With the passing of Maya Angelou I thought I would use on of her quotes as the basis of a post. I love this quote because it not only captures the spirit and personality of Angelou but really my approach, (at least in theory) to the job.
I always had a soft place in my heart for Maya Angelou mostly because of the spirit of this quotation. Even after such a tough and traumatic life; one that would have made lesser people bitter and hard; she wrote mostly about the beauty in the world. She addressed injustice but mostly by pointing out how much better it could be if ALL people figured out how to listen and show compassion for one another. She did not spend her time on Earth wondering why the cosmic chips were so stacked against her, instead she looked for every opportunity to display her talent and to share her craft with people, so that they too could see the beauty that often remains hidden. She was an inspiration: no qualifier allowed here!
That being said I wondered a lot this week about this quote when it comes to leadership in schools. I truly love my job because it is one that if you see something that you do not like, you can, on occasion, change it. I hate the chairs and tables in the office conference room and this week met with a rep from a vendor to discuss new ideas and ways to make the space more workable. I am pretty much the only person in the building that can affect that change. To be honest this is pretty cool really!
But in the end this is an easy change. Even though it will hopefully have an impact on how people use and see this space, it is just tables and chairs after all. Other change is much harder. I had a chat with a teacher who is nearing retirement but still would like to see a change in the way that schooling is delivered. There was lots of good stuff in this conversation but the essence of it was, that the hardest things to change in education is not the technology or the structure or even the buildings; the hardest things to change are the people. This is a slow and often rocky process that can leave the change agent either frustrated or even doubting their own ideas and beliefs.
This is one of my favourite scenes to use when talking about change theory. There is a saying that goes back to WWI which says, “The first one over the wall, is bound to get bloody.” This is so true when it comes to change as well. The first one to suggest or dare I say, insist on change is bound to meet with some machine gun-like resistance. The first ones are bound to fall because of so many factors. Often people are not ready for what you are talking about and are ready to point out your failures or when something does not work. And it will not work many times because it is so new and so different. The toughest part of change is not the idea or even the work, it is withstanding the initial push back, and just soldier on. Like the first wave of soldiers in this scene, change agents have to keep going.
But schools are not war torn beaches. With black and white lines between friend and enemy. In fact, if it gets to the point of rivalry, then leadership has failed. So how do you navigate this beach? How to tip toe through the landmines that wait like ministry expectations, union resistance, standardized board initiatives, apathetic or difficult parents? I think you take a page from Maya Angelou.
If you don’t like something, Change it.
This is in the hands of all people in education. Figure out what part of your day, your class, your school, you have certain control over and start there. Don’t wait for everyone else to get on board, before you start your own journey. Push off and starting doing stuff. Don’t even ask for permission, (let’s not be crazy here), but trust your professionalism and go for it. Don’t be secretive about it either. There is a temptation to do this though isn’t there? To keep it to yourself because you don’t want to have to explain it, or justify it or change it. I get it, (I have done exactly this in my career), but my hope is to push through. To share and let others know what you are doing so that the idea can spread and get even better.
If you can’t change it, Change your Attitude
I love this part, but it is the hardest part. Human nature is to love your ideas and then pretty much hate anyone that disagrees with you. Also to hate all things that keep you from making the changes that you think are the most important. It is hard but so necessary so that the “first ones over the wall” while getting bloody, are not lost forever. That they carry on and keep trying stuff, they need to maintain their sanity and spirit. Now this does not come with changing our watering down your ideas. No, that would be the worst thing. The Attitude adjustment is to not immediately disagree with someone who disagrees with you. This is tough but think about what you can learn about your own ideas if you listen to others. If nothing else, you can sharpen your ideas against the rock of resistance.
The key though is being able to consider the source. Most change theory suggests that most groups are made of different types of groups. One group is the early adopters. They are the ones, (perhaps you are one of them), that is the first to have something and try things. In a classroom they are always on the cutting edge and working on something. As a leader you depend on these people for things as they are great to forecast the future. You can dip into their classes to see what the finish line looks like. The problem is that these are very few (probably 5-10%) of a group and they rarely inspire people to follow because they are so far ahead that people find it hard to keep up.
Another group are the saboteurs. These are the people that actively work against things simply because they want to resist. These are hard people to work with as they embody a spirit that I honestly cannot understand. The problem is that that they can work against people that are trying things. As a leader, keep an eye here, but don’t worry too much about them as they are small in number (2-5%) and their whining usually grows tiresome for most people.
The rest of the group are the ones where you can find change and this is where the adjustment part comes. As a leader, I think it is necessary to spend time on the people in the middle of this continuum. Offer leadership opportunities to those further along or at least willing to try new things. These are the ones that can act as great representatives for their colleagues. They can show what they did and then help other get there.
The best part about education is that that these people are all motivated by the spirit of doing what is right for the students they see every day. If as a leader, you can expose all to the needs of these students, and then support those that want to try new and innovative things, then you are well on your way to impacting change.
Above all though, I would hope to embrace the last part of Angelou’s statement.