School & District Management Opinion

Leaders Must Pay Attention to the Important

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 30, 2013 5 min read
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Paying Attention to the Important
Schools are in a sea change. Perceived failure and federal and state regulations are providing an opportunity. The frenetic speed of the change movement is creating a vacuum in which innovation has room to enter. We must lead the moment. Too often we get consumed by the urgent and the important falls to the side. The pressure for that to occur is great now. What is the dynamic that causes us, as educators, to know so much and do so little of it? There exists a gap between what we know and what we do. Why is that? Encountering children, their amazing energy, their need for learning and guidance, experiences and mentors, our daily work is both uplifting and exhausting. Is there a belief system problem among us?

We Must Not Surrender
Too often, too many of us live as gerbils running on a wheel, powerless to do anything but run. Our words reflect our condition. The power resides outside of us. Those with legislative and regulatory authority are making decisions that affect our work. That’s why we can’t get off the wheel. Those of us who take on the fight, under the illusion that they are getting off the wheel, take part in our own version of Wack-o-Mole. Yet, the resistance also puts someone else in charge; our countering distracts us also but makes us feel better. We must shift our belief system. Otherwise, even if there are granules of truth in it, it is not serving us well. It is preventing us from taking hold of our own destiny and the destiny of our students. Survivors of terrible times never surrendered. It kept them in hope against all odds. So, it is our time.

We Must Finally Bring the Issue Home
Those of us in leadership roles must be found doing something other than responding well. Outsiders become the locus of control for both those on the wheel and those resisting it. Leaders for this time will see the opportunity and step out of the wheel sphere altogether. Then, power returns to us.

All the Creativity of Teachers and Leaders Gets Poured into Daily Work
In an immediate way, children benefit and we feel justifiably good about our work. But, who is holding the long view? Who is remembering that, while we become experts in common core and new assessments and newly engaged learning, we are more than the technology of education. We are the experts in children and learning. Where are the places for research about children, neuroscience, and the social sciences to meet to inform our decisions? Metaphorically, if we were gardeners, we are spending our time planting, monitoring growth and tending the plants. The garden will only be as productive as the ground will allow. We need to prepare the earth before our efforts as gardeners really pay off. Even then, we deal with the forces of nature. Sometimes there will be floodwaters that destroy the newly planted or a late frost or a drought. But every gardener or farmer begins again at the ground level. Let’s learn from them about forces beyond our control and hope and perseverance.

We Know What Our Schools Need
Ask most any teacher what they need in order to be more effective with their students and they will say, without a moment’s hesitation, that they need more uninterrupted instructional time, less pull-outs, smaller class sizes, more collaborative time to work with colleagues, more time for learning for themselves specifically in differentiation techniques, the new standards, and the use of technology. They would add that they need less time and focus on standardized testing and more time spent on encouraging and nurturing their students to become whole, productive human beings.

Ask most any leader what they need in order to be more effective and they will say, without a moment’s hesitation, that they need more resources, of time, money and faculty. They also want collaborative time in which they can work with the professional staff to assess the current state of the school and thoughtfully plan forward, learn together, and meet the needs of the district and its children. They will say they value an accountability process that helps each and every one of their teachers to get continually better.

But whether we are the running gerbils or holding the mallet waiting for the next mole to pop up, we cannot lead from that place. If we do not figure out how to take charge of our belief system and of our own actions and words, we will find our treasured system deteriorate into an exhausted one that does children no good.

Seize the Opportunity Buried in this Moment
We tend not to discover it. Too much of our time is spent talking about the problem and not enough time is being spent creating the architecture to lead toward the solutions we intuitively know. Otto Scharmer, the MIT author of Theory U, argues that change cannot happen until leaders make the journey through the U, opening their own hearts, minds and wills, seeing with their own eyes and those of others, while silencing the insidiousness of fear, cynicism and judgment. Only then, do we arrive in a place of reflection and creativity, with others who have taken the same risky journey. From there, solutions arise that are transformative. Leadership becomes inspired and leaders certain of what they know, who they are, and what needs to be done, seize the opportunity buried in this moment.

We may not have all the answers, but we will have some. We will remember that children are our work and we are the experts. If we remain reactionary and obedient or resistant, we will lose the very heartfelt drive that brought us to and keep us in this profession. We will turn from being compassionate teachers and leaders into cogs in a wheel. There is nothing good about this for children. We must learn how to lead in these times so we can guarantee all of our children a growing and invigorated system. We must remember the ground is the source of all good harvests. Otherwise, what is the point?

Scharmer, Otto C. (2009). Theory U. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

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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.