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April 23, 2011

Big lessons from little stories

by Chris Lindholm

My writing has been very sparse lately and to those who read this blog, I am sorry about that.  I believe we all go through what I call “seasons” in life when our hearts make our minds think we have little to share with others that is of much value.  I certainly do not believe that is true for myself or anyone else, but my heart of late has been far stronger than my mind and winning the “you need to write” battle.  This school district is packed with incredibly passionate and hard-working people who are no doubt being affected by the significant changes taking place, and to be transparent, I have struggled to find ways to express how that weighs on me in this new district level role.  I believe I was quite successful as a building principal at sharing in the emotional toil that was created by decisions that had to be made – but that directly impacted individuals we cared about in our school family.  Bottom line – they knew that I knew and that I cared about each of them.  They understood that I am human and feel pain just like everyone else.  Yes I was intentional about showing and speaking to matters of the heart, and yes, I believe that is what great leaders and great teachers do.  I have fallen very short of meeting this expectation as a district leader and have been reflecting a great deal on how to make it right. 

A while back my daughter won the draw on picking a movie for “Family Novie Night” at the Lindholm’s (I still love that she doesn’t say it right…).  The winner was “Horton Hears a Who,” the 2008 movie based on a classic Dr. Seuss book.  Like most good movies or books for kids, this show sent my mind spinning into a whirlwind of thoughts about the perspective each of us brings to issues or situations.  Horton, an elephant, hears a scream from a passing speck of pollen or dust floating through the air and he believes that someone on the that speck needed to be helped – and the race was on.  In true elephant stampede fashion that disturbs and upsets everyone else in the jungle, he manages to catch the speck on a flower that he snatched and he establishes communication with the mayor of “Who-ville.”  Every creature of the jungle believes Horton has lost his mind and most turn against him – he is talking to a flower after all!!  Poor Horton pays an incredible price as he struggles to do the right thing and no one else can see, hear, or understand it.  They have to get rid of Horton – yet his sacrifice isn’t the whole story…   

The mayor of Who-ville has lost his mind.  He actually believes there is a much bigger world beyond their city and that an elephant is holding their current reality – all they know and understand – under his careful watch.  The mayor’s discovery is so absurd that he hides it as long as he can while toiling over how to keep the people he loves safe – while in the hands… errr… trunk… of an elephant.  As news of his discovery gets out, the people of Who-ville want the mayor removed from office and fight his every step to help them.  The poor mayor sees the tragedy spiralling out of his control and can’t figure out how to get others to see what he sees. 

Horton and mayor work through parallel struggles.  Horton has to get the others in the jungle to hear the people of Who-ville so they will understand and believe his efforts are the right thing to do.  The mayor has to get the people of Who-ville to hear Horton through the mini-atmosphere of that speck and understand that their entire reality is dependent on a relationship with their caretaker.  Their efforts seem to get undermined over and over again as Horton struggles to keep them safe in a jungle full of creatures out to get him.  Each decision he makes to run, jump, or move quickly results in the people of Who-ville flying around and getting hurt and more angry.  Every new chase seems to unravel the hard work of the mayor to build relationships or understanding and all seems hopeless until the very end.  It isn’t a grand plan or any stroke of genius that brings peace to Who-ville and justification to Horton.  Much like life, it’s a bit of luck and deep roots of admirable character and purpose that make it all end up right.  The mayor’s consistent evidence of love for his son results in having a needed comrade in the heat of battle, and Horton’s true friends finally hear what Horton had heard through the entire story…  a people who had a need.  “Even though you can’t hear or see them at all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.” 

I can connect with Horton in this season of change trying to balance budgets, aligning organization structures to our mission, and sprinting to the end of the academic year.  He put it all on the line to protect his people from monkeys, buzzards, and jungle creatures trying to ensure Who-ville would be put in a place safe from water, wind, and other hazards.  Our principals and administrative team have worked tirelessly in recent weeks trying to navigate changing legislation, dropping revenue, declining enrollment, and competitive pressures unlike any in the recent history.  Difficult decisions have been made in the process and the leadership roles call for extreme care in how news is communicated to ensure we are treating each person sensitively.  Often that means being unable to publicly explain or defend pieces of decisions so as to protect individuals from being told news that may impact them personally from the wrong person or through the wrong process.  Sometimes, like with Horton, actions have to be made on behalf of the community that impact individuals in a difficult way.  Like Horton, the principals and administrators here feel that greatly. 

I too connect with the mayor in this season.  People all around me, whom I am responsible for leading, are impacted and hurting due to some things I can control and due to many things I cannot control.  Like the mayor, I wrestle with how to help others see why the organizational changes taking place are absolutely necessary and definitely not the end of making change.  The larger world around us is demanding a much leaner, more focused, and more nimble organization, and change will be the one constant moving forward.  We need to come together and develop a “Who-ville wide” understanding of this reality to better collaborate on how we address the realities ahead.  The people of Who-ville were heard (and saved) only when they captured the power and volume of working as one voice. We educators need to do the same.

No question this is a difficult season of leadership for me, and it is clearly a much more difficult season for many, many people around me.  I believe difficult seasons are necessary for great leadership, as they make our roots of understanding deeper and stronger building compassion and sensitivity.  Like Horton and like the mayor, I don’t claim to be the brightest bulb or have the most brilliant plans.  I do hope for a bit of luck on occasion, and I believe solid character and values win in the end.  The weeks ahead will include trying to stay focused on student learning while Improvement Plans and PD plans are written for 2011-12, a district budget is discussed, mulled over, and decided upon by the school board, and dozens of programs take place celebrating the hard work of our students and staff.    In this flurry of activities, let’s remember Horton’s words, “Even though you can’t hear or see them at all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.”  Let’s do our best to see issues from multiple perspectives, try to walk in each other’s shoes, and remember we are all people who feel and care.  Let’s intentionally live out the “community” part of being a Professional Learning Community and get to the finish line of this season together.

cc photo of snow by Alarobric on Flickr

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