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
It’s been a year. With 2020 gratefully in the rearview mirror, it’s no wonder that we all welcomed in 2021 with a sense of euphoric glee as if the turning of just a page on a calendar would somehow bring immediate relief and freedom.
And then came January 6.
Any thought that a mere change of date would usher in a new and enduring calm dissipated as armed extremists terrorized the halls of a sacred symbol of our nation’s democracy. And so, it seemed, 2020 would not let go of its grip on our psyches.
As a leader, I want to exude strength in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. But if I’m being honest, I don’t always feel so strong. The weight of all that we are facing is quite heavy. This weight is felt by all, regardless of our roles in society. Parents, shop owners, middle managers, service workers, family members, committee members, CEOs, neighbors, medical professionals, social media influencers, engineers, friends--we all feel an obligation to hang in there, to do our part, to “hope” our way out of the challenge for those in our sphere of influence.
But just as there is no light without darkness there is no strength without struggle.
It’s okay to admit that you’re exhausted. This is tiring. And by the looks of things, it’s going to be a while before we “feel” 2021 as different and unique from 2020.
As I write, I am speaking to myself as much as I am anyone else. It is my hope that over the course of the next few weeks, we will allow ourselves to feel exhausted. That we’ll hold space to acknowledge just how overwhelming this all feels. That we will be supported in doing so by those around us.
I also hope that amidst the recognition of our exhaustion we will all find solace and hope in struggle, even when the headlines are bleak. When I am exhausted, I find comfort and inspiration in the stories of the heroes. Like Mr. Roger’s mom told him when scary things happened in the world, “Look for the helpers,” I like to look for the heroes of the stories. If we see the world as a series of narratives being written in real time, it’s the heroes of the subplots that raise my spirits and give me strength.
Like the newly elected congressman who gave just a bit of his time to pick up trash in the capitol after the business of the House was complete, or the Alabama nurse who gave her life after refusing to retire when COVID broke only to succumb to the disease herself.
Or like the scores of teens who mobilized to make PPE for health workers when our own government appeared unable, and the famed Michelin-star chef who aims to feed millions of the food-insecure and is showing the world how it can be done.
While such heroic subplots may not have the same impact on you as they do on me, I encourage you to “try them on” to see how they fit. For me, they are the perfect antidote to the exhaustion I sometimes feel. Look for the heroes; in them, you may find strength.
Actually, it’s past time.
There’s really no excuse for those of us with privilege, particularly those of us with the other oppressive “P”--power, not to take a stand against structures that perpetuate racism in our society. It is not nor will it ever be easy. It will be a journey that requires courage, resilience, and humility.
Hard as it may be to admit, there is a binary choice.
Option A: Use your privilege to elevate the voices of our BIPOC friends and neighbors and use your power to make meaningful change.
Option B: Be a part of perpetuating racist structures.
This is the stark reality. It’s the choice that faces all of us who have unearned privilege and even more so those of us that also have power in addition to privilege.
If you find yourself “shutting down” faced with the starkness of the choice, if rising up inside of you are even tinges of defensiveness, disbelief, or confusion as you read the words above, please know you are not alone. Such responses are normal, expected even. They have been increasingly felt the last 12 months, as more and more of us with privilege and power--white people in particular, men especially, those with ample resources all included--have faced the hard reality that our society is anything but “post-racial” and that we have a lot to do to dismantle existing structures.
Like many of you, I have been on my own journey of coming face-to-face with this reality and my own complicitness...and it has been hard. My “bumper sticker” morality isn’t enough. It doesn’t give me a pass. I realize I must do more. I realize that we can all do more.
Individually, we are all at different places on this journey. It doesn’t so much matter where you are; what matters is where you are going to be tomorrow. Judgement...or more accurately: judgemental-ism...doesn’t motivate change. What motivates change around challenging subjects is listening, empathizing, questioning, and pushing back without attack. I offer this blog in that spirit.
One of the first steps in the personal journey toward being an antiracist is understanding the language of privilege and the words and ideas important to this moment.
BIPOC refers to…
BIPOC is a fairly new term that stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. As a term that combines several different groups of rightfully aggrieved populations, it is limiting in its generality. However, it has arisen in our current political lexicon when referring to those groups in general that are not white and continue to experience disenfranchisement as a result.
Privilege is not what many think it is...
Many people, especially those with privilege, incorrectly assume that this term is about money or wealth. It is not--at least it is not in the context of anti-racism efforts. Privilege refers to your lens. If you are white, there are things you simply will never experience because of the color of your skin. For example, the fact that you have likely never experienced housing or employment discrimination because of the color of your skin is a privlege. When you enter a store and are not immediately followed by security simply because you are white, you have experienced a privilege. Privilege in the context of race is simply not experiencing negative impacts because of who you are, impacts that others who are not white do experience. As a result of this privilege you simply don’t and can’t understand what our BIPOC friends and neighbors experience “on the regular” (as our kids would say). This is privilege.
As an example of how this privilege plays itself out with tragic consequences, in May a white former pastor in Florida ran over 2 miles through a neighborhood carrying a television and was not stopped once, while Ahmad Arbury, a black man, was murdered by white vigilantes who claimed he was carrying stolen items from a home under construction (he was not). When teachers in our school district attend their three-day orientation as employees, we begin with this simple yet powerful video about privilege followed by a discussion of the privilege’s impact on how students experience school and how staff unconsciously treat students if they are not intentional. Understanding privilege is essential to a journey toward antiracism.
We’re not inclined to give up our privilege...
Recognizing your privilege is important in helping to dismantle racist structures. Those of us with privilege are often loath to acknowledge it. The first reason is understandable and innocent enough. Folks hesitate to admit because they don’t want to be considered “racist,” thinking wrongly that admitting something that is true is a reflection on them. It’s not. It is a reflection of the systems we’ve allowed to be created around us.
The second reason folks are hesitant is a bit more insidious. Admitting our own privilege, unfortunately, puts us on the hook for doing something about it. When we recognize that our privilege is unintentionally or intentionally putting others at a disadvantage, we also are faced with the reality that we must sacrifice our privilege so that the marginalized can benefit. You see, human nature is to see resources as limited, thus we are consciously and unconsciously always jockeying for better position and more resources. If systematically those resources are given more freely and abundantly to white people--which they are--then by definition the systems are racist. Thus, white people must relinquish that privilege as a necessary function of dismantling the system. Ouch. We all have a choice to make. If you’re white, maybe you’re not there yet, but if you want to be an anti-racist...it’s part and parcel of the process.
Being “not racist” is not enough…
Unless you’ve read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (which I highly recommend) or have listened to and read other thought leaders discussing antiracism, you may assume on its face that to be “not racist” is the same as being “antiracist.” It’s not. Kendi argues that to simply say you are not racist is to give a pass to the existing systems that clearly marginalize people based on the color of their skin and advantage white people. Kendi also argues that BIPOC individuals can be racist, too. Kendi’s argument is that if we are to dismantle inequality, it’s not enough simply to be “not racist;” we must be actively “anti”-racist lest the systems that benefit a few at the expense of many are allowed to continue unabated.
Kendi argues, as do many other thought leaders, that the term racism has evolved to become synonymous with violence and hate, when in actuality the term broadly describes a systematic preference for one race over another. This intentional extreme-ification of the term racism complicates the conversation, but also provides “coverage” for those that prefer a middle ground. In an interview last year, Kendi shared, “Racists hold that certain racial groups are better or worse than others, while an anti-racist expresses emotions that the racial groups are equals. There is no middle ground. We either support systems and policies that promote racial inequality – with enthusiasm, or by our own passivity – or we actively fight them. So, the term ‘not racist’ not only has no meaning, but it also connotes that there is this sort of in-between safe space sideline that a person can be on, when there is no neutrality. We’re either all being racist or anti-racist.”
Again, this may be a place in your journey you have not yet arrived and that’s okay. However, when using the label antiracist, it’s important to know what definitionally you are saying--that you are actively working to dismantle racist structures.
Being an ally means…
If you aren’t ready to engage in antiracist work just yet, I hope you are willing to serve as an ally of our BIPOC friends and neighbors. To be an ally means that you are ready and willing to stand alongside BIPOC individuals and hopefully use your privilege to protect their human and civic rights even though you are not a part of the same marginalized group. Franchesa Leigh--a black, female, millennial social media “influencer”--offers this short, helpful, and even entertaining video with five tips to being an ally. Check it out!
Of all the steps allies can take, the one I most want (and need) to abide by is the “shut up and listen” mantra. I even hesitate to write this blog when there are much more powerful voices of color that are sharing these messages. However, I’m also moved by the same powerful voices of color that remind me that I must use my place of privilege and power as a white, male public school superintendent to do my part to dismantle the systems that marginalize BIPOC friends and neighbors.
Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you are moved to push yourself toward understanding and empathy just a bit more. This is not easy work. It takes courage--individual and collective. But for the sake of our children, we all must heed the call. If it’s not uncomfortable, you’re probably not doing it right.
For those that live in the Bay Area who are reading this blog, I invite you to participate in Menlo Park City School District’s upcoming speaker series “Race, Prejudice & Policy: A Conversation on Segregation and its Legacy on Education Around Menlo Park.” In this series we will...
All events begin at 6:30 p.m.; further details and Zoom links are available at www.mpcsdspeakerseries.com.
Nearing the end of one of the more challenging years most of us have had in quite some time, the last thing we need is a lecture about gratitude. And yet, as we approach the Thanksgiving season here in the U.S., I can’t help but challenge myself to consider what exists in my own life for which I should give thanks.
I often say to my family and colleagues, “Stress is a choice.” And it is. I remind them of this because in education or simply life in Silicon Valley, stress can sometimes feel like a badge of honor. It’s almost as if, “You aren’t stressed? You aren’t working hard enough.” In recognizing that it is a choice, we are set up to choose something different than stress. By the same token, I think most of our ‘states of being’ or emotions are also a choice.
As I navigate a global pandemic and contentious threats to our democracy as a citizen, father, husband, and school superintendent, I ask myself, what states of being am I choosing and how do those emotions impact me and those around me?
It’s natural and justified for me--for anyone--to feel stress, anxiety, resentment, and frustration during this time. I have certainly experienced my fair share of these emotions this year. But when I go to the balcony (objectivity) and look down at the dance floor (my life), I can unequivocally admit that those are emotions in which I do not want to stay, live, or communicate with others. I don’t have control of what happens in the world, but I do have control of how I respond to it.
I am justified if I lament how difficult my job is right now.
I can be forgiven if I rant about how unfair it is that my kids and I have to stay home, not travel, see friends only outside (even if it is raining), and the like.
I won’t be alone when I scream at the TV watching news of the chaos in Washington or post a snarky comment on my personal social media.
I can expect that my wife and I will blow up at one another occasionally as the weight of it all feels too much.
When those understandable reactions surface, I can receive them as feedback that it may be time for me to also focus some energy on the good, the right, the kind, the hopeful. I can choose in those moments or some moment thereafter to be grateful for what is also true.
I am grateful for teachers and support staff and their representative unions in our school district for working together with our Board and administration in good faith to get schools open, mitigate risks of virus spread, and stand in the face of fear to teach in person or otherwise create remarkably successful virtual learning.
I am grateful that we have not yet had to layoff one employee due to the pandemic’s impacts. I’m even more grateful that we’ve been able to hire individuals who’ve lost other jobs to assist us in our safety procedures.
I am grateful that my children and their peers are making learning progress despite all the challenges.
I am grateful that I have the choice to send my children to school in person or keep them home if my risk tolerance is lower than others.
I am grateful that I have a job that I love and that I can still work and provide for my family when so many others have lost theirs.
I am grateful that our local leaders are making the right decisions in the best interest of our citizens and that, together, our community works to reduce risk and follow recommendations.
I am grateful that I do not have COVID. That my family has not gotten COVID. And that I can say with all confidence that because of the therapeutics now available, my access to high quality health care, and the availability of good research-based information if I do get COVID, I am likely to survive it with few complications.
I am grateful that I still have the right to vote and that my voice was heard in this last election.
I am grateful that our democracy, as of now, has held up against some of the greatest challenges it has faced.
I am grateful that my family who, in good health and good will, will join together over Zoom at Thanksgiving to celebrate all that we have been given and which we often take for granted. And, I will do so in a warm home, with an abundant feast, surrounded by those who call me Dad and husband.
All these things are not guaranteed. They are gifts, all of which I could easily overlook if I spend all my time lamenting what I’ve lost, what’s been turned upside down, what’s not within my control this year.
As hard as this year has been, I have much more to be grateful for than I do to rage against. What about you? What’s your state of mind these days? As you go up to your own balcony (objectivity) and look down at the dance floor (your life as it is right now), what do you see? Are you living in a constant emotion of disequilibrium? Might you also benefit from a reset toward gratitude? If so, I invite you to do so; in fact, I join you.
May you and yours have a blessed, relaxing, and safe Thanksgiving Holiday.
This piece, co-authored by Erik Burmeister, Beth Polito, and Gina Sudaria, originally appeared as a Guest Opinion in The Almanac newspaper under the title "Halloween during a pandemic doesn't have to be scary." The Almanac serves the communities of Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley, and Woodside. Dr. Polito is Superintendent of Las Lomitas Elementary School District. Ms. Sudaria is Superintendent of Ravenswood City School District.
With the realities of COVID-19 firmly ingrained, how to celebrate the upcoming holidays is top of mind. We face the real possibility of missing some very dear and important traditions. As Superintendents of your local elementary school districts, many parents ask us about holiday expectations. Will they be the same? Is trick-or-treating safe? Can we have class parties? Is travel okay? These are all legitimate questions that must be answered within the context of an unfortunate reality.
We remain in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed 210,000 Americans and over one million individuals worldwide. There is no vaccine available. Social gatherings remain the single biggest contributor to the spread of COVID-19. If we wish to open schools and keep them open, we must adjust our expectations and use the pandemic as an opportunity to find new ways to celebrate.
According to the CDC, many of the traditions we love most are considered unsafe; these include trick or treating, haunted houses, and indoor parties. Your local Superintendents ask our community to please plan alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating this year. Consider socially distanced outdoor costume parades just on your local block/street. Provide grab-and-go treats for kids along the path that don’t result in grouping at doorways. Postpone Haunted Houses until next year and don’t invite other families to your home for parties. Consider decorating your own home and plan a fun spooky movie watch-party just for those with whom you live.
Whether it is a Thanksgiving celebration or December holiday tradition, COVID-19 forces us to rethink our plans. We first want to address travel. The CDC is clear that “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” Your local Superintendents humbly ask parents to avoid travel this holiday season, particularly international travel. We also ask you to reconsider large gatherings that bring family together. COVID-19 doesn’t care that you are related. Familial relations don’t protect you from giving COVID to or getting COVID from your loved ones. The safest option for all of us is to celebrate with those with whom we live.
In our own experience, the holidays often involve hurried travel, a hectic sense of obligation, last minute shopping, and endless cooking for visitors. Why not use COVID-19 as an excuse to slow down this holiday season and focus on time spent with those in your home? After the stress of the last six months, doesn’t a quieter holiday season off of planes, out of stores, and away from Zoom sound life-giving right about now?
If you must celebrate outside of your home, we ask you to consider the following precautions. Limit the number of people with whom you are celebrating. Celebrate outdoors whenever possible. Wear a mask when not eating or drinking. When without a mask, keep your distance. Wash your hands regularly.
The three of us agree that the single most important social gathering that our entire community must prioritize is: kids in school. Every member of our community, whether they have children in school or not, has a part in ensuring our schools can open and stay open. If we can limit the spread of COVID in our community by limiting social gathering to only those activities that are essential--like school--we can get through this. The good news is that we will see a day when COVID is behind us. Until then, we thank everyone for adjusting their plans to ensure our schools can open and stay open. More importantly, our KIDS thank you.
As a young teacher in rural Ohio in the mid 1990’s with a penchant for problem solving and leadership, I wondered if my time as a classroom teacher would one day evolve into a passion for leading systems within the public school world. Twenty-five years later that wondering (mixed with a bit of wandering) turned into a superintendency in California’s Bay Area in the midst of a global pandemic.
Early on in my journey, I was introduced to a then recently published book, authored by two business consultants called Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. William and Susan Bridges’ book has since been published in many different languages and sold hundreds of thousands of copies all over the world.
This summer, as my hard working district colleagues and I were meeting to discuss who we needed to be and what we needed to do to support our site leadership, teachers, and staff through the unprecedented school year ahead of us, we came back to the Bridges’ transitions book and unanimously agreed that their wisdom was just what was needed at this time in history.
While our news feeds are full of stories highlighting communities grasping desperately to hold on to some sense of normalcy, they deny a new reality is likely never to change.
America is just coming to terms with what Asian countries have known and planned for for decades. Pandemics are real. They are largely unavoidable in our modern globalized world. COVID-19 may be the first to impact the world since 1918 in such a dramatic and exhaustive manner, but it will hardly be the last. We have a choice: we can plan for the new normal or remain victimized by our lack of preparation and ignorant to the realities that will face us for generations to come.
For those currently operating under the assumption that COVID will be a thing of the past as soon as a vaccine is on the market...think again. Most vaccines are considered effective if they initially protect just 40-50% of the population. It will take years before herd immunity is reached and our country is able to imagine a world without COVID, and by that time - if we have learned anything - we’ll probably be addressing the next pandemic or public health crisis that is potentially around the corner.
Viruses know no politics, government, race, country, or personal opinion. Viruses don’t care. The only thing that combats a virus is information, preparation, and science. Viruses live best in places where ignorance and lack of resources operate unabated.
So the question for all of us--in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, states, countries, and even world--is how are we going to respond to this moment and are we ready to do the work necessary to change?
The key word in that question is CHANGE. From my vantage point as a Superintendent, change is the operative term when considering the future. Leading and supporting people through that change process can be a challenge during the best of times, but is particularly complicated during times of high stress and uncertainty. I think this is why I have found my return to Bridges’ Managing Transitions books to be so meaningful.
In their book, the Bridges describe the human and organizational experience of operating in three stages of transition. The first is the ending phase which addresses the uncertainty and angst of needing to let go; the second being the neutral phase where individuals feel a range of emotions often perceived as resistance, but really more about fear of change; and the last being the new beginning phase where the recognition that many fears were not realized ushers in new identity, energy, and purpose.
The Bridges rightly spend a great deal of their narrative focusing on what to expect from folks living through the neutral phase and how good leaders should respond. The neutral phase consists of a range of emotions that look a lot like grief; in fact for some, grief is exactly what people are experiencing.
As I look at where educators and parents are in relationship to schools and the coronavirus, it is clear to me that we understand clearly what is ending or already has ended. School is not likely to be the same...ever again. As an experienced school leader with an appetite for innovation, I’m convinced that is not such a bad thing. However, we are also nowhere near the contentment and commitment of new beginnings. We are square in the middle of the muck of the neutral zone with very little clarity of what the future might look like and feeling a serious lack of control over what lies ahead. That is a hard place to be.
I imagine it is not dissimilar from the phase in which we find ourselves in our home lives and work lives (for those of us that aren’t educators), as well. In the neutral phase, the Bridges remind us that it helps to identify what is being lost and by whom, to accept the reality, and to acknowledge how hard the losses are for some people. We must all be empathetic to the experience of others, even if their experience is different from our own.
None of us are immune to the impacts of change, we just experience change differently. As so much change exists in our lives right now, we will all do well--leaders or not--to make space for the needs of others during this neutral phase.
So what might making space for the needs of others look like “IRL,” as the kids would say (IRL=in real life)? Here are a few of my musings…
Speaking for myself, as I look back on pre-COVID life, there is much that I long for; however, as I look forward to the future, I’m convinced that the comforts of the past might have made the big changes in schools and our country less likely. Now that a pandemic has ‘ripped the bandaid off,’ so to speak, I’m hopeful that real...big…change is more likely to happen in areas of equity, income inequality, race, public school funding, teacher support, and more! Now we just have to get through the neutral zone.
A contentious election season, a struggling economy, a stubborn pandemic, rising COVID case rates, closed classrooms, more hours on a computer screen. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve now added devastating fires and suffocating air quality to the mix. Exhausting. Hard. Deflating.
Last spring, I was given some great advice early on in the pandemic. The advice was from a marathon runner who said, “Run the mile you’re in.” This advice has gotten me through some of the most challenging times of the last six months. I offer it to you because I think it might also help you.
To be fair, I am not a marathon runner; I only run if someone is chasing me. However, I must imagine that in the midst of the most difficult miles, runners intuitively know and find comfort in the truth that the race is only 26.2 miles and will have an end. At some point, the grueling nature of the run will be over and they will feel a meaningful sense of accomplishment. And so it is for COVID. So it is for Distance Learning. So it is for masks, and social distancing, and temperature checks. This, too, will pass. There will be grueling miles, but someday we will look at our situation in retrospect. Let that knowledge that there will be an end to this provide you comfort and stamina when you need it most.
As I see it, there are three important ingredients that are essential to our ability to thrive amidst the challenges and run the race ahead of us. The first is flexibility. We must all, even those of us for whom change is hard or for whom “planner” is our middle name, remain nimble amidst the changing guidance, policies, and health conditions. If I have learned anything since March 11 of this year, it’s that I can’t put my confidence that what is true today will be true tomorrow. I’ve learned to better roll with the punches. My flexible mindset has allowed me to lead through these challenging times and I think it will assist you, as well.
The second essential ingredient for this year is creativity. For many of us, it’s not often that something comes our way that shakes our routines, perspectives, plans, and expectations to the core. I think this moment will call for a fundamental shift in how we frame our challenges and opportunities. Lessons will need to look different. House rules may need to adjust. More time may need to be taken to name and process emotions. We may need to take more breaks, say sorry more often, admit we don’t have all the answers. Our expectations for what can be accomplished in a finite amount of time may need to adjust. However, perspective is everything. It’s also in moments like these that our creativity can blossom. Maybe this is the season to take some risks, to try things our gut told us was best for kids, but maybe we were too afraid to test it out. Maybe now is the right time to connect with our children and our students more as people. We can and should use this historical moment in which we find ourselves AS the lesson or the teachable moment. If this crisis passes and our families look exactly the same as they did before or our schools and communities look exactly as they did pre-COVID, then I believe we will have missed the biggest opportunity we’ve ever been given to do better and be better. I encourage you to be creative this year.
And the last essential ingredient for a successful year this year is self care. Never has it been more important for us to care for our own physical, emotional, and mental health. We cannot be what our families, friends, coworkers and communities need if we are not finding ways to be whole ourselves. In my mind, this will require each of us to do three very specific things: schedule time for our own wellness, seek support from others and be a support for others, and offer grace without reservation.
We are living through a time when most of us find ourselves moving in and out of emotionally dysregulated states of being. MPCSD has been diving deeper into the work of the Yale Center on Emotional Intelligence, and particularly the RULER method of social emotional learning. If you haven’t already, consider picking up Dr. Marc Brackett’s new book, Permission to Feel. You’ll thank me for it.
While better understanding emotions and becoming emotional scientists will assist us in developing the social emotional skills of our young people, it’s also a particularly helpful frame for the times in which we live. People are scared. They are feeling insecure. There is so much unknown. It’s a time ripe for misunderstanding. We can better teach, parent, and support into these unsettling feelings when we take the time to help ourselves feel settled. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.
We have a long 26.2 miles ahead of us, but we are focused right now on the first one. We are warmed up, stretched, and ready to go as soon as that buzzer sounds. Together--teachers, support staff, parents, and neighbors--we got this. Have a great first day of school!
It’s only day five of August and it feels like day twenty, no? It’s been a few months since I’ve published a SupsOn Blog and now seems like the right time to pick back up. This particular entry is useful for non-district readers, but is written specifically to our MPCSD community.
The publication of our District’s Reopening Plan on Friday and the pending deadlines for confirming a back-to-school model and requesting child care are making the start of the school year all the more real for families.
While discussion and consideration at the family level is intense right now, your district and site leadership teams have been living the realities of return since before school dismissed in June. We are here to help as you navigate the admittedly difficult and sometimes confusing maze of returning to school.
We remain pleasantly surprised by the level of understanding, patience, and acceptance of our reality, but have certainly also had many questions asked. As a reminder the Reopening Plan does address many of your questions, as does the ongoing FAQ site that is updated daily with the most accurate information. Beyond that, I thought I would briefly address some of the higher level questions that are coming our way.
For your Wednesday reading pleasure, I offer you 10 Whys and a What…
(Why #1) Why is MPCSD not returning to school in-person on August 20?
All of San Mateo County is on the state’s COVID “Monitoring List,” due to high rates of COVID. By state mandate, we are not allowed to open. No schools in San Mateo County, including private schools, may open until the county is off of the Monitoring List for 14 consecutive days OR a waiver is approved.
(Why #2) Why hasn’t MPCSD applied for a waiver?
The terms of a waiver were literally published 36 hours ago. All 58 counties in the state are now trying to create a waiver process around the terms published by the state. It takes time.
(Why #3) Why wouldn’t MPCSD apply for a waiver?
We might apply, but getting to clarity about an application will take time. It is still unclear whether MPCSD would be eligible as a waiver requires many things, one of which is very elusive right now--a comprehensive COVID testing and tracing program. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that testing in the state and country is a mess. The idea that MPCSD would be able to solve a systemic problem like testing when our state and country can’t solve it is a stretch, but in MPCSD style--we’re trying! It will take time.
Additionally, just this morning the state acknowledged that their COVID data is wrong. This is most definitely going to delay any reopening plans at the state level until policy makers and the community feel confident that the data--the same data that reopening plans are based on--are correct.
Lastly, we are living through a deadly pandemic. Reasonable folks can differ on response models, but no one can deny that the impact of our decisions includes life and death. This is not something elected officials and school personnel take lightly, nor should they. If the Board votes to apply for a waiver--an exception to health recommendations made by health experts--it will only be done so with utmost seriousness and thought. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty on the part of our Board and staff.
(Why #4) Why won’t I--or the Board--just admit that kids aren’t at risk of COVID and bring kids back?
I cannot speak for the Board, but speaking for myself, I can unequivocally say that I am not yet convinced the data indicate that return is as safe as some make it sound. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a scientific study review that shows that physical school closures likely reduced the spread of COVID in the spring and that further research is needed. Our world has only known COVID-19 for six months. We are constantly learning and what we learn changes our past assumptions based on new and expanding data--such is the nature of science. Recent studies indicate that children do carry the virus at high levels and that older children spread it just as efficiently as adults, even if they themselves do not get as sick. This is not to say that the research is conclusive one way or another; it is simply to say that this Superintendent believes that rushing to a decision is unnecessary and not yet supported by objective data.
(Why #5) Why is there not more clarity in what MPCSD will do beyond September 8?
This is a fast-moving, always changing process. MPCSD is well ahead of most districts in the state even if it doesn’t feel like it to some of our parents. Additionally, as a public institution, policy at this level is determined by the often messy and time-consuming process of democracy. We have five elected Board members with different perspectives who can only meet in public, and do so with commitment and regularity. As the old adage says, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other options.” It’s messy and inefficient sometimes, but it’s the nature of the beast. When one takes a step back and looks at the greater context influencing MPCSD’s decisions and processes, it’s objectively clear that MPCSD is doing everything it can.
(Why #6) Why is this so confusing?
It’s confusing because this situation is confusing. We’re trying our best to explain everything and provide the necessary level of detail so that folks who want to know the details can find it out...on their own...by attending the Board meetings, reading the Board notes, reading the Reopening Plan, and tracking the FAQs.
(Why #7) Why doesn’t MPCSD just make it more clear, make a decision, and move on?
Believe me, we would love nothing more than to just make a decision and be done. However, not all of our parents want the same result. We are trying to accommodate the many different sensitivities and needs in our community. It’s not easy; but, we’re trying.
(Why #8) If COVID is such a concern, why even consider coming back in person?
None of us educators ever thought we’d be in this position and none of us are trained health experts. We are relying on public health experts to determine what is safe and what is not. As they and government officials make determinations--and then walk them back, contradict them, and offer exceptions as they have done recently--it becomes difficult for educators to do our jobs. However, we are moving forward with the best information we have, knowing that kids learn better when in school and require regular social interaction and social-emotional support. Kids need schools. It’s risky not to come to school and it is risky to return. Right now, we’re trying to find a way to balance all the risks.
(Why #9) Why offer child care and not just bring kids back with their teachers?
The state has created health guidelines that limit school reopening when on the state’s Monitoring List. That same restriction is not provided for essential services like child care. Additionally while schools provide a high quality education, by their nature, schools also end up providing child care. This is an important benefit for society. However, school remains fundamentally an institution designed to deliver education. In a global pandemic, our union partners at the local, state and national level astutely remind society that our educational professionals can provide education in other ways that don’t compromise the health and safety of their members. No one is interested in taking our education professionals for granted, least of all MPCSD.
(Why #10) Why not just have class outdoors to bring kids back?
We do intend to make use of as much outdoor time as possible when students are able to return in person. However, we cannot construct tent cities of classrooms. State architectural guidelines do not allow for permanent or semi-permanent tent structures for instruction at public schools. Students will be outside often!
Now for the WHAT?…
What can I do, with all this considered?
This is a great question; glad you asked. I have a few requests…
We can do this! As I’ve said before, COVID will pass, but MPCSD will remain. It’s up to all of us to determine what our district looks like when all this is over.
Our lives have been turned upside down. A virus has found a way to jeopardize the very fabric of what we hold dear. Our economy may suffer impacts more like the Great Depression of the 1930’s than the Great Recession of 2008. The labor force is bleeding jobs at an untenable pace. Hospitals around the world lack the proper equipment to handle the dramatically increasing numbers of very sick patients, while our medical professionals save lives without the protective equipment necessary to properly shield them from the disease. Long lines outside markets await customers looking to stock up only to find many of the shelves bare of essential needs. Students struggle to stay engaged and make academic progress in a valiant, yet largely make-shift attempt to keep learning progressing as the equity gap unfortunately widens. Our places of worship--usually a space of solace during times of uncertainty and despair--sit empty. All this while many politicians struggle to prioritize what is best for the people they serve over their own personal ambition and ego.
Though we long for accurate information about the ever-changing crisis, it’s hard to turn to the news knowing that the stories and images will further dysregulate our already erratic emotions. However, what you're not likely to find on the news are stories about the most perverse of all the impacts of this virus.
The cruel irony of the coronavirus pandemic is that at the time when we need one another most, being with one another, hugging, consoling, listening intently, caressing someone’s hand are exactly what could kill us.
Others may disagree, but I am of the firm belief that the loss of relationship during this time is more problematic than any economic, medical, or logistical consequence. I’m not proposing that we should be doing anything different; sheltering in place and physical distancing are essential. However, as I look at all the impacts, the one that concerns me the most is the relational consequences of this virus.
Humans are by nature social beings. We are built for relationship. It is precisely when our routines and expectations are disrupted--either for celebratory or traumatic reasons--that we are most in need of the relational structures that we have built.
As Sheltering in Place drags on, I find myself longing for connection--a connection that a video chat just simply can’t fill. I hear from parents that their teens are so desperate for connection with their friends that they are meeting in their individual cars in parking lots with the windows rolled down just to have some time with their buddies. I cross paths with so many folks walking the streets of our neighborhoods who smile longingly as they pass me ten feet away, seeking that sense of knowing and being known.
It’s not just that our economy may be going to s#$%, or that our kids are driving us crazy at home, or that we are afraid to face our own mortality. It’s all of that, and… It’s all of that and the fact that as we struggle through all of this, the thing we long for most is a hug from our best friend. A good cry with our mom. A beer with our mentor. A bitch-session with our trusted colleague from work. A deep convo with our book club.
I write all this knowing that there is no good solution right now. But, I also write this for what we should do when all of this is over. I hope that if we learn anything from this experience, it’s that we need one another. In the busyness of life without a virus to remind us, it’s easy to forget how important our relationships are. I don’t know what a post-virus world looks like; I imagine it will look different, and it should. You can’t go through this experience as a global community and come out of it unchanged. What I do know, though, is that we have to love more, hug more, care more, talk more, listen more, forgive more, and slow down life enough to ensure that we don’t leave relationships behind in the race to tomorrow.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.