must occur simultaneously.

In The End
In the end, a question to ask is, “Am I thinking about only one item, one perspective, one problem? Or am I thinking about both sides, all sides, effects and results as they affect everyone in the system?” These questions call upon us to observe and consider with everyone in mind, their needs, their demands, their fears, their limits, and their strengths. The ‘bifocalism’ required now must result in multiple perspectives forging a single vision, one that is both objective and compassionate.

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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.