by Stefanie Whitney
It is Friday morning—5:07 a.m. Coffee is brewing. It’s just me on the couch and a few books close by for inspiration. Sounds kind of delightful—except I have already been generously granted an extension on this article; this article that is still five pages of disconnected thoughts. The seed of doubt that usually precedes my “process” (**snort**)—a flurry of typing and accidental connections—is now growing into a grapefruit of trepidation just chilling in my esophagus.
The blinking image in my mind: “tl;dr.” (In case you too are late to this party, “tl;dr” is an abbreviation for “Too Long; Didn’t Read,” which I feel summarizes every email I have ever sent.)
My internal struggle for this article vacillates between two contradictory thoughts:
The latter is winning out; so, today I aim for brevity—windy introduction notwithstanding.
**This is where I introduce some thoughts and then weave them together. Fasten your seatbelts.**
In April 2015, I set out on a program with the goal of better understanding the bigger picture of educational leadership and the intersection of leadership and teacher professional development. More comfortable with even the remotest semblance of a plan, I was filled with hope, believing the next few years would be spent learning about leadership and intricately studying feedback and its impact on professional development.
The pursuit of a degree required me to delve into existing research before developing my own theories, which is a process that I understand and, frankly, enjoy. I’ve always believed that answers can be found through enough digging. That we can lean on the expertise of others to help us find our way. Namely, that someone else has been there, done that, and drawn a map with coffee shops clearly marked.
As a cumulative effect of the past 2.5 years (and quite possibly the previous 42), I am beginning to sense disruption to that which has always given me great comfort. I’m drawn to Brene Brown’s explanation of another form of research—grounded theory:
“I develop theories based on lived experiences, not existing theories. Only after I capture the participants' experiences do I try to place my theories in the existing research. Grounded theory researchers do it in that order so that our conclusions about the data aren’t skewed by existing theories that may or may not reflect real experiences by diverse populations.”
Through my own research, I did mosey into areas that align with Brown’s explanation of grounded theory. In short: educators have a great deal of power. When I researched how administrators can build cultures of trust, what I found through talking with teachers is that, ultimately, teachers choose whether or not they trust their administrators
When I researched the effectiveness of instructional feedback as a driver of professional growth, I found out how often teachers ultimately choose whether to accept feedback as valid and actionable. These points are incredibly simplified; I offer them because what is perhaps more noteworthy is the frequency of conversations with teachers who seem to feel powerless within the system of education. To be fair, I also often feel this way. This bears a need for much more research, but I posit that this research needs to begin grounded in personal experience rather than existing research. I’ll get to why in a moment. But first—a confession:
This bold proclamation, coming from someone who holds no positional power, put an exclamation mark on a conversation centered around key contributors to the current teaching climate in this space--fraught with all the complexities anyone reading this surely knows well. I suppose I feel disclosing this information is necessary based on the “no positional power” reality.
Who am I to suggest such a thing? I have been assured by this group of colleagues that “save yourself” was sound advice, perhaps in the vein of Brene Brown’s “clear is kind” approach; however, I did find my confidence waning as I stepped cautiously into the hallway. How loud was my voice moments ago? Who heard me?
Initially, the meaning behind my words came from a place of compassion; I want my colleagues to be okay. I hear you; I see you; I know this year is incredibly challenging for reasons beyond our control. The oxygen mask version of saving yourself first. I meant this then and I still mean it now.
However, in the passing days since that initial statement, I am more and more convinced of another, perhaps more important, meaning to “save yourself.”
Enter grounded theory: If we know these are indeed unprecedented times. And that no one alive today has dealt with a global pandemic, a divided nation, an assault on critical thinking, social inequities and the long overdue need for justice, an ongoing climate crisis… then why are we looking around to someone else for answers? Why am I delving into books and “experts” and looking to leaders who also have not lived through this before?
We are the leaders we seek. In our families and classrooms and schools and districts. And if we aren’t sure where to begin, let’s do what grounded theory researchers do: listen. We need to ask—and not just the loudest voices, those who expect to be asked and who find it comfortable sharing their opinions. Ask those who are quietly watching, observing the chaos and experiencing its impact. Ask. Ask students who are sitting in class—avoiding eye contact. Ask those who went to the bathroom 30 minutes ago—when they return, of course. And then settle in to listen to their answers. Share power.
Let’s ask students, in the same way we hope our leaders ask us, what they need in order to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of agency.
I spent five years researching the intricacies of professional growth. I started with feedback and found myself reading about the need for effective evaluation systems. I researched leadership and spent a great deal of time reading about teacher agency. I researched relationships and emerged weeks (months) later with a better understanding of trust. I started by researching those in positions of power, and ended up discovering how much power is possessed by educators.
In a time when ‘powerlessness’ is the pervasive feeling:
True to form, when trying to determine how we can manifest power, I’m struck by how ready we are to give it up. We are living through a time where nothing feels familiar, known. Our past touchstones now look and feel different in our hands and in our minds. That which comforted us and made us feel successful in the past no longer carries reassurances that we know what we are doing. Unsettled is an understatement.
But we are not powerless. The rally cry six months ago was that we cannot return to the way things were. Yet, it feels like we returned to school, dusted off our old talisman, and are using standards previously deemed ineffective to measure our current success and the success of everyone around us. And we look to others to be the change we hoped to see.
We have power. Don’t hand it over to someone you may not trust with it in the first place.
“If what’s under cynicism and sarcasm is despair, the antidote is cultivating hope. According to the research of C. R. Snyder, hope isn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling; he actually defines it as a cognitive emotional process that has three parts. The three parts are goal, pathway, and agency. We can identify a realistic goal (I know where I want to go), and then we can figure out the pathway to get there, even if it’s not a straight line…. Agency is belief in our ability to stay on that path until we’ve arrived….”
So, what does this mean?
I do not have this mastered, nor am I an authority. Today, I’m simply following Brown’s advice: “Write the book you need to read.”
I needed to read this—this article—to reclaim some of my hope, my action. If you are feeling this way, too: save yourself.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.