These are not easy times to be in education. Regardless of if you agree with changes in policy and assessment whether you’re in the UK, the US, Australia or almost anywhere else, significant change is afoot in one form or another in almost every state, province and country. New tests, new professional evaluations, new, in many cases expanded curriculums and pedagogies…few would argue that this isn’t a tumultuous, hard to make sense of moment for teachers and leaders alike.
The scary irony is, however, that most of the changes being introduced in schools pay little heed to the larger societal and global shifts that are in most cases being driven by technologies about which most educators and policy makers have little practical or theoretical knowledge. Look at the tremors throughout media in the last month regarding racial divides in the US, religious divides in Syria, privacy concerns for female actresses and athletes from around the globe, and more. The growing impacts of technology and machines on the workforce and wearable, data-collecting and transmitting devices. The changing balance between work life and personal life…and more.
In an education sense, these changes are profound. Learning is moving from classrooms to networks. New paths to becoming “educated” are popping up each day. Traditional thinking about schooling and literacy are being fundamentally challenged. Content and teachers and technologies for learning are nearly ubiquitous…and more.
For many in education, this moment is overwhelming. How do we meet state and provincial mandates while preparing kids for a different world that is difficult to define and describe and is in constant flux? How do we develop the dispositions that we know our students are going to need to navigate this increasingly complex environment yet appease parents who are demanding higher scores and university tracking?
Depressing, to me at least, is that in the last few months in speaking to teachers and leaders across the US, Australia, Brazil, and Canada, I’m finding a growing sense of powerlessness, that the external accounting for success is so onerous, so debilitating that changing internal practice or expectations for classroom learning is almost impossible. I was shocked, literally, when three different teachers in three different schools in three different countries answered “Yes” when I asked if they were powerless to rethink their classrooms to stay relevant to the larger shifts. And in each case, many others nodded their heads.
“Powerless” is a powerful word (pun intended,) and not one I think any of us want associated with the people around us, especially in schools. Leaders’ work should be centered on “empowering” teachers and students to learn deeply and meaningfully in classrooms, but we all know that “power” to do that isn’t ours to give. That has to come from within the individual. Too often, unfortunately, our systems thrive on powerlessness, especially when it comes to our students. Developing students who feel agency over their own learning challenges the organized, efficient, well-heeled model of education we deliver. Powerful teachers are often seen to be disruptors, not innovators.
But here’s the thing: School leaders themselves cannot be powerless to effect relevant changes in their schools that best serve their students in the moment in which they currently live. (If they are, they should probably move on.) Only school leaders can create the conditions under which teachers and students become powerful, become able to innovate, able to evolve, and able to meet the challenges of a different world head on regardless if those challenges are not captured in a state-mandated curriculum or assessment. In fact, it may be the ultimate role of school leaders (and only school leaders) to build a culture of “get to” rather than “have to,” one that supports powerful practice on that part of all individuals.
If you lead in a culture where people are resigned solely to the current imposed external expectations, neither your students nor your teachers are being served. How you move that culture to a more relevant, modern place that embraces and makes sense of all that’s not on the test or in the traditional story of education is the most important question to answer.