Do It Now

Thanksgiving is fast approaching. On Staten Island, Christmas lights are already going up. Have you begun to think of New Year’s Resolutions for 2018? All the things you didn’t do this year: Go on a diet? Get back to the gym?  Go back to school? Clean out a closet?

Why wait until January 1? Do it now.

Zen practice has freed me, and continues to free me from the conditioned habits which would prevent me from responding to the actual situation in which I find myself. Fears of making mistakes, fears of admitting that I made a mistake, fears of correcting mistakes, of trying a new approach. Zen practice is freeing me from defending all my past mistakes. Our schools are allowing me to share these lessons.

Talking with two of our leaders before the opening of school, we realized that a mistake had been made last year. Too many students were promoted in the early grades who should, perhaps, have been retained. We think what may have happened is a common practice in the regular public schools, pushing kids forward in the early grades to avoid upsetting the parents, only to leave the students vulnerable to such crushing failure in high school that the only alternative appears to be dropping out.  As a result, students pushed along in elementary and middle school often find themselves unable to pass the Regents in high school. Our leaders were taking this problem seriously, and they were mapping out the things they would do differently this year so that this problem would not recur next year. But what about this year? What about these kids who have already been promoted?

Do something now. Let’s fix it now.

Let’s begin talking to the parents about the mistake that was made, the mistake that we made, and let’s figure out together how we can make this right, how we can get all these students back on the pathway to success in high school, in college and beyond.

The problem with putting solutions off in to the future goes beyond failing to fix things for the students and families already effected. It’s far worse. As the year goes on, other problems arise. It’s inevitable. Schools are inevitably imperfect human systems. If, as problems arise, solutions are placed on next year’s agenda, and as the year goes on the agenda gets longer and longer, inevitably we arrive at “next year” with far too many changes to implement at once, we have to be selective about the changes which we ask the faculty to make as they prepare for the new school year, and some solutions are postponed another year. The agenda for the future gets longer and longer.

Do something now. Annually, we participate in a mid-year course correction exercise, a weekend planning retreat. The challenge for the faculty: What are the changes which we can make on Monday which will improve instruction and learning this school year? We spend a Friday evening at a restaurant together where most of the faculty enjoy a well earned drink or two, and we generate ideas in a relaxed, non-critical atmosphere: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. Saturday, we come back together at the school and quickly reach consensus on two or three issues that people really want to spend the day working on. We then break out into smaller groups with trained peer facilitators and each group works on a single issue: what can we do about this beginning on Monday to improve teaching and learning? The whole faculty then reconvenes in the late afternoon to see if we have consensus on any of the plans (or parts of plans). Where we have consensus, we move forward on Monday. Do something now.

Sometimes it’s hard to do something now. Nowhere is it harder to act than around difficult personnel decisions. We hold team players in the highest regard. Evelyn was the first to call it “playing well in the sandbox”. So, the hardest situation occurs when a person who plays well with peers in the sandbox then struggles to perform in classroom. This might be the teacher who always volunteers to stay late or to help out with an event, but whose students are not achieving academically.

We respect learning and we value mistakes. If we are not making mistakes, we are not trying hard enough, so invariably when someone struggles with performance we coach and train and encourage them to try again. And always, if a person plays well in the sandbox we want to give them another chance, and even another chance.

It’s hard for us to admit that a person who “plays well in the sand box” may be in the wrong job, no matter how strongly they want it. In some ways, it is hardest with beginning teachers. They have gone to school to become teachers. They have worked toward this goal for years. Oh yes, occasionally it is something that they have never really wanted, something that their parents or someone else wanted for them. Yet even in those instances, they have if nothing else, become invested emotionally in at least the idea of being teachers.

“Maybe this isn’t the career for you?” we ask and are delighted when they agree. Or, they cry. “Maybe this isn’t the right school for you, or “Maybe our kids are too unique, too challenging, too different from you,” we offer.

Sometimes they go off to try their hand somewhere else. Occasionally, we have offered struggling yet promising teachers a chance to step back to a teacher assistant role to get some more seasoning, experience with kids, a chance to calm down. Sometimes, struggling teachers have asked themselves for this opportunity to step back, recognizing that they just weren’t ready.

These are difficult conversations, but the problem only gets more difficult as teachers experience success. Many good teachers want a shot at being leaders. Others, less ambitious perhaps, are encouraged by us to take on leadership roles. They have earned that shot by performing well as teachers and team members, and we give them a chance to lead.

One of the great strengths of our schools is that we can, unencumbered by civil service rules and restrictive labor contracts, rapidly advance talented teachers who in other systems are totally limited by seniority systems. We support rising teachers in getting certified in school leadership and we give them a chance to lead. When their performance falls short of expectations, the conversations are even more difficult than those with beginning teachers. We are facing now not only someone who plays well in the sandbox (if you don’t play well in the sandbox, you don’t get promoted) but someone with years of loyalty to school and team. We coach, we encourage, we give them another chance. Yet when the results continue to fall short, we are then faced with one of the most difficult do-something-now situations. We owe it to the kids and the other members of the team to do something. As soon as we know that this is not the right job for this person, at least not at this moment in their lives, right then, at that moment, is the time to do something.

Make the change. Begin the process of making the change, since some changes in leadership are best not made summarily. Sometimes we can allow a graceful exit, but we need to do something now. Even if we are afraid. Even if we have gotten over the fear of confrontation, fear of a difficult conversation, we still may face another fear.

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” We’ve heard those words a million times, those crippling words which pervade education, justifying the retention of failing teachers and leaders, fears which are supported by labor agreements and civil service regulations. If we don’t change something, nothing is going to change. Do something now.

If we encourage people to be unafraid of mistakes and if we encourage learning, we must allow space for our own mistakes and our own learning. Not every hiring or promotion decision we make is going to work out no matter how much effort we put into it, no matter how much we want the person to work out.

Sometimes a great person, a person with talent and potential, may not be in the right job for them at this moment in their lives. I say this from experience.

In my mid-20’s, I had the opportunity to develop an innovative, mental health counselor training program, one of the first paraprofessional training programs in New York City, providing opportunities for poor people to find jobs (and hopefully careers) in a mental health program serving their community. In so doing, I earned the opportunity to be the program’s first director. I was also lucky to have the opportunity to bow out of that role gracefully and take another position as an inpatient psychiatric social work. I made this difficult decision voluntarily, realizing fortunately before anyone else did that I was way too immature and insecure to be the program director at that time in my career. I learned some huge and important lessons in my new job. And it turns out the difficult step back didn’t ruin my career. In fact five years later, I was ready to restart my career in mental health administration.

Do something now. At the moment that we recognize that we do not have the right fit, do something. At the moment that we know that something needs to be done, do something. Do it thoughtfully, and do it now. Know that the change is only an attempt, another chance, to learn how to solve this problem. If we don’t do something different and do it now, we will not get a different result.