Every Thursday evening during my year-long Master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, our cohort of 42 aspiring principals gathered to interact with a guest speaker. Our first speaker was Richard Elmore, one of the gurus of school improvement. You can imagine our collective excitement, and perhaps a little sense of entitlement, as we gathered that first week to engage in a discussion with such a well-known scholar.
Elmore’s first statement revealed he wasn’t quite as impressed with us as we seemed to be with ourselves.
“I think it’s important to start by acknowledging the fact that there have been a lot more talented educators than you all who had the intention of improving public education who have ultimately failed in their effort.”
The moment was almost cliché. Here we were at one of the great institutions of higher education, being told that we likely would fail in what we had come hoping to accomplish. That evening with Elmore became an ongoing point of reference for our cohort – it was a testy interaction from start to finish.
What seems clear to me now, is that we all arrived with a bloated sense of our own potential for effectiveness. All administrators seem to have an effectiveness bias, assuming that their ideas are the ones that will garner results – and you can imagine the implicit bias lurking for a cohort of Harvard-trained school leaders.
In that context, it’s clear why an attribute such as humility is so crucial. Yes, we need confidence to move a vision forward, but we also need a healthy dose of self-skepticism and an openness to exploring our our weaknesses and blind spots. We need to recognize our inability to control all of the variables, and embrace all the different actors in the system who ultimately determine the fate of our leadership initiatives. We need humility.
I was reminded of that in a powerful way last Friday. We’ve had a shortage of substitute teachers in our district for several years now, and the challenge is never more acute than on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Several principals reached out to district office staff in hopes of enlisting additional classroom support. I elected to run over to one of our intermediate schools for a few hours to help out.
I was excited to spend a few hours in the classroom. I felt a little like Superman – coming over to save the day. I genuinely love teaching and interacting with students in the classroom, and I thought this would be just another successful opportunity to build relationships with students and help them learn. I would be the sub they wouldn’t forget.
I was very wrong.
I guess perhaps it might be accurate to say that my little tribe of 6th graders that day had an experience they would not forget. Honestly, I got my butt kicked. Luckily, there weren’t any major incidents. Nobody got in a fight or cursed me out. Our kids are far too respectful for that. But I absolutely could not get them to 1) stay in their seats and 2) focus on the academic task. It was like I wasn’t there. I’m definitely not an invisible presence. I’m 6’2” and I was absolutely assertive in the instructional strategies I attempted to employ. I’m also a fluent Spanish speaker, and made it clear that I was as “with-it” a substitute as they would experience.
I think I lost them the moment I wrote my name on the front board. “Dr. Allen.” Perhaps I was a little hasty in putting my freshly minted new title to use. They were a little confused. “So, you’re a doctor? Why are you a substitute teacher then?” I tried to explain, but they’d moved on.
It became clear, very quickly, that keeping my new friends in their seats for the next 2 hours was going to be a challenge. I reminded them that they needed to ask permission to leave their seat. 30 seconds later, four students were up and about – all with legitimate excuses – sharpening pencils, getting tissues, putting marbles in the class jar. It was like keeping water in a cup full of holes. It was also obvious that I had no idea how the classroom systems worked, and my students were more than happy to take advantage of my ignorance. At one point with a few minutes left in class, I paused and realized I didn’t know what to do.
Humility is about framing challenges with a sense of curiosity, as opposed to assuming we’ve already got things figured out. It helps us look inward, instead of externalizing our problems to the people around us. It keeps us teachable – which ironically, can be a hard characteristic to embrace for educators. We fain expertise as a hedge against the things we can’t quite explain or the challenges we can’t quite overcome. We have to always appear competent, especially to those who would judge our work without having much idea of the challenge of classroom teaching. It’s easy to get defensive.
Last week provided me with an unexpected reminder that we can’t expect those around us to learn if we aren’t teachable and open to learning ourselves. And that takes humility.