School & District Management Opinion

Leading Away From Our Blindspots

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 28, 2013 3 min read
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Today’s educational leaders face monumental, complex expectations. Their capacity to accomplish everything is being tested, literally and figuratively. Children and safety being first, we are expected to know and understand an evolving, complex curricula, emerging teaching methodology that includes ELL, SWD, and students in poverty, those at risk, marginalized students, and high achieving students. Assessments and the resulting data are floating into classrooms and board rooms. We need to lead the conversations about them, and plan the response to them. We are initiating new programs, evaluating teachers and principals to improve performance, and meeting the needs of our communities, our faculties and staffs. And, in case the plate is not yet full, we engage the politically treacherous conversations about race, guns, politics, violence, divorce, LGBT, sports, academics, policies, and finances. Research from the University of Washington reports:

Today, principals are expected to dig out from behind their desks, and hit the classrooms, the playground, the hallways, the staff rooms, the public meeting halls, talking up the business of teaching and learning, observing and modeling instructional practice, reviewing continuous streams of data, and getting buy-in for reforms that touch on difficult issues like differential resourcing to help high-needs students.

Superintendents need to know all of this and be able to evaluate it all while working with a school board on policy, a community on how to organize and fund schools, the media on the latest state report or implications of the last mandate.

One only needs to search the Internet, an education publication, or a bookstore to find information on how to accomplish all of these herculean tasks. But, in our heart of hearts, how can we know and do all of this? The personal and professional costs are high. We cannot lead as experts in each facet of our work. We cannot lead successful changes while operating under the weight of these staggering responsibilities. At least we can’t if we do it in the same way we always have. It is time for a disruptive innovation.

Before we enter next year’s work, let us consider Otto Scharmer’s approach to change.

We have to drop all of our old tools and attend to the situation with fresh eyes. We have to abandon our conventional ways of reacting and operating. We have to deepen our attention to and wonder about the world. We have to bend our habituated beam of attending to the world and redirect it into its source - the blind spot from which we operate moment by moment. We have to connect to this source in order to tune in to the future that is seeking to emerge (pp. 56-57).

Most of us have a sense, buried somewhere and nudging at us, that there is a future for public education seeking to emerge. But, it is not always our practice to shine the light on our own blind spots. Perhaps we don’t think of them as blind spots. They may be assumptions or beliefs, formed long ago and not recently examined. No matter, we all know the time requires us to clear the way for our faculty and students. As in all heroic journeys, a quest is required. Scharmer suggests that within us is, "...the subtle, invisible dimension - the underlying source to help us ... open our horizon to future possibilities” (p. 57).

Some believe the work cannot be done. Our voice has been among the others who have said: “Testing is unfair and meaningless.” “The Common Core lacks content.” “The new teacher and principal evaluation is cumbersome, demanding and threatening to the very morale we have tried to build.” “All this work is spreading me too thin and I can’t do any of it well.” Whether a teacher, principal, or superintendent, these are the sources of discontent and prevent us from making substantive change. The steps away from negativity, assumptions, and blind spots, are the steps toward hopefulness, and the best steps into the future.

We have taken on the role of leader and with it we are given a positional opportunity to make things happen. We cannot allow the current climate to draw us into a culture of discontent. For, with discontent, current practice is clutched, change is made only on the surface, implementation is exhausting, and no sustainable, systemic change is made. Then, the schools in which we have invested our careers become the Conestoga wagons of education.

How will the future look? It depends on whether or not, our hands are involved as potter. We start with some serious soul searching. Where are our blind spots? Name and know them; recognize how they are limiting our thinking and our decisions. Then, we can follow with some serious listening with our faculty, our colleagues, and outsiders. Then we begin big change in little ways. Of course, Scharmer’s work is far more complex than this. But this is the beginning. We can do this work if we venture inward, beyond our own voices of fear, judgment and cynicism to the place where we find other journeyers, and, together, we begin to create a new teaching and learning environments. The summer days are long now. It is the season to consider blind spots.

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.