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Supporting The Exhausted Majority

I want to thank Gregg Behr, the Executive Director of The Grable Foundation, for inspiring this post. Although we were not talking directly about educators when he mentioned the exhausted majority, I was inspired to think about other areas where there can be exhausted majorities. Check out Gregg's book on Mister Rogers.

I have been thinking a lot about a definition of a learner-centered leader. I am circling around a definition and will share with you what I come up with in the next newsletter. While I was thinking about the definition, I spent a lot of time pondering the state of teaching. Specifically, I considered the career trajectory of most of us in education. There seem to be different inflection points in a teacher's career that a learner-centered leader can have an enormous impact on. 
Let's look at this chart closely.

Stage 1: Changing the world: When a teacher starts their career, in most cases, they are mission-driven. They feel as if they are going to change the world. When you talk to young teachers most of them will say they feel teaching was a "calling." I LOVE to be around teachers just coming into their career. The glass is always half full and optimism oozes from them.

Stage 2: Start of bureaucratization: Depending on the school system in which they work, the next stage starts the process of bureaucratization. Public school is a bureaucracy. Inevitably, "the shine" starts to wear off as teachers come to realize the rules, policies, and regulations they must work under. 

Stage 3: Inflection point...bureaucratized or energized: There is a 4-year window where teachers settle into two different camps: the exhausted majority or becoming energized. There is no judgment on which camp a teacher goes into. Indeed, there is a fluidity to these two camps as a teacher may float back and forth between the two depending on the work environment, personal matters, or the learners. However, I do believe that during this four-year window, most teachers start to fall into the camp they will spend most of the rest of their careers.

Stage 4: Exhausted or energized: The bulk of a teacher's career will be spent in one of these two camps. The exhausted majority are professional educators who are hanging on for dear life year after year. The smaller minority have found purpose and energy in what they do during the rest of their career. 

What can a learner-centered leader do in each stage to encourage "energy" over "exhaustion?"

Stage 1: Just hang out with young teachers and feed off their vibes! Do not discourage their optimism. It is easy to play the grizzled veteran who has seen it all by pooh-poohing their ideas. DON'T DO THAT! Have a beginner's mindset with everyone, especially teachers in this stage of their career.

Stage 2: Minimize the bureaucracy in your school. I know there is always going to be some bureaucracy, but you can make decisions that limit the negative impact on teachers. (i.e. over-communicate and work with staff when making new rules and regulations.)

Stage 3: Recognize that teachers in years 10-14 are at an important stage of their careers. The shine of being a new teacher has worn off and it is your job to keep them energized or re-energize them. One activity that is important at this stage is to reconnect them with their purpose and goals for education. Taking the time to do this important work, and then creating a PD plan with the teacher to help them reach their goals, is essential. 

Stage 4: Support the exhausted majority. These are professionals who, for whatever reason, find themselves hanging on for dear life. Continually work with them and support them. Meanwhile, help your energized teachers become influencers within the rest of the school. They are now in the best time of their careers; they are skilled and passionate. Take advantage of their positive energy!

Perspective Taking

Walking to the front door was not an easy chore. I had to navigate around broken toys, lots of snow, and an occasional car part. The "porch" to the mobile home didn't look too promising either. I wondered if it would hold my weight. I hunched my shoulders to protect my neck from the blowing wind and snow and placed my foot on the first step of the porch. The step held, so I carefully walked up onto the porch. The mobile home had seen better days. Actually, I could see through the seams into the house itself. I pulled my hands from my coat pocket and knocked on the door.

I am here because Joe has not been to school in a while and we could not get a hold of the parents. As a high school principal, I consider it my job to not let any kids "fall between the cracks" and I am here to talk to Joe's dad. After two more knocks I can hear someone walking toward to door. I have a good relationship with Joe's dad so I am not worried about the reception I will get. Joe's dad opens the door and welcomes me into their home.

As my eyes adjust to the dim lighting I notice that snow is blowing through slits in between the siding of the mobile home. I also see the burner on the stove is obvious attempt to keep things warm inside. 

I ask Joe's dad about Joe and why he hasn't been to school in a week. He tells me that he has kept Joe home from school to help with "chores" around their property. His tone indicates that he is not going to listen to other points of view on the wisdom of keeping Joe home from school.

I am stopping this story at this point because I want to bring up an important point.

As educators sit and talk about "the critical skills kids need for the next 5 years," or "the 21st-century skills schools should teach," I think about Joe and his dad. Who is sitting at the table representing the perspective of them when we discuss the future of education?

Let's face it...when educators get together to talk about "the future" and what learners “need” to be successful, we are coming (in most cases) from a perspective of privilege. Most of us have lived our lives in a comfortable state of being. That is not to say that what we may come up with is bad. On the contrary, it is probably good. What I am saying is that if we do not pause and consider the perspective of those that are different than us in socioeconomic, racial, or any other way, we are losing a great opportunity to craft an education that can benefit everyone. 

I can guarantee you that Joe had more "grit" and “resilience" than most kids in our school because of the life he lived with his dad. If we do not take the perspective of kids like Joe, we run the risk of missing the positive traits of kids that are right in front of us. 

So, don't forget to concentrate on perspective-taking the next time you get together with colleagues to plan for the future of education.
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3 Questions To Recalibrate Your School After COVID
Here are three questions for you to consider as you reflect on what has worked and what has not in your school since the pandemic began.

1. What should we continue doing?

2. What should we abandon?

3. What needs to be creatively invented afresh?

My leadership team and I can really sink my teeth into all of these questions. They can serve as a great way to plan what you will do this summer as you think about the next school year. Specifically, question #3 empowers you to look at things you do from another perspective and change it to meet your needs.

Have fun working with these questions!

*These questions are from a report from UNESCO entitled "Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education."
Read The UNESCO Report
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