Taking Risks on the Mountain of Education

child skiingMelodie Wyttenbach has served as teacher, Principal and President at Nativity Jesuit Academy and worked with the NativityMiguel Network for a time as well.  She is now faculty in the Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame.  This week, I am reprinting her blog from one of the recent newsletters from the program which will provide an excellent segway in return to our school improvement focus.

Last week a friend shared with me the story of how he stood at the top of a mountain ski slope and watched his nine-year-old son successfully navigate his way to the bottom. “As a parent, we spend so much of our time trying to teach our children to do the right thing and make good decisions. When they’re on their own, we simply have to trust that what we teach them, they put into practice. Watching my son from the top, I was praying he’d make the right turn when he needed to, and he did. And when he needed to maneuver, so as to avoid another skier, he did. Slowly he made his way to the bottom — his accomplishment was pure joy for both of us.”

Essentially this is a story of risk-taking and how risk-taking yields learning. Our schools are filled with examples of risk-taking. Every time a student raises her hand, she is taking the risk of sharing what she does or doesn’t know. Every time a teacher voices an idea to a fellow teacher about a lesson plan, he risks his colleague embracing or disapproving the suggested way forward. Every time a leader shares with their staff why she is changing a given policy or practice, she risks teachers embracing or disagreeing with the change. In schools, risk-taking conversations are entered into daily. Whether it be between students-teachers, teachers-teachers, teachers-leaders, or parents-teachers, a common outcome results: it’s the hope that all will have walked away having learned something. As we observe these conversations in our schools and enter into them as leaders, we have to be asking ourselves: “Am I willing to risk what is familiar, safe, comfortable, known, and perhaps what works well for me, if in the end it means a better education for my students?”

Risk-taking is so crucial to schools today because learning is most transformative and enduring when we take risks and when we know someone is supporting us, even when we fail. In the short risk-taking story above, my friend was looking out for his son as a father. Whether he made it down the mountain or fell along the way, he was there for his son. As leaders or teachers, when our students fail, we encourage them to try another time, re-teach the lesson, and challenge them again to demonstrate their understanding. As school leaders, when we fail, a community surrounds us and at the center of that community is Christ, always there to dust us off and pick us back up.

Schools are about growth, learning, and success. Regardless of whether the risk taking results in success or failure, we need to accompany that with reflection, conversation, and efforts to make sense of the failure by asking ourselves: What happened? What was learned from the experience? If I had to do it over again, what would I do differently? Schools exist to promote learning, and learning cannot occur if risk-taking and supports aren’t inherent to a school’s culture.  In schools that allow for risk-taking, “ancora imparo” comes to life — parents, students, teachers, and leaders are always learning.

KIPP CEO Richard Barth stated, “Schools are cautious and confusing cages, where teachers, principals, and students try to create pockets of safety and sanity for themselves, reluctant to leave these safe quarters for parts unknown…Altering the way we have always done things carries costs of not only risk and failure, but sadness and loss.  In order to change and move to the new, we must accept and grieve the loss of the old.”

As we embrace Easter and the newness of life that comes with Christ’s resurrection, we are reminded of all that Christ risked for us. Draw upon his example, reflect on the risks you’ve taken and what you’ve learned about yourself and others in the process. While there will be a mix of emotions as you reflect — sadness, loss, laughter, and pure joy — I think you will be most grateful for those who accompanied you down those mountains.

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