Tortoise vs. Hare

This past week I led one of the worst meetings I’ve had in my career in senior administration. It wasn’t contentious and nobody’s temper blew but it left me and I’m sure the other twenty of my administrative colleagues wondering why we came together. The meeting was a joint meeting of our budget, curriculum and inclusive education committees and the purpose was…I’m not sure. Although uncertainty has its place in leadership as expressed by the Leadership Freak, this was not one of the best examples.

I’m passionate about educational change and have a difficulty not being  impatient for true transformation to occur. I also believe that the leaders I have in our schools are supporters of educational change, albeit at different points on their own learning journey. So what is holding us back from making the sweeping changes required to truly meet the needs of each child that comes into our schools? I would suggest that it is a matter of timing and that sustainable educational reform occurs in time of the tortoise and not of the hare.

My own leadership journey has been on a steep learning curve this past year due in part to my PLN and a concentrated focus on relevant reading. As I grow as a leader, I’m recognizing that significant systemic change takes time. Why? Because significant systemic change requires a grass-root movement. Leaders require great insights, precise vision and must be able to create opportunities for successful change but unless staff buy in and are part of the change process it will either not take hold or start off like the hare but fall well short of its intended goal.

Although I’m not an expert of the American system, I believe that the situation occurring in the United States would support my argument. Top down govenment initiatives like “No Child Left Behind” or “Race to the Top” are examples of failures because they expected “hare” like results and didn’t involve the professionals in the classroom.  The conversations and later the actions that will be necessary to move our system forward need to start at the government or board or administrative tables but they must extend to our school staffs as soon as possible. The responsibilty for student success must be collective and therefore rests with all involved in the school system. Not one single entity within the framework of education will be able to make transformation a reality on a solo mission.

Our three committees have forwarded some bold ideas of which I’m very supportive. However, in my role as chief learning leader, these ideas need to be translated into actions. Moreover, these actions call for long term embedding into our culture not fleeting transitionsof practice. Teachers who recite, “This too shall pass!” have some validity in their comments. Too often, our next best educational reform has not been well researched and seldom had any staying power. In many instances, these magic cures for education were imposed upon those in the classroom or the school division itself. Believe me, I have no tolerance for teachers or divisions who refuse to implement well established and researched strategies that have been proven to positively impact student learning. But systemic change is more than just about pedagogy, it is an attitudinal change that requires commitment not compliance.   

So going back to my meeting, I understand why we were all frustrated. We want to see results, we want to build the right fence and then exercise as much flexibility within that structure. But, the fence building takes time and more importantly the flexibility within can only occur when we motivate and involve our staff through the work of Daniel Pink in his book Drive: autonomy, mastery and purpose. That however, will be another post!

So for now, think like a tortoise not like a hare when you view educational transformation. Remember it took Finland 25 years to make the difference they are making in order for them to be considered a world leader in education.


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  1. Thanks Chris. Another great post. I am reminded of the notion that the second follower becomes an integral part of moving an initiative forward. The first follower validates the leader and show it can be done. But the second follower is what defines a movement. Derek Sivers talks about the concept that “Everyone needs to see the followers, because new followers emulate followers – not the leader.”

    1. So true. We need leaders from both the system and within the school. Often we are so passionate about making the change that we forget how difficult change can be to many, especially those who have been in the profession for a long time. Following co-workers ensures minimal risk and makes good sense. We just have to provide for those first stage leaders. Thanks Tom for your feedback. Always appreciate your thoughts!

    • Chris Gold on March 12, 2012 at 1:26 AM
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    I like your thinking – the Hare always gets somewhere first bit quite often not where he actually intended. I was at a meeting today with the powers that be, and was frustrated at the directions we were being taken despite some great discussion.
    As a Principal I am expected to lead my colleagues through change and usually gradually and with ownership. It doesn’t seem to be the case when Directors get agood idea after travelling to another country or state. And yes Finland took 25 years to get where most believe they did it overnight like some of the Asian countries.
    I believe that frustration however, can be a good sign that we are in review and need to look at all the story. Such conflict is healthy and models a collaborative approach without settling for something less than what we desired.

    1. You are right Chris that sometimes frustration is a good sign that we are moving out of our comfort zone and changing our being. Change is never the same for any two individuals and that is another reason why it can be so difficult- one is ready and one is not. Most times directors or superintendents see the dance floor from the balcony which allows them to set the course. But as I’m learning we have to pull more people on to the balcony so that they can be part of the movement. Thanks for your comments and good luck.

    • Neil Langevin on March 12, 2012 at 3:31 PM
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    Great post, I really liked the foreshadowing of elaborating on your thoughts on how to actually help individuals move the entire system forward.

    Similar to the great ideas that Pink has, the Heath bros do a great job of explaining the change process. Their commentary that individuals who resist change are not merely resistors; they are tired individuals. (analogy of the rider and elephant) The challenge to create more professional action to improve is a constant and difficult process.

    As we all move forward in trying to improve our districts, we need more leaders like yourself and Barry who are aware of the need to improve autonomy and acknowledge the importance of “getting more people on the balcony”

    1. Thanks Neil for your comments. Our mandate in education is much different than it was even 10 years ago and so we all have to become involved in seeing the potential of a new system. And then, make it happen! We are on the cusp of greatness in education and although it is a difficult course to navigate it is also very exhilarating. I continue to be so excited to be part of this transformation process during my career. Senior leadership is always easier when we have individuals like yourself that are willing to see the world from both the dance floor and the balcony. The bottom line is, as we transform, students are better served and that is why we all came into education.

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