Riding the Waves of Change


Recently I was blessed to have the opportunity to travel abroad to recharge and refresh. During this trip I had an opportunity to snorkel over a barrier reef for the very first time. On the day that we went, the ocean was very choppy and the guide asked our group if we preferred to stay in shallow, calm waters or deeper, rough waters. The caveat of all this was that we were likely to see more wildlife in the rougher waters. Ultimately our group opted for the deep sea experience.

Riding out on the ocean with the boat bouncing and sea water spraying, I admit that I became a little nervous about our recent group decision. Soon enough we were at our starting point and I found myself taking a deep breath and jumping in to the deep blue sea. The cool water felt invigorating, but as I rose to the surface the rough waters distracted me and I could feel myself starting to panic. My mind flashed to the snorkel techniques my husband and I practiced prior to our trip and realizing that I was getting nowhere other than more panicked by trying to stay above water, I took a deep breath and dove under.

Beneath the rough waters was a colorful world of fish, coral and other sea life. As I let my body ride the choppy surface and my breathing finally returned to its normal pace, I was in awe of all that I was able to see. I found myself gesturing emphatically to my husband all the wonderful things I hoped we would remember later. Our guide zipped just ahead of us, pointing to other creatures and leading us over the world’s second largest barrier reef.

In my life I have willingly taken on many personal and professional challenges, all of which I have never regretted. For someone who has been quite accustomed to change, even this brief experience, out of my element, was for a moment terrifying. So what has this experience reminded me about change? What can leaders bring to a community that is going through a change process?

Recognize that people need to know why change is important and help them to make sense of it

One of my favorite TED talks is Simon Sinek’s How Great Leaders Inspire Action. The premise of his talk is about articulating the why before the how or what. When we embark on change in our communities, individuals need to know why the change is important and more importantly, the reason should be one that resonates with the community. At times in education, we can be too focused on the change process itself and we must slow down to involve those impacted by the change. In our ocean adventure, our guide clearly explained our options for the day and ultimately let our group’s feedback shape the outcome.

If you are the leader of the organization, jump in with your team.

Change is never easy and it takes courageous leaders at all levels of a community to inspire others to be a part of the journey. I suspect if our guide had not jumped in to the rougher waters first, he may not have had many volunteers to jump in. Once he did, a few others were quick to follow and within minutes the whole group was in the water. For added support, there were staff that remained in our boat, not very far away from where we were snorkeling at all times. So leaders, invite others willing to take the first steps with you and also look for others who will be able to support the initial risk takers and ultimately the group, along the way. Failures and mistakes are an inevitable part of the process and with the right team can turn these situations into learning opportunities.

Take a look beneath the surface and explore, don’t be too focused on outcomes right away.

Of course when we embark on any change, there is an ultimate goal we hope to achieve. I support the use of goal setting and success criteria as they are essential to any endeavour. It is also important that individuals in a community have time to acclimate and dive beneath the rough waters under their own terms. I needed that moment when I first dove in to the water be slightly panicked, to catch my breath, and dive in when I was ready. When I saw what was beneath and how surprisingly more calm it was underwater, than above, you couldn’t get me out of the water.

The point is people need time to explore and adjust when change is in progress. If you stay solely task oriented and rush too soon to the next task, you miss opportunities for individuals to see the beauty in the change and embrace it. More importantly, they will not have a chance to engage in their own explorations that could bring great value to the team’s overall process and goals.

Let the group explore, but also remind them of the focus.

Our guides were great about letting us explore, but also did not let us wander way beyond our limits. Our guide in the water wore bright swim shorts so we could easily identify him from afar and he would take the time to show us the beautiful wildlife that he thought would make the most of our experience. Change is messy and while it is important to let individuals find their own way (see above) and work through this process, it will be necessary to bring individuals together and remind them of what is most important.

Change has never been easy and never will be, but with these few reminders from my recent vacation experience, I hope to make future change processes I am involved in meaningful to my community.

What other analogies could you add about change? What opportunities should leaders take to make the change process a more meaningful one?


Risk Taking as Acts of Trust

Trust by Ibrahim lujaz (CC BY)

Trust by Ibrahim lujaz (CC BY)

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am currently completing course work on Connected Coaching. Our recent conversations have been around building trust in online spaces and a colleague shared an interesting TED video by Amanda Palmer on The Art of Asking. While her talk is framed in the context of her work as a musician, one theme in particular stuck with me that seems very relevant in education circles, taking risks and trust.

In the TED video, Amanda notes that what some consider risks on her part, she views as acts of trust. As I thought about this point in the context of education, risk taking and trust work in parallel. There is the trust that we must have in others in our community. I am sure we have all experienced environments in our lives where our willingness to step beyond our comfort zone was made much easier because of a high level of trust in that setting. There is also the experience in which one could be a part of a highly functioning community and not engage in any risk taking at all. It seems then, that risk taking is also rooted in the act of trusting in one’s self.

Can our schools and communities benefit from thinking of risk taking as acts of trust? I have only begun to scratch the surface, so I am left wondering:

  • In schools, what would it take to shift our perspective of risking taking to acts of trust?
  • How can this shift allow us to create deeper relationships and more creative, inclusive, and energizing learning/teaching spaces?
  • What do our schools look, sound and feel like when we there is a high degree of trust and risk taking?

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts and stories.

Desks or No Desks?

This past weekend, I read Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom? The article also highlighted, An Obituary for Student Desks. Both articles are great reads. The first article briefly described two elementary classrooms that did away with the traditional desk. One opted for various configurations of larger tables (as you might experience in a coffee shop) and the other used only couches (with plastic drawer space for student storage). Both rooms were highly personalized and inviting spaces.

How the Times Have Changed!

This next part will date me, but I remember learning from professors in my teacher preparation program that the more inviting the classroom (i.e. decorated bulletin boards and displaying student work), the more student engagement one could expect. I was a faithful practitioner of these ideas. Do I think these alone helped to improve my students’ learning experience? No. Do I think it helped students to feel more welcomed and part of the learning community? Absolutely.

I later spent many years working in a school that explicitly noted that we would never have rows of desks, but rather that they would be placed either in groups or a horseshoe shaped configuration. The science lab was designed not in the traditional row of lab benches, rather, in various octagonal pods. The idea was this physical change would foster fluid discussions and collaboration efforts. What a world of difference from those bulletin board days!

So I was thrilled reading this article because with all the discussion on effective integration in technology, another equally important step is to look at how we can transform our spaces to reflect the 21st century outcomes we are seeking.

What do our students think?

Excited about the idea, I shared the idea of throwing out the traditional desk to a few high school students. Clearly, this alone is not an accurate indication of all student experiences or preferences, but I asked them about their current classroom setup in high school. They often experienced individual desks in rows or paired in rows, with the exception of a few elective classes. They did highlight different experiences in elementary and middle school. Most of their experiences were desks placed in group formation, though they did notice as they progressed through the grades that they encountered this setup less frequently. They noted that the difference in desk configurations often seemed aligned to different styles of teaching. Asked if they would prefer an environment with no desks, they wondered if the setting would be too casual and did note that they would like the option to have other configurations of space for more independent endeavors or work with a partner.

Given a class tomorrow, my desks would be gone to be replaced with other alternative setups. These students highlighted something I had not immediately thought of. That is, other spaces for those working on more individualized tasks or perhaps for our learners who simply engage in learning in different ways. (Note: In Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom? Erin Klein does note the importance of student voice when redesigning classrooms, as well as considers this concept of varied space.)

So how important are the spaces in which we learn?

What other classroom items have your schools or classes deemed obsolete?

Please share how you have transformed your classroom spaces. What are your students saying about these changes?