One teacher at a time

Educational reforms are more likely to get fully implemented one teacher at a time. Transformation of systems calls for lots of social capital to emerge. As Robert Putnam discovered in his research about social capital formation, the work is labor intensive and individualized. His follow-up book to Bowling Alone: Better Together, explored how much listening to others' stories served as the catalyst for the formation of committed communities. Change agents did not impose their expert solutions on disenfranchised citizens. They nurtured bottom-up, emergent solutions among the citizens. They dealt with changes one citizen at a time and realized lots of initiative, cooperations and personal risk-taking as a result.. The change agents were truly helpful.

In my many experiences of mentoring others, I learned it 's not always effective to be helpful one-on-one. My good intentions do not translate to intended outcomes. What was meant to be supportive of others turned out to be less than helpful. I've learned by experience to watch for the telltale signs of my good intentions backfiring. When becoming less efficient about education reform, we need to assess the opportunities to care for one teacher at a time. Here's what I suggest we watch for:

1. Is my help breeding helplessness? Acting powerful can render others' powerless instead of handing off the possibility of being equally powerful. Providing help can generate dependency, rather than independence.

2. Is the direction of the change congruent with the person's destiny? Helping others change themselves can go against an inner current. People may generate a people-pleasing facade that tells me what I want to hear. The lack of genuine involvement suggests the change goes against who they really are. Giving the espoused changes lip service signals me that they are headed in a different direction in their lives.

3. Is the learning getting integrated? Efforts to change minds, cultivate new lines of reasoning and formulate new responses can get derailed. Too much explaining gets stuck in the idea stage. Practicing new ways to think about challenges can turn into analysis paralysis. There's needs to be time to "just do it and see what happens when you do".

4. Is the given-and-take balanced? Being helpful is a set-up to give too much, care too deeply and invest without limits. This turns into a lop-sided deal that feels compromising and sacrificial. When ever I begin to idealize my caring as some kind of martyr, I know the deal is in trouble. The one-sided arrangement needs more reciprocity to realize the intended outcomes.

When the answer to these questions comes up "no", the situation calls for different change. An alternative change model may apply. A different strategy may be more effective. The context may need attention. The change agent needs to make a different change before working further on the original change.

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