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Be Quick but Don’t Hurry

It’s March Madness, with kids of all sizes playing their hearts out on the basketball court, passing, dribbling, and taking their best shots. Have you ever seen this passion in motion, with players dribbling down the court at breakneck speed toward the basket? Have you ever said to yourself, “slow down!” worried that the ball will get away from them? And then inevitably see just that happen?

It does happen, of course, so much so that the late and legendary basketball coach John Woodenframed one of his famed pearls of wisdom around the notion, “be quick but don’t hurry” knowing that by losing control, players – and leaders – have great difficulty getting the results they want. Wooden claims that when we hurry, we are unable to be deliberate about our actions and are prone to error. Being quick, he says, is understanding what’s necessary and getting it done. Quick can be fast, but there’s a calmness to quick that’s missing when we hurry.

We’re seeing a lot of hurry in education today and it is, frankly, worrisome. Every role seems impacted exponentially by the number and urgency of today’s mandates, perhaps with the greatest impact on the classroom. Most disheartening is what we hear from students,many of whom report untenable stress from the pressure to perform on demand . We also seeoutstanding educators leaving the profession in record numbers . We see, frankly, exhaustion everywhere and wonder how any of us can do our best work in this environment of relentless stress. Our hurry to make things better may have backfired.

But how do we restore calm to an environment that admittedly is urgent? The mandates aren’t going away and the need to improve outcomes for students is very real. We think, though, that there are ways in which leaders can make the impact of these initiatives more manageable. One place to start is with the wisdom of adaptive leadership gurus Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, both faculty members at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. They suggest that those in positions of authority can (and should) “turn down the heat” when people reach the limit of their tolerance. To quote, “Any community can take only so much pressure before it becomes either immobilized or spins out of control” (2002, p.108) .

One of their suggestions is to break the work into smaller chunks, so that the volume feels more manageable. This might require pacing and some prioritizing about what must be done now, what can be deferred, and what could even come off the list. Keeping in mind that prioritizing means making choices, this is often one of the most challenging tasks in an environment that demands increasing accountability. At the same time, we rarely see the removal of any long-standing initiatives when new ones are added. Nor do we often see a decision to leave potential grant funds on the table, even when they take a school or district in an entirely new direction. Saying “no” can equate to being deliberate and strategic…and calm.

And for the initiatives that cannot be removed or put off, they suggest starting small, starting easy with technical shifts that don’t require as much upheaval, or as much learning. Adapt, adapt, adapt. Take it slowly. Let the temperature be your guide and avoid a melt-down.

Remember that all improvement efforts – strategies, goals, outcomes – are in addition to what is already a full plate for every educator. Sometimes we read school improvement plans and marvel at their breadth while wondering who will teach the kids while everybody learns how to do the new stuff. The kids still come every day and it’s not as if teachers and principals and central office staff don’t already work horrendous hours. Until what’s in your school improvement plan becomes second nature, it will be more work, not different work.

So break it up. Pace it. Start with the easy(er) stuff. Get rid of all the absolutely non-essentials, especially when new learning is required – at least until we’re through this rough patch as the perfect storm threatens to descend.

And please. Don’t hurry. Yes there is great urgency to our work. There are achievement gaps to close, graduation rates to increase, and futures at stake. But we’ll never get there if we let the ball get away from us. March Madness belongs on the courts, not in our classrooms

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