In 1949, 15 smoke jumpers parachuted into Montana to fight what they believed to be a routine forest fire in an area known as Mann Gulch. Headed by foreman Wag Dodge, the young men expected the fire to be expelled within a matter of hours. Once on the ground, Dodge quickly became concerned as he realized the fire wasn’t following typical patterns. Within minutes, the fire had exploded—surrounding the men on both sides of the gulch.
According to Norman Maclean’s award-winning account of this event, Dodge called on his men to drop their tools and follow him. In the clear brush in front of him, he pulled out a book of matches and lit the grass at his feet on fire.
In the heat and flames, Dodge’s men thought he’d lost his mind and ran for their lives still clutching their tools. Realizing his pleas were fruitless, Dodge wet a handkerchief, put it over his mouth, and lay in the ash at his feet. What Dodge remembered, and his less experienced team did not, is that fire needs fuel to burn. By creating this escape fire, when the explosive flames approached Dodge, they simply swept past the ashes that were once fuel and jumped over the haven he’d created. When he emerged, all but two of his men had perished. The story of Mann Gulch is a popular case study among sociologists.
The University of Michigan’s Karl E. Weick characterizes the tragedy as a cosmology episode—an inconceivable situation where individuals face a challenge unlike anything familiar or known. During such an episode, a collapse of shared sense making can lead to a sudden loss of meaning, where individuals cling to rigid routines out of panic when those very routines stand in the way of creating a new, liberating path forward.
As children return to school after as much as a year away, so, too, are educators collectively facing a “Mann Gulch” moment. Interruptions in schooling, tragic loss of life, and a new and uncertain normal presents challenges never before faced by our field. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented $129 billion will become available for educators and students through the American Rescue Plan. Education leaders making decisions about how to invest these substantial funds ought not to tightly grip status quo routines, which weigh down our students as heavily as the equipment Dodge’s men clung to in their panic.
Here are the entrenched routines that education leaders should reconsider to reject that panic and create a new map for the future:
1. Assuming that teachers can do it all. The impact of teacher capacity on student achievement is well-defined. But as teachers grapple with interrupted periods of students’ learning, it’s unreasonable to buy into narratives that teachers have superpowers that will allow them to magically catch all students up to grade-level tasks and ensure students have the social and emotional well-being to thrive.
Education leaders making decisions about how to invest these substantial funds ought not to tightly grip status quo routines.
In reality, education leaders must set teachers up for instructional success by providing high-quality instructional materials and meaningful professional learning experiences grounded in those materials. Ensuring that all students can achieve at high levels after the pandemic is challenging, but possible, if we give teachers the tools to focus on their primary role as academic leaders. This also means that leaders must prioritize adequate support from related service providers, including school counselors and social workers.
2. Underestimating the importance of family partnerships. Partnerships with parents and caregivers shouldn’t be reduced to breakfast celebrations and year-end award ceremonies. Around the country, parent- and family-advocacy groups have shown education leaders that they want a seat at the table when it comes to making decisions about their children. Clear and transparent communication is necessary between and among families and educators, and it starts with providing clarity around what children should be mastering at each grade level.
3. Reducing equity work to checkbox transactions. Equity rightfully should frame our approach to the work of education, and yet commonly, this work becomes a series of either checkbox items or performative acts. Equity work ought to permeate and center not only our mindsets but our actions. Too often, we sell this work short by patting ourselves on the back after participating in anti-racist book clubs, without doing the more difficult but critical work of refining our approach to curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
4. Deprioritizing student voices. Experts in the burgeoning field of improvement science say that a critical step in pursuing growth is prioritizing the end-user perspective. In education, for far too long we’ve ignored our users: the students in front of us. As we consider the road ahead, leaders should be intentional in creating spaces for student voice and prioritizing students’ agency in their experiences.
5. Ignoring plausible ideas that are right in front of us. Perhaps the most tragic element of Mann Gulch was that a viable solution was right in front of the smoke jumpers had they been willing to drop their tools. Wag Dodge knew this: He looked at every piece of data he had, thinking beyond typical firefighting routines and identities. As their leader urged them to reconsider their current reality, the young smoke jumpers may have thought, “Who am I without my tools?” We, too, as educators must reconsider routinized practices that don’t serve all students well. If we cling too hard to standard practices, especially given our new landscape, we’ll waste an opportunity to fully realize the promise of a free and appropriate education for all children.
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as What Ed. Leaders Can Learn From a Wildfire About Spending Billions in Federal Funds