We Can Do Better
Events in 2020 have forced us all as educators and humans to consider not only issues of public health but also, far too late, issues of equity and justice. At One Schoolhouse we are part of that reckoning.
Part of our stated mission is to empower learning, and cultivating student choice, agency, and self-advocacy are core learning objectives in all of our online courses. Students can even take their personal interests and values to a very sophisticated level by choosing the “Activism” track in our semester elective course program. We understand the need to promote these skills and values across our programs.
Most independent schools’ missions and values, taken at their word, make huge promises and offer visions of a better world for everyone. Right now we have the opportunity to start teaching and running schools as if our work truly is what our missions say it is: the quest for a more just and equitable world.
We may be social distancing for a long time, but that must not stop us from using our classrooms to end immediately the socioeconomic distancing that has nourished the lethal plagues of prejudice, injustice, and income inequality whose results we see all around us, every day. Teaching that can respond to a medical crisis must also be crafted to respond honestly and passionately to the pandemic of systemic racism and injustice that has been staring us in the face all our lives.
Independent schools can do better. But, where does “better” start? We can do better in our hiring, training, retention, and promotion of teachers and administrators. We can do better as we balance what we know to be the right thing against the temptation to do the expedient thing. We can do better when we make choices to give our students confidence and strength, every day and on into the future. We can do better when we opt to support and affirm students who struggle to access learning fully.
We join school communities because we believe in their missions and values and want to further them. Designing, building, and delivering an education that truly flows from these missions and values is how we can demonstrate and live our shared faith in students, in the power of learning, and in ourselves.
As we prepare for the uncertainties 2020–21, let’s start by embracing our missions and values not as interpreted by history, expediency, and brand-building but as words of promise to our students, our communities, and our world—a promise that is ours to keep or break.
And then let’s keep this promise.
Freedom from Fear
As we have had literally hundreds of conversations and other interactions with academic leaders this spring and now into the early summer of this plague year, we at One Schoolhouse continue to be inspired by the deep, deep desire of educators to step up and do the hard, hard work required to finish up the 2019–2020 academic year and plan for the next. Through successes and failures, experiments that have worked and others that haven’t, and the multifarious frustrations of students, families, and colleagues, school folks have carried on.
Through it all (so far) we’ve encountered a few new terms: quaranteenagers, sync and async, and social distancing, not to mention COVID considerations, COVID contradictions, and COVID casualties (in multiple, generally tragic forms). And hybrid, a word that in my life once meant abundant crops of corn and then cars with some electric power available—and that now means education that can switch back and forth between online and on- campus. For us at One Schoolhouse, hybrid is not just a term of art but a term of hope, predicated on our belief that on-campus learning will be back, and not just back, but better.
One of the strategies that we’ve been recommending to schools is to take this opportunity to do some difficult work around aligning their curricula to their missions and values. Nothing we’re suggesting is new: analyze your aspirational and foundational statements and work backwards from this analysis to build a learning program that will prepare students to take the school’s ideals out into the world. What seems new is that we’ve offered a schema for this learning program: a set of standards to guide teachers in designing, building, and teaching this mission- aligned curriculum built for their very own students in their very own schools.
We believe, strongly, in curriculum built around goals for learning and understanding and not around the exigencies of content coverage. And we believe that such a curriculum, mediated by mission and values considerations, can liberate teachers and teaching. We believe that such curricula foster cultures of teaching and learning that give more than lip service to the actual lives of students. Within such cultures, real-world considerations—of relevance, of social justice, of insistently urgent current issues—may take their places in classrooms not as “tangents” or distractions but as central to the learning and teaching enterprise.
But enough about what we believe, because we have also become aware of a special kind of challenge facing school leaders and academic administrators, a challenge that has been around all along but has been revealed in some of the responses we have encountered to our recommendations.
Will our school survive or not? Will less than stellar performance in the dispersal to distance mode this spring plus uncertainties around the return of international students and the nature of the new school year’s opening—on campus, online, on hold—spell doom for the institution itself? Will the school become another COVID casualty?
Fear of faculty.
Teachers have busted their humps since learning went home in March, and for many the struggles to adapt have ravaged their sense of competence and confidence. The looming necessity to make far more fundamental adaptations—by following the One Schoolhouse recommendations, for example—has put many already disheartened teachers in a hard, fearful, and defensive place. Being asked not only to spend a summer of regrouping and preparation but also a summer of learning and re-learning is a heavy, heavy lift. And some teachers are inclined to dig in their heels.
Add words like “standards” to the conversation, and some anxious teachers begin to unravel. Recommend ways to streamline and regularize communication to reduce student (and family) confusion and stress, and the unraveling accelerates.
Many of us at One Schoolhouse have led faculties through a process of change. One of our past administrators, Lorri Palko, is now a consultant on change management, and she has offered a webinar for us on the challenges of change during the current crisis. Change, like grief, is a process with certain predictable stages, and it can be led and managed in ways that minimize disruption and distress. It’s not easy, but it can be done.
The changes of the summer of 2020 are epic in scope and substance, and as we work with school administrators and instructional leaders, we encounter fear in various forms. Fear of faculty predominates in our how-to conversations, and we have heard expressed in many ways and in various degrees a deep anxiety about having to adopt practices that might infringe on a faculty’s traditional “autonomy” as well as teacher creativity and individuality. These anxieties, when expressed, are often code for “We are afraid to ask our faculty to make any significant changes in
any aspect of their practice.”
We have to look to school cultures to fully understand this. We know that in far too many independent schools— despite or even in opposition to the waves of change that have been sweeping through schools in the past three decades and the clear and even strident calls for more forward-thing curriculum and assessment that takes into account new understandings of how children learn and grow—past practices have insulated faculties from the imperatives to change and develop. I have been asked to come to schools to present to and sometimes work with faculties that had remained more or less untouched by the hand of professional development for years.
But no school can be insulated any more in the age of COVID-19. If we've allowed "professional distancing" from unsettling new ideas to get in the way of doing better work here and there, let us embrace the reality of social distancing and its causes and meaning as a potentially powerful albeit sometimes painful impetus that might move us all forward.
It’s not just the usual doom-sayers who are pointing out the existential threat to schools posed by COVID-19; we’ve already seen closings happen. Schools that have been teetering on the brink have gone over the edge, sometimes for demographic reasons that may have been inevitable. Even so, now there is danger for every school.
The present opportunity: being fearless.
There is also opportunity. We are all too well aware of the degree to which pandemic isolation and dislocation has pushed us as individuals to anxious reflection, and I am sure I am not alone in the internal vows I have made to be better about this and that. (Whether I keep all these vows will be another story.) Schools, too, as collective bodies of spirit, belief, and hope, need to start doing the same kinds of reflection.
One Schoolhouse's June 10, 2020, Academic Leaders Webinar on Change Management with executive coach Lorri Palko, founder of Love, Money, Purpose.
Brad: OK. Good afternoon, everybody. I'm Brad Rathgeber, the Head of School One Schoolhouse, and I am joined today by Lorri Palko. Hi, Lorri.
Lorri: Hi, Brad. Hi, everyone.
Brad: Lorri is a veteran of independent schools and now has her own practice that focuses on executive coaching. And as part of that work and executive coaching, Lorri, you do a lot of work with schools and school leaders around change management. Can you give folks just a quick background into some of that work that you do so that they can understand the perspective that you come to this conversation?
Lorri: Yes, sure. Brad, it's great to be with everyone. And, wow, everyone is going through change, both personally and professionally in so many different ways.I came across a model about 15 years ago called The Change Cycle™ that I just really it just really resonated with me because it focused on the human dynamics of change more than the implementation plans and the outcomes and everything that we need to make happen. Schools are all about relationships, so I just found this really resonated for me and for school leaders terms of how they help employees and themselves navigate periods of significant change. And we know we're going through that right now.
Brad: I was just about to say, people are going through a lot of change right now, personally and professionally. When you talk about a cycle to that change, can you talk about generally how people process change?
Lorri: Sure. You know, right now, as you said, Brad, everyone is going through multiple changes. We also process change multi dimensionally in terms of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors we have around change. So let's let's look at what happened in the spring. There were facts about change that needed to happen, right? There were facts that we were facing, but that brought up so many issues internally and externally for how employees in the school community needed to deal with the change is those issues that drive the thoughts, feelings and behaviors. So what we have found is that when we're introduced to change big or small, labeled good or bad, we tend to go through a sorting and generalizing and assimilation process of information to be able to move through those changes. So there are six predictable stages of change that we go through, and those experiences are first one of loss, then one of doubt, discomfort, and hopefully eventually discovery, understanding, and integration. And again, it doesn't matter how the change occurred, we go through that process. First, one of loss, do you want me to talk a little bit about loss and fear?
Brad: Yeah. And maybe even in this context right now. And I know, Lorri is something that you said to me and you just mentioned, but I almost want to put an exclamation point on that is that people go through these stages at different paces, too.
Lorri: Sure. You know, for some people coming home and working from home this spring was not as big a change as to others that we're dealing with small children or other situations at home. So for some people, that change was not a big change. And for others, the intensity of that change may have been very different. I often say we don't need to make people change wherever they are in The Change Cycle™ or to the degree that they move through the change.
We all enter stage one from a sense of loss. And what that loss is, is a loss of control. And we all like to be in control of our environment and our situation and what we're doing. But when change is introduced, we have a sense of loss of control because things aren't the way they used to be. And for some of us, that's more comfortable than others in terms of giving up just a sense of control.
What we like to do and working with with school leaders and with executives is, first of all, for them to understand and have a sense of their own triggers and their own fears about what is what is going on in, you know, how did they move from a sense of loss to safety and how do they move from a sense of doubt to reality? And I think if you think about the three months we had this spring in terms of the end of our school year, schools move from a place of loss to creating safety.
From loss you then go to a place of doubt to reality that there's a level of acceptance that this is the way it's going to be. And then into a place of discomfort in terms of, ok we got through the spring, but now what does this mean? So one of the things I like to do is ask a lot of questions, and I would say that as you're moving through change yourself, first, you want to gain a greater level of self-awareness for yourself as a leader. And I would ask some questions. What is the real fear that I am feeling? What is and what isn't an imagined fear that I'm creating? What is some story I may be telling myself versus the reality of the situation we're dealing with?
From those questions, we can gain a sense of perspective about really what we need to to move through and what we're dealing with. And then that really helps in terms of how we communicate with others. One thing I have found in working with schools where faculty and staff and leaders sometimes live in stage three, that discomfort stage, and that's characterized by being overwhelmed. And I could see very easily with everything that we just went through, and all the uncertainty going into the fall and all the work that needs to be done to respond to that uncertainty, that we could definitely be in a place of overwhelmed.
So one of the things I would say for everyone individually and in working with faculty and staff is that when you sense someone is in an overwhelmed state, be probably more directive then and give more direction than you normally would. I think sometimes people need some boundaries in terms of what needs to be done to to move through and to take that next right action. When we’re overwhelmed sometimes we can't see that in our productivity, our behavior is pretty unproductive. So at some point we need to move away from being overwhelmed, and I would say that sometimes it's not popular, but sometimes staying in an overwhelmed state is a choice that we're making. Because sometimes we want to stay in that because we're not ready to move forward.
As leaders, and we can talk about communication, but as leaders sometimes we really need to be more prescriptive than we normally would tend to be. And what I would also say is don't back off or back away from having conversations when you are sensing that people are being resistant or there is a lot of anxiety or unproductive behavior. Lean right into those conversations because faculty need to be heard and they also need direction on what they need to do. And then they can get some motivation going to move toward the change that you need them to make.
Brad: You know, Lorri, I'm really interested in how we communicate with faculty. Let's move into that, especially communicating with faculty at various stages of the changes that they're experiencing. I'm interested to hear you say that there is a moment when leadership may need to be a little bit more prescriptive because I think that part of understanding a cycle of change that folks are going through is really being exceptionally empathetic to that to that stage of their change, too. So can you help me first think about communication at different stages. How we can be empathetic with the different stages that our faculty members are going through and then maybe circle back to this question around prescriptiveness that this moment might ask us to consider.
Lorri: Sure, I would always say this, but I would say it even more so given the magnitude of change that everyone is experiencing right now. Over-communicate during times of significant change. I know that is more difficult now since we are not physically together as a community, but I think it’s really important for leaders to be as transparent and as visible during periods of changes as they can be.
What that means is helping employees understand first and foremost the why behind the decisions, some of the changes that are being anticipated so that everyone can understand that. We know that everyone is in different stages of The Change Cycle™ and we also know that everyone also has different communication needs.
As best you can I would encourage you to answer as many questions around why as I said before, how- how are we going to do school differently in the fall, what- what are the details some people need all the details of the how and the what, and we are also going to need to be able to communicate the when. So try to anticipate as many questions around the why, the how, the what, and the when.
I would also say, Brad, that I see schools sometimes make the mistake, and organizations as a whole, to hype the change and this is where I think it really behooves later to be empathetic, don’t overhype the change and don’t tell them how the change may be good for them in the long run. They again are dealing with it at levels we don’t know and we may not understand.
Part of that whole communication process with faculty and staff is to be a good listener. Be present for questions and concerns and don’t be defensive. Be clear about decisions being made and why those changes and decisions are being made. I would say don’t hype the change, but be very clear.
I would also say don’t try to fix how people are feeling. We can listen and be empathetic but we don’t need to fix how they are feeling. It’s natural how they’re feeling, you are probably feeling the same way even though you are in a role of leadership in terms of communicating and working with faculty. You know what we want to do Brad from stage 1 going from loss to safety, is to make employees feel safe and one of the ways to do that is to be present to questions, to listen, to reassure, affirm what they can do, affirm that they have what it takes to go through this change, and really be encouraging. Stage 2 is where there’s a lot of doubt because there are so many questions left unanswered and we may be analyzing in our mind ‘what do I need to know’ and ‘how do I get information.’ So what I would say to help employees get through this doubt stage into reality is where constant communication comes into play and also I would say don’t be afraid to say what you don’t know.
You don’t have all the answers right now, no one does, but commit to providing information as soon as information is available and provide channels and vehicles for communication to flow. I know it takes a lot of time and I know everyone is coming off of a very difficult spring, but I would also say in trying to help people move from lost to safety and doubt to reality and from discomfort to motivation, have as many one on one conversations as you can. Both formally and informally. I think those one on one conversations will allow people to express, in a safe way, what they may be thinking and feeling, so I think it’s important to listen again and look for ways you can provide support and resources to help faculty move through this.
I think what you’re going to hear is a lot of uncertainty and doubt and discomfort and “I don’t know how to do this in this environment.” So how you provide resources and listen to those concerns are critical, and that’s where I come back to being more prescriptive, in closing that loop. I know for me sometimes when I don’t know where to start and I’m not as productive I need to just take that next right step. So having your boundaries, just like for students, for faculty and staff on what needs to be done next and communicating that and being encouraging with that will help create some momentum around the change. Don’t be afraid to be direct. Sometimes we are when there is discomfort, but there’s a lot of learning that can occur in discomfort just like we’re dealing with as a country right now in terms of the discomfort. It’s ok leaning into that discomfort, but also try to help them get through it and be motivated so they can have a greater level of awareness, greater level of acceptance, and then they can take more conscious and responsible action around the changes.
Brad: Yeah Lorri I’m just gonna make one more comment and then we’re going to get right into the questions, some of which you actually have answered in here already so thank you. I think Lorri, you and I have both been in leadership positions in leading organizations that are working from a distance and we have found that in order to build the type of culture that you want to organizationally, you have to be much more intentional about that build and the leader has to be much more out there in their presence. I will give an example of that I think might resonate with folks, many school leaders at independent schools have a general open door policy, where they try to keep their doors as open as possible and they’re used to people popping in and having a quick conversation and sharing their thoughts and perspectives. We find in the online leadership space that you as the leader have to be much more out there reaching out to folks and not expecting them to reach out to you no matter how many times you are communicating that out. Would you say that that’s the case and kind of a shift in leadership style when you’re managing a team from online?
Lorri: Oh no question Brad. I would even go as far as saying, and when I work with leaders I say this, don’t put the responsibility back on the faculty and staff to come to you. Even in the in-person, on campus environments I still think it’s the leaders responsibility to really be visible and to initiate those conversations. So hopefully the fact that we need to be more intentional about that because we are now working from a distance, that that will carry over when we get back on campus as well. Hopefully we are learning in terms of what you said that leadership responsibility for communication and reaching out falls more on the leader, I would hope that would translate when we go back to school as well. We want to create a safe space and I know lots of heads and leaders have an open door and people will come in, but they also may not come in just because they are feeling at a loss or just struggling a little bit. Heads of school, academic leaders, division heads, department heads get out there and be visible and ask those questions on campus and in the online space.
Brad: Thanks Lorri. So we have a couple questions on culture shift. Sean asks, does compassion then take shape in the listening and individual conversations that leadership has even though leadership seems to be providing more direction and being prescriptive?
Lorri: Yeah I think it starts with the listening. Leadership has a responsibility to make some decisions and implement change, as I said, and they get those desired outcomes, but I think it starts with listening in terms of where people are and you can respond from a compassionate place and from a very supportive space. So they know what they need to do in terms of being prescriptive and directive in terms of what needs to be accomplished, but at the same time you’re listening and offering support and resources to help them. I think that’s the best of both worlds and they will know that you care and it’s the culture you want to create.
Brad: So let’s go to another question, again you might’ve hit this in a different way how do you manage the culture shift to being more directive? And know when to shift back to being more collaborative? It’s been difficult to navigate..
Lorri: Yeah I can imagine it’s been extremely difficult because one of the things that we pride ourselves on in independent schools and as a teacher in the classroom as well is having a voice and having autonomy around certain aspects of my teaching and my practice. So being more prescriptive can feel like you’re not honoring the autonomy that the teachers want.
I think it goes back to communication and the why behind the communication. In terms of everything that schools had to do and are going to have to do to respond in the fall is going to be about student experience, student learning, aligning with the mission and the why of the school, and decisions and what changes are being made. So I would communicate all of that but at the same time communicate that the teachers still have a lot of creative space in the online space or in hybrid learning or distance learning or certainly on campus, that their ability to work with students and to create that teacher student relationship and have their unique footprint in terms of how they teach is still there in the context of some broader decisions that the school is making around how we are going to do school. Again, it’s trying to communicate, it’s not an either/or it’s a yes and. Yes we are making some of these decisions in the best interest of our students and family and you as a teacher still have the opportunity to be creative in the classroom in the online space or on campus.
Brad: Lorri, Joyce asked a great question: does The Change Cycle ™ tend to be linear or is it like grief and you can move back and forth at different times?
Lorri: That’s a great question and in this short webinar I don’t have the chance to talk about what happens between discomfort and discovery and that’s something we call the danger zone. We call it the danger zone because at some point if you don’t move out of that discomfort into a place of discovery we have what we call the 1,2,3 dance where we will repeat the cycles. If we can’t get out of discomfort and into a place of discovery of how this change may not be working against me, we tend to repeat the stages. That’s why working through each of the stages is critical because that will help us from not repeating, like in stages of grief. If we grieve well we begin to live well, so if we can go through The Change Cycle™ and understand our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors then we certainly can move to a place of discovery and not impede going back into that fearful place.
Brad: Lorri this is gonna be our last question here and it’s going to bring you to a particular comfort zone. And that is how much transparency about financial realities that are pushing decision making do you recommend? Yes we are guided by our students and our mission, but we may be asking teachers to take more things on because if we don’t the school may not survive.
Lorri: I will answer that one from experience to start, Brad. You know I have some strong feelings about this. When I left my corporate job and started at the Atlanta Girls’ School, I was in the classroom for seven years and then 08-09 when we went through the recession that we did, they asked me to become associate head of school. And so I did and one of the things I started with was the recognition that we need to make changes from a financial standpoint because of where the school was.
Shortly after coming in as the Associate Head, I communicated with the faculty about where we were as a school financially and it meant announcing that some faculty will be laid off and some faculty would have to take on more and some would not get stipends. I think we should be as transparent as possible about the strategic and financial issues that drive decisions and change. That way the people have the right information and they are not going to make it up. Yeah you may not share every last detail, and you certainly don’t want your own fears coming out when sharing financial information, but you want to be as factual and transparent as possible so that people have the information to make choices about how they are going to adjust to change. Remember, they are going to experience lost, doubt, and discomfort. The more we can communicate from a place of transparency, even around financial issues, the more we are going to help people move through and buy into the changes that we need.
Brad: As always, we try to keep these at half an hour and so we are going to do so, but what I am going to guess is that more folks would want to hear from you. I am going point folks towards some on-demand courses that Lorri has created with us to help folks with this. If you go to oneschoolhouse.org/ondemand.html, scroll down, then you will see Love Money Purpose change cycle on managing self through change, managing results and leading employees through change, and communication strategies for leading change. My guess is that these courses can be helpful for folks going out of this conversation and again it’s just oneschoolhouse.org/ondemand. Lorri thank you for sharing your insights with everyone today, I know they were very timely perhaps for decisions and conversations that folks have to be having. Thanks everyone for joining!
Lorri: Thank you!
We at One Schoolhouse have watched events unfold in the week since the murder of George Floyd. We have experienced again the familiar cycle of sorrow, shame, outrage, disgust, and dismay sparked by far too many stories of police and vigilante violence against black men, women, and children, tragedies too often highlighted by a deafening silence from the seats of power. Mournful vigils and peaceful protests are mocked by the “business as usual” attitudes of the powerful who willfully continue to keep a blind eye turned on the systemic racism and economic inequity that divide our society like a chain-link fence.
In the spring and summer of 2020, there is no such thing as business or even life as usual. Our economy is in peril. COVID-19 rages, with systemic racism further highlighted by the disproportionate rates of suffering and death among communities of color. As educators and as humans we shudder at the human suffering caused by racist actors and in the daily tallies of death and illness from the novel coronavirus. We weep as George Floyd’s last terrible moments play again and again, and we can’t help but imagine friends, family members, or students as victims.
Schools in our time cannot stand apart from the history we see and feel being made around us. Independent schools, especially, have no claim to relevance or virtue if they shelter behind the fence that divides. The idealism and vision of a better world expressed in every school mission statement and every set of “pillars of belief” must become parts of every discussion in every class.
This summer we have been working with schools to help them prepare for another academic year of business very much not as usual. In one exercise, we have asked academic leaders to create a teaching standard representing their schools’ missions and values to inform every course and learning experience of their students. Tellingly, many educators have seen the need to embed in their curricula explicit learning elements related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. To live up to their missions, that’s the right thing to do.
Never before has education been more called upon to be truly relevant, to address directly the grievous challenges facing the nation and the world. Education must be our best hope. Our students today may be the generation that has to save the world, and we must give these students a toolkit that includes the skills and the dispositions to perceive, understand, and respond effectively to the threats we know about and to those yet to appear.
At One Schoolhouse, in solidarity with all who share our belief that hope, peace, love, and education are our most powerful weapons against injustice and fear, we work for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging to take their places in every classroom as essential elements of a relevant, perhaps world- saving learning experience for all children. And, we pledge to do better ourselves.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)