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Openness and Empathy: Essential Ingredients for Personalized Learning and School Change (Part III)

Every administrator and educator in a change-story must successfully lead through fear to trust.

Empathy for school leaders is not really a well-practiced or even admirable pastime among educators. But, let’s go there for just a minute. As administrators, we believe we must make the shift to innovation amid a sea of eagerness for change and amid fears and insecurities, including our own. Our desire for faultless implementation and our angst are strong. But they are weak reasons for us to withhold the good, good gift that educational innovation can offer our students right now. We have to demonstrate a growth mindset, willing to take risks for the sake of students.

So, we try to help ourselves and others feel aware and ‘on top of the changes’ as we make them. Parents and fellow educators need a lot from us to stay afloat; and we’re not sure how to give it to them in the right quantities.

They need our certainty and confidence to help them believe, but they also need our humility to help them trust. They crave enough specificity so our plans are convincing; but enough input and flexibility so their influence, voice and expertise aren’t discounted or left off the table.

We try to pace change so that rapid change doesn’t submerge teachers and parents and so massive change doesn’t leave them gasping. And then we’re afraid that any undue caution will exasperate those who are simply dying for change while we ask them to tread water so others can catch up…or not. Depending on the school climate on any given day, we are tempted to hold back or to plow ahead. It’s hard to get it right, and it can, unfortunately, end up not being about kids and learning, but about managing our professional, parental and personal fears.

In all of this, you can see where trust is paramount and where broken trust, in any major degree, becomes perilous.

The stories we have all been writing for our lives are being interrupted, and we want them back. Or, at least, we want assurance that they will regain a greater, worthwhile trajectory when this transition is over. In the meantime, we want an audience who can listen to our concerns with an open heart and mind.

If educational change is about great learning for students, we need to make sure we are all learning from each other, while keeping student interests and gains at the forefront of our minds.

When school change is necessary, and I believe it is, understand that it’s rocking all our worlds – and our reactions are mostly just our attempts to steady the ship so we don’t drown in the process. We don’t see ourselves as drowners. We haven’t flailed very much -- or at least this much -- in recent memory. We don’t want to resent others for making us feel like we are the only ones out of our depth.

So let’s listen to each other and do our research. Being understood will help our brains calm down so we can move forward together with a whole lot more kindness, understanding and bravery. All those 21st century dispositions and skills that are repeated ad nauseam and that make our eyes glaze over, like Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Character, might actually become inspiring when we have the openness and empathy to make them possible in our own lives and in our own leadership. We’re all doing our best to adjust. And the future, while disruptive, is too bright for any of us to miss, just because we don’t know how to face it together right now.

Drowning in change or daring together? If we show up, all of us, our human community has a beautiful chance to shape a worthwhile future together.

Afterward: For Personal Reflection or Shared Conversation

School innovation and the adoption of any initiative (PLC’s, Personalized Learning) can be like crossing a wide river with strong currents of habit, belief, emotion, assumption and expectation. The quickest way to make people feel like they are drowning in your change-story is to leave them behind in the undertow of these currents without being heard or seen. This activity is to help you stop after reading this blog series to make sure you’ve benefited along the way. Empathy and understanding for self and others is one way to dislodge ourselves when we are negatively stuck in the midst of change instead of positively contributing to it.

  • Go back through Parts I, II, and III of the blog series and simply try to empathize with each partner in the change-story. Sit with their hopes, their perspective, their struggle, their reasons, their reality.

  • Which persona/role did you identify with most in this blog series? Why?

  • What new insights did you gain into your own perspective about change?

  • Did you gain new understanding about any other perspective that was helpful or thought provoking or convincing in a new way?

  • Which persona/role do you feel like challenging the most (debating or questioning)? Which persona (outside your own) do you feel the most compassion toward? Why?

  • Did you hear your exact voice in this exercise or is it missing or misrepresented in some way? If it’s in there or not, what else do you want to say about the change-story at your school that you’d like others to understand? Are there other factors that you feel need to be heard and discussed?

  • What do you still need to know and be able to do to fully and positively participate in change at your school without feeling emotional clutter, frustration or resistance? What would it take to make that happen? How could the school support your inquiry or action?

About the Author:

Mona Stuart is a former English teacher, dorm head, communications director, admissions director and is a current educational consultant. As a seasoned educator who has lived on four continents, she understands the story of schools, transition and change from both the personal and institutional perspective. One of her greatest joys was valuing, hearing and helping parents, teachers and colleagues make sense of complex educational opportunities and approaches in ways that connected and made sense. She has three grown children and lives with her husband in Ethiopia.

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