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Insight from Machiavelli

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A great passage from The Prince by Machiavelli reminded me how difficult our work is with the current economy and demands for improved performance of public school systems.

"It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents - who have the laws on their side - and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them."

Recently, I attended a meeting near Los Angeles and read several articles about the impact of budget cuts on teacher positions in LA Unified. Also, on the east coast, Charlotte Mecklenberg is dealing with the same issues. In both papers on both coasts, the debate is heating up about teacher layoffs. Should school systems layoff teachers based on contracts which always favor those with tenure and longevity in a school system or should school systems layoff teachers who are not producing value as measured by increases in student learning? What has enabled this debate to take place is the advance of sophisticated software systems that are able to measure value add for individual classrooms. Also, the actual impact of the economic conditions we find ourselves in has led to the conversation in the first place. Finally, from the federal level we have the President basically saying that we should not tolerate poor performance by teachers.

Another part of the debate is class size and the perceived impact on student learning. While most research does not show that lowering class size has a significant impact on improving student learning, politicians, parents, and teachers will never give this sacred cow up. Even though the research is clear that the quality of instruction plays a larger role in impacting student learning than lower class size, we will not see politicians or school superintendents raise class size!!!

What an interesting time to be in education and to be a leader. Truly, the critical skill for leaders in education is change management!!! The question for those who develop leaders is this - are we developing the skills needed in change management in the preparation and coaching programs that help leaders be successful?

Terry Holliday

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SPEAKING OF MACHIAVELLI AND CHANGE...
I believe we're in a "Kairos" moment right now, a moment between what was before and is no more, and the unknown future.

Kairos (καιρός) is an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment. The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in between, a moment of an undetermined period of time.

How do we live in this Kairos moment? How do we navigate it? What are we called to do? What is required of us?

I recently presented the Kairos question to our Conversation Café group. Responses were fascinating, ranging from the personal to the global, the spiritual to the political. Some of us recalled recent losses, both personal and financial, and felt that this time between is "like a gift that's opening up space," allowing us to redefine who we are. Others noted how this time is calling us to serve the greater good. One member told the story of offering to quilt many separate squares for a fundraising project, and having her colleagues (many of whom aren't quilters) push back with, "No, let's do it together." Their meetings have been rich with shared stories as the women work their quilt pieces to craft a whole pattern together. Her story seems emblematic of the experience many of us are having in this new quiet time between what was and what is yet to be.

As Americans we're experiencing the worst financial meltdown since the Depression. Many of us are frozen in fear, not knowing what will come next. But we also know we can't--and shouldn't--go back to old ways of overconsumption, overbusyness, overextension. We're drawing in toward our families, having dinner together at home more often, choosing simple, more local vacations, opting out of expensive summer camps and weekly trips to the mall to instead stick around our neighborhoods. In the process we're discovering who we are, who our children are, and we may be seeing--really seeing--our neighbors and community for the first time. We're re-engaging in relationships.

In schools, while we may be looking forward to stimulus money that will save teachers' jobs and critical programs, I hope we'll also take this time to reflect on what we're doing and why we're doing it. I hope this new influx of money won't result in "business as usual" behavior, but instead allow us to imagine what "business as unusual" might look like. Because you don't have to look far to know that in 95% of schools, "business as usual" isn't working very well.

- Minority kids, especially Hispanic children and kids of poverty, continue to perform poorly compared to white, affluent children.

- We continue to lose 1/3 of our high school kids each year as they drop out.

- We continue to lag behind our international counterparts in math and science.

On top of this, all you have to do is listen to a teacher for a few minutes to hear their exhaustion, an administrator to hear how overwhelmed they are, or a middle or high school student (and sometimes even an elementary age child) to hear their boredom, frustration, disengagement. They're all very ready for a Kairos moment. But will this new money bring time for reflection...or just more of the same?

Maybe we should use this opportunity to ask more questions and listen more deeply for what is true for us, rather than what the next steps should be.

At the end of our Conversation Café last week, one of the members said that in Tai Chi there is a form which is to balance as if one is standing on water lilies--be still but ready to move. A perfect Kairos moment.

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