We could all use some distance. Some room to breathe, to gain perspective, and collect our thoughts. When our emotions drive us we are reactive, vulnerable, and often find ourselves up against the wall.
Space is critical for good decision making- a buffer of calm, a sense of control, the knowledge that it will somehow be all right.
When we’re too close to life’s details our emotions kick in. Like being trapped in a pinball machine, our anxiety is triggered, activating those around us, shifting energy and ultimately depleting our collective resources.
While many of us yearn for more space, solitude, and calm, we mostly wait for it to appear. We somehow fail to realize is that space is created, constructed and controlled by us alone.
Every second we receive stimulation from the environment- sounds, images, experiences that our minds interpret as we establish threats and priorities, making attributions and planning and executing our actions.
Although we often feel like we don’t have control or choices, our constructions are largely our own doing. While they can default to an automatic mode, the framing of our experiences can be brought under deliberate volition.
Let’s consider space in a different way. Imagine a telescoping lens that can move your field of vision both outward and upward. As it pulls away from a specific experience or situation that is highly emotional, it creates a larger field around it with more room to move, breathe, and think.
Imagine your lens spreading outward from a place of “I can’t believe she said that,” to the larger frame of “negativity in the office” and finally to the positive notion that “everyone deserves a safe and supportive work environment.” As we expand our focus outward, we stretch the space towards more abstract frames or categories. And as we do so we become more emotionally detached. And when we find the optimal lens, new solutions and approaches begin to emerge. Space generates innovation.
This telescoping also moves upward from reactions that are ego and fear driven to those that are tied to core values and beliefs. As your lens moves from “he doesn’t respect me” to “everyone deserves to feel respected and valued,” and finally toward broader notions of universal love and support, we can feel our energy lifting. And as we move our gaze upward we begin to see threats differently, compassion kicks in, moving us out of the victim role towards a state of higher self.
To be clear, this transformation is not automatic. It takes control and time, especially when we are feeling threatened or under duress. Contemplative practices can help, giving us tools and frameworks, and signs to recognize in advance of anxiety taking over. Rituals and practices can establish time and space, making it easier to reach and maintain a place of balance and higher thinking.
The alternative to creating space is to be reactive and emotional, a highly dangerous and exhausting way to live. Since the notion of waiting for life to calm down or for others to gain perspective is not a particularly viable solution, we are left with really no alternative, that is if we truly want to do and be better.
When did we give away our power? I found myself pondering this question at the prompting of a graduate student who was sitting in my office, eager to soak up every drop of insight I could offer. It was an excellent question, rooted in what I knew to be his complete sincerity and a palpable longing to make a difference in the world.
My answer rang cynical as it reverberated through my consciousness- how can you give something away when you never had it in the first place? As I reflected on the various leaders with whom I’d worked over the years, I was left with a general sense of disappointment, potential unrealized in so many ways.
I offered that true power comes from a place of clarity, some value or proposition that one knows to be absolutely and unequivocally true. Powerful people are able to steward a mission, an idea, or a contribution- holding it up, creating a path forward, dodging distractions, and elevating everyone in the process, moving us collectively toward a better and more enlightened place.
While non-traditional, this conceptualization of power does not preclude one from earning a good living or rising to a position of influence. On the contrary, it supports many of the familiar trappings of success that society craves. But it does so in a way that is fundamentally different, flipping one’s locus of influence, elevating the importance of ideas, and the skills and competencies needed to steward them.
How do we cultivate this re-imagined notion of power? By providing students of all ages with opportunities to delve within, exploring their own gifts, talents, and passions while developing a sensitivity and responsiveness to the people and world around them.
Central to this vision is the role of teachers, professors, and adults of all kinds. For while the delivery of information and knowledge remains important, the new frontier calls for the creation of opportunities for students to connect with new situations, contexts, and challenges- stretching their understanding and skills, building their sense of power and agency. And above all it calls for mentors- powerful people who can harness their own strengths, connections, and experience to support the cultivation of students, putting them at the center, helping them prepare for their place in the world.
As (higher) education contemplates the next phase of its evolution, working to remain relevant and responsive within a quickly changing landscape, student outcomes and competencies will continue to guide us. But until we are able to elevate our notions of power and success, we will continue to miss the mark in helping students navigate and prepare for academic and career pathways.
Clearly, helping students to find their impact stands as a noble and important goal toward which we should strive. By preparing strong and powerful graduates we will support not only their own success, but ultimately a better and more enlightened world for all of us to experience and enjoy.
-For Andrew Tabashneck
One of the most fundamental errors we make as problem solvers is to define a problem in an overly narrow way, in essence limiting our success from the very beginning.
Perhaps this is what we are doing with education.
When I reflect on my own efforts to add value in the field, they have focused largely on introducing innovation within systems that are inherently insensitive and unresponsive. My approach has been one of strategy and mediation, delicately avoiding areas of extreme dysfunction while creating pockets of shared interest and capacity.
The ultimate limitation of this approach was recently revealed as I found myself pondering how to best introduce 1:1 technology within the Buffalo Schools. Although the opportunity of interest- providing low-cost tablets manufactured by a brilliant new company, Bak USA- is undeniably advantageous and well aligned with our hopes and goals for city students, figuring out how to navigate the layers of complexity quickly became an exercise in frustration.
And then it dawned on me. Maybe it wasn’t about the schools. Maybe we had been defining the problem incorrectly.
Ultimately, our goal is to open possibilities. By putting tablets in the hands of all students, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, we can afford them access to a world of knowledge and opportunity- the same access that is fueling our most exciting paradigms and innovations.
But trying to force these notions of open access and opportunity into the constraints of a system that perpetuates the very opposite? Suddenly, the folly of my thinking became apparent. We find ourselves trapped by the very definitions of education that spawned the system that now traps us.
Those who follow my work can anticipate where I’m heading. By redefining the problem as one of cultivating talent in its most varied and abundant forms, and connecting talent with opportunities for growth and impact (see my TEDx talk), we can free ourselves from viewing the schools as our primary solution or vehicle for empowerment. In fact by doing so, it moves the responsibility for stewardship and cultivation to the highest levels of community leadership.
We already know that inequality of opportunity, and measures of success, can be mapped largely to the learning that takes place outside of school, reading and conversations at home, summer enrichment, interaction with mentors and role models, and all the opportunities to navigate and study the systems that regulate growth and advancement. Accordingly, this same out of school time becomes an obvious vehicle for enrichment and empowerment. The beauty of technology lies in its ability to bring a world of opportunity and learning to those who are traditionally left out or behind, and reach them wherever they are and wish to go.
Rather than seeing technology as a luxury or a threat to short-sighted self-interests, we need to challenge ourselves and one another to think beyond the constraints that continue to limit our collective growth. By redefining our notions of education and harnessing the power of technology, we can finally realize the benefits of talent in its most diverse and abundant forms.
Recently I uncovered the full extent of my obsession with moral complexity. After opening a box of mementos that included artifacts from my entire life, I found myself racing past the photos and yearbooks and diving breathlessly into a stack of Ethics papers from my first year of college. As if discovering the Holy Grail, I poured over my final exam, an analysis of case studies conducted through the lenses of various theoretical approaches.
The cases were extreme examples of moral transgression. They included gross abuses of power, failure to intervene in heinous crimes, all clear-cut scenarios that could be neatly unpacked and dissected for the purposes of assessment. I recalled that it was soon after this exam that I left the major of Philosophy. It had felt too detached and esoteric, barely relevant to the dangerous challenges that threatened our society and even then captured my attention. After leaving Philosophy I had done a brief stint in English which I greatly enjoyed until realizing that I only liked to read and write about people, and especially those toiling with deep and complex moral crises. I had been relieved to finally find a home in Psychology, and eventually the world of Cognition, where I could explore the underlying structures and processes involved in decision making.
How ironic that as I reread my final Ethics paper, almost twenty-five years since I wrote it, I couldn’t help resonating with the relevance of the analyses and the obstacles they revealed. Without even realizing it, I found myself reading the paper yet again, this time inserting the case study of public education for analysis and moral critique. The most recent Buffalo News article about the dysfunction of the School Board and its likeness to a reality TV show echoed in my mind- name calling, accusations of self-interest and political pandering, all swirling around high-stakes decisions about closing and transforming city schools.
My paper had walked through some common approaches to moral analysis, the thinking behind decision making which can undermine the reasoning that serves as the foundation for a strong and healthy society. Moral relativism, egoism, dogmatism, and polarization- all flavors of self-centeredness that trap individuals in the emotions associated with protecting and aggrandizing their own views. In my paper I had made the point that although feelings are often good indicators for what’s right and wrong, ethical reasoning involves much more than venting one’s feelings.
And yet somehow it seems that we have plunged ourselves in a moral swam, indulging in a never-ending stew of self-validation and attack. Clearly, the issues facing our public schools- and other key social systems- are much more complex and multi-faceted than mere issues of ethics or morality. They involve structural and systems-level failures that call for strategic and bold solutions, perhaps better tethered to the world of Cognition than Philosophy. And yet, ironically the very same critique holds true. Emotionalism and self-centeredness always get in the way of good decision making, especially when our decisions have critical implications for the world in which we live.
As I sat listening to a Buffalo teacher talk about the realities facing her students, I felt a growing pit in my stomach that has seemed to have taken up permanent residence.
She was talking about the refugee children who make up a large percentage of her school’s population. She explained that over 40% of the students don’t speak English, and that another quarter have tested out of language services despite debilitating limitations in vocabulary, due to their parents not speaking English at home.
She talked about the circumstances from which the children come- war, famine, genocide; from the Congo, Nepal, villages and countries that most of us can only imagine. She remarked of the children’s strength and determination, a sort of self-selection that accompanies those who make it, enduring unspeakable hardship all for hope of opportunity. And she spoke of their talents and dreams, each as unique as their individual stories.
Yet in a school system focused solely on state standards, these kids are liabilities. Their extracurricular activities are stripped, no more outdoor time, no arts and culture, just more and more curriculum. Not surprisingly, most do poorly on the tests. And once the school is invariably labeled as failing, resources are taken away, and punitive measures put into place; anger and judgment rather than the support and celebration they deserve.
As I listened to my friend speak my heart grew heavy, but not because I was unaware of the situation. Just a few years ago I led the University’s partnership with the Buffalo Schools, working to leverage resources and opportunities for the most challenged. At that time, we and other local institutions were clamoring to be at the table, responding to a call by the new superintendent, Dr. James Williams.
But what began as collegial collaboration quickly gave way to suspicion on both sides. And with a foot in each world- paid by both the Board of Education and the State University- and a background in mediation, I certainly understood the mutual trepidation.
From the vantage point of the schools, many partners appeared predatory. The Superintendent would point out that nonprofits sustain themselves on grants and contracts with the schools, that poverty itself feeds the very organizations that position themselves as its savior. At an address to the largest teacher education program in the area, he remarked, “I know you all have excellent programs, but my children can’t read…” suggesting a certain degree of culpability on the part of higher education. He went on to describe a drowning child who is reaching for help, but the weight of so many hands trying to lift them up inadvertently sinking them deeper.
But from the outside perspective it has become virtually impossible to find a viable place at the table, especially one that is befitting our own needs for civility and good judgment. The circus-like atmosphere that has come to define public education, and the associated suspicion that surrounds all engaged parties, shuns meaningful collaboration and support.
While I no longer work directly with the Buffalo Schools, I now serve on the board of a local organization that places and supports refugee families. Ironically, even from this new vantage point, I still struggle to find a touch point.
Yes, the School District is the primary system for educating our children. But, they are OUR children, and we are ultimately responsible for their care. The weight of that responsibility is increasingly speaking to me, calling me to action, and I yearn to respond. But how?
I had the talk with my daughter the other day, the one about using her powers for good and not evil. It was in the midst of the talk that I realized it was actually the fourth iteration, a common thread woven across each of my children’s formation.
While the talk has varied with the particular transgression under review, the plot line has remained largely the same.
It begins with me enumerating my child’s gifts and talents, articulating the qualities that make them uniquely special and precious to the world. I assure them that they will go on to do important things and acknowledge that they are clearly leaders, undeniably powerful. I provide evidence as to how their behavior makes a difference; how when they are at their best, they have a tangible impact on the people and situations around them.
At this point, they usually sense that we are circling back to their transgression, a realization that catalyzes a stream of excuses and accompanying tears. This is always the turning point in the talk; the place where I reaffirm my love and clarify that we always have choices, opportunities to add value and to do the right thing. Finally I offer a path forward, an opportunity to make things right and to reset intentions.
While I’m sure my children dread these talks, they always bring us closer. In the end, after the drama clears, there is a palpable sense of intimacy, a new bond that somehow tethers our souls more closely.
When I think of my own upbringing, I still remember the sting of disappointing my parents. But I also recall, and continue to cherish, the security that comes with their unconditional love and unyielding expectations that I will always do the right thing.
Of late as I have pondered the qualities of leadership, I have been accused of being overly romantic about all that we should expect. Courage, integrity, a commitment to doing what is right and true, and an ability to make strong decisions especially in the face of challenge or uncertainty. Aren’t these the very qualities that we expect of our own children, the qualities that we expect of ourselves and one another?
Although it is too early to predict whether my children- or any children- will go on to be great leaders or innovators, they are honing their powers every day, through their studies, their interactions, and their dreams. They are developing a sense of identity and place in the world, setting expectations for themselves and those around them.
The phrase, “for those to whom much is given much is expected” rings clear and loud in my inner voice. As a society it is our job to nurture and extol our children’s precious gifts, while setting high and clear expectations for their impacts.
The truth is that we simply cannot fulfill our potential without raising powerful people. And thankfully, with every new generation, we have another chance to finally get it right.
I recently attended a press event and left dumbfounded by the remarks of the presiding dignitaries. The vast majority either didn’t make sense at all, or were essentially vacuous in terms of actionable promises. Since literally bolting from the event, I have found myself pondering the importance of words as they relate to community development.
I have already confessed my general fascination with words in an early post http://marabhuber.com/2014/03/24/sculpting-our-words/, but in this case I’m reflecting on the lack of intellectual and ethical discipline that they often convey. Just recently I was accused in a LinkedIn group of being too academic and using “the turgid style that seems to say: “I’m smarter than you are.” The critic urged me to say what I mean. While I admit that I have often been accused of being difficult to understand, I would argue that my intentions are at least noble. In choosing my words, whether verbal or written, I strive and struggle for clarity and precision. In the world of higher education, which is my home, and more specifically in the realm of research, we are left to constantly defend the veracity of our assertions, and so we take our words very seriously. Whether in peer reviewed articles, presentations, or meetings, our words are scrutinized for logic and proof, and accordingly they serve as the very foundation on which our relationships and reputations are built.
I realize that Higher Education is not the real world, and that many “normal” people would argue that academics get lost in words and their meanings. Yet I strongly believe that regardless of your background or professional culture, words DO matter and should be treated with more care and thoughtfulness. And I would assert that this is especially true when we deal with matters of community development.
Why? Well, for one reason words are simply not interchangeable. It’s true that we have multiple words to describe similar ideas or concepts, but each connotes nuanced distinctions that are subtle yet important enough to be named. The differences between a partner and a customer, an opportunity and a contract, collaboration and commitment all become extremely important as projects play out, grants run their course, or tensions begin to rise. The ability to articulate one’s goals, needs, and boundaries in a way that is respectful yet clear can make all the difference in project outcomes and the ultimate longevity of relationships.
This is especially the case in community development where organizations are seeking to help and add value in humanitarian ways, while at the same time attending to their own budgetary needs and agendas. Even when all parties are nonprofit with no direct gains or monetary interests, the complexities of their missions and funding sources and associated political lifelines guarantee that ethical conflicts and landmines will abound. Without the ability to clearly articulate and maintain one’s position using carefully selected words with their associated meanings, the promise of successfully navigating the treacherous waters of community development will remain dismal at best.
I hope you can help me.
I’m looking for the name of a specific community leader, the one with the courage, commitment, and most importantly the capacity to bring us all together.
I’m not talking about waterfront development, or tourism. We’ve got those areas covered, and I too am excited by the growth.
The leader I’m searching for is focused on human capital- someone who understands the complexities of politics and poverty, but is driven ultimately by the promise of untapped potential; someone who can see and work across systems and is not constrained by specific agendas or ideologies. The leader I am seeking is a facilitator, a designer, a navigator of complexity, someone with thick skin who can deflect the negativity and fickleness that so quickly emerge, someone exceptionally smart, and definitely kind.
We are certainly not lacking in community leaders. But I don’t think they’re the ones I’m looking for. And I have been waiting for so very long.
My search began back in 2007 when I was working with former Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James Williams, as liaison for higher education partnerships. When he would introduce me to leaders from various sectors of the city, I would pose the question in the most earnest and hopeful way, explaining that I was eager to offer my assistance once I could identify the right person.
Can you believe that in over eight years of asking the question, I haven’t gotten a single enthusiastic response- not one.
Since leaving my role with Superintendent Williams and returning to my work at the University at Buffalo, I have pulled back from the world of educational partnerships, waiting for the dust to settle so that I could identify the appropriate opportunity to reengage. And throughout the years and months I have continued to ask my question.
Just recently I learned of Mr. Wilmer’s press event and grew excited that perhaps the time had finally come. If Mr. Wilmers, a leader for whom I have great respect and admiration, a leader who makes big things happen for our community and schools, if he was rallying the troops, then maybe we could finally get something accomplished. But alas, I was told by numerous attendees that he was clearly not the one, that he had emphasized throughout his presentation that he was a banker and not an educator, and that the responsible community leaders needed to step up and find a way forward.
And then just this morning, a few brief minutes ago, I read of the upcoming Superintendent search and the School Board’s expectation that there must be a suitable internal candidate, a principal, who can step up and lead the District forward.
My heart aches as I ponder the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I continue to ask myself who is that leader, and I am hoping desperately that one of you knows.
Once we establish that our education system is complex, fragile, and precious (see earlier posts), the responsibility of leadership becomes one of calibration.
In http://marabhuber.com/2015/01/17/towards-a-practical-and-scalable-solution-for-saving-our-most-precious-and-vulnerable-community-systems/ we identified key points of fragility within school systems that can be tightened through self-study or guided evaluation. They include internal organizational integrity, co-evolution of the system with its environment, and the vision toward which the system is moving. While these areas can be tweaked independently, the complexity of their interactions demands a highly strategic approach that addresses the system in its entirety, identifying key levers of change that can be manipulated toward greater functionality and optimization of outputs.
If we examine the education system, and more specifically our most challenged school districts through the lens of complex adaptive systems, we can begin to appreciate the urgent need for calibration. While urban districts are vastly complex, they are also dangerously out of alignment with their key facets (internal organization; co-evolution; and vision) functioning at cross-purposes, and little comprehensive control or oversight. Accordingly, even when the system tries to pivot or refocus on some new mandate or external expectation, there is no effective mechanism for doing so, with even the most well intentioned efforts throwing the system into greater misalignment and instability.
With that said, it is entirely possible to recalibrate our education systems, but it is clearly a design challenge. In doing so, we need to view individual components through the lens of the greater system and place them within their respective places. Teacher unions and contracts, state mandates and assessments, school-level operations and policies, these are all components or variables that are critical to the ultimate performance of our school systems. But none of them, individually, should be drivers, determining the functionality or vision of the entire system. When given disproportionate weight or power, any of these components can begin to lead, causing further misalignment and fragility, not to mention compromised performance, ultimately threatening the viability of the systems themselves. Put simply, our most challenged school districts have become so complex, fragile, and misaligned, that they are no longer viable or sustainable.
If we are serious about fixing our education system, and more specifically our failing school districts, we must begin to view leadership through the lens of calibration. Ultimately, our school boards are responsible for setting the vision and overseeing progress. And yet few boards fully accept this responsibility and have the competencies or support necessary for doing the work. Clearly, boards can not to do it alone. Consultants and accrediting bodies, along with community foundations and consortiums, should provide the frameworks and strategic support needed to guide them through the complex and important processes, helping them clarify the necessary steps and roles that need to be filled. Only when this design work is done effectively can superintendents and leadership staff be hired based on their ability to lead and execute the identified plans. Only then can we begin to recalibrate our systems and achieve the results we seek not by chance, but by design.