The Power of "Why?"
One of the pitfalls of being new to any situation is the mistake of being quick to rush to judgment. Entertaining the idea that what you see as a problem has actually been vetted to be the most viable solution by someone who came before you is a skill that requires patience, understanding and respect. When this core tenet is dismissed, and you assume too quickly that you know better, it often can lead to a downward spiral from which there is no return.
Whether you come to a new community with a lifetime of experience, or are just starting out, a superintendent new to a district must consider one simple question long before any actions are taken. Just keep in mind, that the deepest levels of frustration may result when the answer to your question is, “Because that is the way we have always done it!” Yes, the question is simply, “Why?” So small, but so powerful and provides you with everything you need, as long as you are willing to listen.
Sun Tzu in his famous text, The Art of War writes, “Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” Although not at war, the quote reminds us that before we rush into battle, we must first determine the need for the battle, and further, whether a battle can actually be won. That does not happen until you ascertain everything to know about what you seek to fight against, and why it exists in the first place.
In my first year of my first superintendency I recall reviewing the school calendar and quickly identifying what seemed to be poor practice and outright mistakes. The schedule called for the teachers to be back in school too early and days that I was sure needed to be added to calendar were simply missing. I remember my reaction and then my immediate action to scrap the calendar and build the calendar “correctly”. I was fortunate to have a staff member that interrupted my rabid and fervent reconstruction before I got too far. She shared some information that made it extremely clear that not only was there a rationale behind the decisions made, but that in fact, my “corrections” would have not only been wrong, but more than likely would have placed a very large cloud over my head before ever having the chance to lead this district. As a rookie eager to make my mark, I did what many of us have done and that is try to right a wrong without ever determining if it really was wrong.. I did not ask, “Why?” I did not seek out input, I simply reacted blindly.
The rule of “Why?” is powerful. Generally you can expect one of three things to result when asking the question:
- You determine that the reason was based in the most sound, well vetted process and is by far the best and most efficient way to operate.
- You determine that most of the reason behind the decision is sound, but after some investigation determined that some tweaks and changes would improve the practice in question.
- TWWADI (The Way We Always Did It) is in fact in play and no one can even answer the question.
Number three reminds me of a story that one of my first principals, Judy Zimmerman, told when I was just starting out as a teacher. You may know it, but it is the story of How to Cook a Roast. Without belaboring the story, as it goes, for generations and generations the recipe had been handed down from mother to daughter again and again and again. One key to the recipe is lopping off both ends of the roast before setting it into the oven to bake. After 5 generations of using this recipe exactly as outlined, the daughter asks her mother, “Mommy, why do you cut off the ends of the roast before we put it in the oven?” The mother thinks to herself and replies, “Daughter, I am not sure, but I know that is how Grammy told me to do it.” The inquisitive child, not accepting of the TWWADI response, began to investigate. Upon her findings in an old recipe book she uncovers the mystery. Back in the day of her Great, Great, Great Grandmother, ovens were much smaller than they are now and in order to fit the roast into the oven, they had to lop off the ends.
In any organization, and without question in probably every school system, there are practices that have gone untouched for decades. The power of “Why?” offers a pathway that all can get behind. It affords all stakeholders to begin to formulate an answer, which requires both an analytical and historical perspective. The trick for the new leader is to ask questions, rather than state issues or concerns. Walking into a school and dismantling all aspects without ever attempting to understand them causes a sense of distrust, while asking questions gives ownership to the members and you the opportunity to learn. Judgment and critical commentary hinder both. In no way I am suggesting to just continue to lop off the ends of the roast, but who knows, maybe you are dealing with unusually small ovens. The point is that you do not know and one of the best ways to find out is to ask.
The beginning months in a new leadership position such as superintendent are critical and although people are looking to see that you are knowledgeable, a quick study and decisive, they also want to be respected. You can offer both by being astute and placing the pressure of “Why?” at the points that need it most. Far more often than not, when you have tapped into the right area, the group has been waiting for someone to notice and they will be eager to jump in with you. Of course there will be the TWWADI folks, which is sometimes the deterrent to why we don’t ask, but don’t let them stop you from asking. I believe you will find that not only will there be great support, but you will actually have used the knowledge of the group to achieve greater success and a better solution. I, and the district, were very fortunate to have an independent, objective partner asking questions and helping to establish the importance of asking questions and seeking input. Education Elements was pivotal in our transition and offered an unbiased, non-threatening view that put folks at ease in discussing the district honestly and openly.
When I arrived in my newest position I recall having a conversation with some folks and mentioned my recent work in personalized learning. It was evident that the term was not a term typically used in the district. I will admit that at first blush I was taken back as the concepts of PL are so grounded in best practice and currently one of the larger movements in the field.
I was immediately placed in a position to choose a path. I chose to ask questions and to study. Fortunately, I chose correctly as although the term PL was not being used, the tenants of PL were alive and visible throughout the district. Now we can build off existing systems, rather than the new Sup coming in and tearing down solid practice just because a different name was used. I ask, "Why?" quite frequently and it continues to serve me well. I am confident that the work we will do in PL as well as anything else we seek to explore will be done with collaboration and open minds. I look forward to it all knowing that a culture of Why will help shape our work.
About Scott Feder - Guest Author
Scott Feder is the Superintendent of Schools for The South Brunswick School District in New Jersey. South Brunswick is a high performing, diverse K-12 district with approximately 9,000 students. In this 3rd superintendency, Scott continues to build relationships with stakeholders in identifying The practices that will impact students learning at the highest levels. A former LELA Fellow in Personalized Learning, Scott brings his perspective on the importance of educating every child in a personalized approach.