Every time I put pen to paper to write a blog involving race, I’m keenly aware of the impacts of the decision to do so.
I know that many will find encouragement. They’ll appreciate that a community leader, particularly one with so much unearned privilege (a relatively affluent, middle-aged, straight, cisgendered white man) would use his privilege to speak out.
I know that a few, even in progressive communities such as the one in which I reside and lead, will roll their eyes at yet another “liberal” white person trying to relieve themselves of the white guilt the liberal media has indoctrinated them to feel espousing plans to teach children lessons that only parents should have the right to teach.
And I also know that the vast majority of folks will ignore the message--not out of any spite, but simply as a result of being overwhelmed by life, wanting to focus on other immediate priorities or take a respite from the near daily onslaught of negative news and the deafening editorialization of talking heads (such as myself).
I get it. And yet, thinking (and sharing my thinking) about race and its intersectionality with education is not optional. Even if only a small handful of people read my words, I have to write them. I have to put something productive and hopeful out in the universe. I know that I’m not alone in feeling the need to counteract the disinformation, fear, and hate in the world. I am one small voice, but I have to use it.
There’s more than just silence that is not an option in the wake of the hate-filled, targeted killing of 10 innocent people and injuring of three more at a grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood of Buffalo, NY. As a parent, as an educator, most importantly just as a human being, I feel there is more that I cannot accept; I invite you to consider the following non-options with me.
It’s not an option to ignore what is happening.
I am exhausted, too. I’m exhausted by all the negative news. I struggle to not get desensitized to all the violence and hate. Did you know that last week’s shootings at a SoCal church that served a majority Taiwanese congregation that killed one and injured five appears to have been conducted by a Chinese man who had a history of hatred toward the Taiwanese? Or the shooting in the area of Dallas known as Koreatown that occurred just three days prior to the Buffalo tragedy was conducted by a man who had “delusional fears” of Asians? Three apparent hate-based shootings in one week.
This is our reality. To turn a blind eye to these events, to allow ourselves to become numb, only increases the chances that this kind of hate-motivated violence will continue. Maybe like me you know that you can’t ignore this, but you struggle with what to do about it and you’re unsure that your psyche can handle too much more. That’s real, too. It’s all real. I can’t speak for others, but for me, I am grateful to have a great counselor who I meet with much more regularly the last two years than I ever have in my life. I know when I’m dysregulated, I need to take care of myself. I know when I can achieve emotional regulation, some ways I need to spend my time are talking with my family (including my kids) and friends to process in community what is happening and hold space for grief, anger, prayer, and discussion of what actions we can take as individuals to counteract hate in our own spaces.
It’s not an option to accept misinformation as truth.
Hate is born out of misinformation. Misinformation spreads like a virus amongst fear and a dearth of accurate information. We must not accept misinformation and the propagators who deal in it. Full stop. In my estimation, it’s probably human nature to want your news to reinforce beliefs you already hold and/or to have some element of entertainment value; however, I question whether that serves any of us well at all. It certainly isn’t a value that schools should be teaching. Schools have an essential responsibility to teach students how to learn and how to form opinions based on facts. This includes separating fact, fiction, opinion, and propaganda, as well as identifying what is dangerous and intended to harm. Replacement theory--a dangerous theory that fueled the Holocaust and is now propagated on fringe social media sites, but increasingly shared by national infotainment broadcasters--is one of the major lies behind the terrorist who killed 10 in Buffalo. Misinformation is intended to disempower people, plain and simple. Our children and those who lack access to resources for unfiltered information (think quality education, libraries, broadband/wifi, etc.) are most susceptible to misinformation. Social media adds another layer of complication for those populations that makes untethering from misinformation challenging.
It’s not an option to conflate race-based hate with mental illness.
The contention that these acts are simply a result of mental illness is a lie. There are innocent reasons for believing the lie, there are also nefarious reasons for spreading it. Let’s be clear, mental illness is commonplace. Most of us in our lives will experience an illness of their socio-emotional faculties. Some will experience serious implications from those illnesses. Some will suffer a lifetime. These truths about our mental health are no different from our physical health. Racism, however, is a choice. Race-based violence is also a choice. One can have mental health issues and be racist. But the violence? That violence is a function of the racism--racism that is emboldened by misinformation, fear, and hate. I think it is important that we call race-based violence what it is and not try to explain it away as something it is not.
It’s (unfortunately) not an option to shield children from the world in which they are growing up.
As a parent of three kids--a second grader, a sixth grader, an adult--I struuuuuugle with how much to share about the news, when I should share it, the words I should use, etc. There is certainly a part of me that wants to simply avoid the realities all together. Aren’t some kids too young and sensitive for this information? Will I be doing more harm to my child by exposing him/her/they to the anxiety inducing realities in the world? These and all the other questions related to talking to kids about hard realities are legitimate and require answers--good ones. Fortunately, there are some good resources out there that help us answer some of them. The National Association of School Psychologists is just one of many organizations that provide tips for talking with school-aged children about violence and traumatic news events.
In addition to these tips, I would add the reminder that every child is different and every family is different. Parents are the best judge for how much to share and in what ways. Having been a middle school principal for over ten years I can also share that there does come a point beginning in about fifth grade where try as you might, there is simply no way of protecting your child from what is happening in the world. Kids will talk. They will see things. They will hear things. As a parent, I try to err on the side of more information rather than less (usually in third grade and beyond) because I want my children to know that when they hear disturbing things, they can always talk to me about it and not take what others are saying as fact. Further, I suggest normalizing the sharing of news regularly and including the hard stuff with the stories of triumph, peace, solidarity, and community service.
Of the many things that breaks my heart about race-based violence is that parents of color don’t have a choice or even the ability to shield their children from the violence. A Black, Hispanic, or Asian parent is not given the option to prepare his/her/their children or not; they must or else they further put their child at risk. When I share the real stories of hate in the world with my own kids, I feel it is one small act of allyship I can provide my neighbors and friends who are not white by sharing the burden of hate and using it as a catalyst for social and interpersonal action. As Mr. Rogers said in the face of tragedy, “look for the helpers.” Their stories are important to tell.
It’s not an option to do nothing.
If you feel helpless in the face of all of it, you’re not alone. And while helpless is a logical place to find yourself amidst tragedy, it’s not a very productive place to stay. I wish I had some great novel advice, something other talking heads (in which I include myself) haven’t thought of. I don’t. I struggle as much as you. The best I can come with is…
The Southern Poverty Law Center, for which I have the highest respect, has a thoughtful list of 10 actions you can take to fight hate. Maybe start there. I am.
So putting pen to paper and authoring blogs on complicated topics that leave us feeling helpless and sometimes hopeless is not likely to move the needle much. I get it. But it’s something. And reading this blog is also something. And considering what is shared here is something. And holding the victims, their families, and their communities close to our heart is something. It’s all something. And lots of little somethings add up. They add up to a change in the energy of the universe. So let’s all give little somethings as often as we can. Let’s change the energy in the universe and drown out all the hate in the world until hate has no footing.
This blog is dedicated to the victims of race-based violence and their families.
If you’re ever at a loss for something to talk about at a dinner party, try asking those around you the following question, “How do you react to change?” And then just see where the conversation takes you.
Change can be invigorating. It can be hard. It can be polarizing. Change can be many things, but it is rarely ever boring.
I recently announced my plan to leave my role as my District’s leader and also shared the news that there will be several changes to other leadership roles within the district.
Whether in my own personal experience of transition or the responsibility of shepherding others through a time of transition, I am experiencing what I have often found to be true about change: Every person and every organization is impacted by change differently and, like with any loss, there are different stages of emotions around the change that are important to hold space for.
Anyone who knows me knows I like change. I don’t like change for change-sake, but I find change exciting. It motivates me. I’m intrigued by the unknown and inspired by the potential of the possible.
However--and this is something all good leaders must more than just recognize, they must internalize--change is not something all people like. Those averse to change can intellectually appreciate its necessity, but emotionally and experientially, change for them can be an anxiety-inducing rush of emotion and uncertainty. The result is an uncomfortable untethering from what they know and trust.
We all fall somewhere on this comfort continuum regarding change. We also have different reactions depending on the type of change and the degree it impacts us personally.
Much is written about managing times of transition and by no means is this short blog going to offer any novel ideas. However, as we are 770 days out from the beginning of one of the most life changing seasons in modern American history and as it is spring--a time in American public school systems where most of the anticipated changes for the following school year are announced, I thought it an appropriate time to reflect on the four most important lessons I have learned about personal and collective change.
Change is inevitable. In any therapeutic, religious, or self-help regulating approach, acceptance is key. You can’t do anything about something you’re unwilling to accept. So in the wise words of David Bowie, “Turn and face the strange cha…cha…cha…changes.”
Take the time to understand your relationship to change. Whether it is personal or collective transition and whether the change is something you’ve chosen or that over which you have no choice or control, taking the time to reflect on how the change is likely to impact you and staying ‘in touch’ with yourself before, during and after is key. If you find yourself anxious, unsettled, or dysregulated and you're not really sure why, check in with yourself. Maybe it's your body, mind, or spirit’s way of alerting you to a reaction to external or internal change in your life. Conversely, if you find yourself energized and empowered and you're not necessarily sure where that’s coming from, maybe it’s an excitement of the possibility the future holds amidst change. Use that. Celebrate it.
Hold space for the journey of others. Don’t assume everyone around you is experiencing the change in the same way you are. I am constantly reminded of this as a husband and father. Unlike me, my wife is less enthusiastic about change; if it is a change she can eventually get behind, she’s deftly able to get there, especially when she sees me excited, but it’s a process for her. I have had to learn to give her space to arrive wherever it is she’s going to arrive in whatever time it is going to take for her to get there. I owe her the respect of listening to how it is impacting her. I have to release the expectation that she will see and experience the change in the same way I am. And, I owe it to her to share my feelings and experience of the change as well. And don’t even get me started about managing change as a parent where even the introduction of a new vegetable a four year old has never seen before can send any otherwise pleasant meal into a tailspin--that’s a whole other blog. Suffice to say, being a partner and a parent is good practice for holding space for how others experience change.
Be open to the good that change can bring. Lastly, and this is an important one for me and something I find myself reflecting on quite a bit at this season in my life. When I think about the accomplishments I am most proud of in my time as a Superintendent, my career in general, and my personal life, all of the most noteworthy were messy, hard, and even controversial on some level. As an optimist by nature, I have never really understood why some people find comfort in focusing so much on what could go wrong, rather than making more space for what could go right. If I can accept that change is part of life and if I know I have a choice in how to navigate my relationship to the change, I guess I see only upside to framing it as a wonderful possibility. Life is just lighter that way and when we carry fewer burdens--especially those that are just possible, not even likely sometimes--then we have more capacity for delight, joy, peace, and celebration. Nature is a perfect guide for us in handling change. You cannot experience the spring, unless you endure the winter.
From expected life changes like graduations, jobs, relationships and parenthood to massive upheaval like a pandemic that comes out of left field and changes everything, we know change will never be too far away. So at our next dinner party, let’s raise a glass to change and all the possibilities it offers.
Like most of us over the past two years, I have experienced really long nights, weeks, even months. Answers have been few at times and frustration has been plentiful. COVID has impacted the very personal parts of our lives--our families, our health, our finances. Emotions have been raw for a long…long time. Our schools--the intersection of all those personal touch points--have become an epicenter for the very good in us and the not so good. I’m fortunate to lead in a community that trusts its teachers and schools, but even here, I have not been immune to seeing some hard parts of our complicated humanity.
As if COVID weren’t enough to handle, the very real impacts of income inequality, climate change, racism, and authoritarian power grabs have stared us in the face in rapid succession and dramatic fashion.
At least in me, all we’ve been through has resulted in an unhealthy and unhelpful tendency to hold on to anger, blame, and even sometimes hate.
This past week KQED ran an episode from the City Arts and Lectures series, a conversation between two Bay Area favorites--author Anne Lamott and former Buddist Monk Jack Kornfield. If you happened to tune into the conversation, it was quite intriguing: an hour-long back and forth between two emotive and poetic friends full of insight on a range of topics.
Among the topics discussed was Lamott’s process of letting go of her hatred and contempt for those with completely opposite political opinions to her own, and achieving a level of sincere compassion for those for whom she has experienced disdain.
Those who know Lamott know that she is a deeply emotional person--which is likely what makes her such a talented writer. She is also someone who does not mince words. Some are likely to find her off-putting. But in the conversation with her friend Jack, she was anything but.
I was struck by her process toward forgiveness and compassion, especially in light of the last two years defined by deep emotion and division. It got me thinking about what I was still holding on to.
Regardless of on which side of a myriad of political issues you sat the last few years, you would be a rare person to not at times have felt some animosity or incredulousness toward those who thought differently than you. As we enter into spring--the season of rebirth and renewal--I think it might help us all to do some renewal ourselves. I know it will help me.
In their conversation on City Arts and Lectures, Kornfield shares the words he remembers the Dali Lama sharing with him years earlier. In the face of all the injustice the exiled spiritual leader and his people had experienced, the Dali Lama shared that he looks with love and compassion upon those who impose the injustice, saying,
“Hatred never ends by hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
In response to Jack’s story, Anne shares that weeks earlier in a moment of frustration, she had texted him for some perspective amidst a bout of unloving misery. To which Jack replied (paraphrasing),
If we see it all with compassion, we will see people’s fear and pain and attachment without it sticking to us. However, because we are all so human, we may also feel hurt for a time. We can hold this hurt with compassion without taking it personally and laugh at the drama. Gradually, we can see praise and blame, gain and loss, joy and sorrow arise with loving awareness and rest in a compassionate and wise heart.
Kornfield’s use of the word rest really struck me. Rest is really what my mind, body, and soul seek. Yet, how will I achieve that rest without letting go of the anger and resentment I might feel toward those who see the world so completely differently than I do? Honestly, I can’t. I won’t. Rest will be elusive until I am able to see that my anger and resentment are manifestations of my own fear, and pain, and attachment, and begin to let them go.
As the constant pressures of COVID quiet, at least for the moment, and we turn our attention to the assault on democracy and the killing of so many innocent people, my mind wants to hate Putin and the powers that bolster authoritarianism. As I raise my children in a world with really consequential challenges to freedom, to the environment, to justice, and the like, it’s hard not to resist the urge to label people innately good or bad, to point fingers, to place blame, to cast shame upon those whom I see as the enemy to my dearly held values.
But, honestly, what my heart really wants, what my soul longs for, is rest. Rest from the hate that is driven by my own fear, and pain, and attachment.
Returning to the Dali Lama’s wise words, what may help me find the rest I so desire is focusing on love alone. Maybe a healthy dose of love and compassion is what we all need right now. In the face of so much uncertainty, in the face of so much hate, maybe the answer isn’t more hatred, maybe it is love. Maybe we all need to loosen the grip of righteousness on our own souls just a tiny bit to see everyone through a lens of understanding. After all, compassion doesn’t absolve anyone of responsibility for their actions; it simply frees us to recognize the humanity in others and allows our own souls to rest.
Superintendents are not born in charge. Most of us “came from the ranks” of teaching--or classified staff, counseling, school psych, etc. We are not too far removed from the work closest to the student to know how hard it can be.
I started my career as a high school English teacher, barely five years older than my first group of students. Not knowing yet how to balance the demands and incorrectly believing that everything I assigned needed to be graded, I spent many weekends lugging boxes of papers to grade in my small apartment, yelling at my roommates to turn down the music so I could concentrate on grading essays. I had three ‘preps’ that first year--three different courses that I had to plan for, execute, and grade. I taught in the beautiful, yet poverty-stricken foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and my students came to school with every type of obstacle to learning. It was one of the hardest years of my career; the first one almost always is for educators. And for my efforts, I took home $20,000 that first year. You read that right.
Teaching is hard work. We all know it will be. In my nearly 25 years in education, I have yet to meet an educator who didn’t enter the profession for the right reasons. HINT: It’s not the summers “off,” as many outside the profession seem to believe. Spend one week in a classroom and you’ll realize that there are plenty of easier ways to achieve summers off and make more money doing it.
An educator chooses their craft because they’re called to it. You have to be. You’ll be eaten alive by the kids, the parents, and/or the reality of it if you are drawn to the profession for some less admirable purpose. From day one, if you don’t already know, you soon realize that you will work extremely hard to get good, stay good, and retire in this career.
And so, when I became a more experienced teacher, assistant principal, principal, and then moved to the District Office, ultimately accepting the role of Superintendent, I took with me a good deal of understanding for the demands of the job. My experience as a classroom teacher informs the decisions I make, the way I make them, and the relationships and systems I build to achieve our goal; it also informs how I listen to educators.
There will always be a fair amount of consternation by educators regarding how hard the work really is. Try as we might, that will never change. From the Boardroom to the dining room, from the negotiating table to the corner table at Starbucks, we’ll continue to hear exasperation from educators about the demands.
Fast forward to 2021 and the overwhelm among educators is noticeable. I wasn’t exactly able to put my finger on why the messages I was receiving were different, but something felt unique about this moment. It wasn’t and isn’t typical angst; the fatigue is palpably different. As I scroll through the morning headlines of education news (which I do daily), I see headlines that read:
Teacher Burnout Leaves Schools Scrambling,
Schools are Closing Classrooms on Fridays; Parents are Furious,
Teachers All Over the US are Burnt Out, but Parents’ Compassion Has Gone,
Teachers (and Students) Can Only Take So Much.
A skeptic would no doubt question the validity of the actual difference in exhaustion from this year as compared to previous years. And why wouldn’t they? Weren’t most districts’ teachers and students comfortably at home last year guarding themselves from the pandemic? Isn’t teaching, in the best of circumstances, tiring and challenging work?
The questions, I suppose are reasonable, but I’m not a skeptic so that’s not where my head goes. Rather, I’m a designer. Designers ask questions. Designers find out more information. Designers empathize with their end user (in this case, the educators) to find out more about their lived experience in the moment. And so, as a designer and former teacher who happens to be a Superintendent, I did what designers do and I asked a group of teachers-- “What’s different about this moment? Why is it so hard even for those of you who take the challenges of teaching in stride?”
Here’s some of what I heard:
I share all this not to seek anyone’s pity for our educators. They don’t want, nor do they need our pity. I share this because the insight I took away from my empathy session with our teachers resonated with me and helped me understand why this moment feels different. There’s something bigger going on that requires a different response.
I also do not believe that the exhaustion of our teachers should be held as more virtuous than the exhaustion of others. We have all, collectively and individually, been impacted by the constant stress of this pandemic. I think, perhaps, the most important reason to elevate the needs of our educators right now is that they are often expected to “be okay” in the face of any and all difficulty. While teachers are superheroes to our little ones, they are also still human and the impacts of their stress are real. We have to hold space for this reality.
Our bodies and brains are designed to handle stress. Stress is part of the normal, human condition. The problems arise when stress is ongoing, or chronic. Chronic stress impacts everything--our sleep, our appetite and digestion, our cardiovascular health, our nervous system, our physical strength, literally everything. What I heard when I met with these teachers could be summed up simply: they are experiencing the very real impacts of chronic stress and it's taking its toll.
As a Superintendent, and an empathic one at that, it’s hard for me to see people whose well-being I am somewhat responsible for, hurting. I don’t have all the answers, in fact, I have very few. The answers I do have are limited in their ability to have the desired impact. Healing takes time. Healing looks different for different people. However, I can’t let my limited ability to effect change stop me from trying to positively impact where I am able.
So with the teachers in my impromptu design session, we came up with a plan to acknowledge the reality of the moment (often the biggest gift we can give is to just be present, listen, and acknowledge what is real); offer some opportunities of relief (no matter how small or how far apart they may be); and continually manage my own expectations and those of the people around us (it’s easy to get distracted by the “noise” of the moment).
What do these three things look like? In MPCSD, we have decided to let go of some expectations around assessment and meetings. We’re not letting it all go, but we’re letting some of it go. Where it remains, we are going to hire outside support to score and input assessment measures. For the remainder of the year, our professional development is going to focus on a very important part of our Whole Child Framework--integrated well being. Instead of standards-based grading training or modeling of the ‘workshop model’ of reading instruction, we’re going to provide a playlist of wellness activities for staff that they can choose to utilize or not: drop-in counseling, a yoga class, meditation, a community circle--whatever it is they need and feels helpful. Is the PD we won’t be offering this spring important? Of course it is. But it’s not what’s most important right now. And we’re going to engage our parent volunteers, most of whom will jump at the chance to help out in the effort to love-on our staff. Coffee carts, lunch buffets, and warm (masked) hugs are just what the doctor ordered.
We won’t stop there. Remember, the educators are seeing that our kids are in need of social-emotional support, as well. So we intend to partner with youth-serving community organizations to co-create field trips (that our teachers won’t be required to attend so they can focus on their own wellness) focused on the themes of communication, teamwork, emotional regulation, conflict resolution and those other important skills that children didn’t have the opportunity to practice as regularly the last 22 months.
Is it going to solve all of our problems? No. Is it a start? Yes. Does it at least acknowledge the reality that there is something bigger going on than typical winter-time exhaustion? Yes. Will every staff member appreciate it and every parent think it necessary? No.
If I’ve learned anything being a Superintendent, it’s that sometimes you just have to follow your instincts and in this moment my instincts tell me that our staff are hurting and they need someone to acknowledge that the impacts of the chronic stress they’ve experienced is real.
So to our staff in MPCSD and to all the educators who may stumble upon this blog, I want you to know that we see you. We hear you. We appreciate you. And, we’re going to try to help in some small way.
Growing up, my family and I enjoyed watching game shows. Easily our favorite was Family Feud, the American television game show in which two families compete to name the most popular answers to survey questions in order to win cash and prizes.
I can still hear Richard Dawson, the enduring game show host of his time, say aloud, “SURVEY SAYS…?” and the incredibly low-tech billboard would physically turn with a correct answer or a giant red “X” with the most obnoxious buzzing sound if the contestant’s answer was not on the list.
Maybe it was the budding data-nerd in me that liked the show so much. While certainly not scientific data, the “survey” would provide an interesting perspective on the proclivities of American culture in the 1970s and 80s.
That budding data-nerd is a superintendent today. And while too much of an extravert to choose data science as a career myself, as an educational leader I’m drawn to the stories educational data tell. Data has a way, if presented in an unbiased manner and aided with effective visualization, of telling stories sometimes better than words.
You already know this, but we’re living through a period of time where certain political and financial interests twist and misrepresent facts to such a degree that one doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t, only to be left with no clarity at all.
The antidote, in my mind, to mistruths or “alternative facts” is not to turn away from data, but to search for good data that tell meaningful stories.
One morning while filtering through the news, an article in the National Superintendents Roundtable email newsletter caught my eye. The title, “Income distribution by ACT results, 2018: A picture is worth a thousand words” was not what drew me, but at the same time it could not have been more accurate. It was the story’s data visualization that immediately caught my eye. Take a look for yourself...
The story this engaging visual representation is telling is as compelling as the striking design it creates.
So let’s break the two apart.
The Story the Visualization is Telling
The visualization was created by Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, who blogs and tweets extensively about the problematic role of standardized testing in college admissions. For me, this visualization cuts through the “noise” created by the anti-equity, just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. It gets right to the heart of the fact that there is a clear correlation between family income and standardized test results.
Why is that important? Because data also tell us that access to a college education--particularly a selective college education--is a, if not THE, gateway to future potential income generation. In other words, the rich have increased opportunities to get richer and the poor are more likely to stay poor.
Why does this matter? The income inequality gap widens.
This should beg the question, and it certainly does for those of us in education, how do we disrupt this cycle and ensure that family income is not a proxy for academic achievement AND future income earning potential of our children? This question; the one I just posed. Yes, that one right there at the start of this paragraph, italicized for effect IS...equity.
What this graphic also illustrates is that education has thus far NOT found a way to disrupt the reality and very likely it also illustrates that there is some innate bias in standardized testing (and the ACT is supposedly “the better one”).
This is a problem because, while many universities--including the University of California who announced this week they will no longer require any admissions test for applicants--have or are moving away from standardized tests as a requirement for admissions, so many more universities are using these tests as a or the primary measure for admission.
Yes, yes. I know what some are thinking. Isn’t this societal “natural selection” at play? Do we really need to socially engineer outcomes? If education hasn’t already been able to disrupt this reality, then what makes us think it can or should even try now?
To these retorts I offer this. At times knowingly, but often unknowingly, education has been complicit in the propagation of this phenomenon. As more and more of us in education get access to the data--both qualitative and quantitative--and as the income gap gets obviously wider by the day, we are left with only two options: deny reality and continue our complicity OR attempt to disrupt. Since most educators enter education for the good of society, the large majority of us choose to disrupt.
We disrupt by providing greater resources into services that support children who did not have the benefit of high quality preschool. We disrupt by spending extra time after school with those who are struggling to keep up. We disrupt by making sure kids who aren’t eating, get a meal. We disrupt by reaching out to parents who are simply doing the best they can. We disrupt by scheduling small group reteaching instruction in our classroom for students who are behind. We disrupt by showing up even when there’s a global pandemic. We disrupt by ensuring that all of our children see themselves and their stories in our classroom libraries. We disrupt by standing up to hate in all forms.
We also disrupt by calling out the fact that many of the children who perform well on tests like the ACT do so in part because their parents could:
And, not surprisingly, we disrupt by asking the obvious question, “If college entrance exams fail to measure the grit necessary to succeed growing up in poverty, or the value of being bilingual as a result of growing up in a country that does not speak your native language, or the perspective gained through struggle, and if these exams further fail to reflect the innate intelligence, creativity, and talent in individuals beyond the ability to define arcane vocabulary rarely used in career and life, then WHY would it be the or even a determining factor in college admissions?”
What is the goal of disruption? To realize a day in which the potential of a child is NOT defined by his/her/their parents’ income level. That access to college, career, and the opportunity to earn a livable wage and raise their family to achieve as highly as they desire is not defined by how much money their parents earned.
Why “Visual” Data Matters
If you’re following my logic in this blog (and granted, I have not made it easy) you may be left wondering, how does the ACT and education's role in disrupting income inequality connect to data visualization?
It is in effective data visualization’s ability to offer something so stark, so concrete, so undeniable, that we can break through the opaque arguments of partisan talking points and achieve clarity around what is true, real, and actionable. With clarity, we are able to--one can only hope--find common ground and shared purpose. We can triangulate those on opposite sides of arguments and attempt to create solutions that benefit people.
I appreciate this particular visual, not only because the data-nerd in me is drawn to the story it tells, but also because it tells it so clearly.
While I’ve outgrown my interest in Family Feud, I have plenty of room for the kind of concise and compelling data this visualization offers. I hope more data scientists, researchers, and journalists will link up with graphic designers and data visualization experts to tell more visual stories like the one shared by the Vice Provost at OSU inviting the data to tell a more accurate story.
In my imagination, I picture the Provost listening to someone defend college admission exams and choose to tap into his inner Richard Dawson by exclaiming, “SURVEY SAYS?” followed by a picture of this commanding data visualization and a giant “X” appearing on the screen while an obnoxious buzzing sound fills the air.
I’m fortunate that my children are not likely to read my blog because I am about to share a secret with you that involves them. If you happen to know my kids, shhhh. Let’s keep this between us.
Parenting is tough. Before we become parents, most of us fall into the easy habit of judging those who already are--their choices, reactions, communication. If we’re being honest, we’ve all thought to ourselves a time or two, “Good lord, I certainly won’t be doing that when I’m a parent. What in the world are they thinking?”
Suffice to say, three children in, I don’t judge any more. Every family, every kid, every parent is different. What works for one does not necessarily work for the other.
All three of my boys are sensitive in one way or another. My middle son is particularly sensitive about friendships. He is fiercely loyal to his friends and probably puts more pressure on his friendships than most. This adds some difficulty when natural, age-appropriate socialization challenges arise. Being a season when friendships are naturally tested and evolving, third and fourth grade presented some particular stressors.
One afternoon during a particularly fraught time with his friends, fate in the form of a feathered friend literally landed a most unwelcome gesture. At lunch, a bird flew over the area where my son and his friends were hanging out and crapped right on my son's shoulder. Any other time, my son would likely have been able to laugh along with his friends at his misfortune, but his emotions were raw and the unwelcome embarrassment was the last straw. He was devastated.
As soon as he got in the car at pick-up, he started crying. In his 8 year-old mind, his friends would never let him live this down. The shunning would continue unabated now that the bird had marked him with the scarlet letter “P” for POOP.
The adage, “You’re only as happy as your least happy kid,” is so true and at that moment, was very real for us. Even though my wife and I knew his pain would soon pass, his anguish was real. We tried each of our parenting jedi mind tricks--diversion, reasoning, allyship, you name it. The only thing that seemed to pause his exasperation was my assertion that getting pooped on was a sign of “good luck.”
“Really?” he inquired. “Yes!” I assured him.
Not really knowing if it was true and only having a vague recollection of some superstition that being pooped on by a bird was a sign of good luck, I ran with it. And who wouldn’t? It was the only thing that seemed to stop his crying.
Thus the embellishment began.
“Yes, being pooped on is a great sign of good fortune. In fact, in some cultures it is celebrated.”
“Reeeeeaaaallly?” he pressed.
“Oh, yes, for sure.”
Phew. While we hadn’t exactly averted the crisis, we at least got him calm. We decided to take him out for dinner that night at one of his favorite restaurants hoping to employ some masterful diversion tactics. On the way there, I told my wife that I was going to stop at the ATM to withdraw some “good fortune.”
When it was time to pay for dinner, I told the family to sit tight; I had forgotten my wallet in the car and was going to retrieve it. What I was actually doing was strategically placing a $20 bill (quite a large amount for an 8 year old) on the ground in the parking lot right by the back passenger door our son would soon open.
I returned to our table, paid the bill, and we exited to the car. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect. It was cold, dark, and dreary with a heavy rain coming down--a perfect literary backdrop for the emotions he was feeling. Running from the restaurant to the car trying not to get too wet, my son reached for the door handle looking down to avoid the rain. There in a puddle by his foot he found a drenched $20 bill. He picked it up and quickly jumped in his seat.
My wife and I stared blankly out the window as we backed out of the parking space waiting for our son to share the news of what he had found. After a few moments of reluctance (out of fear that he might be in trouble for taking the money off the ground), he spilled the beans, “Mom. Dad. I just found this $20 bill on the ground.”
“Really? Wow! That’s amazing. Congratulations. That is so cool.”
“Can I keep it?” he asked.
“Yes, of course. That’s some awesome luck. I’ve never found that much money before. Way to go.” I replied.
As his mom and I fawned over his good fortune and his younger brother righteously questioned the fairness of his older kin experiencing such luck, an idea struck him.
“Hey. Do you think maybe I found this money because of the bird pooping on my shoulder today?” he quipped.
“Hmmmm?” his mom responded. “Sure sounds like it. I mean getting pooped on really is some serious good luck. Looks to me like your good luck is already coming to pass.”
With a son’s satisfied smile from ear to ear, our family returned home with a weight lifted off our shoulders.
The next day, our son couldn’t wait to tell his teacher and classmates about his good luck. The unwelcome poop was now a badge of honor and our son had the cash to prove it! For the next several weeks, any time something good happened in his life, our son would say, “Must be my good fortune at work.” It was amazing (and dare I say…a stroke of parenting genius) how this small calculated moment of wonder changed our son’s outlook on his embarrassing event, his relationship with his friends, and the power of magic.
Now I’m sure some might criticize me for lying to avoid life’s hard-knock lesson that my kid might necessarily need to learn. I would argue, though, that when we are given the gift of parenthood, or grandparenthood, or uncle or aunt-ship, we are bestowed with an amazing opportunity to create wonder in the lives of the kids we love.
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to “race” cars when she’d pull up to a red light next to a young adult driving a “cool car.” Little did I know that she would motion to them to “fake” race her and “let her win” to impress her five year old grandson sitting in the seat. This is the same grandmother who could also magically predict when the light would turn green. (I was at an embarrassing older age when I realized that she was just watching for the opposite light to turn red.) And who knew that years later as a parent myself her trick of secretly placing “lost” money in strategic places for me to find would come in so handy at such an important time for my own son.
I think we parents should use our powers to create wonder much more often. Wonder--with its awe, inspiration, and mystery--is a powerful emotional experience that lifts us beyond our temporal or natural existence, into a world of possibility outside of ourselves to a realm just beyond our ability to comprehend or define. It’s a place where we can let go of time and space and simply embrace that over which we have no control. There is always something beyond our momentary situation upon which we can dream and find hope. It is in its sheer irrationality that wonder carries its magic. For a child whose brain and psyche have yet to develop advanced skills of perspective, this sense of wonder is a powerful tool to take them outside momentary pain, disappointment, boredom, and banality.
It’s been three years and my son still doesn’t know that the magical, face-saving $20 he found on that rainy day after dinner was placed there by me. He remembers his good fortune fondly and brings it up even today. I don’t ever want him to know. So...shhhh. You better not tell him. Wonder is a gift. Don’t spoil it.
It’s September, a busy time in the world of our teachers, parents, and students. The hope and excitement we felt for a new year--especially this one--is met with the reality of a deep dive into curriculum, IEP meetings, and reporting burdens; shuttle service, volunteering, bedtime and wake-up; homework, social pressures, and grades.
It all feels like a lot. Because it is.
We often refer to our life full of responsibilities as our “plate” and when our plate gets “full” we begin to see important tasks “fall off” the plate. When this happens, it seems to me we have two choices. The first is that we publicly beat ourselves up expressing our guilt that we dropped the ball and privately internalizing the stress that we’ve disappointed others and ourselves. The other option, not at all uncommon in Silicon Valley, is that we constantly enlarge the plate hoping that we will somehow be able to defy the laws of time and space and fit everything on the plate without missing a single task.
The reality is that neither of these options is healthy.
There is a third option that not enough folks take advantage of. Maybe the best solution to the challenge of too much responsibility and not enough time, energy, or resources is to make the plate smaller.
It’s like the difference between a buffet and prix-fixe menu--don’t cook as many items and make sure the items you put on the plate are the most important and take the time to prepare them really well.
When organizations or people try too hard to do everything, nothing gets done nearly as well as it should.
The same is true in our families, our classrooms, our schools, and our work.
As a superintendent, I’m bombarded with a myriad of problems and a whole host of proposed solutions. It’s also not unusual to be thrown several solutions, looking for problems.
When we find ourselves in times where there really is just too much, the best solution is to focus. Make the plate smaller. Manage the expectations of others (and yourself) by doing the following:
These suggestions manifest themselves in all parts of our lives.
For teachers, this looks like identifying the power standards and building learning experiences around those outcomes; saying no to unnecessary meetings; remembering that not everything that is “assigned” must be “graded” (in the traditional sense).
For administrators, this looks like narrowing the professional development focus to the two most important efforts for the year and saving all the other great ideas for a future year; canceling meetings that could be emails; narrowing the number of nighttime activities you agree to participate in.
For parents, this looks like narrowing the number of outside-of-school activities for each child to one or two of the most important; limiting playdates to one per week; saying yes to only one volunteering responsibility.
For students, this looks like choosing a reasonable course load; getting to bed early; reserving hangout time with friends for the weekend; limiting social media.
By no means is choosing to make the plate smaller easy or popular. You are most certainly going to run into people who give you the stink eye when you say, “Sorry, but no.” But it’s worth reminding ourselves that we do have a choice when considering our relationship to the plate. Sure, we can make it bigger. Or we can keep on apologizing and feeling guilty when things continue to fall off of it, but is that really the life we want to live?
If the answer is no, then it’s time to go plate shopping!
The last year and a half, since COVID became a pandemic, have been everything you’d expect a school Superintendent to say: hard, unprecedented, exhausting. I could go on.
But I don’t need to. We all lived it. We get it. We know.
Instead of focusing this back-to-school blog post on what we all lived the past eighteen months, I want to put into words what I hope our teachers, staff, parents and students will experience in the next ten months.
First, I want you to feel appreciated. I hope for you that in very real and palpable ways you will experience the gift of gratitude. Whether you are a staff member who showed up for kids last year amidst very real fear and uncertainty about the risk you were taking; a parent who had to juggle a full time job while supporting your child with online school; a volunteer who while managing a life turned upside down found a way to give of your time, talent, and resources to support others during the pandemic; or a student who navigated the emotional ups and downs with resilience...I hope that you experience real gratitude from others and that that appreciation gives you strength to meet the challenges that await.
Next I want you to feel heard, truly listened to. I hope that each of you has at least one person in your life who regularly stops what they are doing, asks you how you are feeling, and truly listens as you share how the last eighteen months have impacted you. I want them to hold your fears and hopes close to their heart. I want you to experience the power of someone bearing the burden with you and following through with encouragement and support.
I also want you to feel hopeful. As the incomparable National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, shared so eloquently at the inauguration of President Biden this year, “The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” You would be forgiven were you to look at all the challenges staring us in the face and crumble--an ongoing global pandemic, an historic drought, fires burning wherever we turn, income inequality run amuck, social and political division across the globe, catastrophic environmental impacts seemingly unabated, systemic racism inextricable from every part of our society, and real and lasting threats to our democracy. And this is saying nothing about our own personal battles that we face. If we allow ourselves even just a moment to take it all in, it will quickly overwhelm even the strongest of psyches. And yet...if we are BRAVE enough to SEE the light of hope...if we are BRAVE enough to BE the light of hope then, as Amanda Gorman says, we WILL FREE the new dawn. HOPE is free, it’s always accessible, and it can cure the most daunting of fears. I wish for you a year filled with HOPE--both to fill you and to pass on to others.
Lastly, I want you to feel empowered. When so much in our lives is out of our control, it’s normal to feel anxious, angry, frustrated, unmotivated or some combination of all these emotions and more. However, this year, rather than despair about things over which you have little control, I encourage you to focus on all the areas of your life where you do have control. I want you to feel empowered to ask for what you need; take breaks when you need to take breaks; be the person you want to be rather than the person you think others expect you to be; to say NO when you need and want to say NO and say “YES!” when maybe your fears are answering for you. We have the power to ensure we don’t become victims of our circumstances.
Appreciated. Heard. Hopeful. Empowered. These are the words I want to speak into your life at the start of this school year.
And as inspiring as those words sound, I’m also realistic. This year is going to be hard...again. Even though we thought we might be out of the woods with COVID, new variants are causing very real concern. The political battlelines grow deeper and the division that results creates strife and disunity. In our community, we must pass a parcel tax and reach fundraising targets or risk further cuts, requiring thousands of volunteer hours when our parents and community already feel incredibly stretched. And as school begins, we’ll help our kids navigate social challenges, increased responsibility, academic stress, and transition back to a life they haven’t fully experienced since March of 2020.
I want you to know that as your Superintendent, I recognize how much is being asked of you every year, but especially this year. I feel it myself in my role, too. It feels like a lot, because it is a lot.
And so, as any good leader would want to do, I have spent the last several months thinking about what message I would send to you - our parents, our volunteers, our kids - as we commence a new year when so much is being asked within a context of such uncertainty. And the message that kept coming back to me is this:
“YOU ARE ENOUGH.”
Not very Silicon Valley of us, right? The reality, though, is YOU can only do so much. WE can only do so much.
Because I know you, I know this: You will show up each day and give your best. And that will be more than “good enough;” it will be GOOD. You’ll ask for what you need and expect people will hear you and respond accordingly. You’ll show up where you are expected and offer what you can. With kindness and grace, you’ll meet each day knowing that you are where you are, giving what you can, and taking account of what you need in order to get to where you need to be tomorrow.
Each one of you is here for the right reasons. You are well prepared, incredibly creative, and resilient. You are more than I could ever ask for and more than we really need to accomplish what is ahead of us.
Yes…#URENUF! Maybe, just maybe, we can cut through the noise of Silicon Valley to remind ourselves and others that WE TRULY ARE ENOUGH. We just have to be willing to embrace that reminder ourselves. I know I will be working on that myself this year and I hope you will, too.
It’s taken a long time to get here. 15 months to be exact. But, you can feel it. There’s a palpable sense that we’ve turned the corner--the same corner we thought might take just a few weeks. Yet, 15 months of our lives turned upside down by a once-in-a-generation pandemic is (hopefully) nearing its end.
Now before I leave the door open for criticism here, I need to acknowledge that we are not completely out of the woods and that our current positive trends could reverse for any number of reasons. However, I think we all agree that this moment feels different. It feels like the vaccination just might lead to success.
As a School Superintendent, I couldn’t be more relieved.
I also couldn’t be more adamant that we not be in so big a hurry to return to normal, that we forget some really important insights we’ve gained from a year we could never have imagined or planned.
So as we all enjoy turning this corner, I wonder if we might all agree to take the following lessons forward with us into the future:
Let’s agree to be more judicious with how we spend our time. Living, working, and parenting in Silicon Valley, I’m afraid that in our zeal to get our kids engaged once again that we’ll return our kids--and ourselves--to a pace and an expectation that leads to burnout. Let’s spend more unstructured time with our families, free of obligation, free of over-scheduling, free of so much coming and going. Let’s plan time just to BE and to BE together.
Let’s agree that learning can successfully happen in ways and contexts far beyond how we traditionally envision school. By no means am I suggesting that virtual learning is optimal nor am I giving credit to the pandemic for showing us ideal models of learning. However, I do argue that we are much more capable of adapting how we learn and how we teach than we once thought. Education as a system deserves criticism when it is described as too myopic, rigid, one-size-fits-all, and reluctant to change.
Let’s agree that the health and well being of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our community is not to be taken for granted. As a result, let’s commit to treasuring and protecting our personal and collective health and well being. Let’s take time to reach out to our neighbors and truly get to know them. Let’s offer to pick up toilet paper for them when we’re running to the store, even when the shelves are full and they could do it themselves. Let’s prioritize exercise, stress reduction, emotional intelligence, and the people around us.
Let’s agree that the pandemic laid bare the deep inequities that exist in our society and let’s commit to being agents of change. Politics aside, data is clear that COVID experiences and outcomes for the poor, marginalized, and racialized among us were and remain different than for those of us privileged to have access to stable income and job security; technology and wifi; quality education and freedom of the press; food security and health care; (relatively) stable government and infrastructure.
Let’s agree that life is short and tomorrow is not guaranteed. With no better a collective lesson of life’s frailty, let’s live each day as though it matters. Let’s spend less time arguing our differences and more time enjoying our commonalities. Be kind. Offer grace. Don’t be afraid to take risks. What’s the worst that could happen? Failure? Failure is nothing more than learning. In six months we could be facing another pandemic with even more profound consequences. It’s human nature to believe we have far more control than we actually do. Let’s acknowledge the little we actually have control over and let’s make good decisions about how we exert that control.
I am turning this COVID corner clear-eyed and resolute. I will be a different Superintendent. I will be a different parent. I will be a different neighbor. I will be a different citizen. I will be different in all these ways because I experienced the last 15 months. We’ve stopped the bleeding. The wound is healing. But the scar that remains will remind us of the lessons we’ve learned and the commitment we make to ourselves to never be the same again.
I’m a design thinker.
I also happen to serve in one of the most difficult jobs to have during a global pandemic--School Superintendent.
How are these two facts related and who really cares? Good questions. Hang with me for a second.
If you google Erik Burmeister + Design Thinking you’ll see a handful of references in which I’m included or have written. (Don’t bother doing it, though, it’s not that interesting...and not the point.)
Suffice to say, I remain a big fan and know a thing or two about design thinking. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have two of the preeminent Design Labs in our own backyard--IDEO and the Stanford d.school, both of which include excellent education design hubs under their umbrellas.
Unless you shun popular culture, organizational fads, and academic thought, you’ve no doubt heard the “design thinking” buzzword at some point in the last several years. While the term is well known, not everyone understands what it is or how it would apply to education.
Still with me? Good. Keep hanging in.
As a School Superintendent in a global pandemic, my job has changed completely.
What I have experienced as a Superintendent for the four years previous…
What I was trained to do…
What I studied for the four college degrees I possess...
What topics I researched and wrote about for years in preparation for this important civic responsibility…
All of it...
...had nothing to do with what has been required of me and the thousands of School Superintendents across this nation the last 12 months.
We aren’t the only ones. This is true for many professionals.
And yet, as I look back on the last 12 months (almost to the day), with all appropriate humility and with all contextual consideration, I can feel pretty proud of where the district I lead is today compared to so many districts across our county.
And look, I’m just one person in a sea of individuals who made our success possible. However, it’s not lost on our small community that we can claim all of the following:
Before I lose you, I’m getting to my point. Here comes the connection...
So why the relative success? In a sea of negative headlines, protests, lawsuits, public battles, and recall efforts, why is it that our little district has fared so well?
There are many reasons. Not the least of which is that we have incredibly dedicated and brave staff who, when asked to embrace risk amidst challenging times with an unknown future, decided to show up. And show up they did!
But another big reason comes back to where I began this blog. I am a design thinker. And I have surrounded myself on my teams with fellow design thinkers. We grow design thinkers in our district.
What do design thinkers do differently that most certainly contributed to our successful response to the pandemic?
I am neither naive nor arrogant. I realize our approach had just as much chance of failure as it did of success. I recognize, too, that we are not yet out of the woods of this pandemic; our success hangs on a mighty thin thread some days. However, since hindsight is 20/20 and we have seven months of experience upon which to evaluate, I can honestly say that our current success can be directly attributed to the fact that our district exists with a fundamentally different mindset.
I say this not to boast. Honestly. For the record, I also want to acknowledge that there is no “right way” to do this. Teachers and leaders throughout the country have gone above and beyond even when outbreaks have happened, testing wasn’t available, or virtual learning was the only option. I share none of this to shame other districts or individuals. However, I also feel a sense of responsibility to explain to all those people who are scratching their heads and wondering, “Well, how could MPCSD do what they did?”
It was a lot of hard work. It wasn’t because we have more money than most districts (any ‘extra’ money we spent this year was provided by the CARES Act, which all districts received). It wasn’t because we are predominantly white (although, we are). It wasn’t because we got special favors (if anything, partners were more reluctant to work with a wealthier, whiter district...and rightfully so). It does have something to do with the fact that we are a PK-8 district and high schools are much more difficult (not impossible) to reopen in a pandemic.
At the end of the day it has everything to do with the fact that we grow design thinkers at every level of the organization. It’s not as if we went through a complete design process for every challenge we faced. In fact, we never really applied a complete design process to create any of our solutions. Design at its core, I believe, is about the posture with which you come at problems. I believe that design mindsets are much more important than design processes.
That’s it. When you think differently about problems, you can achieve much better solutions and much more quickly. #mindsetmatters
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.