There is a clip from an I Love Lucy show that I adore. She is looking for a lost earring in the living room. Ricky her husband asks her if she is sure that she lost it out there and she replies, “no, but the light is much better out here to see and find it.”
In his leadership book, The Advantage (2012), Patrick Lenioni uses this scene from the show to help his readers think about how often we spend time looking for answers in all the wrong places. That perhaps, we stay in our comfort zone, where the light is better, instead of doing a reality check and taking care of cultural issues, things that are truly the root cause of our problems.
I had a conversation with a principal this week who truly understands this culture piece of our school improvement work. He is new to his school this year and we were having a mid-year review of his work to date. He talked about how important the relationships in his school were to him and how he felt that he had spent so much time this first half of the year building trust and respect with students and staff. He knows that he has a great deal of work to do around academic success but job one to him was to create a healthy school culture of adults working together towards a common good before he would see the benefits in student success.
Sometimes, in my coaching role, the opposite happens. A principal might name the problem (poor student attendance, for example) but blames the students for this and doesn’t take the time to figure out that this is a problem that he or she can solve. We call that admiring the problem. “If the parents sent us better students, we would have no attendance issues.” The root cause(s) of the problem are ignored… as in little or no attention paid to student relationships and/or student needs, policies that work against the students, bullying issues in the school that are ignored, poor classroom management strategies, lack of engaging lessons, etc. Adult decisions and actions that can be changed go untouched because it is the student’s fault. We forget to hold up the mirror to see what we can do about the problem. In a healthy school culture, leaders bravely “name and claim” the issues… they are not waiting for someone else to find the earring.
I read a blog this week that truly resonated with me. In it, Jeanne Spiller and Brian Butler write about the labeling that is happening with students in far too many schools and districts that pull us away from authentically seeing the needs of a student. I especially appreciated this quote from them:
The qualifier or label is not who the student is; it merely indicates something the student may need or identifies circumstances the student may be currently experiencing. If we are not careful, we can subconsciously attribute a set of expectations to the label. “Oh, he is a special education student, there is no way he can master that standard, we should give him something easier that he can handle,” or “she’s a really low reader, she can’t read grade-level text, let’s find text she can read instead.”
Labelling can include generalizing, for example, based on poverty, race and other bias. Lots of times, we unintentionally use the labels to provide an excuse for low performance. Again, we are not looking in the mirror or perhaps the darkest rooms to see the real needs of the students. The labels become excuses and smoke and mirrors when what we really need to do is problem solve. Spiller and Butler also remind readers that in labeling students, we also create higher expectations for those we labeled as high achiever and lower expectations for those we labeled as low achievers. As they explained, we have confidence in the high achievers and challenge them more often. We have less confidence in those we label as low and we don’t push them or challenge them as much.
As unintentional as our messages are, students and other adults learn quickly how low our expectations might be of them. Let’s be honest, if we walk through a door and no one expects too much from us or ignores what support and encouragement and skills we need to improve, it is easy to just do as they expect. When we are challenged to be better and when the time is taken to get to know us and problem-solve about what we need, as individuals, we can and will rise to the challenge.
So, this week, I am asking you to reflect on your current practice of naming… do you name the problem AND claim it or do you admire it a bit too long? How often do you spend time looking for the earring in the wrong room when your time would be better spent truly addressing the current reality? Do you know what your students need to improve? What are you doing to take action? What can you do differently tomorrow?
Have a great week.