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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best

Finding the Courage to Work for Change

Classes start for me next Monday and I am filled with my normal, beginning-of-the-year existential angst: am I doing a job that is making a difference or not? I believe I have touched on this concern of mine in past posts, but for some reason I’m really weighed down with it this year. It’s not completely that I think my current teaching lacks potential to make a difference in the world of education; rather, I have been preoccupied lately with thoughts of “Is this the most I can do? Be a college professor? Or could I go beyond writing and talking about paradigm change and actually start my own school that fully operationalizes my educational vision?”

I look at a person like Debbie Meier who has tremendously impacted our society’s education by working with others to start multiple schools in New York City and Boston. I look at someone like Elizabeth Baker, who interned at the Albany Free School when I was researching it for my dissertation, and the democratic school she co-founded in Colorado five years ago. I think about the teachers at all the unconventional schools around the country and ask myself – where’d they get the courage to step so far outside the norm in education? How do they make a living at these often shoestring-budget enterprises? What have they lost by stepping away from state pension plans and health insurance coverage? Could I possibly find the same courage to follow in their footsteps? Am I cut out to be such a leader? Does my local community have the resources and a contingent of similar-minded folks to allow an unconventional school to thrive? How does one even go about starting such a project?

I know that AERO offers a school starters class that might help me answer such questions, but it really comes down to courage to take some first steps. And my courage is significantly weakend by economics. I make a decent, middle-class salary as a college professor, healthcare costs are reasonable (in part because I don’t have children), and there is a pension plan for my future (assuming it does not go bankrupt!). While I do live rather frugally and have a good start on my own retirement savings, I just can’t seem to muster up the courage of potentially stepping away from all that. What if I quit my job to start a school and it goes kaput?

Clearly, I am fearful of the unknown and filled with self-doubts about my ability to truly be a change agent in a more hands-on way. Do I just not have what it takes? I have read somewhere that being a business entrepreneur takes a particular type of person. Is the same true for unconventional educators? Do they have certain personality traits, or did they have similar, powerful, early-life experiences that helped them to be the pioneers that they became? I remember reading the AERO-published Turning Points, a book about educational pioneers, and trying to find a common theme among their experiences that would help me understand the profile of the educational maverick. I was never able to discern one from that collection of interviews/autobiographies, but I still wonder if such a “profile” exists. What do you think? If you are such an unconventional educator (unschooling parent, teacher at a free/democractic school, etc.), what gave you the strength to defy the status quo and go in the direction you have? The professor in me wants this to be my next research project, but my self critic cries out, “CHICKEN!!!” as I recognize it might be easier to study than to DO. How do I work with this inner contradiction?


About Kristan Morrison

Dr. Kristan Accles Morrison taught for seven years at conventional middle schools in North Carolina, which drove her to research alternative forms of education based on critical pedagogy and social justice. She earned her Ph.D. in the Cultural Foundations of Education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and is now a professor in a teacher education program at Radford University, where she makes a point of introducing her students to educational alternatives. In this blog, Kristan reflects on her attempts to bridge the worlds of conventional and “alternative” forms of education. She considers how to bring more democratic and freedom-based practices into the realm of standard education, and how to discuss educational alternatives with a conventional audience. She explores the paradox of many teacher educators: preparing her students for teaching in the schools as they are, while also preparing them to help create the schools that could be.


15 thoughts on “Finding the Courage to Work for Change

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I am staring at a piece of paper that is my rough business plan for starting my own democratic school. Like you, I am in another job where I my income supports my family and extended family. Stepping away from that, would impact them..I don’t have the freedom to start this as a full-time endeavor but am trying to find a person who is in a position to take this on with me. Even though it will not be my full-time endeavor (at least not right now), I plan on making it my calling.

    I suspect that you would ultimately agree that the only true way to effect change is to be that change. I’m sick of just writing about it as well

    Posted by timmcclung | August 25, 2011, 3:30 pm
  2. I think this is a tension that we share and something that seems to be running through both the Cooperative and the education world in general. I am not sure it is about courage to leave one system or join another system.

    Sometimes I think it takes more courage to stay in the system and make an impact there… either way I think what you have to decide is where “you” can be the most authentic and where “you” can do your best work.

    I personally wish I had the courage to work within the system, to help make more havens in school and communities like John, Paula, Mary Beth, Monika and like many others are doing, but at the same time I know myself and now how much I get burnt out fighting something or being alone…. However what i have come to realize working with IDEA and writing with all these amazing teachers, parents and transformation change agents…. is that there is not one way nor do I think there should be….

    What we need is a lot of amazing people doing amazing things to co-create with children….I do think there are a set of values that we share and I think if you hold those values at the heart of your teaching or work with children…. where ever you call home and what ever community you work in…you are making a difference…

    I say this and like you, Kirsten have been studying people who have opened schools and create different types of space for learning and schools, like Deb Meier, like the Radical in the 60’s, like Ted Sizer or Summerhill…but what I notice from all of them is that they believe adults and children share a love a learning, a need for meaningful work, a want to be part of a community, to be known, to share their passions and have time to discover, enhance and grow their passions and a need to be among others who believe they matter and support their growth and development….

    So I say you don’t need to find the courage to leave the system, but should if you feel it is best for you….

    I think the real courage comes from finding a space where you can accept the work you are doing as part of the solution and not lacking….it is about doing it with passion, and doing it for the right reasons…that might be in your work as a college professor or in opening a school…but just moving towards a positive future is a courageous act….it is so easy to be cynical, and fight against what we have now… so it is not an either/or discussion for me… it is a more holistic discussion that starts with each person….and grows from them….either way I am happy you are doing the work you are doing because it is going to take all of us in all the different spaces to transform education!

    I am glad you are part of this community and hope you share more of your learning adventures….


    Posted by dloitz | August 25, 2011, 5:58 pm
  3. It seems that we have some qualms and experiences in common. Classes starts for me on Monday as well, and although I am a student, the question of whether or not I will make a difference looms over my head. Just as you wonder if being a college professor is the extent of your ability, I question whether attending classes again is the most that I can do right now, although I have some opportunity for hands on work. I will do an independent study in systems thinking, working with the local elementary school, getting to know how it works and answering the following questions: How does a school function? How do you notice areas of change in an organization and then go about suggesting implementation? I will also be in an after-school mentoring program called DREAM. I am really grateful that I get to do have these experiential education programs, but I still wonder when the day will come that I will be able to be actively involved in alternative education.

    While Debbie Meier and Elizabeth Baker are your role-models, I always do a double-take at the lives of people who manage to accomplish their goals without joining the race for credentials. I marvel at participants of Zero Tuition College, such as Sean Ritchey, who has traveled out of the country and helped create innovative grassroots projects. Then there is unschooler Brenna McBroom who dared to leave college and create her own prosperous apprenticeship with a pottery maker. I assume that these people as well as the folks you’ve observed might live on a “shoe-string budget” by either having multiple sources of income or being frugal as you are (maybe even more so). And I believe their courage comes from accepting (either gladly or reluctantly) the losses that they accrue as they live and work outside of socioeconomic norms or what is culturally acceptable.

    The losses come in two basic parts: reception and personal impact. There is a large stigma placed upon people who both leave the main track and forego the goal of financial gain. The “and” is important because it is palatable for a person to be unconventional and accumulate wealth as a result; Steve Jobs is the poster-child of this double standard. But to abandon the “American Dream” to work at a free school, travel, be a writer, or an artist? Knowing full well that you are not seeking wealth? This is a difficult choice for many people to comprehend or tolerate. So you are right that economics is a key factor in lifestyles like the one’s you’ve mentioned. People revere financial security before the enrichment of passions, work before excitement and experimentation – to merge the two is a task that many feel is unwise to take. This is with good reason because our social norms are rooted in pragmatism, with innovation coming in a close second so long as it adds to the marketplace somehow. On the note of personal impact, going the unconventional route involves a lack of socioeconomic blueprints. In the case of alternative education there is a small foundation to build on, but ofttimes a alternative/radical people must start from scratch. No one’s life is perfectly stable, but the off-beat path is steeped in instability and the unfamiliar until a new flow or process is discovered. Failure becomes your companion and guide, rather than something to be avoided in order to “stick with the program.” The internet makes foundation building easier. If your immediate community lacks resources and mindset, you could try to spread ideas by pointing the people you know toward these ideas online or in books and conversations (I know, easier said than done). Despite what is lacking, a step can be made.

    To interpret your biggest concern honestly, and I too face this inertia, if you are “clearly” afraid of the unknown to the point of not moving at all, and “filled with self doubts” that overwhelm you to a standstill, then you do not “have what it takes.” Please take note of that without coming to offense. This is not to say that change-makers are extremely fearless, but they still make it a point to jump over their hurdles as best at they can. When they knock one down, they turn back to think about possible reasons they did so, and will go back to jump it in a different more successful way if necessary. Successful entrepreneurs and go-getters balance recklessness with pragmatism and research. I recommend that you read The Ten Faces of Innovation, by Thomas Kelley. There are a variety of “personalities” when it comes to being a person who creates or fosters change. Not everyone has to be at the forefront doing spectacular or obvious works. Although you wish to be more present in the movement, you should take your personality into account too.

    I am also in search of more intimate recounting of how someone stepped away from the status quo and am interested to see what responses you get in regard to that. The student in me wants me to wait for permission in the form of a degree, but my inner critic/coach tells me to just go for some real experience already. To shake hands with failure for any decision that was poorly played, break out of my need to be perfect, and move forward. It is definitely “easier to study than DO,” but an important thing to remember is that tacit knowledge like being an alternative educator needs more than study. It needs practice.

    Posted by teganor | August 26, 2011, 12:59 am
    • Wow! Thanks for the extremely thoughful comments! You have so well articulated the societal pressures that I feel about rejecting the standard American Dream. And I definitely did not take offense about the comment that perhaps I am not cut out for being the maverick I fantasize about being; while I admire people who can be those great leaders, I do wonder if that is “me” or not. A colleague of mine has a poster on her door that say, “what would you do if you knew you could not fail?” – it is my fear of failure (perhaps ingrained in me by my own conventional school upbringing) that stops me in my tracks so much! I wish that I KNEW that I would not fail!

      Posted by Kristan Morrison | August 26, 2011, 8:50 am
  4. Kristan, I appreciate your post greatly. It is important to acknowledge fear and act despite it or because of it – not in a reactionary or defensive way, but as a response. For me fear is a great diagnostic tool at work – if I am afraid of what will happen to me because of something I do that makes teaching and learning better for kids, then it is probably the right thing to do.

    I have found common understandings and realizations among us here, but not common experiences, per se, in our lives or careers. I’ll offer up a few past posts here that get at what I mean. I am only a few years into this journey of transforming our schools; I spent decades propping up the system as a school-successful student and teacher.

    I hope these help some. Fear of change is a kind of gift.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 26, 2011, 5:17 am
  5. Dear Kristan,

    Have you considered opening a school as an extension of the college where you currently work? Would that be the best of both worlds without leaving one for the other?


    Posted by Kristine | August 29, 2011, 3:32 pm
    • Yes, actually had a group of people explore whether to start a charter school and we even met with our College of Ed dean about it. Couple of problems cropped up: 1) VA has some pretty tight charter regulations, (there are only about 5 in the whole state, as a result of this); and 2) the cutbacks in higher ed funding mean that (at least at my university), the funds for such a school’s start up costs would not be available (or the school would have to somehow promise to make money for the university over time, which I find sort of antithetical to what I would like to do!). But it is a great idea if I can just figure my way around these issues! Thanks for your comment! 🙂

      Posted by Kristan Morrison | August 29, 2011, 5:14 pm
  6. Kristan, My friend, my friend. Get thee out of the academy!

    No really sister, I had to slip the bonds of the Tower to really engage with the work, so I’m just telling you, there is life on the outside and it’s really, really, awesome.

    If you ever want to talk, I’m here.


    Posted by Kirsten | September 1, 2011, 11:46 am


  1. Pingback: Finding the Courage to Work for Change | Transformational Leadership | - August 27, 2011

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