Last school year ended on a low note for me. Professionally it was an incredible year—I co-authored my first book, worked as an educational consultant and supported numerous leaders who are pushing the boundaries of learning for students. So many exciting developments! Yet personally, my educational volunteering experiences left me feeling ineffective and deflated at best.
As a big proponent of public education, I volunteer countless hours to support our local elementary school. Having two boys who attend the school, I love nothing more than spending my free time helping to support and improve the learning experiences for them and all their classmates. This volunteering takes all forms—chaperoning field trips, selling spirit wear, organizing school celebrations, helping with in class reading groups and fundraising to help bridge the gap in California school financing. Last year we had a particularly successful fundraising year, enough to hire yet another teacher reducing an upper grade level from 30+ students per class to 20 students per class. The community wholeheartedly supported the decision, but our school personnel didn’t. It became complicated, teachers didn’t think it was fair to reduce the class size of one upper grade level without the other and had seniority concerns around hiring another teacher. Ultimately, our funds were not able to be used to reduce class sizes. I questioned the decision and advocated for what I believe to in the best interest of students. After all, teacher needs are lobbied collectively through their unions, but where’s the collective voice on behalf of our students’ needs?
It quickly became clear that teachers were uncomfortable with my public questioning. Comments were made indirectly to me about how “disagreements should be kept in the family” and how inappropriate it was for me to discuss or second guess the decision. In one meeting someone even referenced a “twitter scandal”.... little did I know at the time that I was the scandal.
Thankfully it was the start of summer, and I took a much needed break from the volunteer role. Working in education can be intense and no matter our role, we all benefit from time for self-reflection and distance. I reflected, read, played and enjoyed the fleeting moments of summer. I also questioned and checked in with others. Had I pushed too hard for change? Was I not trying to do what was best for students? Would my own children be negatively impacted at the school because I was vocal and outspoken? Is this why people give up?
Looking back with some perspective and some distance, I can chuckle a little about the events. I’m mean I’m hardly a twitter scandal, but it has also made me take a hard look at how we impact change in schools. Change is never easy, but trying to push for change as a parent volunteer is a downright humbling experience. This whole experience has left me wondering… “When did asking questions become a bad thing?” and “Is our current culture of playing nice hindering us from making the changes our schools so desperately need?”
In my summer reading, I was very thankful to come across a blog, Willing to Be Affirmed (July 24, 2018) by one of my favorite education change makers, Will Richardson. This blog caused me to pause and reflect even more about the work of change in schools. I appreciate Will’s willingness to disturb people in education. The post reaffirmed my desire to disturb people, to get them thinking even if it means at times offending. I especially appreciated, Will’s reference to Margaret Wheatley’s work. (Excerpt below, full access here.)
“Sometimes we hesitate to listen for differences because we don’t want to change. We’re comfortable with our lives, and if we listened to anyone who raised questions, we’d have to get engaged in changing things. If we don’t listen, things can stay as they are and we won’t have to expend any energy. But most of us do see things in our life or in the world that we would like to be different. If that’s true, we have to listen more, not less. And we have to be willing to move into the very uncomfortable place of uncertainty.” - Margaret Wheatley
This year I am embracing the notion of questioning and moving into a place of ambiguity wholeheartedly! I am choosing to embrace a stance of being more curious than certain, which will mean asking a lot of questions. Questions that might challenge thinking or the status quo. I don’t intend for my questions to offend you and recognize full well they might. And so as I embrace a willingness to question (and possibly offend) will you embrace a willingness to listen? If you feel shocked at my position or my questions, I wonder instead of judging me could you too question what you to believe to be true? I am confident it will take all of us stepping outside of the “culture of nice” to question, even if it means we unintentionally offend someone to improve learning for all students.