Tag Archives: #adaptivechange

Are They Comfortable? Be Alarmed.

His alarm clock has been blaring since before 6:00 AM. From the upstairs back corner of the house, it loudly screams a rhythmic and determined, “Get up! Buzz! Get up! Buzz!” My son couldn’t care less. There is not the slightest hint of movement behind his closed bedroom door. Although I am annoyed, I do marvel at how my 15 year-old can sleep right through that nagging alarm. How can he remain so calm, so comfortable in his bed?  He defies the science of psycho-acoustics!  Buzzers, sirens, horns – they should arouse some sense of urgency. Not for my son.  I’m not even sure he hears that alarm. Or, maybe he does hear it and simply chooses to ignore it. Either way, I don’t like it.

I sit there listening to the alarm bounce from wall to wall throughout the house. Do I climb the flight of stairs to his bedroom and pull him out of his comfortable place? My efforts will likely be met with a heartfelt teenage, “Dad, don’t harsh on my Saturday mellow,” followed by a swift brush-off roll over in his bed.  Maybe I should just hit the snooze button for him, and allow him a few more minutes of sleepy comfort? I am annoyed, but at the same time envious that he can remain so comfortable with that cacophony of loud buzzing just inches from his ear.  Amazing

I don’t sleep through alarms, and I never hit the snooze button. That alarm yells at me one time and I am up, out of bed, and making a bee line to my Keurig. Alarms, bells, whistles, and sirens: they all put me on edge.

I grew up just a few miles from the Shipping Port Atomic Power Station in western Pennsylvania. Eastern P.A.’s Three Mile Island meltdown and an exaggerated speculation that Cold War Soviet missiles might be pointed at our nuclear reactor made the daily emergency siren tests impossible to ignore.  When those practice sirens were tripped, every townie stopped, young and old, even if just for a second, to quietly ask themselves if this was IT, if this was THE siren calling the alarm for imminent nuclear disaster. Nobody would dare hit the snooze button on that alarm.

There are few alarms I would dare to ignore as a school leader. Some alarms are blatantly conspicuous, like an angry parent reporting an inconsistent grading practice, or a disengaged student who flat out tells me she doesn’t like school. There are also more subtle alarms, cued by the voice in my head warning, “I don’t think they are following anymore” or “I’m not sure teachers fully buy-in to the vision.” Hit the snooze button on any one of these alarms, and even the most seasoned of school leaders may find themselves dealing with a big hot mess down the road.

Sometimes alarms are covert and disguised as “EASY” buttons. Sometimes, like my son’s non-reaction to his morning alarm, the presence of comfort in what should be a challenging and difficult situation can serve as a quiet alarm that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

We recently adopted a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum and program for grades K-5 in my school district. Instructional coaches from several schools have contacted me daily over the past couple of weeks with a variety of concerns and questions. Teachers are struggling with the new ELA framework, because it is a departure from the way many of them have been teaching. I am relieved that teachers are struggling, because it is a strong indication that they are knee-deep in in this paradigm shift, and they are getting messy with these new instructional strategies and materials. It means that they are demonstrating an urgency to change, to move away from ineffective teaching practices. They are making noise, because change hurts. Don’t get me wrong; I want everyone to feel comfortable with the new program. However, this early in the game, nobody should feel comfortable. Implementing any new program with fidelity should be challenging, disorienting and disruptive.

It sure is tempting to fall back on our love of comfort in the face of disruptive change. However, our love of comfort can be the enemy to greatness. In Louder Than Words: Harness the Power of Your Authentic Voice, author Todd Henry (@ToddHenry) writes, “…growth demands that you push yourself to your limits. A piano virtuoso will not continue to improve if she practices only the chords and scales that are easy for her, nor will a writer improve his craft if he stays in his comfort zone.”  For great things to happen for students in our schools, we have to step outside of our circles of comfort, take risks, shake some feathers, rattle some chains. Comfort in the face of disruptive change should be alarming to any school leader.

I went to a meeting last week where a group of educators were mulling over a rare opportunity to re-imagine job descriptions to better meet the needs of children. Change, that ugly word, drove many in the group grabbing for their love of comfort.  I was alarmed that their love for comfort might become a barrier to great potential for changing kids’ lives. The discussion focused on “what I like to do” rather than “what we must do to help kids”. Choosing comfort over student needs; choosing comfort over potential impact: these are mighty loud alarms.

What should I do as a school leader? Do I hit the snooze button and leave them be, resting in the familiar and comfortable? Or, do I turn the alarm off, “harsh on their mellow” and shake them out of their sleep and into momentary discomfort in the names of change and potential for student greatness?

The alarm is sounding. Are we choosing comfort over impact? Many educators are willing to leave the comfort and work through discomfort if they can clearly see the higher purpose. It is our job to lead them through the discomfort in the name of that higher purpose.  What discomfort are you leading today that propels your school forward toward that higher purpose and the potential for student greatness?

Change Is…(You Fill In the Blank)

I am a visual person.  I like art and images with sharp angles and clean lines.  Angles are strong.  Lines are reliable, predictable.  I am drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of line and angles in his architecture and stained glass.  I can stare at long stretches of city skyline for hours, mesmerized by the tall vertical lines of the buildings and the linear expanse of horizon beneath.  A line represents decisiveness and control of self, as in “This is where I draw the line.”

I often photograph objects that are defined by prominent lines.  I took the photo for this blog’s title page (take a look above), with its clean lines defining perspective and sense of predictable destination. Some of my friends have asked me about the photo subject: “Is it a retro disco bowling alley?” No, it is not. “Is it an airport runway at night?” No. Although, now that you mention it, rows of runway lights at night would make for an exciting photo shoot! “Did you snap this photo during a near death experience as you slowly moved toward the light?” That one made me laugh. No. That didn’t happen either.

I shot this photograph in Pittsburgh.  The photo is from inside the Fort Pitt Tunnels – or, as the locals call them, “the tubes” – that cut through Mount Washington. I grew up in Beaver, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles north of “the tubes”.  Going into the city was always a treat when I was a kid. Weekend day trips to see Willie Stargell and the Pirates beat the Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium, the Barnum and Bailey circus at the Civic Arena, or the annual river regatta always began with a trip through the tubes.

As a kid, the drive through the tubes was magical. Still is. If you are from Pittsburgh, you know what I am talking about: Entering the tubes, light momentarily turns to darkness. Eyes adjust to the glow from pale yellow lamps lining the tunnel ceiling. The AM radio station goes static, replaced by the hum of the car wheels bouncing off and between tunnel walls.  Looking ahead through the windshield, a small hole of light in the distance grows bigger, and bigger, until a sudden blinding flash accompanied by the blare of returning radio music announce the majestic downtown Pittsburgh skyline and its adorning three rivers. The way the city just appears, poof!, as if out of nowhere takes your breath away.  I’ve made that thrilling trip hundreds of times, each time with obvious and absolute certainty about where the tunnel leads. Completely predictable, familiar, and safe.  Confining walls serve as guiding lines and provide a sense of control over where I am headed . Tunnel vision, I suppose. I like to know where I am going.

My mom is the same way.  My dad often lovingly says of her, “The woman knows what she wants.”  Mom relies upon predictability and control of her space. My children went to visit my mom and dad for a weekend this summer.  When they returned home, the first thing my daughter reported was a description of going to church with Grandma.  Apparently, even at church, Grandma tries to control her space.  My daughter recounted: “Dad, there was a pillow on the pew.”  I replied, “I’m not surprised. I remember those pews being hard on the hind end.”  My daughter clarified, “No.  Dad. It was Grandma’s pillow, one from her living room, waiting there for us. Dad, she saves that seat by leaving a macrame-covered pillow on that same pew each week. A pillow from her living room. Did you know that?  She leaves it there, Dad.  Each week. Don’t you find that weird?”  Aside from the macrame, I honestly did not.  It makes perfect sense to me. Grandma, like me, finds great comfort in the predictable and in the familiar.  And, if she can control her space by marking it with a tacky pillow from her living room, by golly she will do it!

The problem with permanent pillows on pews and predictable trips through tunnels is that inevitably one day Grandma’s pillow will be moved to another pew and my tunnel vision will limit a view of what could or might be.  Then what?  And, those reliable lines? Illusion. They are not really all that reliable.  There are no straight lines in life.  While I may be able drive through a tunnel and look in the rear view mirror to see where I have been, there really is no telling with certainty where I am headed.

I took this photo in the bathroom at the Pinewood Social in Nashville, TN.
I took this photo in the bathroom at the Pinewood Social in Nashville, TN. Great food!

Life is full of uncertainties.  Life is the sum of a succession of uncertainties and constant change.  Change simply IS.  And, because change IS, we can’t see the future and we can’t control what will or will not be waiting at the end of the tunnel.  When we experience unexpected change, we can choose to fold or we can adapt and embrace the change as an opportunity.

I am currently experiencing unexpected change.  Six weeks ago, I thought that I was on one path, only to find that God had a different plan for me.  In my case, the change presented a career opportunity.  And, while I struggled mightily with the absence of a clear line, I seized the opportunity.  As a school leader, I am trained to lead adaptive change, to encourage and guide my school community through necessary change for the benefit of student learning.  I feel very comfortable in that role, and I enjoy it.   But, when the shoe is put the other foot, and I am experiencing unexpected change, I find it unsettling. This is a good lesson for me as school leader.  It teaches me empathy for educators who experience disequilibrium when change, planned or unplanned, flips their teaching worlds upside down.

Take one more look at the photo of the Fort Pitt tunnel at the top of this page.  The photo is actually upside down, as if we were driving alongside the ceiling lights.  When I set up this blog several months ago, I intentionally flipped the photo to remind me that even the most familiar and seemingly predictable of life comforts will eventually, and probably without warning, be someday turned upside down.  When that day arrives, I will have to adapt to that change and still find my way to the light at the end of that tunnel.

So, filing in the blank in the title of this post, for me Change is . . . like traveling through a tunnel toward a destination I’ve chosen, and suddenly realizing that the tunnel has been turned upside town creating disequilibrium and life uncertainty.  If I view this topsy-turvy ride as liberation from tunnel vision and an opportunity to grow and learn and contribute, I will adapt and thrive.  I can experiment and take risks, and give myself permission to fail. I can redirect my line of vision and refocus my sight on a new light at the end of my tunnel.

Epilogue:   Hoping to gain some different perspectives regarding “change”, I recently asked my #PTcamp PLN, educators from across the US, to send me Voxer audio clips finishing the sentence, “Change is …”  and to provide insight regarding the change process in education. They gladly accepted the request.  You can listen to their comments on Coloring Outside the Lines at BAM Radio Pulse here.