A few years ago in Stowe, Vermont, I took part in a leadership training — the Executive Champions Workshop — hosted by the Society for Organizational Learning. Honestly, at first I wasn’t sure why I was returning to this workshop. I had attended the year before, and had been profoundly inspired after hearing Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders recount what led to the famous “Earth Rising” photo. Seeing earth from that distant perspective, he explained, “turning the camera around” on our planet, enabled people to view the world with more open hearts, and begin to act from a sense of greater connection to all of mankind. I realized then that “turning the camera around” was a deeply meaningful act for organizations and individuals, myself included. Could this session possibly affect me in an equally meaningful way? I’m a believer in the power of coaching and the importance of practice. But why was I here? What questions was I interested in exploring? What was I called to do now?
And suddenly, there it was. The most magnificent rainbow I’d ever seen. I snapped this photo on my way to our first session. On one side of the road, in the valley, were the remnants of the storm I’d driven through the night before and on the other, to the west, a sunny sky emerging. In between — wow! Spectacular!
In my first check-in with the folks I’d just met, as I shared a painful personal journey I’d experienced in the past year, the idea began to emerge for me that when we take on really hard things, when we step out and step forward and put ourselves in a place of uncertainty and the unknown, there are good things on the other side — sometimes, literally, a rainbow. But I still wondered, why was I here?
Certainly this was an opportunity to reset and connect. To better understand that none of us can go it alone, that we need each other. That is why I was grateful to share this place and space with three of my colleagues, and 60-plus other people from around the world. There is also something special in spending the better part of three days outside, literally and symbolically taking off our shoes and putting our feet in the grass; to connect with nature and be closer to the divine. But why was I really here?
Was it to better understand how we need to lead differently when the road ahead is increasingly chaotic? Was it remembering that I am not alone in my fight for real change in public education? Or that real change occurs both inside and outside? Was it about the importance of reflection? How about the leadership trait of humility? Or courage? Or opening the heart and being vulnerable? Of being reminded who needs to lead — all of us? And perhaps the Chinese proverb: “To be a leader you first must be a human being”? Yes, all of this.
And still I was left wondering. Why this place? Why now? By the end of the first day, I wrote three golden nuggets in my journal. First, the image of a campfire around which we all are invited to come and share — to be vulnerable, to be real, and to be human. Second, the importance of having some disciplined practice in your life that energizes and restores you from the inside. For me, it is daily meditation. Third, that leading is about stepping out: putting yourself in a place of the unknown.
What also emerged for me was a question I wanted to explore. How do we really move beyond the singular focus of what is best for “me” to the broader notion of “we”?
On day two, we were reintroduced to the idea that energy follows attention, and we therefore need to be intentional about where we focus our attention. This work, ultimately, is about deepening the way we pay attention, which brings us back to the power of awareness.
I found myself appreciating that so many situations and moments we find ourselves in are generated by habit — not awareness. A huge "aha" moment was when a moderator shared: "We have to let awareness catch up to reality.” What are the implications of this as I think about transforming public education? How about when it comes to addressing issues of race and class, which so dominate the conversation, and the silence?
And what about “we?” When “we” enters the dialogue, awareness is showing up.
For me, this shift is about not always being in front. It’s about not being the loudest or the funniest, the smartest or the wittiest, the richest or the best dressed. It’s about being part of something bigger than ourselves.
It became clear to me on day three why I had come to Stowe, to this field under the tent, and into this circle with others. It was to give thanks for the opportunity to turn the camera around and learn who I was. It was to give me the compassion to open my heart to myself — and to others — and to give me the courage to get myself “unstuck.” It was to remind others that they too can have the curiosity, compassion, and courage to get themselves and others unstuck. We all can choose to do so.
So too is this true in public education. We don’t need to stay stuck like charter and regular schools fighting rather than collaborating, and educating children September through June when we know children learn all year long. Why do we still see kids sitting in rows in classrooms with teachers lecturing when we know children learn differently? And why do we still assess children’s knowledge with standardized tests, requiring them to memorize material, instead of truly demonstrating what they know through performance assessments and portfolio defenses?
Are we willing to turn the camera around and truly look at how we are educating and developing our children? Can we really see beyond ourselves, our habits, our ways of thinking, our assumptions and beliefs about public education, and find ways to come together around a new way?
I so wish I’d had these experiences and opportunities to build these skills, capabilities, and sensibilities while I was Superintendent of Schools in Sacramento. How might this have shaped my attitudes and beliefs and those of my team? Could it have impacted our work? Enabled us to build stronger relationships with our partners and community, to plan more thoughtfully how we supported our teachers, principals, families, and students? Would we have used our limited resources better?
We need to lead differently in education and to do so requires us to gather new knowledge. Fortunately, NASS and some of our partners are designing and developing a leadership institute that will expose teams to new skills and tools to support their efforts to transform how children are being educated. Through these partnerships, and a willingness to step forward and work together in different ways, we can truly support children to thrive in a world we can’t even imagine.
Finding another way to educate and develop the whole child requires us to keep our eye on a new North Star, guided by a vision that both turns the camera on ourselves, and looks outward with empathy and compassion.