Even we older folk remember our childhood days when Grandma or an aunt, having not seen us for six months, said this with wide eyes and a smile. We liked it, sort of, because we all wanted to be taller. On the other hand, sometimes we heard a parent, even a teacher, out of frustration, say, “Grow up!’ or “When are you going to grow up?” That growth had nothing to do with our bodies; it meant that we were not as mature in character or behavior as the critic thought we should be.
In the adult world, maybe particularly in schools, the word for teacher, leader, or board member growth is “professional development,” which means, finally, “adults getting better at their jobs”; they’re growing up, even 60-year-olds, even really smart 20-year-olds. It’s hard for some of us to think we have more to learn to grow up more in our school roles. I remember a mentor in teaching, already in his 50s, telling me that he had always worried that he would get to be 40, rest in the rut of the usual, and grow no further.
“…Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways” (Proverbs 4:23–26).
As leaders of your board, school, family, or classroom, you need to know that there is a battle going on for your credibility and character. In today’s volatile social media environment, every word, action, or random musing is being scrutinized and judged, even those made years ago. Whether you think that is fair or not doesn’t really matter. While we are blessed with God’s forgiveness, the world isn’t as forgiving, and even though we may receive forgiveness from God, consequences often remain for misspoken words or improper actions.
One of the most powerful parts of our role as leaders in Christian education lies in the area of initiating difficult conversations. These are the conversations that involve confronting a staff or faculty member regarding a questionable comment or action they have demonstrated.
They are the conversations wherein the question of whether someone is a good fit for ABC Christian School is broached. They are the conversations that require us to, as tactfully as possible, directly address an issue or problem that is affecting student learning/mission fulfillment in our schools. And I think they are one of the most important actions we take, because they get to the heart of why we exist and whether we are going to faithfully pursue our vision and mission.
I see quite well, actually. From a distance, that is. Computer screens, books, the print on my pill bottles? Not so well. I use reading glasses, cheap ones, with multiple pairs at every landing point of my day. I have an eyeball distortion, called presbyopia, a Greek word meaning “old eye.” (Presbyterian means “rule by elders.”) For most people, this aging of the lens begins in one’s 40s. Reading glasses correct the problem, with higher magnification necessary as one ages.
In school leadership, boards and administrators often have vision diseases that prevent them from seeing God and the world rightly. When administrators wear the correctives lenses of the Bible, they can lead teachers to supply these glasses for students and help them overcome a major vision defect: myopia. This myopia, left uncorrected, blinds people from seeing God’s vision for his people. When school leaders themselves have this disease, they can lead followers on a path that may look satisfying but is loaded with potholes and ditches of quicksand.
Last month, a colleague detailed for me how a surprise edict had come down from administration to his department that outlined a new procedure his department was to follow. “Bart, no one saw this coming. It gives us much more work, without any increase in resources. We don’t even know what problem we are supposed to be solving. You know, it makes me feel like I must be an incompetent teacher who doesn’t know much about what I’m doing.” This colleague is a recognized leader in his field who has traveled the nation giving seminars on his subject area!
Do you see yourself anywhere in this scenario? Which part? I, unfortunately, have been on each side at one time or another. In this blog, I am going to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance, to identify some underlying principles I believe are in play here that may provide us some guidance.
The 30-second ad showed a dad washing his car while his young son imitated him: soaping when the dad soaped, spraying when the dad sprayed, drying when the dad dried. Then dad sat down and leaned again a tire; so did the son. The dad pulled out a cigarette and lit it; the son took one and put it in his mouth. End of ad.
I recall this ad every time I think about the gap (sometime a chasm) between my preaching and practice in a Christian high school. Sponsored by the Mormon Church, the ad depicted how imitation is a powerful tool for learning, both for good and for ill. These days we use the term “follower” as a negative, e.g., “He’s just a follower,” like a student who follows the leader of a social group into trouble. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an America writer who celebrated “self,” said, “Imitation is suicide.” Likewise, Samuel Johnson claimed, “No man was ever great by imitation.” In education, imitation is in a recession; what’s taken its place is innovation, originality, and creativity. For the proponents, imitation is lazy, restricting, and deadening.
Back on the farm, I first heard it when a half-dozen neighbors were standing around waiting to begin a threshing bee, an annual rite in which famers moved from farm to farm to help each other harvest grain, sharing a communal threshing machine. In a joking tone, my dad said, “Alright, boys, it’s time to push, pull, or get out of the road.” Since then I’ve heard the phrase at the end of a tedious debate in a Christian school board room about starting a capital campaign, this time said in anger at the board’s indecisiveness. It had the tone of Nike’s “Just Do It.”
Whether to push or pull is a crucial part of leadership. Even the choice of “getting out of the road” is part of leadership. Pushing or pulling as a leader takes effort, is likely to get resistance from followers, and may lead to giving up. Just this month I heard a principal say, in the middle of criticism for pulling and pushing too much, “I think I’m going to just back off, to let things happen and save myself from the staff’s crabbing.” Teachers and parents all know the temptation of giving up disciplining their children to avoid their “I don’t like you, Mommy” or the teenager’s sassy mouth when we set limits.
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” It’s in the pool or at the lake. It’s sleeping in and slowing down. For principals, teachers, and board members, it’s reflecting back and planning forward: not so easy, but slower-paced than during the school year. It’s soooo good to put balance sheets, lesson plans, and school schedules on the shelf for a few weeks. Family time is a bigger chunk of the summertime than during the “schooling” seasons.
For school leaders and boards, summer is a good time to step back to notice changes in schooling over the past decade, most of which occur in both government and religious schools. Gone is the day (except for small schools in isolated areas) of all students sitting at desks going through the same curriculum with all parents satisfied because “The school knows best.”