Are Teachers and School Leaders An Endangered Species?
Recently I watched The Future We’re Building, an interview with Chris Anderson, the Curator of Ted and entrepreneur Elon Musk. I quite literally could not turn it off….actually, I was so geeked out I watched it twice.
After turning it off, my first thought was, “If self-driving cars are mainstream in 2 years, Hyperloop travel is mainstream in 10, and commercial space travel to Mars is mainstream in 20, what do we need to be doing in schools and classrooms not only to prepare students to navigate that world, but to contribute to it?” and then I thought, “How might we prepare teachers to guide that navigation and nurture bold and inspiring contributions?”
I am confident the answers to these questions lie in the solutions we generate and are as varied as the schools and communities in which we serve. But to do so we must begin building bridges between our current reality and the imagination of future possibilities.
I recently asked a group to think in terms of the ideal as we were brainstorming a communication plan for a current project. The response I received was an immediate questioning of why we would consider spending time on ideals if they weren’t going to be realistic. And while I am all for implementing ideas that are viable and sustainable within one’s organization, I question whether commercial space travel to Mars, self-driving cars, et. all- all things that quite likely will be the reality of our current generation of students- would ever have been made such if their creators and collaborators had only ever thought in terms of their current capacity...In order to ensure our schools & classrooms both mirror the future and have a role in the inspiration of it, there are a few things we can start doing now to bridge the chasm between inspiration and everyday reality.
Begin with understanding, not the problem- As educators we are currently suspended in a world where budget woes are the norm and where we bear responsibility not only for the academic growth of students, but for their social and emotional well-being as well. The realities faced by our students may make time spent imagining seem anywhere from trivial to disrespectful.
But imagining possibilities is really just a series of problem solving exercises strung together. Too often we start with the problem. I recently conducted climate research for a district whose student population reported they were struggling to balance everything that was on their plate. However, when I went into the data more closely, they revealed it wasn’t necessarily that students had too much on their plate, but rather, that they had little influence over what was piled atop it. In other words, their plates were full of things they felt they had to do rather than what they were choosing to do. If we had applied a solution to the “too much on the plate” problem, we would have missed the mark.
If time is a commodity everyone wants more of, it doesn’t make sense to waste yours on solving the wrong problem. Take the necessary time to research why a problem exists, who it affects, what contributes to it, what has already been tried and why it has or hasn’t been successful, or risk solving a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself.
Separate the idea stage of problem solving from the evaluation stage- You are a building leader engaging your staff in the re-imagination of service delivery to students with special needs in your building. One of your teachers says, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could pair students with similar goals and objectives with a resource teacher with that area of expertise regardless of grade level and schedule limitations?” And then you hear, “Yeah, that would be nice, but ________.” This is a classic example of combining the generation of ideas with the evaluation of their workability. Maybe this is a great idea, maybe it is a terrible idea. Either way, giving it a "yay" or a "nay" in that moment stymies additional ideas. Maybe that idea gives way to a line of thinking that others hadn't considered. Maybe it inspires a totally different line of thinking because someone disagrees with the idea. As a leader, find a way to keep the ideas coming and as an independent part of your process.
Yes, an idea needs to be doable for your organization. However, you will never move beyond what is doable right now if you don’t ensure the ideas portion of your problem solving process is separate from whether or not you can get the idea to work. Generate ideas with stakeholders once you are clear on the problem you are solving. Allow folks to think in “ideally…,”, in “imagine ifs…,” in “if _____ weren’t obstacles…” Then, when you go to evaluate the ideas, rather than dismiss something instantaneously, ask folks to think about what problems they would need to solve to make that “ideal” a reality. See how much you have increased the quantity of viable ideas as a result.
Spend time informing the solution not perfecting the idea- I recently worked with a district on re-designing their middle school master schedule and with their middle level teachers on re-designing instructional blocks to maximize learning. As soon as we had a schedule we knew met basic non-negotiables, we shared it with people. Doing so gave us information as valuable and varied as food service needing a certain amount of time between lunch waves to keep food fresh, parents needing additional research and information to understand why the changes were necessary, teachers desiring homeroom at the beginning of the day to facilitate laptop distribution, and central office needing the flexibility to share staff between buildings in the event that additional budget cuts became a reality. We would not have been able to solve for these things without putting the idea out for feedback. Quite simply, our solution would have ceased to be one if we cared more about the idea than about making it work for the learning community.
Even the most brilliant ideas stink if they don’t work for people when implemented. Perfect the solution by getting it out there and making it better through the feedback of those it is meant to serve.
What does all of this have to do with commercial space travel to Mars? Very little save for the view. For the record, I do not think teachers and school leaders are an endangered species.
However, whether we start planning vacations to Mars instead of Disney or not, the future and seeing our way to making possibilities a reality have got to be part of our present.