“We can’t solve problems by using the same kinds of thinking we used when we created them.” -- Albert Einstein
As an educator, unless you are in a formal leadership role (Principal, Superintendent, etc.), you often feel powerless when it comes to influencing change. Why would someone listen to one single teacher when it comes to transforming teaching practices or district policies? So what do most teachers end up doing? They stick to the box that is given to them; limits are set and boundaries are created. We follow what others say is best.
In the past few months, as we have met amazing educators across North America and the world, we have found a voice and began to share a message. We can’t settle any longer for the boxes that are handed to us. We can’t accept status quo in education when it is simply not working. We need to put kids first; we need to think about well-being and building up our leaders and educators rather than tearing them down with thoughtless cuts, constant obstacles and unimaginable challenges in assessment and supports for teachers.
As a father, I am blessed with two daughters who love animated movies. When a movie of strength and female leadership comes along, I am a big supporter. The last few years, we have been fortunate with many amazing movies: from Frozen, to Trolls and most recently, Moana. As a self-directed leader in education, Moana spoke to me. The story of a girl who could have chosen the path that was destined for her in her community, or to create her own unique leadership role.
The words from one of the songs, “How Far I’ll Go,” have many parallels to what we live in education. From leadership assertions: “I can lead with pride, I can make us strong”, to accepting status quo: “I’ll be satisfied if I play along”, to accepting a new path: “But the voice inside sings a different song…And it seems like it’s calling out to me, so come find me.”
We can choose to live our life and just be a part of a community. Similarly to the characters in the movie, “everybody on this island seems so happy on the island” because “everything is by design”. Policy makers tend to want to design an education that works, both pedagogically and financially. Certain states prescribe daily lessons in subjects because that is the supposed best method to teach. There is one problem: when you take created lesson plans and copy them, you are ignoring the individuality and uniqueness of each student in front of you. If we truly want to have an education system that not only cherishes students’ personal talents, ambitions and strengths, we need to allow learning to be tailored to their needs and passions. Having a pre-created lessons does not serve anyone: neither the teaching, nor the learning.
Every student, every teacher, every principal is unique. They all have special qualities, interests, likes and dislikes. We must make that human connection; we must get to know each and every one of them, no matter what their role. It is the connections that will make a difference. Relationships are the foundation to every great community. By transforming our roles to reflect this necessity, we will create schools that empower learners, create new hope and that will change the world for the better.
As a new campus leader and a fairly young educator I face this challenge a lot and have over the course of my career thus far. As an educator in the great state of New Mexico this is an even greater challenge. The Land of Enchantment is full of scenic beauty, amazing food and hopeful promises. Our “Land of Manana” (Land of Tomorrow) as many refer to it as we have a close-knit, go with the flow way of life which offers a unique culture. No matter where you go in this great state there is a sense of community (because everyone is related somehow - fourth cousins twice removed or related through marriage counts) and rich with tradition. With that though often also brings the mindset: “This is how it has always been so that’s how it just is” mentality. In Albuquerque, the mayor was Martin Chavez from 1993-1998 and 2003-2009 (most of my childhood and even part of my young adult life). There is even a local YouTube spoof of life in Albuquerque where there is a comment that says, “What do you mean Marty Chavez ain’t the mayor? He’s like… always the mayor.” I’m not saying by any means he did not do great things as mayor but like so many things it’s easy to get caught up the comfort zone and aforementioned mindset. How often do we allow ourselves in our schools or classrooms to get stuck in that same rut?
Every school has those teachers, you know the ones who have taught Kindergarten at the same school, the same classroom, and do the same exact things for 25 years. The ditto machine might even be hidden in their classroom still somewhere. I’m not saying being a career Kindergarten teacher or teaching at the same school your entire career are bad things, but if your pedagogy and craft look the same as they did even one year ago, then doing what’s best for kids is not what’s happening. We must remember that as kids develop, their needs change.
What sets educators apart, from the good to great, is the reflection piece. Those who are in touch with what kids need, the adaptations in education as it evolves, reflect on what is working, what is not working, and how to enrich, enhance or improve - those are the game changers. There is a great blog post by Dave Burgess about how theme parks empty people into the gift shop and he used the analogy to do the same with homework. The week following that post, while I was out at recess, a teacher had a large group of students sitting out for recess writing letters to parents explaining why they had to lose recess (for not doing their homework). The teacher and I had a long conversation about how using writing as a punishment is detrimental to kids as they then see writing as a punishment and and in a negative light; how taking “active time” away from students in a schedule that doesn’t allow for a lot of activity to begin with is negative; And with half of her class not doing their homework, the problem was partly not their fault. We then talked about reflecting on whether or not students had been emptied into the gift shop and I will admit I was met with a lot of resistance in the conversation and her wanting to reflect. So often we do things in school because “it’s how you do school”. We must get away from that and stop allowing ourselves to be so constrained by the boxes placed around us.
If our schools are not outside of the box, if they do not move away from that typical way of life, then we too are stuck in a mentality that needs to shift; we must stop limiting the possibilities that may exist. In the budget crisis that my district and state are in, an administrator has to get creative with their spending and the justifications they provide when trying to stretch a dollar to assure that the possibilities are as far reaching as possible, given the circumstances (I’m so thankful for my mentor teaching me that while in my principal internship).
The change has to start somewhere. It has to come from the thick of it all, right in the center - that one small voice: from a teacher, an educational assistant, a student teacher, a parent, a first year principal or even a student. The ones living it each day, who become the voice of reality and evoke change. We joke about having a “teacher voice” because it commands a room and it is loud and powerful (sometimes hard to turn off or down - my sister always has to remind me to turn my teacher voice off) or maybe even the “teacher look”. All it takes is one to spark the fire. Just like in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, the difference lies in one voice that connects with others. These voices can bring change and often the biggest change comes from the person who thought they were the smallest and most incapable.
Both of us:
So as we reflect on our role in education and our own learning, we go back to the symbolism of the boxes. We can either be happy and accept the way things are, in other words, stay in the box that was given to us, or we can choose a different road and venture out of that box. Out of the middle of those boxes we can make something new happen, we can create our own boxes. Boxes that will not only benefit the learner, but that will empower students, teachers, parents and community members into a new collective partnership that will see students learn at new levels and achieve limitless success.
For more blog posts by Eli, see his website at : http://www.casauslearningteam.com/blog and follow him on Twitter @MrCoachEli
For more blog posts by Roman, see his website at : https://mrromannowak.wordpress.com/ and follow him on Twitter @NowakRo