One of the largest complaints I hear about education is that the students are “just so damned apathetic”. For some students, this is a reality, and I won’t say that it is entirely the system’s fault for this problem. What I will say is that one of the biggest complaints I have about educators is that some of them are “just so damned apathetic”. We can’t truthfully look ourselves in the mirror and be convinced that all educators come to the table with a true desire to alter education and improve the process of schooling on a daily, or even monthly, basis. That’s why schools need people like you and me. In reality, it might even be an interesting discussion to suggest that people who act as catalysts for change or “change agents” provide a more valuable service for trying to improve their school from the adult level than on the student level.
The logic is simple. If you teach 150 kids each day (as my schedule includes) then you can affect those 150 kids and do a really good job at it. If you can get through to even ten staff members who teach 150 kids each day, well…you do the math.
Let me be clear: I would never once suggest that a teacher’s responsibility resides first with the staff and second with his/her students. What I am saying is that, if we truly want to be catalysts for change in education (on any level), we must accept that responsibility and commit to it with all of our heart while realizing that it might mean more time working. This isn’t so simple nor should it be perceived that way.
It means sitting and having lengthy conversations with your students and with recalcitrant staff members who frequently want no part of what you have to say. It means allowing for yourself to be a target of scrutiny and backchannel discussions. It means putting yourself in the spotlight of the school and bringing those same recalcitrant teachers into it with you. Most importantly, it means not doing it half-assed.
I think that discussions over education with apprehensive teachers is the best education reform we can enact immediately. I consider it something of a “game” and a battle of wits about what education should be. Too often, the staff members and students that are the least engaged in school get neglected simply because “they won’t change” or “they’re so damned apathetic”. Those are just the teachers and students that need to be talked with the most. The key is allowing them to continue talking, without interrupting at all, and asking them tough questions that allow them to expose flaws in their logic.
It isn’t just the conversations though that can result in change. I think the biggest, and hardest, way to create change is by going “against the grain” in subtle ways that create shifts in culture.
Example: Today is Monday and, like most people, I really have a rough time getting going. It wasn’t until today that I realized how much this attitude brings down my classroom energy. I asked a kid if he was OK, and his response was: “No one’s OK. It’s Monday.” Maybe it was because I was thinking about this post or maybe it was just the mood I was in, but I forgot about everything we were doing in class and started talking with them about how great the week was going to be. If the energy isn’t in the classroom or the school then no change is going to take place. This is just one, miniscule example, but it speaks to the bigger picture and point I am going to make.
Perhaps you have heard of the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. This is a widely used case study that demonstrates the need for people to trust their leader. Here’s an abridged version courtesy of Wikipedia (trust me, worth the read). Here’s my ultra-abridged version:
A fire starts in a mountainous area of Mann Gulch when lighting strikes.
A team of smokejumpers lands in to fight the fire from the inside out.
Wagner Dodge (the leader) realizes that they are being trapped because the fire is moving too quickly.
He makes a decision to light a “backfire”, which means that the men would burn the ground around them, put that fire out, and lay in the burnt area until the fire passed over.
To make a long story short, the men who stayed with Dodge and trusted him managed to live, the ones who left the scene out of fear didn’t.
My synopsis doesn’t do the story justice, but I am hoping you get the point. If you want to be a catalyst for change, then you need to be Wagner Dodge to your staff. You need to be smart enough to find innovative, new ways to do things and work diligently to develop the trust for people to work with you on such projects and ventures. Imagine if all of Dodge’s men had trusted him? How many people in your school look at you as Wagner Dodge? Part of being a catalyst for change is convincing people that, even though it seems crazy, staying in the area of the backfire is the smarter plan and the way to be successful.
Perhaps you have, or have not, heard of “Broken Window Theory”? I am a big believer, and I apply it to a lot of life.
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.
The theory suggests that little problems become big ones and was popularized by James Q. Wilson & George Kelling. Many people look and try to fix the biggest problems in schools right off the bat. This leads to a long road of frustration and impatience as minor improvement is seen. Small problems create quicker, smaller victories.
I believe that this type of mentality can stimulate change in any environment. It doesn’t always mean worrying about trash on the ground or lighting backfires, but the central themes of developing trust and forging small successes are critical to being a catalyst in any situation.
I believe people follow a leader for two reasons:
- Trust in that individual.
- Visible successes that they can feel good about.
Who looks at you as Wagner Dodge? How close are you paying attention to those windows?
NOTE: Is important to point out that the Mann Gulch case study has been molded and utilized in a variety of ways to discuss leadership and communication. Varying interpretations of its use are publicized.