The mountain before us does not impede us from our destination — it is the solution.
It is no secret that Steve Jobs embraced may tenets of Buddhism. Although I am a Christian by practice and belief, as a principal I saw much value in the ancient wisdom written in the ancient verses of the Tao. One of the concepts of eastern philosophy that I found particularly helpful to me as a leader was the idea that the solution to most problems was realized when the leader embraced the authentic reality of a problem as being one and the same as the solution.
Think of it this way: What if our planet were threatened by an enormous astroid? We could try to blow it up and break it into small parts, but we would still have to contend with meteorites striking our planet and causing harm. The reality of the problem is not so much the asteroid, but that the asteroid is being pulled toward our planet by gravity. Were scientist to position an opposing mass near the asteroid and then used the natural gravitational pull between the positioned mass and the asteroid to shift the trajectory of the asteroid enough that our planet was spared a collision, the problem for us is resolved peacefully. This proposition can be used as a corollary to help us examine and solve educational problems.
Too often, whether it be low test scores, poor attendance, teacher moral, or community disengagement, school leaders focus the majority of their energies in trying to eliminate what they perceive to be a road block to a solution that they have identified as an educational goal. This type of thinking is only beneficial if the goal one has in mind is to drive those who are working on the solution insane. It is akin to trying to hold back the ocean tides in the middle of a hurricane. Metaphorically speaking, rather than building more dikes and storm walls to combat rising waters, the innovative leader builds boats or moves the people to higher ground.
In the world of education I can think of one particularly good example of how the problem and the solution are integrally tangled together. The progressive and creative leader understands the futility of forcing children living in poverty to attend more remediation classes or giving them longer school hours; instead, they respond by creating schools that engage children so thoroughly and creatively that the students then find themselves being pulled upward by their own intrinsic curiosity and desire to explore. Literally, children in schools that partner with the natural gravitational force of a child’s innate desire to learn find their students rising to the occasion of success in boats of their own making and therefore freeing themselves from the ravages of poverty and social injustice.
Families living in poverty and beaten down by institutional social justice are not complacent or naturally accepting of their situation. Perceptive educators use the reality of these conditions to become the kindling that ignites the thirst for self-improvement and self-actualization. In order to do this successfully, leaders must be willing to rethink their organizational mindsets and beliefs and be willing to expand their thinking in a way that illuminates the reality of who they serve. With this mindset in place, teachers can develop and implement new and innovative pathways to success and education. Leaders must be given the mandate to creatively reimagine everything their school does and begin the process of working with the community to create life-rafts and floating ladders that are accessible to everyone in the murky waters of economic and social disparity. Solutions that may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, more often than not are the only solutions that can bring resolution.
Douglas Sexton, Ed.D.
I've been in education for over 32 years. During that time, I've served as a bus driver, teacher, principal, and an assistant professor. Throughout the years, I've often thought about leadership and to this day, I continue to think about it. I find myself wondering, "What makes a leader successful?" These musings, as my graduate students put it, are my Tao.