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The Second Year

Every now and then, someone plants a useful insight in your brain, a bit of truth with great utility, something you can use as a lens for multiple questions.

Last week, gathered with a group of IDEA organizers launching a new round of projects and initiatives, Arnie Langberg played a role you almost never find in education reform these days: wise elder. Langberg, most frequently associated with the free school movement, has done many things in his life as an educator, including starting four schools. He came to talk with us about lessons learned, reasons for hope in the edu-landscape--the big picture. For those in despair over just how frustrating school reform has become, he suggested a hopeful metaphor--toilet training--a kind of variant on "it's always darkest before dawn." And for those excited about organizing for societal and educational change, Langberg offered a cautionary note:

The second year is harder than the first.

In the first year, there's adrenalin. There's also purpose, vision, energy, mission, belief--and a built-in excuse. We're doing this for the first time. We'll learn. It will get better. After all, this is a great idea--or goal, or school, or staff.

Then it doesn't get better. In fact, it gets worse. You're supposed to have problems solved. The students in your new class seem, somehow, less promising than the students you had in your first year. The new Board that was going to provide energy to your organization is full of the same obstinate, unimaginative folks who sat on your first board. All the carefully considered tweaks you made to your fractions unit don't result in deep, amazing learning the second time around. The crew of enthusiastic volunteers dwindles.

The test scores stay flat--or go down. The kids aren't more engaged. In fact, they publicly wonder why you don't return to the familiar: filling in boxes in the grade book, sorting them into groups of winners and losers. The silver bullet tarnishes, and energy drains away.

I'm most familiar with this second-year syndrome in working with novice teachers, who have been told repeatedly that the first year is the hardest. In the first year, however--if they're paying attention--they've developed a rough mental framework for analysis and self-evaluation. In the second year, they're better able to identify their own weaknesses and failures--and that's the killer. Not only is it not getting better--it's your fault.

The second year is when the real hard work begins, in any number of ventures: Teaching. Organizations. Marriages and friendships. Programs, curricula and professional learning communities. Even presidencies seem to suffer from the terrible twos.

So what's the takeaway, for those eager and impatient to fix education? Well--we might stop building short timelines into our most well-known and heavily promoted reform policies. We might refocus our sights and energies on long-term life outcomes, like satisfying employment and good citizenship, rather than one-year upticks in achievement data. We might start listening to teachers--the first school reformers-- who've gone the distance. The wise elders.

Expecting a turnaround school to overcome an entrenched community culture of failure and passivity--making a 180-degree shift in three years using people and strategies developed outside that community--isn't based on wisdom., or reality. Expecting bright young college graduates to absorb all the craft knowledge and critical perspective necessary to become an excellent teacher in two years is foolhardy. But what's even worse is telling them that two years in the classroom is all they need to "lead."

To everything, churn, churn, churn is not the song we ought to be singing.

Some things take time. The second go-round is harder than the first. Persist. Pay attention. It gets worse before it gets better. Demonstrate patience. This is how human beings learn.

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