At the first staff meeting of the 2022 academic year, our entire team of coaches and coordinators was exhausted. We’d spent the first two weeks of the year subbing in buildings, covering lunch duties and pitching in wherever we were needed. COVID-19 was surging and our time in the buildings, while mentally and emotionally exhausting, reinforced the difficulties our students and educators were facing as they recovered from the losses of the pandemic. We were reflecting on our current challenges when my boss shifted the conversation towards the future, asking:
What are we willing to lose in order to change a child’s life?
The question hung in the air.
As a teacher, when something needed to change, I usually found myself pointing my finger at someone “in charge” who I believed had the power to resolve my issue quickly. When I became an administrator, some of this attitude remained, but after shifting from class to class and building to building for two weeks, I started to realize that the person that needed to make the changes was actually me. As I moved from school to school and classroom to classroom, teachers were telling me the technology was too much, and the students had given in to the permanence of education on computer screens long after we left the days of learning from tiny boxes on Zoom.
As the weeks turned to months and the surge from the pandemic finally ended, the question still hung in the air: what are we willing to lose in order to change a child’s life? We are still buckling under the weight of the inequitable education system that preceded the pandemic and the makeshift solutions created during the pandemic. At the same time, we fear losing what has kept us going. In order to answer this question, we need to shift from a mindset of scarcity and claim abundance.
Minimum Viable Product
In the technology world, a minimum viable product is a version of a product that is developed only for accessibility for the end-user. If you are coding a piece of software, the minimum viable product would have just enough features for the user to be able to test the functionality of the app; it works, but it is the bare minimum. In education, this is often described as “building a plane while we are flying it.” A new state requirement is announced, but the date of implementation happens before any school can acquire the necessary resources or knowledge for success; so naturally, people do their best, make do and move on.
The weight of the old mandates and demands of teaching were intensified by the aftermath of the pandemic and had been compounded by the technology we quickly acquired to meet the moment’s needs. Over and over again, we come up with the minimum viable product and move on. Whether these solutions were out of necessity or habit, they take up space in our our classrooms and our desires to improve the education system. We know we must move on, but we are afraid to lose what we have.
Moving Beyond Scarcity
When we think about loss as an absence of what once was, we often mourn what is gone. In the days of subbing last year, I mourned the loss of my job as I believed it should be, the projects left untouched and the meetings that were canceled.
Loss can also be something else. Sometimes we must lose what we have to make space for more important things. This loss is generative and necessary, but it is difficult to welcome the expanse that emerges from simply letting things die. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” In education, this familiar suffering manifests as the everyday rigamarole of requirements and mandates, programs and procedures, meetings that could have been emails and other duties as assigned. When we fear letting go of what no longer serves us, we adopt a mindset of scarcity, believing that once something is gone, nothing new will grow in its place.
If our goal is transformational educational experiences for children, experiences that change their lives and our communities, some things must go.
I am choosing to let go of tools that are no longer serving students, of policies that take up time and energy, of meetings that could have been emails and the belief that there is only one solution to every challenge. At its best, a minimum viable product helps a developer to shed what is no longer working and quickly focus on the most important features for the users to rapidly develop a strong tool. We must turn our minimum viable products into useful practices, policies and systems that transform education for our students and educators.
What are we willing to lose in order to change a child’s life? What are the practices we are willing to let die in order to change an educator’s life? What are we willing to lose to make a positive impact in our communities? These are the questions that now hang in the air.
Imagining and Claiming Abundance
When we welcome the expanse that comes after shedding what is not working, we start operating out of abundance. In early spring, gardeners prune roses so they can start the growing season and welcome blossoms on healthy plants. This is abundance. When we remove programs that fill time and space in our classrooms but do not expand the hearts and minds of our children, we hold space for creativity and deeper learning experiences. This is abundance. Our students and our educators deserve abundance.
As a new administrator, I have often imagined this abundance, but I have not always acted in ways that opened space for those around me. I planted more and pruned less, not realizing that to grow, we all need a little room. Moving from imagining to claiming abundance takes will and purpose; it takes a recognition that in order to give the best to our students, we need to give the best to our educators. If we are going to truly transform and improve education, all administrators, policymakers and leaders must let old practices die and imagine something better.
The first time I visited my school after being hired for my first teaching job, I did not have keys to my classroom, so I peeked through the window in my door. I had no idea how I would teach, who my students would be, or what my rules, policies or procedures would be. That night, I went home and filled ten notebook pages with my ideas and dreams for the year.
Sometimes when I get caught in the weeds, I think back to this moment and what actions I can take to give students and educators just a little bit more of that wonder I felt the first time I looked at my empty classroom. What can I let go of to change a child’s life?
Although I am one administrator in one department in one district, I am committing to letting go of what no longer serves us to create space for the imagination, creativity and hope that brought me to this profession. Together, we must move from scarcity to abundance to manifest education justice for all.