School & District Management Opinion

Leading in a Maelstrom

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 16, 2014 4 min read
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Not all schools and districts are feeling the pressure or the frustration that others are experiencing. Under similar circumstances, and similar mandates and changes, there are places that are responding with hope and are maintaining a forward thinking, positive outlook. All this is happening while publicity about failing schools, the need for changing standards, and increased accountability continue. How is that possible? How can the similar circumstances yield different results?

Leadership announces itself in those who understand how to wrestle with that space between the way things truly are and the way one wishes they were. Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics, is credited with saying, ”...the ‘paradox’ is the only conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be”. In spite of diminishing funding, criticism, changing requirements, and much misinformation in the press about the quality of our schools, there are those who have found a way to hold the paradox and make it a leadership opportunity.

Change can be brutal. Many of us don’t ever like it but it brings additional challenges if it is announced and delivered from somewhere outside ourselves. Nevertheless, all living things change; they must. There are those among us who have learned to negotiate two truths at once...the one about today’s reality and the one about the extraordinary tomorrow.

Hopefully, we have all known leaders with those qualities - men and women who shoulder the burden of the external onslaught, while encouraging and supporting their faculties to see beyond the moment and do their best work. They help us through the transitions, guide us to let go of what is no longer necessary, grieve a little with us and then encourage our risk taking and hope to go with them into a new world and a new way. We are the leaders who must understand these dynamics and lead through these sometimes perilous waters.

It is an attitude, the way we bring ourselves to a situation that can make a difference in the way the organization responds to the changes, just as it is the attitude we, ourselves, bring to a situation that colors our outlook. So how might we lighten our load and brighten our days in these turbulent times? If not before, now is a time to step back, make some space, and allow for moments of expression, frustration, and sadness and celebration of the journey just taken. And now, within that space is also an opportunity for building together the new strategic steps that will allow for the continued movement toward building and maintaining that 21st century environment we need to provide to our students. No matter the standards from outside our walls, or those we establish within, change is needed, and it must be led well. A Mind/Shift article, reported that

Larry Cuban, a respected voice in the education community, says it can take a long time for new policies to actually get implemented in classrooms, and, as schools are gearing up, new policies often come in to replace the ones being implemented. It’s a frustrating cycle for teachers and often leads them to follow their own best judgment about what works in the classroom and ignore the winds of change that can shift so quickly.

Profoundly skilled leaders are needed now. And that skill lies within each and every one of us. It is the combination of our capacities for empathy, positive attitudes, and abilities to use strategies, both social/emotional and intellectual. It is the combination of our capacities to learn and understand the situation that presents itself and to develop an ever-enlarging circle of people who feel energized and supportive of the courage that it takes to hold today’s paradox.

Recently, one of our own received statewide acknowledgment for her leadership. Florida’s Principal of the Year was selected last week. From among three finalists for the annual award, Dr. Barbara Shirley, principal of Alta Vista Elementary School in Sarasota, emerged as the winner. Shirley’s award, a plaque and a $5,000 check, were presented by Pam Stewart, Florida Commissioner of Education. The Commissioner stated that “Principals and assistant principals are the unsung heroes of our educational system. School leaders set the tone and determine the school’s path to success.” Amen to that. What well deserved public recognition for a leader whose school has a 91% free and reduced lunch rate, an “A” rating on the state assessments, and has become a community center with programs for parents, a summer school and tremendous community support from foundations and volunteers alike. We send our congratulations along south to Dr. Shirley and hope that each of you, doing that good and essential work of leading in these times, is getting recognition you deserve.

Richard Feynman, in The Feynman Lectures on Physics, vol III, p. 18-9 (1965)

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