The National AfterSchool Association is the leading voice of the afterschool profession dedicated to development, education, and care of children and youth during their out of school hours.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Can you see beyond the trees?

At a recent professional conference, I listened to a former Chicago principal and a parent advocate tell their mutual story about transforming their failing school into one that became highly performing and sought after by other Chicago parents. Needless to say, their shared vision and work was impressive. Yet, when they asked for questions, I observed how difficult it was for others from a rural setting to relate and envision similar transformation processes for themselves and their schools. One participant openly bemoaned a lack of resources in her rural area, stating that “there were more sheep than people in her school attendance area.” She cited that increasing numbers of poor people were moving in with other family members to pool resources because of the severe lack of jobs.

Many might have witnessed a similar scenario. Is what happens in the big city really applicable to a small, rural area? How replicable are urban school and afterschool transformations in other settings? It didn’t take long for me to realize that the bigger problem was that the rural attendee couldn’t see the forest for the trees – and I don’t think she really wanted to try.

Her questions centered around comparing the resources available in Chicago to the lack of those in her rural community. Because the presenters enjoyed proximity and ready access to volunteers and donated resources, the rural participant couldn’t envision how she could begin to realize any similar kinds of transformation for her school. All she could see were the sheep. She struggled to look beyond. Even when the presenters suggested partnering with 4-H, agribusiness, gardening groups, or faith-based organizations, she continued to bemoan the challenges of her rural predicament.

She never saw a bigger picture.

This scenario plays itself out too often. This session quickly turned into a comparison of apples and oranges, plentiful urban resources v. rural poverty. The participant completely missed the importance of visioning to a transformation process and the passions, desire, and commitment of the parent and principal. And because of their personal humility, they didn’t talk a lot about their feelings or how they each envisioned, internalized, and outwardly experienced the change process. 

Without doubt, many factors contributed to the successful transformation. Obviously, the presence of highly educated, talented, reform-minded parents was significant. Ready access to merchants, sponsors, and competent volunteers helped. But they also faced many obstacles. The facility was over 100 years old. There were naysayers and obstructionists among the school staff and community. These are common and present in all settings. There were also self-doubts and mistakes.

It was enjoyable listening to visionary leaders. They weren’t sharing a make-it, take-it process. They were telling their story. But that, in essence, became the problem. We’ve become so conditioned to sitting, getting, and following a prescriptive plan that we’ve forgotten how to listen and learn from the message and the moral behind every story. When presenters don’t provide how-to specifics, many participants leave in disappointment. By sharing their story, the presenters hoped others’ thinking would be changed to envision improvements and change in their unique settings. Sadly, I observed outstanding leaders sharing success of their visionary work and a room full of participants missing the big picture. To lead, you have to see both the forest and the trees and envision how to maneuver among each. A major challenge for presenters is to teach others how to think and act like a leader through the art of storytelling.

One of the benefits of attending professional conferences is the ready opportunity to open yourself to new ideas. You learn by making connections. I saw that happening in this workshop. But it’s highly doubtful that the rural participants followed up by reading the presenters’ book, networking, or working to build a relationship with the Chicago presenters. To learn new ideas, we must listen, ask questions, follow-up, and independently search for meaning and applicability to our lives and work. Most of all, we must be able to dream and envision ourselves replicating what we hear and learn within our individual settings no matter where it is or how challenging it might appear to be.

Why do so few succeed at leading change and transforming afterschool programs? Because it is exceedingly hard work, dangerous, and requires a long-term commitment to a vision that many struggle to see and develop. Leading change requires a personal engagement outside our comfort zones. Too many people become mired in a mindset or act like “horses wearing blinders.” We learn too quickly to squash ideas that appear to have any risk or limitations.

All of us will benefit by opening our schools and afterschool programs and actively inviting partners in. But before they arrive, we need a clear vision of shared responsibilities and desired outcomes for partnerships. If people suddenly began appearing from behind the trees and from deep within the forest, would we be prepared and know what to do with them?  

Tough times don't last, but tough people do. Get out and steal ideas. Apply them to your unique setting.

Kids learn best when they are motivated to do so and when their learning is real. So do we.

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