Education, Beyond Fight or Flight

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When it comes to education, we have gotten ourselves firmly stuck. The lack of a clear and compelling vision coupled with an insatiable thirst for assessment and accountability have left us trapped with little room to move or breathe. Our schools and students are being squeezed by tightening expectations and external scrutiny, thrusting us into a collective tailspin of vulnerability and threat. Naturally, our instincts of fear and self-preservation are kicking in. But unlike in our evolutionary past, the options of flight or fight are no longer sufficient to save us. Instead, trapped within the complexities of our own inventions, we must transform our manufactured constraints into something inherently freer and more expansive.

The how is clear. We need visions and commitments that are more powerful and resonant with the broader world, and we need to put assessment and accountability back in their appropriate place- not as drivers or engines, but instead as tools to help us clarify and strengthen our ability to fulfill our (individual and collective) promise.

Based on my experiences in higher education, K-12 and the community sector, our core commitments are rarely sufficiently clear, compelling, or grounded in core capacities to be measurable, actionable or ultimately meaningful. They are either too vague, too specific, or too vacuous to drive change within the complex and dysfunctional landscapes which they claim to address. It is not surprising that related assessment plans, no matter how sophisticated or comprehensive, cannot measure or inform movement toward some vision or commitment that has not been sufficiently operationalized, internalized, or infused. And yet, assessment has become high-stakes in virtually every sense and sector. Assessment based on externally imposed standards, expectations, and metrics drive investments, public trust and reputation.

Without a clear and compelling vision, these externally imposed standards and expectations become everything. We adapt and optimize our systems and resources to produce outputs that mirror those expectations. And if permitted, we go so far as selecting applicants (or inputs) that are closest to the desired output, minimizing variance and optimizing resources while celebrating our success and superiority.

Yes, we are in need of a compelling collective vision, but we cannot wait. Individual schools can clarify the best versions of themselves, their strengths and gifts brought by their students, histories, communities, staff- virtually any qualities or virtues that are inherently authentic, meaningful and important. They can check these against the ambient world- the needs, the challenges, trends and opportunities. And as they toggle between the processes of looking within and outward, they can infer the essence of what they uniquely have to offer, what they can promise, what they should expect. If they can achieve clarity to the point of knowing and feeling and articulating what they are about, they will be able to see themselves fully actualized, and identify the gaps and needs along the way. Once they can commit, boldly and absolutely, they can create spaces and opportunities for their communities to move toward that vision while finding the sense of security and support necessary to actualize their potential.

To be clear, even in this ideally clarified and resonant state of identify, vision and mission, schools will need to meet external expectations, including metrics that are neither sufficiently clear nor meaningful. Leaders will have to ascertain what is necessary and non-negotiable and what can be relaxed or stretched or translated through more meaningful and textured metrics and stories.  But as the clarified and resonant vision and mission become internalized and permeate through the culture of our schools, those leaders and students and teachers can begin to stretch the spaces and expectations around them, feeling courageous bold and secure in the knowledge that they are successful in ways that are inherently meaningful and important.

It is only in this state of relaxation and movement that we can escape our threat responses, emerging from the traps and cages we have created, and finally enjoying the possibilities that will be catalyzed through our expansion.

 

 

but our children can’t read

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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?

Who is that Leader in Buffalo, NY?

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.

Systems Calibration: How Boards Can Save our Most Challenged School Districts

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Once we establish that our education system is complex, fragile, and precious (see earlier posts), the responsibility of leadership becomes one of calibration.

In https://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.

Wishing our Leaders Would Dig a Little Deeper

 

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I’m a sucker for vision. When a bold leader lays out a plan that is clear, compelling, and resonant, I find myself tingling with anticipation. But when the moment of visioning passes and the focus shifts to implementation and administration, I always sigh with disappointment. Another missed opportunity to commit to the standards of quality and integrity that we so desperately need.

As a person who works in the vast spaces between vision and outcomes, I could use a little help. For once, I would love our leaders to dig just a little deeper, clarifying commitments and standards in addition to goals and objectives- a value, a promise, a commitment to something real and authentic, something that we can hold on to, that will not shift or move.

Of course I can understand their reticence. In a world that is constantly changing with new threats and obstacles emerging by the moment, any promise of quality seems risky and naïve -especially in the world of higher education, with systems comprised of diverse campuses, programs, and faculty all prizing their respective freedom and independence.

So when visions are set, it is the highest and broadest metrics that are employed, essentially inventorying and counting impacts, highlighting stand-outs, while implying consistency and quality through messaging and story-telling.

To be clear, I’m not some accountability or assessment freak. Nor do I inherently like being told what to do. But I know that the very act of defining quality in a way that is meaningful and clear is often the most powerful part of the visioning and leadership process.

If we turn to the world of manufacturing, this point becomes clearer, with the specific widget or commodity dictating the design of production. Ultimately, it’s an insistence on consistency and fidelity that refines the internal mechanisms, calibrating and realigning, until the desired product is not only achieved but guaranteed.

But when we look at our own system of higher education with its disparate campuses, programs, and teaching faculty the challenge of consistency and fidelity become both daunting and critical. When a leader boldly sets a vision for the entire system, it- by definition- has the potential for great impact, but only if it is clear and consistent enough to be implemented with fidelity.

Without this assurance from the very beginning, we will continue to define quality through our own respective lenses and tendencies, failing to leverage our full potential as a powerful engine for change.

As someone who designs courses, programs, and initiatives I know that virtually anything is within our reach, especially when we have compelling and resonant goals to help inspire and guide us. But for once I wish we would just go for it, setting a high standard for quality and fidelity to which we can aspire and rise. Not only will such a standard ensure consistency and impact, but it will help us to be a better, stronger, and more relevant system, thus ensuring our sustainability for decades to come.

Navigating the Bounty of Higher Education

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Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment.   And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.

If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.

With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.

Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.

These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.

Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.

But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.

The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive.  And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.

Thank You Global Explorers

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Close your eyes and hold out your hands, Cazau and Julia instructed the children as they stood in a circle somewhere off the road near Gallup New Mexico. It was the final day of our adventure and although we needed to head for the airport in Albuquerque, they wanted to squeeze in a final discussion, so the roadside clearing would have to do. Luckily, over the past nine days, the kids had become so immersed in the spirit of the Canyon and the San Juan River, that they were able to hold their energy even so close to the city.

I too held out my hands, wondering what memento would be offered and whether it could do justice to the experience that we had all created and shared. When I felt a small smooth marble placed in my palm, I immediately understood the symbolism. The notion that these children held the Earth in their hands- that even though it was so much older and bigger than any of them, or us, they were largely in control. And how they would choose to utilize their influence would in many ways define our individual and collective futures.

The children understood the significance. The trip had been full of powerful moments – sleeping on the Canyon floor under a blanket of stars, experiencing the joyous embrace of Kathy and Ravis who welcomed us into the Navajo traditions, and spending lazy days and nights on the river, sharing stories and laughter, and a sense of community for which we would always yearn.

In that moment, perhaps the children felt the magic slipping away and the sense of responsibility settling in its place. How would they take what they learned and transport it back to their individual lives? They shared their reflections- spending more time outdoors, less technology, trying to be present and not overscheduled. They promised to come back to the Southwest, to become river guides and group leaders, continuing the journey that we had all started together.

As I stood within the circle listening and watching, I was moved beyond words. I felt so hopeful that these children would carry this experience with them forever, that they were changed in some important and profound way.  I wished that I could follow each of them home to help them process the jarring reality of return, reconciling the fact that they are changed, yet expected to be the same, helping them reflect on the wisdom of the Canyon when they are tested by the challenges of their lives.

Perhaps this is our next frontier as educators and parents, creating tools and forums in which to share and integrate experiences, helping others to process new-found truths and epiphanies within the borders of existing realities.  This integration  is more complex than we may realize. But ultimately, it offers the promise that we so desperately need. By creating and leveraging high impact experiences, we can become kinder, happier, and more responsive to the world around us, global citizens worthy of the precious earth we hold.

Adventure Awaits

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Today is my birthday, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful present than the exciting adventure that awaits us in just a few short days.

In partnership with Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, I will be heading to the Four Corners region of the US Southwest along with 18 middle graders and a phenomenal Social Studies teacher for 9 days of hiking, rafting, cultural exploration and service.

I first learned about Global Explorers (globalexplorers.org) at an education conference over 5 years ago, when I was captivated by their mission of “providing transformative journeys for students and educators…inviting you to unleash your potential to do good in the world by sending you on a mindset shattering expedition that will encourage you to live a life that matters.” Browsing through their portfolio of destinations- Tanzania, Peru, Cambodia, Candian Arctic, and dreaming about opportunities to share such experiences with children, including my own, has consumed more of my time than I should admit.

But when I began working with Nardin Academy (as both a parent and trustee) on their strategic planning process and saw their dynamic new mission statement taking shape, helping students to develop their individual talents and cultivate their intellect, character and courage to make a difference in the world,” it seemed that Global Explorers could be a wonderful high-impact partnership. I am so grateful that Nardin leadership embraced the concept and that the trip resonated with students and parents. The notion of a 9-day adventure, sleeping outdoors without the amenities of home while being removed from all social media and technology, is a big ask for 12, 13 and 14 year olds. But the students have courageously accepted the challenge, and our adventure awaits. I should note that in addition to Nardin students, we will also have several students from City Honors High School, including 2 of my own children. These dynamics of differing grades and school cultures will add richness to the layers of experiences and lessons that will impact us in exciting- and still unknown- ways.

When I think about the missions of Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, and my work at the University at Buffalo cultivating Experiential Learning opportunities for undergraduate students, I am struck by how closely these align with my own sense of mission- as a parent, professional, and community member. The idea of utilizing our talents to make a difference in the world necessitates that we get out of our comfort zone, explore different cultures and ways of life so that we can live our own lives with purpose and impact. The more that we can engage young people in these types of high-impact experiences, the more our communities and world will ultimately benefit.

I am hopeful that this will be the first of many more Global Explorers trips to come. But for now I plan to enjoy every moment of this exciting adventure and I look forward to sharing some stories and reflections upon our return. – Mara

So You Want to Change the World?…..

I know you’re out there, even though I cannot see you.

Maybe we have already met. Or perhaps our paths are yet to cross in some interesting or circuitous way. That’s how it usually happens, some chance encounter or a connection through a friend. Or sometimes just a radiant energy that leads to further conversation. Although your stories are all unique, a distinct pattern has begun to weave itself. Perhaps the following profile resonates…

Although people are naturally drawn to you, you often feel alone, fundamentally different from those around you, like an outsider peering in.

Although you experience joy, you would not describe yourself as fun in the usual sense. Your happiness has a serious and reflective quality, a kind of gratitude rather than youthful abandon.

Although you are an achiever, you seldom take pride or satisfaction in your accomplishments. Instead, you refocus on the work ahead, yearning to use your gifts and talents toward the greatest impact.

You are at your best when serving others, and although you feel blessed with a strong sense of purpose and mission, sometimes these gifts feel like heavy burdens that are yours alone to bear.

Perhaps I know you because I am of your kind, and I seem to have developed a heightened sensitivity to your energy- like an airy layer of possibility floating above the negativity and fear that protect the status quo.

The great news is that our number is growing, and those who radiate the strongest are young and brilliant, determined to use their talents to make significant and lasting change. They seem to know instinctively that our systems are broken, and they are ready to serve and lead, understanding that the two are inexorably linked. And perhaps most importantly, they are not afraid.

But they desperately need our help. Their power can only be activated through opportunities to mobilize and leverage their gifts. When the spaces (or jobs) are too tight or restrictive, or the goals too narrowly defined, their potential fails to be realized, with only the most local benefits and impacts.

In order to increase their numbers, we must actively cultivate the talents, passion, and sense of purpose that lie latent within all children and adults. But for these young professionals, the Super Stars who are ready and eager to make their mark on the world, we must put their talents to use recognizing that they are special and finding ways to connect them with the communities they long to serve.

For those of us lucky enough to meet these individuals, we must serve as their mentors and sponsors, helping organizations utilize their talents either through existing or customized opportunities. And when necessary, we must help them create new models and paradigms, connecting them with resources and support, nurturing their efforts and helping them take root.  This clearly calls for a deepened level of engagement and commitment.  However, once we contemplate the implications, we will realize that the true burden- and possibilities- are collectively ours to bear.

Flipping the Success Pipeline

Our society loves Super Stars, those select individuals who possess exceptional beauty, talent, and dispositions that propel them to places of privilege and honor. Their lives and successes serve as the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the massive industries that sell access to their worlds. With our collective adoration in mind it’s not surprising that we seek out early indications of stardom and compete for opportunities to nurture and support success, fast-tracking those with the most promise with elite education, scholarships, positions, and opportunities. This is the pipeline that is most direct and efficient, and the one that most artfully perpetuates the status quo.

Don’t get me wrong, many who obtain positions of success and privilege do great things with their resources, serving on boards, establishing foundations, and subsidizing our most needed services. The undeniable fact is that without successful individuals who are philanthropically and civically minded, many of our communities would be stripped of the very assets and resources that we have come to rely on for our quality of life. Rightly so, we admire these individuals and appreciate their generosity, recognizing that they are special in going beyond the expectations that accompany the attainment of success.

But if we were to flip the pipeline and view stardom entirely through the lens of community development, would we select the same individuals to lavish with resources and support? While financial success would remain a viable pathway for making contributions, we would see it as at best indirect and inefficient. Simply waiting for and hoping that individuals will give back to their respective communities in ways that are significant and meaningful, and that these efforts in turn will translate into growth, is like waiting for Godot.

If we were serious about strengthening our communities our scouting for potential stars would look much different. We would seek out individuals who are closest to the challenges and problems, those who recognize the assets and capacities that could be leveraged and mobilized to make positive change. We would search for natural leaders from among our most challenged and underdeveloped communities and neighborhoods, those with a sense of urgency who spend their time and energies dreaming up solutions and developing their own capacity to catalyze change.

We would recognize that these are the people who are especially poised for success, and we would fall over ourselves for chances to cultivate and support their ideas, arming them with tools – leadership development, strategic planning, asset mapping, grant writing, mediation…. any strategies or paradigms that could aid their efforts and support our collective goal of making our communities stronger and our society healthier.  And once we prepared these individuals, organizations and systems would compete for them, offering signing bonuses and perks, recognizing their value in terms of furthering their respective missions and cultivating new and better opportunities associated with enhanced human capital and a more fully developed workforce.

What would happen then? Well, once these individuals achieved the success and notoriety that we have come to adore, they would start to become the premise for our aspirations, entertainment, and the industries that sell access to their worlds….