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School & District Management Opinion

You Can’t Change Schools Without Changing Yourself First

The terrifying but necessary mindset for education leaders
By Renee Owen — May 11, 2022 | Corrected: May 16, 2022 5 min read
conceptual illustration of a paper boat transforming into an origami bird before falling off a cliff
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Corrected: A previous version of the essay misnamed Transformative Educational Leadership.

Education depends on safe, orderly, predictable systems—something that the COVID-19 pandemic undermined. It’s taught many of us how interdependent we all are and how interconnected our systems can be.

There are examples on almost every level. Our regional educational school district, after moving locations, hasn’t had office furniture all year, because of the shipping crisis. I recently visited several middle schools that only have Porta Potties after students vandalized restrooms at the start of the school year, spurred by a destructive social media campaign. Orderly school board meetings are interrupted with heckles and protests around issues like masking and critical race theory, reflecting raging culture wars. On the front yard of my local elementary school, a bus is parked with a giant banner advertising the desperate need for bus drivers, a dramatic display of widespread labor shortages across America. Administrators are acting as substitute teachers, mopping floors, changing diapers—whatever it takes to simply keep the system going.

It feels like chaos and it isn’t just our systems that are falling apart; it’s people, too. The mental health crisis among children that was already occurring before the pandemic is at epic proportions. Articles that “the kids are not OK” were followed with articles of how “the teachers are not OK.” But what’s really not OK are the systems themselves.

At the onset of the pandemic, some educators saw hope that perhaps as typical school systems were disrupted, things would never go “back to normal”—and that would be a good thing. Maybe the pandemic would be a catalyst for educators, students, parents, and community members to come together, on behalf of children, and totally rethink education and how we could better serve all children.

In 1998, the futurist Joanna Macy predicted a “great unraveling,” a time when the colonial- and industrial-era systems that never were working for those on the margins would become so dysfunctional that society would begin breaking down—and even those who seemed to benefit from the systems would suffer. Macy argued that this unraveling would lead to the “great turning,” when systems of oppression and competition would give way to new systems based on paradigms of equity, relational connection, and well-being.

Historically, times of change need strong, visionary leaders to harness positive outcomes. Unfortunately, educational leaders have been under too much stress keeping up with day-to-day crises to imagine, much less implement, sweeping change of a kind people like Macy envision. For many, any optimistic images of “not going back to normal” have morphed into dystopian disarray.

Managing dystopia is certainly more familiar to many education leaders than leading a turn toward a more equitable paradigm. Administrator-licensure programs primarily train new leaders to comply with current laws and systems; they certainly aren’t training administrators to be revolutionary. So not only are our public school systems not designed for second-order change—which requires changes in beliefs and behaviors—but our leaders are not trained for transformative change.

Managing dystopia is certainly more familiar to many education leaders than leading a turn toward a more equitable paradigm.

In schools, there is a constant striving for improvement, but improvement—getting better at what we already do within the systems we already have—will never fundamentally change who we are or how we think. Improvement will never erase inequities. We will continue to get the same results unless we are able to see education in a completely new way.

First defined by sociologist Jack Mezirow in 1978, transformative learning theory recognizes that adults learn differently from children in some fundamental ways. When adults engage in learning, they bring with them a wealth of life experiences and a highly developed worldview. Adults’ prior knowledge is certainly an asset but also a stumbling block to learning, because it is difficult for adults to recognize their socially conditioned mental models.

There are essentially two types of learning: technical learning, in which adults learn new knowledge or skills and assimilate that new knowledge within their current worldview, and transformative learning, in which adults open their minds to new ways of thinking and take on new roles and behaviors. Adult learning theory says that unless we engage in transformative learning, adults aren’t truly developing or expanding their capacities.

The same goes for organizations. Organizations, such as schools, can “learn,” but, unless they are engaged in transformative learning, they aren’t changing the underlying beliefs and behaviors that created the inequitable outcomes we currently experience.

The challenge is that transformative learning isn’t easy. In fact, it’s terrifying.

Transformation is analogous to a chemical change—once it happens, there’s no going back. As individuals, when we transform, we give up who we are and enter the unknown to become someone new. As institutions, transformative change is difficult to endure. What if our school transformation effort fails and makes us look unprofessional, leads to more chaos, or, worst of all, harms children? Conditions can get a lot worse before they get better—a process that systems science calls an implementation dip.

Few school leaders naturally have the guts, the vision, the disposition, and the skill to lead transformation. Fortunately, we can develop transformative leaders if we learn to nurture leaders’ inner transformation before expecting them to lead social change. There are examples of professional-development programs, such as the Transformative Educational Leadership program, which takes a holistic approach to leadership development. The only administrative master’s program I know of with a transformative-leadership theme is at Southern Oregon University’s Center for Holistic Education, where I teach, but there will be more on the horizon.

It’s time we recognize that transformation isn’t going to come from politicians but from school leaders and teachers.

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