Transcending the Dip
It is impossible to climb a mountain while clicking your heels.
‘Persistent quitter’ is not a label I am particularly proud of, but it is probably most apt in describing my ongoing relationship with public education.
Here is a quick list of my attempts to run away from what has essentially become my professional home:
Public education did not work so well for me.
- In middle school, I simply stopped attending school on days I could get away with it.
- In high school, I made it official and dropped out.
When I went back to school, I was going to change education.
3. In graduate school (after hustling for a GED, a bachelors degree, a grad program, and a teaching job), I did not finish my thesis.
4. In my first teaching job, after 2 years, I did not renew my contract.
(Enter my ‘running away to join the circus’ phase, which included adventures in flight, tea houses, and publishing. So many stories to tell sometime later.)
When I went back to school, I was going to change education.
5. In my second teaching job, after 2 years, I did not renew my contract.
6. In my third teaching job, I quit the classroom and joined the central office.
Because, I was going to change education.
I’ve been here now for three years. The impact of my work has resulted in very little change. Nor do I see much difference in the last 4o years I have been a part of the public education system.
Guess what I feel like doing?
There’s no place like home
Seth Godin coins this particular moment of decision as “The Dip” which he discusses in some detail in his book by the same title. When overlapped with Don Kelly and Darryl Conners “Emotional Stages of Change” it becomes somewhat evident why transformative measures in public education seem to elude us. (In education, we are comforted by a good bell curve; flip one upside down, you get a lovely dip.)
Way too briefly, it goes as such:
Stage One: Uniformed Optimism
You have an insight, an idea, a solution, a new purpose. You are stoked. This is exciting, transformative, and will make a difference. You are filled with hope. You move forward.
Stage Two: Informed Pessimism
You get a reality check and some pushback. This can come externally or internally; from systems or from personalities. Not everyone thinks your idea is so great, or possible, or worth it. Obstacles — time, status quo, legalities, competing interests — throw you off your path. You begin to question yourself, but you better understand the problem. You move forward.
Stage Three: The Valley of Despair
The negatives of your idea are beginning to outweigh the positives; the problems override your ability to solve them. Your circle begins to split into shards: those still with you and those battling against you. Sometimes, your circle is you: you are torn between what you thought was right and what you now hope isn’t the wrong way forward. You doubt.
And you are exhausted. And you recognize the road forward is an uphill battle.
You recognize you can quit.
In education, quitting manifests as an opportunity to go home: to return to the classrooms of our past. It is very easy for all of us in this business to fall back on traditions that worked for us before. Most educators became educators because the traditional model of education worked for them. It is hard to see how that model does not work for us all. It is even harder to see how that model sets today’s students up to fail in their future.
And it is very difficult for us to imagine a way out of the own rut we have created.
Seth Godin would suggest that the bottom of the dip is where you need make a determination:
Is this worth any more of my time and energy to persist to this particular mountaintop?
I speculate that he would warn educators that public education, as it is currently situated, finds itself to be a metaphorical cul de sac, a proverbial dead end. We have established a wealth of educational research and neuroscientific understanding; we are in the midst of a renaissance of knowing how all students can successfully learn. There is no deficit of ideas nor solutions. But want we can’t seem to overcome is 150 years of doing things the way they have always been done. (Cathy N. Davidson does a tremendous job exploring the pervasiveness of this challenge in her book The New Education).
Despair is the loss of hope. There is no foreseeable way forward. We settle.
It is easier to quit and go home. Click your heels three times, and you are instantly back from where you started. Welcomed and safe.
It is much, much harder to push forward.
Stage Four: Informed Optimism
You understand the challenge, the pushback, the obstacles; nevertheless, you have determined that it is worth it. Likely, you are not going it alone; through this process you have identified your tribe, those that will lift you and keep you from falling back into the dip. You have identified your enemies: the systems and those personalities that will attempt to undermine your purpose and push you right back into the hole. You understand yourself better, the problem better, and have refined your plan according to the known obstacles and challenges. You are determined to summit the mountaintop anyway. It’s worth the risk. You convince yourself of hope. You move forward.
Stage Five: Success and Fulfillment
You persisted and you are better for it. The world is likely better, too.
There is a quote from Katie Martin’s book, Learner Centered Innovation, that I have been am currently borrowing for my own call to purpose:
As educational institutions, we can and must do better to create coherent learning experiences for students to explore their passions, under their strengths, and find their place in the world. Until then, as we vacillate between different philosophies of education, today’s students are caught in the middle. We cannot continue to add on twenty-first-century expectations to a twentieth-century model of education.
This vacillation, this unwillingness to truly transform, results in the addition of future-ready expectations without any relief from our outdated systems and policies. It applies additional pressure to our already overstressed educational system — onto our teachers, our students, and our communities. If we try to climb the mountaintop, while tethered to home base, we will remain stuck in the dip.
The Valley of Despair
Is it time to quit?
Thanks to @jennifer_rrisd ; @keli_soliz ; Katie Martin ; Seth Godin ; Cathy Davidson for inspiring my thinking and writing