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