You Go First!

I have been thinking about why educational leaders are having such difficulty moving from conversation about change and transformation, to action. I’ve been at many, many retreats and conferences where school leaders speak out in support of change and then return to their schools and continue the same patterns.

If I am someone who believes that we should transform our schools, what do I do? If I try changing things in my own classroom or school, there will probably be resistance and I might get fired.

This is where I see the hangup lies…what actions to take? how to take them? and are we prepared for the consequences?

No question, taking up change is a big risk, no matter whether you are a Superintendent, Principal, Director of Technology, or teacher.

Because it is a risk, we tend to wait for someone else to take the first step.

The inner conversation goes like this for the teacher, “If only the building Principal would show some leadership, things would change.”

For the building Principal it is, “If only the Superintendent showed some leadership, things would change.”

The Superintendent says, “If only the State Education Department showed some leadership, things would change.”

And the state education department? They say, “If only the Fed’s showed some leadership, then things would change.”

The Feds…well this “Tag, you go first conversation”, can go on forever.

It takes courage to stop talking about change and to begin taking action. I won’t sugar coat it, the people who lead transformations don’t always succeed. Sometimes they take some hard knocks for living their convictions (think Martin Luther King and Ghandi). But those who answer the call for change, give the rest of us the courage to stand up. Soon many others stand with us, the current begins to flow and the old is washed away.

Be the change.



9 thoughts on “You Go First!

  1. “I have been thinking about why educational leaders are having such difficulty moving from conversation about change and transformation, to action.”

    Me too. I’ve been thinking about this for a long, long time. I retired 10 years ago after 31 years in an urban public school district.

    I’ve concluded that there is no reforming “school”. It is what it is–created over 100 years ago, in the industrial age, organized in a top-down fashion, training future factory workers–and there is so much more to the model and the paradigm. There is so much baggage that goes with “schools”–Sept to June, 8-3 school day, classes of 50 minutes or so, standardized curricula, sports, proms, announcements, pep fests, segregated by age, and more.

    We’ve (all of us) have forgotten that what we are after is intelligent engagement with ideas that matter–learning. We have forgotten that we are not in the school business, but the learning business. Learning and intelligent engagement cannot be imposed by the state, boards, supts, principals or teachers. We are boring the hell out of kids and teachers alike and wasting, no squandering, all that potential creativity. And until we all agree to do something different, we’ll continue to get what we’ve gotten. This is the conversation we should be having with educators, parents, community leaders, boards, legislators, and business.

    Sorry for the rant. I’ve just put my website up and will rant over there when I get it tweaked. But thanks for provoking my thinking.

  2. Pete,

    You ask me, Machiavelli discovered the reason 500 years ago:

    “… it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

    How this plays out in schools has won me a cynicism award, but I stand by the theory! Nobody really wants to change a system in which they have had success.

    Have a good weekend and stay warm wher eever you are!


  3. Skip,
    I understand your frustration. There is a lot of history to support your point of view. I can imagine how hopeless the slaves must have felt; and yet here we are with an African American running for President.

    I guess I feel that every new day presents us with a new opportunity. We need not carry the baggage of the past with us as we move forward.

    Each one of us can take some action that is different from our past histories and our past actions. That’s the beauty of waking up each day. We can create a different reality. We have to do it ourselves, even if we do it alone and no one seems to care. We do it because we feel it is the right thing to do.


  4. Doug,
    Tremendous quote.

    So, let’s not wait for those folks who have so much to lose to make the change. Let’s make the change ourselves and enroll others by our own conduct. We don’t need to preach, cajole, shame, or badger others to change.

    I know I could show more courage when courage is required, be more inspirational when inspiration is needed, model what I believe more consistently, be more creative with my approaches, and generally be a much more effective when it comes to change.

    Approaching this personally keeps me from getting too cynical because I would, essentially, be getting cynical about myself.


  5. Dear Peter and Doug:

    I think about positive change in my school constantly. Systemic change is too big an issue for me, no matter how many ASCD doctrines I read. I know this, young people and young ideas change the world. In 7 years, my school has made the type of positive changes that have allowed us to earn certain recognitions. Central Office leadership and support are a big part. Partnerships are a big part. Professional relationship with a university is worthy of mention. A PTA that supports our students and teachers is priceless. Committee work that allows everyone’s voice to be heard is crucial. But after you peel away all these important aspects of a school program, teamwork and the support of ideas into action, no matter how big or small, are keys to change. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the opportunity to hire your own staff of young, bright professionals who understand the school leader’s vision and mission from the start. I have been in schools where the majority of the faculty have 20 years or more. Not easy, for many reasons.

    Doug the Cynic, I wrote an article on the relationship of The Prince to the New School Administrator last summer. Want to read it? I loved your quote. I’ll bet you are the most positive guy in town.

    Lou Cuglietto

    Miss you, Pete. Hope all is well.

  6. Hey Lou,
    You’re too modest to mention the role that a great Principal plays in creating the environment for change. You have always been the prototype that I wish we could have in every school building in this country.


  7. Great conversation Pete.

    I look at the internal conversation you outlined:

    Teacher, “If only the building Principal would show some leadership, things would change.”

    Principal it is, “If only the Superintendent showed some leadership, things would change.”

    Superintendent says, “If only the State Education Department showed some leadership, things would change.”

    State education department, “If only the Fed’s showed some leadership, then things would change.”

    The Feds…well this “Tag, you go first conversation.”

    Is spot on!

    I blogged yesterday about control in education. Control is centralized and held in the hands of very few and even they are afraid to use it. There are three crucial parties in this thing called education: students, teachers, administrators/policy makers. As it stands the only one of these groups with recognized power to do anything would be the administrators/policy makers . . . unfortunately many of them are so removed from the classroom and steeped in antiquated methods that they can’t see the need for change – they regularly resort to an effort to do what has always been done wrapped up in new wrapping paper.

    If change is to occur there needs to be a redistribution of power/control . . . but the change that is needed means a move away from status quo thinking and an adherence to what Emerson would refer to as a, “foolish consistency.”

    The time has come for education in the 21st century to be invented. We don’t need to reinvent education – we need a completely new concept that is grown from the knowledge developed in the past 25 years and uses the technology that can facilitate the way learning happens.

    Students need to be given far more control of their learning (they must understand that learning is their responsibility and controlled solely by them), teachers need to be given control over organization and delivery of content – and much more often over the choices of content, teachers need to be freed from the oppressive nature of the tsunami of standardized testing that has occurred in the past ten years. Administrators/policy makers need to become familiar with the power/control that will come with allowing a redistribution of control to teachers and students.

    Education/school must become participatory on ALL levels!

    I believe there are many who see this, believe it, yet just don’t take the step. Tom Peter’s says that you should go to work every day willing to be fired – meaning, go make a difference every day, move forward, do the right thing, improve, innovate, have a vision . . . and realize that you might be alone.

    A year ago I quit a teaching position I had at a school where I had really wanted to work . . . the reason? I was told that the only way to truly and effectively assess learning in my classroom was to have my students write a “well written essay” . . . anything else was just a waste of time – and I needed to get on board with that philosophy “right now.” I told the board and administration my reasons for making the choice I did. It is a locally tough market for teaching positions and I have had to learn new skills for the past year, and struggle financially, as I try to find a position where I can make a difference. I took control and did what I thought was right – the board and administration needed to understand they were headed backwards, or at the least into a really small niche. Did I make a change? Maybe, maybe not . . . there have been others at that school who have taken up the fight to change this philosophy because they agreed, but were afraid to stand up until I made a statement. Hopefully the philosophy will change.

    – Greg Thompson

  8. Wow! Greg. Have you written about this experience? I think if you delved into it fully, including the inner conversations that must have been taking place leading up to your decision to leave, that it would be a major piece for a magazine.

    I will keep you in my thoughts.


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