Schools are rife with professional conversations, committees, and meetings. Each one of them is an invitation to contribute. Sometimes we’re compelled to contribute, sometimes obliged, and sometimes we can choose to contribute or not.
Some meetings, of course, are mundane, some are informative, and others are confronting and provocative. It’s in the latter kind that we matter most. If we don’t, we shouldn’t be there.
And it’s in those demanding engagements – at times when we feel elevated emotions and moved to comment – that we are forced to make a choice. Share our view and risk being shouted down, embarrassed, or challenged? Or keep our thoughts to ourselves?
After all, remaining quiet is easier – it helps keep the meeting moving along nicely – it helps maintain the status quo – it’s less complicated, trouble-free and painless.
And so we should keep quiet – if uncomplicated, trouble-free and painless is our aspiration.
Is either a commitment – an undertaking or it’s a lazy, uncourageous way to say ‘no’.
If you’re not really going to ‘think about it’, just say ‘no’. Then we can all move on and think about something else.
There’s a reason why we tend to be resistant to change. Change requires time, energy, and often, struggle. We have to be prepared to leave behind an old, comfortable version of ourselves – and to travel to a different place.
We have to acknowledge that there might be a better way. And we have to be prepared to try something new – and to accept the risks that come with that choice. What if the change doesn’t make things better? What if we invest in change and it’s not worth it? What if we waste our time and energy? What if we can’t go back to the old way?
All fair questions. Change isn’t always good. There are risks and costs. But there are also risks and costs of standing still.
So, to embrace a change or not? Is there a right choice?
Yeah, there is. It’s the choice informed by our values and fuelled by courage.
The people in our lives, educators or otherwise, who really stand out, who we most admire, tend to be those who are especially courageous or brave in some way. They are friends who tell us the truth. They are family who hug us even when we’ve hurt them. They are students who fall and get back up again and again. They are colleagues who say what we are afraid to say. They are leaders who say ‘no’ when it’s just easier and safer to say ‘yes’.
But bravery is a character strength that we all have and that can be cultivated.
Dr Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, suggests a question that we can ask ourselves as we try to live as authentically and bravely as possible:
Today, when I had the opportunity, did I choose courage over comfort?
“Most of the successful people I know have tons of bad ideas.”
— Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram.
This is as true in education as it is in entrepreneurship. Success and leadership is less about always being right or always having the great idea — and more about being willing to be wrong and having the courage to pivot at the right time.
In the game of poker, the mildly derogatory term, Railbird, is used to describe a person who watches games “from the rail” rather than actually playing. They are generally viewed as a nuisance by actual players and add little, if any, value to the game. Yet many Railbirds feel justified in commentating on the game or critiquing the decisions of the players.
Every school and organisation is made up of players and Railbirds. And so, we have a choice to make. Am I willing to sit down at the table, accept the risks, know that I might get burned, but give myself the opportunity to make a difference? Or do I want to watch the game from the rails?
The upside of Railbirding is that it’s safe; you never lose. But then, you never get to play.
The education ‘system’ is engrained and rigid. When, as an educator, you choose an unconventional strategy or challenge the status quo or disrupt the system in some way, there is only one guarantee – you will be judged.
When Paul Richards, Superintendent of the American School of Dubai, decided to (successfully!) abandon email as a form of internal communication, he was judged. It’s brilliant, and it worked, but there were (mis)judgements made. When Salman Khan launched and popularised Khan Academy, he created a new paradigm of mass education – and he was criticised and judged.
In every school, there are leaders and teachers who are willing to ask brave, challenging questions, to think differently, to push boundaries. It is these educators who are gradually edging us towards an exciting new horizon. And in each case, there is someone eager to criticise them.
Whether you’re a Year 8 kid or an experienced teacher, it takes courage to stand up, to stand out. But there’s always an easy alternative. Sit down, fit in and say nothing.