My answer to a question about “Change Leadership”

One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned is that the root causes of problems usually aren’t where they seem to be. I first learned this (or at least first started thinking about it) when I on faculty at a university and went to a meeting about what I thought was going to be service learning (which is a learning method sometimes used in good pedagogy). I didn’t learn much about service learning, but this might have been among the most important meetings of my life. In attendance at this meeting were a few faculty from our college of education, a couple of administrators from the very poorly-performing school district surrounding the university, and me. Everyone knew each other, except me, so I just sat and listened for a while. At one point during the conversation, I learned that the schools in this district were open all year, including summer break. When I asked why, I was informed that it was so that their students could continue the federal free lunch program year round, because it was the only meal many of them got to eat. As the meeting continued, I also learned that many of the district’s students transferred between schools multiple times during a year, as they moved from one friend’s or relative’s house to the next or got kicked out of one apartment with free first month’s rent after another. Hearing all of this shook me to my core. What real difference does a teacher’s teaching methodology make to a child who is hungry and who doesn’t know where he’s going to sleep that night and what might happen to him? Poor educational attainment might be the symptom, but it certainly isn’t the root cause. The root causes of this child’s learning difficulties are his poverty, his environment and what I can only imagine to be an absolutely terrifying sense of insecurity, not bad schools.

While I might not have learned anything about using service learning in my classes at this meeting, I most certainly did learn that there are some absolutely huge, systemic problems that are constantly tearing at our society and, while those problems might directly affect only some of us, the result is that our entire society is damaged and held back. We, as a society, spend untold resources, both material and human, combating the symptoms of this “societal disease”. We plow money into poorly-performing schools. We plow money into prisons. We plow money into health care programs. We keep treating the symptoms while the cause of the disease—the poverty and insecurity that are going to keep that child, and millions more just like him, from ever reaching anything like his full potential—just goes on and on. If he can’t reach his potential, then we, as a society, can never reach ours.

I decided to do what I could. I became Co-Investigator on a grant, funded by the state Department of Higher Education, to help the middle school STEM teachers in that same district improve their teaching methods and content knowledge. The other Investigator on the grant was a professor in the College of Education. We worked with administrators from the school district, some graduate students and a number of other science faculty at the university to develop the program. I cannot overstate what this experience did to me and for me. It, quite literally, changed my life.

This experience taught me a good bit about what you call change leadership. I didn’t see anything I was doing at the time as change leadership. One remarkable thing I discovered is that there are lots of people willing to be part of an effort to make things better, but there aren’t very many willing to step off first—to lead—the process. If someone is willing to lead, there are lots of people willing to follow that lead and help. It’s hard because the real problems seem so immense, and there often seem to be so many obstacles to progress that it almost seems foolish to keep trying. But there is always that ONE student you really helped, that ONE kid you played a part in raising above the circumstances of her birth, that ONE small success that makes it worth doing, because one becomes two and two become four and someday, there will be one less hungry, scared, sick little child walking to school in August to get his daily meal.