I’ve latched on to a phrase our new Education Director, Jason Glass, uses. He speaks of building momentum for progress through a “coalition of the willing.” This phrase succinctly captures the leadership philosophy I’ve held for some time. Adopted from my friend and mentor, Dave Smith, I’ve always said that the key to change is identifying the people who “get it,” supporting the heck out them, and trusting that the success of these people will pull some in and scare others away—eventually tipping the system.
I’m thrilled by the number of people who count themselves among the coalition of the willing here in our state. They question, they experiment, they collaborate, and they inspire me on a daily basis. Those are the many benefits of being a member of the coalition. Recent events, however, have had me thinking about the flipside. What happens when one of our progressive colleagues tries something new and is met with overwhelming resistance? How do the rest of “the willing” react?
I’d like to think we would all react by challenging undeserved opposition, by stepping in to pick up the pieces of well-intentioned failures, and most of all by learning with and from the resistance. This is indeed the case, as demonstrated by the contributors to the open letter in support of Waukee’s move to standards-based assessment and reporting. As the owner of the document, I can see that many more than those who have signed have contributed to the crafting of the letter, and I recognize that some may face restrictions on their ability to sign such a letter. However, even this larger anonymous group of contributors seems to only represent a smaller subset of those who would typically claim coalition membership in the good times.
In the spirit of openness, I'll admit that I fight and posit that others fight an urge to act more like the proverbial crabs in a pot, and retreat when the tide of public favor turns against our colleagues who are pushing the limits. Why is this? Are we scared the bar will be raised, and suddenly our own innovative efforts will appear mundane? Are we afraid the negativity will follow us back to our own districts and hamper our own efforts? Is a base sort of schadenfreude that makes us feel relief that it’s not us in the middle of the controversy? I truly don't know.
I’ll reference an image from Egypt that went viral recently. It depicts Christians holding hands to surround and protect the Muslim members of their coalition as they pray. We can learn a tremendous lesson here. The cause that unites us is bigger and stronger than the lines that divide us. Education is not a zero-sum game with winning districts and losing districts. Progress in one district grades the road of progress for all of us.
This image is credited to Nevine Zaki, who witnessed this event in Egypt.
Today I challenge each of you to think beyond the lines that separate us into offices, classrooms, schools, districts, and states—and embrace our collective mission of ensuring quality learning for each and every student. I challenge you to accept both the positive and negative aspects of being a member of the coalition of the willing. When the heat turns up, step up—not back. By doing so, we can tip the system.