A Time to Choose

Ace Ladder Aug 14 - 2

FarSide Gallery – Gary Larson

Note:  I want to thank Will Richardson for inspiring this essay. He introduced a recent blog post, “2019 – A Time to Choose” with a challenging question:

“What are you going to do to change the experience your students have in school to reflect more compellingly what you believe is the right thing to be doing for kids and learning?”

Will’s piece is, indeed, challenging and, as usual, is a great read.  But I believe that, at this time in our history, we are called to ask Will’s question on a deeper, broader level – i.e., what are we doing to reflect compellingly what we believe is the right thing? 

Since the beginning of this blog a couple of years ago I’ve written a lot about leadership.  I began believing pretty firmly and comfortably that leadership could be defined as the capacity to build followership. As a result of several soul-grabbing experiences during the past six months I’m going to expand on that notion

If you’ve been following my reflections you know that I believe strongly in what Simon Senek  calls ”Circles of Safety”– places where people feel safe to express thoughts, challenge long-held truths, and take the risks involved in change. Senek suggests that these circles of safety are built on deep and caring relationships. They’re built on trust.

Putting my faith in the possibility that your continued connection to my reflection is based on that notion of trust, I’m going to test it. I’m going to test it on several levels.

I use Medium as a curating site to find writing that interests and engages me. Each piece published in Medium contains a brief description as well as an approximate reading time. So borrowing from both of Mediums approaches, here’s a brief description, “How the age of separation has threatened (and continues to threaten) the future of our kids and our country.”  And now the real test of trust… this essay and related tasks are going to consume at least 30 minutes of your time (and probably at least one or two adult beverages).

First, as context, I’m going to ask you to view a video clip prior to considering continuing with this essay (think blended learning).  I’m going to continue with a departure from my narrow focus on education. I’m going to share some observations that have found a voice as a result of the learning experiences I mentioned above. They’re impacting me deeply. They extend well beyond the field of education but on some levels they cannot be separated from it. I’ll leave it to you to decide the value of my observations and the connections you might see. I encourage you to share your reaction.

The clip is one I’ve referenced previously. It is the commencement address by the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education given by Dr. James Ryan in 2016.  In it, he suggests 5 powerful questions that graduates should incorporate into their lives. Even if you’ve viewed it previously, I urge you to invest another 21 minutes to see what stays with you this time.

Welcome back… I hope.

In his writing, Charles Eisenstein describes what he calls the “Age of Separation”.  He describes it as a time in which we are increasingly separate from one another, a time in which we have become increasingly separate from our institutions, a time when we have become increasingly separate from our own planet.  Can you identify examples of each of these?

In addition to his description of our time, Eisenstein also describes us as living in a time of “interbeing”… a time when we are “being” between stories… a time when the stories with which many of us grew up are no longer valid… a time when the promise of the American Dream seems false and out of reach for an increasing number of people.  Umair Haque describes our time as one of increasing exploitation. In his detailed descriptions of a rich country in which increasing numbers of people are only one pay check away from serious financial trouble (government shut down stories, anyone?), in which people have to go online to beg for money to deal with health issues for which they are uninsured (or insufficiently insured), in which the producers of goods/workers have wages which have been stagnant for decades while wealth continues to grow at staggering levels for the richest among us, Haque substitutes the word “exploitation for Eisenstein’s “separation”.

I make the following connections.  It is not hard to extend the notion of separation to schools and schooling.  A friend once described schools as 30 classrooms connected by a common parking lot.  In my visits to schools throughput the country over the past 15 years, I have seen school after school in which separation dominates… kids separate from teachers, teachers separation from leadership, kids separate from one another. In many of these schools, teachers in adjacent classroom have no idea what is happening next door. Teachers work in isolation with little or no understanding, commitment, acceptance (pick your noun) of a common direction, vision, purpose (with the possible common commitment to have their kids achieve arbitrarily determined cut-scores on state assessments).

Haque, using a different measure (exploitation), has no trouble finding examples.  He suggests that, as a country we have progressed from the wealthy exploiting human resources (during the era of slavery and pre-union factory work) to the exploitation of natural resources (industrial pollution, strip mining, unregulated fisheries) to the final phase, the exploitation of one another.  Using education as an example, I don’t have to look too hard to see examples of student exploitation (sale of personal data, treatment of students and schools as “profit centers”, growth of charter management companies, so-called “portfolio” policies that see “free market” alternatives to public schools as valid approaches to “improvement”).

In accepting and, often, encouraging separation (Google “rugged individualism”) we have minimized the value of commonly held beliefs (my beliefs are just as good as your beliefs regardless of their basis in reality). We have, in an age of separation and exploitation, determined human value by the level of acquisition and, conversely, have limited the value of others based on the same criteria.

Perhaps words like separation or exploitation seem too harsh.  I want to raise the issue that regardless of which words we choose, there is a high likelihood that we, as a country with all of our institutions, have drifted off course – have lost sight of true north.  How far off course we have drifted may require more exploration; however, off course remains off course.  Are we separate from one another?  Does that separation seem to be accelerating?  Do we see examples of exploitation, not only of adults but also of children? If so, what do we do?

And so the reason for the Ryan clip.  What do we do?  We act as leaders.  We ask questions? Here’s a quick review of Dr. Ryan’s 5 questions:

  • Wait …What?– (asking a clarifying question) – understand an issue before advocating for it – at root of all understanding
  • I wonder (why/if)– at the heart of all curiosity
  • Couldn’t we at least?—getting past disagreements – beginning of all progress
  • How can I help?– relationship builder and alternative to “savior complex” – how we help matters as much as that we helped – at the base of all good relationships
  • What truly matters?– gets you to the heart of life

I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that I had modified my definition of leadership.  Part of the reason for that modification was the attempt to answer the questions that I’m raising here.  My revised thinking doesn’t alter the notion of developing followership.  What it does do is add another piece.  It is this… leaders create space where change can occur.  They build,  and build on, trust.  They build on the circles of safety they created.  They create spaces where separation doesn’t thrive.

If the direction of this essay strikes a responsive chord, how can you create spaces where separation and the effects of isolation are discussed and actions to eliminate them are valued and intentional?  As a start why not discuss this essay with one colleague? Maybe several. Why not take each of Ryan’s questions and develop a personal response?

Coming soon … Creating space in a time of fear… in the face of powerlessness.

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