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.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.