Monday, January 5, 2015

My Big Thought in Early '15: Staying Amazing thru Independence

       In one of those cases of pure serendipity, recently an email from  appeared in my inbox to advertise this print:

The message explained that Hugh McCleod had created the image for Zappos, widely considered a great place to work. The body of the email went on to explain: "It might seem counter-intuitive, making these kinds of basic reminders for smart people at smart companies. But we've found that often, they're the ones who need it most. Because smart people are always looking at what they can do to make things better, they tend to forget that what they're already doing is pretty awesome. How do you inspire the very best? Just keep doing what you're doing."
       I call this serendipity because it fits with an idea I've been pondering quite a bit lately. The topic is, I believe, an essential balancing act of effective leadership. It's managing to inspire the necessary forward movement while honoring and even retaining that which is of essential, timeless value. The tension is captured in the essential questions of a workshop we'll be having at St. John's Episcopal in a few weeks, led by Grant Lichtman: In what ways are we already great? How do we become even greater? 
      Too often we neglect all the amazing things that already happen in our schools. Education is, in many ways, a pretty easy target for people. Those who spend their time emphasizing the problems attract a wide audience. But they also tend to paint with a very wide brush, often unfairly and in a way that ignores the exemplary work many are doing. Long-time, clear-minded independent school voice Peter Gow recently addressed this notion very well in a blog post he published while I was in the midst of formulating this piece. During some remarks this morning I made the comparison to how we act about cars and computers. Most of us take their functioning, despite how complicated it is, for granted. We don't express our gratitude when it works each time; but we express incredible frustration the first time it doesn't. And learning is in many ways a much more mysterious process than such mechanics.
       Having said that, I also argue quite fervently that we need to rethink aspects of education in some fairly dramatic ways. Certainly, as so many others and I have pointed out in various ways over and over, that holds true because of how the world is changing. But many of those changes were necessary even before now. I look back at my own education--I'm 53--and listen to others describe theirs, and everyone talks of too much emphasis on lower-order skills and memorization. So the problem is not new. Perhaps the urgency for change is greater now. I suspect many generations, while living in the moment, felt the pace of change was accelerating faster than at any other time. We tend to throw around terms such as innovation and transformation and disruption rather easily, and education has a long history of silver-bullet thinking. I want to be clear that I love the spirit and optimism and direction behind this. I'm thrilled that schools seem to be putting more emphasis on growth mindsets and creative intellectualism. But I worry that as we talk so much about the future into which our students are heading, we can lose sight of the past that brought us here and what kids may need right now.
     My thoughts on strategic plans and vision capture what likely seems like my ambivalence with this topic. I have problems with how often the strategic planning process occurs, as various groups submit their "thoughts," the final product thus becoming a wish list and action items, and perhaps not really a strategy. The commitment in theme can lead recklessly down a path. Similarly, too concrete a vision strikes me as grandiose and can actually signal myopia and a degree of blindness. That's not to say that one shouldn't have a direction, and ideal for which one is striving; a really wonderful picture of what things could be like. For instance, a teacher may envision an ideal class. The hard work--the work that really matters--doesn't lie in that vision. It lies in seeing how each day one can do the job better and making that effort. Sometimes those are big things. I suspect more often they are small things. And they add up over time.
       But leaders must show vision. We want it to be sweeping in a way that inspires. Perhaps, however, it must be rooted in a simple idea(l) rather than a utopia of magnificent facilities and beaucoup initiatives and measures. I could--indeed, I have--riffed on and on about my educational utopia in many times, Certain elements remain the same; others change. But I think that to "stay amazing," schools like mine must emphasize their independence. Not just emphasize it, but take advantage of it. That is what has made us unique, more often for better than worse, albeit not always. That independence is what allows us to be responsive and agile and to emphasize what matters; and in doing so, to provide what kids need, right now and for the foreseeable future. Any school that does that is quite amazing.

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