The thunder clap makes all of us stop. It’s one of those loud, long, rumbling ones, the kind that rolls around in your belly like when you hit one of those hard, deep potholes in your car. It shakes the window panes in the old house, and in that initial crack, we all duck into ourselves a bit, feeling that split second of doom that big summer storms in the Georgia countryside often cause. My kids are throwing the Frisbee in the downpour, and they freeze for an instant as well. I start to tell them to jump inside, here under the porch and wait it out, but before I get the words out they’re leaping the puddles, heading in my direction. Smart kids.
The weird thing is that on every porch that I can see on the block, people are out, watching the rain, listening to the thunder. I don’t know if they’re passing time or just immersing themselves in the strange beauty of the storm, the sheets of water, the muted light, the heaviness of the air. But we’re sharing it, my wet, dripping kids, the dog across the street who’s sticking his nose out from under the tar paper roof of his doghouse, and the old black man on the opposite corner, folded into his porch swing, puffing on a pipe. We’re all watching, and waiting for the break.
Eventually it comes; the thunder rolls are farther away, the rain abates. We pick up the conversation that the noise silenced, the one about our kids and their schools. Miss Frances isn’t listening too hard, I can tell, as she gently glides back and forth on her own porch swing. At 91, her concerns are elsewhere. But her son Mike is deep into the troubles of the school system. “They had to cut 15 days out of the school year ’cause they run outta money,” he says as he lifts up the brim of his dirt-stained John Deere hat. “They’re gonna keep the kids longer during the days, but they just can’t afford to keep everything running on those other days.” And before he says it, I know what’s coming next. Not that it means less educational opportunity for his grand kids. Not that it’s a shame to cut the art and music programs to save the football team. Not that there will be fewer teachers, less technology, less learning going on in school this year. Mike runs his hand through his hair.
“I just don’t know what we’re gonna do with those kids for those extra three weeks outta school,” he says.
There’s no doubt, I’m not from around these parts. I’m just looking for a pack of gum at 7:45 in the morning in Sidney, Iowa, and as I drive into the center of town, in my white Hyundai rental, I’m not seeing a lot of open stores to choose from. It’s one of those old, small Midwestern country towns, one with the “we-really-mean-it” city square built around the county government building smack dab in the center of town. I’m looking for some signs of activity, and as I start to curl around the courthouse I spy it; a line of pick up trucks outside a small gas station-convenience store on the corner. I zip into the parking lot and, not seeing any spaces, park awkwardly in front of the double glass doors. I’m running late; I’ll only be a minute.
As I get out of the car, through the windows, I see them, a line of men, most north of 60 I’m guessing, coffee cups in hand. They’re regulars, no doubt, and before I even step inside, I feel their gaze. They’re all jeans and caps and country, and I’m beige khakis, golf shirt and a pony tail. A couple of them nod kindly as I give my own silent, demure “good morning,” and after a couple of heartbeats worth of pause to take me in, they go back to their conversation. “It’s the schools that should be doin’ that,” one is saying, and all of a sudden, I’m tuned in, listening over my shoulder as I reach for a pack of Dentyne Ice from the candy shelf beneath the counter. “They’re just not teaching it as much as they should be.” I step away from the counter, buy a little time by pretending to look closely at the chocolate bars down below, wonder what the system is so deficient in, wondering, maybe…
“These kids just don’t know nothin’ about managing money,” he says, and I hear various sounds of assent from the others.
So here’s the deal with the change that many of us in this conversation are clamoring for in schools: we’re about the only ones talking it. The townsfolk down at the corner store aren’t demanding “21st Century Skills,” technology in every student’s hand, an inquiry based curriculum and globally networked classrooms. By and large the parents and grandparents in our communities aren’t asking for it. The national conversation isn’t about rethinking what happens in classrooms. No one’s creating assessments around any of this. And in fact, outside of the small percentage of people who are participating in these networks and communities online, the vast majority of this country and the world doesn’t even know that a revolution is brewing.
And, while it’s no shocker to say it, that’s what makes it really tough to be a leader in schools right now. Because if you’re doing your job, you’re thinking about doing things that no one out there is asking you to do. Which is, after all, what leadership is all about, isn’t it? I love Seth Godin’s quote from Tribes: “Leadership is a choice; it’s the choice not to do nothing.”Especially if basically standing pat will get you by. Given the current expectations for “student achievement” and adequate yearly progress, most school leaders can continue to get away with tinkering on the edges and not do anything to really upset the chalk tray. You want to make it into Newsweek’s top high schools list? Just keep pumping those AP courses and prepping those test scores. Constructing “modern knowledge” and sharing it with other global learners online? Not finding the check box for that.
I’ve said it before, you want to lead right now, as an administrator or as a teacher? You have to do both: you have do all of those things the parents and the town fathers and Newsweek (well, maybe not Newsweek) want you to do, but you also have to start shifting and seeing what the future holds for the kids in your schools, regardless if anyone else can see it. You have to, as the superintendent at my old school Lisa Brady has begun to do, lead your staff and your school community to the place where they understand the need for change as well, a place that’s not just about test scores and AYP, but that’s about student learning and literacy in new forms, forms that look much different from our own but that will be crucial to our kids’ success. You have to be an advocate, wherever and whenever you can, to convince people that while doing both is hard and takes time and effort, that it’s worth it, that it’s the right thing to do for the kids in our schools.
Because if you’re waiting for the conversation in the coffee shop and the porch swing to act, you’re going to be waiting a long time.
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