The Urgency To Change and the Patience To Grow

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We are entering the season of transition in education, anticipating the departure of our oldest students for the next step in their education.  For those of us in secondary, we see the people we met as they were shedding the layers of childhood leave us to begin their lives as young adults.  I have now seen 15 groups of these seniors make this transition, and I have always been struck by intense paradox they live every day: abiding by the schedules, rules, and rituals of a place that is for them all too familiar and increasingly restrictive, while at the same time thinking ahead to the grey uncertainty of what comes next.  They live each day at the intersection of two powerful forces: the urgency to be done with the child’s world of compulsory education, and at the same time a desire to hold on to the comfort of this familiar place.

Their impatience for change keeps pace with their desire – especially towards the end, the dazed fatigue of late May, the lovely sunshine fooling us that it’s really summer – to sink into their experience even deeper and grab firm hold of their memories of learning, connecting, and growing.  Even the most nonchalant students, or those who fight the process every step of the way, open up near the end of their four years and assess, for the first time seemingly, what they are about to lose.  They learn what we have come to accept as adults: change is exhilarating and it is downright scary.

Education as a whole, like our departing seniors, walks an electric tightrope.  Many of us feel an intense, overpowering urgency to bulldoze buildings, banish bell schedules, and retreat into the desert for a long spell to re-imagine who we are and what we are here to do; we also yearn to go slower, to ratchet down the frenetic pace we all fall victim to (yet are seemingly powerless to challenge), and simply connect with our colleagues as people and fellow journeyers.  We want our work to be meaningful to our students, to the society we serve, and to our own sense of purpose and self.

We are at the crossroads of our institutional need to change as rapidly as the world around us is changing, and our human desire to grow into new ways of thinking and being in deliberate, nurturing, safe ways.  Change can be quick (think asteroid) and eventually gives rise to new paradigms (aren’t we relieved that we don’t have dinosaurs as neighbors?).  Growth, on the other hand, is by nature slow – practically plodding!  Think trees.  Think mountains.  One centimeter per year doesn’t do much for us in a lifetime – but a walk through a California redwood grove is an easy way to see and feel the result of centuries of slow, deliberate growth.  Vertigo, anybody?

Slowness is understandably frustrating, especially when we feel like we aren’t maximizing our personal and organizational potential to create powerful learning (and growing) experiences for all students.  Kristen Swanson’s terrific blog has a recent post talking about this very frustration – instead of continuing professional development practices that deliver material we can “use on Monday” in the classroom (surface change as opposed to deep growth), why not blow it all up?  Start tabula rasa and begin a New Era of education?  I found myself nodding my head unconsciously as I read it.

A healthy counterpoint to this valid (and shared!) frustration is a clip from a recent interview with George Couros.  He talks about developing a culture of professional development wherein the adult learners aren’t passively receiving information, rather experiencing in the design of the PD what a 21st Century learning experience can be like.  Leaders, teacher leaders (official and unofficial), and mentors must take this to heart: educational practice will not experience the growth our society requires until we slow down and collectively learn and explore new things – from each other, from our own experimentation (and subsequent sharing), from our students.

At my site we have used one particular analogy over the last three years in thinking about our work to reinvigorate a culture of collective inquiry: we are “building the plane while flying it.”  This analogy is incredibly apt – it captures the tension we are experiencing in serving the needs of our students right now (getting them to their destination) while at the same time realizing that the plane we’re on isn’t built to 21st Century code.  The work we do to bring our airplane to the standard we require now must be incremental; after all, we can’t remove an entire wing at 35,000 feet!

So…are we patient enough for growth?

Schools and districts must be deliberate, inclusive, and focused in their efforts to grow.  I like how Michael Fullan describes it as “capacity building” and “learning is the work” in The Six Secrets of Change.  A lot of great practice exists already – maybe even in the classroom next door – but there are few opportunities for teachers and leaders to learn from each other in embedded, ongoing fashion.

As we look into the grey of the unknown during this period of precipitous transition, our challenge will be to find a stable, sensible middle-ground between our urgency to transform education now and the patient, purposeful steps we must take together as educators to learn and grow in a sustainable, ongoing way.

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