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Be Wagner Dodge & Then Replace the Windows?

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:

  1. Trust in that individual.
  2. 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.

About Aaron Eyler

Aaron is a U.S. history teacher in a Central Jersey school district. In addition, to his Bachelor's degree in History and Education certification, he has a Master's degree in Educational Administration and Leadership.


13 thoughts on “Be Wagner Dodge & Then Replace the Windows?

  1. For you, Aaron – “Cold Missouri Waters” performed by folk super-group Cry, Cry, Cry.

    In thinking about my post later this week, I want to explore some of the questions posed by Paula, ask them of educators, and echo some of your notes here. I can’t wait to read what tomorrow brings.

    Certainly a school’s energy waxes and wanes throughout a day, a week, and its lifetime, just as a person’s does. What do you think are the best practices in maintaining a high level of positive energy in a classroom, on a team, or throughout a school or division?

    How can you get a school to appreciate and enjoy the privilege of having the hard conversations you cite as “the best education reform we can enact immediately?” How can you shift teachers’ resistance to superficial programmatic change into a hunger for authentic reform it in the face of overwhelming standardization?

    Your thoughts and suggestions, Aaron? Coöp? PLN?

    Much appreciated,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 26, 2010, 7:55 pm
    • Chad,
      The music was a GREAT addition. . thanks for sharing that–I’ll be using it with kids. :-)

      I think positive energy builds on itself. . .get that energy going and I think it sustains itself for the most part. I guess it does wax and wane, as you say, but it’s the sharing the questioning and giving and taking and watching and learning that keeps the momentum building.

      Your questions of how to shift teachers, how to help folks appreciate the hard questions are the hard questions. When we made a huge difference in early childhood here in the county, it took LOTS of conversations, sharing and finding that common ground through sharing and visits across buildings. We had amazing thinkers in COB at the time as well (Pam (@pammoran) was one of those) who worked hard to build those pillars of tust and connections.

      I believe it is about connections and finding common ground to build on…

      Posted by Paula White | April 27, 2010, 6:07 am
    • Chad,

      The song is awesome. I utilize the Mann Gulch story in class and have got to show this to my kids! They will get a kick out of it. (Further response to your other questions below.)


      Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 27, 2010, 8:46 pm
  2. Aaron,

    Great and clear analogies for ways to bring forth change. I like the obscureness of your references!

    I agree that change has to be made with colleagues. However, I have found it difficult to drag those who resist change into it. I have found it more effective to find allies such as we have done here, and build a movement outward, like a ripple effect. I think the collaboration should be open so that an us vs. them atmosphere doesn’t develop. Also talking about behaviors rather than people as a whole is an effective strategy to reduce the defensiveness you run into. Have you had success in building trust with people who you are dragged into the light?

    I agree that working on small problems is a good idea, there has to be achievable goals early on in a movement to help build confidence and steam. Otherwise, frustration and hopelessness will set in and dissolve the group morale.

    Thanks for starting the week of strong!


    Posted by Adam Burk | April 26, 2010, 9:10 pm
    • Adam,

      I have to be honest with you (and gloat at the same time) that in my building I have found very little resistance. I think that part of it is how I always stress that we both care tremendously about kids. Especially with technology, I find that it is more a matter of “fear” than anything else.

      Finally, I am also beginning to wonder if resistance to change is more of a biological issue than anything else. See here for my thoughts on this:

      Thanks Adam!

      Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 27, 2010, 8:50 pm
  3. Hey Aaron, I just logged on and I really love this post. Honestly, this is just the way I see my work, staying in these hard conversation, creating positive energy, always pointing to THE EVIDENCE that supports better practice, and personally, taking responsibility for not alienating people. Trying to see their point of view, without giving up mine. That may sound too patsy for some folks, but I think the only way you transform is by having these conversations about change, over and over and over. I’m going to send this post to an educator I’m working with in CT who is really working on being a Wagner Dodge, and feeling pretty burned. It’s hard to keep a cool head when you are the subject of backchannel discussion and critique. So how do you do that? And what do you think of Adam’s point, that it’s better to find allies outside, for those recalcitrant internal colleagues will never come onboard?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 27, 2010, 11:06 am
    • Kirsten,

      Thank you for your kind words. You hit on a point that I think we really need to highlight as it is critical and avoided a lot in schools today:

      “always pointing to THE EVIDENCE that supports better practice”

      Evidence is critical to informing people of best practices. I write for another blog as well titled, “Bridging the Gap” (, and our goal is to bring research-proven methods to the classroom. I’m amazed at how resilient teachers are to utilizing research from a peer-reviewed journal.

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say that no other research methods exist other than their rigid, thorough process, but I think your point of evidence is critical to the success of T&L.

      (More on Adam’s comments below.)

      Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 27, 2010, 8:55 pm
  4. Kirsten,
    I read Adam’s response as not needing to find outSIDE allies, but finding allies to build a ripple outWARD. . . that could involve allies from within and building that ripple as well. :-)

    I certainly agree that the taking responsibility for not alienating people is crucial. Too many of us get so passionate, we talk… but do so in a way so that others can’t hear–we haven’t made a connection that makes those recalcitrant folks even want to TRY to make sense of what we are saying. Finding common ground is necessary to even get in a conversation sometimes is hard–and I have to say, I agree with Aaron that it may be impossible at times. I simply refuse to believe, though, that some will never come on board–I have to believe I may not be successful with them, but someone surely can. I believe everyone can learn.

    Posted by Paula White | April 27, 2010, 11:36 am
  5. All:

    I completely agree with all of your points and the persistence that is necessary to be a catalyst for true reform. I think that is one of the main reasons why most people don’t want the job.

    This also relates a lot to the discussion over engagement in the classroom (more from Chad and I on this later) where we need to search for engagement within kids.

    Back to your comments: allies are critical, but I also get concerned if we become too entrenched in allies. In other words, cliques get formed and that ends up alienating those that are resisting change. That can result in a lot of negativity and hinder their decision to join a group as much as it can get some to say “I want to be a part of that”.

    Thank you all, as usual, for more to think about!

    Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 27, 2010, 9:03 pm
  6. Aaron–
    Great point about allies and cliques. Perceived membership in groups is one of the biggest hindrances to change many times, as there are sides to take and views to join. Makes it really hard to have open conversations if trust is not there.

    More later–just saw the clock and have to get ready for school.


    Posted by Paula White | April 28, 2010, 6:34 am


  1. Pingback: The Hard Path, Part 1 « Cooperative Catalyst - April 29, 2010

  2. Pingback: Relax on the Collaboration « Cooperative Catalyst - May 5, 2010

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