Every year as Superintendent I have the opportunity to talk with our Worthington Schools staff as we open the school year at our Convocation. It’s the one day where all 1300 of our team members are in the same place. I cherish the opportunity to spend time with our team and attempt to set the direction for the school year.
Each year I attempt to give a TED style talk and this year our focus is on how we navigate the inevitable changes that must occur in Worthington in order to create our shared positive future. Here’s the speech I plan to give….
“In the fall of 2008, I had the opportunity to come back to Worthington Schools as the Coordinator of Human Resources. This was my first of several positions working at the Worthington Education Center. Back in 2008, our Director of Curriculum and Instruction was Jennifer Wene. Jennifer had been in this role from some time and led our Academic Achievement and Professional Development work in Worthington until she retired in July of 2017. Thus, for my first nine years working at the WEC we followed the structures and processes that Jennifer put in place. Sometimes I agreed with those structures and processes, sometimes I didn’t. When I became Superintendent in 2015 we made Jennifer our Chief Academic Officer. I was smart enough not to mess with Jennifer Wene and whether I agreed with everything she did or not, things were predictable and I understood how things would work.
When Jennifer retired we selected Angie Adrean as our Chief Academic Officer. Angie had recently been the Principal at Worthington Kilbourne High School and while she was an experienced and very successful school administrator she was new to the WEC. For the 17-18 school year Angie did a lot of listening and learning. Most all of Jennifer’s structures stayed in place. From my perspective things were running great. Last summer Angie came to me and explained that she was going to make a few minor shifts in how we meet, when we meet as a WEC team, etc…. I really didn’t think much of it. I mean, O.K. Make some shifts. But…then she kind of rocked my world a bit.
Under Jennifer our AAPD team would meet on Friday mornings. We had Friday morning stand-up meetings, full department meetings, meetings with our instructional coaches, etc… Friday always started with these meetings and I enjoyed that. But Angie wanted to move the Friday meetings to Thursday. After watching, listening and learning Angie had a very strong rationale for this change. While sitting across from me in my office she laid out her rationale and all I heard was the teacher on Charlie Brown. My brain was frozen. I couldn’t listen, I was thinking, but, but, but these are FRIDAY meetings! You can’t have FRIDAY meetings on Thursday! Seriously, who would move a Friday meeting to Thursday? If it’s a Thursday meeting it’s not a Friday meeting and seriously this is a ludicrous conversation. I mean, it’s a FRIDAY meeting, duh! Luckily all of this stayed in my head. With a dazed and confused look on my face I think I was able to mumble a quiet, “O.K. sure” Thursday meetings….
All year I was confused. Why were all these people standing around on Thursday? Why didn’t I ever see the instructional coaches on Friday anymore? Then it would hit me. We don’t have Friday meetings anymore. We moved all of that to Thursday to better support our schools on Friday. Right. That was the correct call. But, man, for such a small change I was struggling to adapt. “Come on. Pull yourself together dude. You’re the Superintendent a small change shouldn’t be this hard…”
Likewise, I’ve been working at the WEC for 11 years. I have a level of seniority at the WEC. I mean obviously old dudes like Keith Schlarb and Tim Gehring have been here longer but I’ve been here a long time and I liked to park my big old Ford F-150 in a spot at the edge of the parking lot far away from the building. Really this was for two reasons. 1. I need the steps and 2. I’m a kid from Worthington and my truck parking skills may leave a little to be desired. Thus, I parked everyday in the same undesirable spot straight North of Christy Dewees’ office.
Two summers ago I pulled into the WEC and there was an SUV parked in my spot. Initially I thought, “Man, we need to stop letting the public use the WEC!” But the spot was not reserved or anything. I mean it really didn’t need to be, it was a bad spot. But on this day it had been taken. By the time I left that evening the spot was empty.
The next morning I pulled in and the SUV was in my spot again. Hmmm… Not cool. Again, by the time I left for the night the spot was empty. The following day, the same thing. And again, and again. Now, rationally this shouldn’t have bothered me. There were other spots to park in and this wasn’t even a good spot. But…when it comes to change we sometimes throw rational thought out the window.
I began to spend long periods of time in the afternoon looking out Christy’s window trying to see who had parked in my spot. Eventually Christy asked, “Trent, what’s the deal? Why are you hovering behind me looking out the window?” I was a bit embarrassed but Christy knows me well so I told her the truth. Plus she had better access to the window and she could help me watch. Christy was like, “You know I could just go out and put a cone out there.” I thought, hmmm good idea but I didn’t want to admit that I was a bit neurotic and I just said, no, no it’s not a big deal but maybe you could just keep a look out for me. Weeks passed. For weeks I had to park in random spots. One of those weeks I stood on this stage and I shared with all of you that we need to keep “Big things Big, Small things Small.” (I still wear the bracelet as a reminder.) Clearly this was a small thing and yet…man it was bugging me. Who stole my parking spot? Are they just trolling me? Am I somehow on Candid Camera? There are 500 parking spots at the WEC. IT’S NOT EVEN A GOOD SPOT!
It shouldn’t have mattered to me at all. But it did. The change was small but I didn’t like it and I certainly wasn’t reacting well to it. By the way, about a month in we discovered our new Food Service Director, Brian Hunt, had taken my spot. Brian!
In Worthington we have a group of Central Office Administrators that we call Cabinet. It includes all of our Directors at the WEC along with Treasurer Jeff McCuen and Assistant Treasurer TJ Cusick. We meet twice each month to review the work and direction of the school district and we always meet in room 220 of the WEC.
For those meetings the room is set-up as a square. It’s been set-up as a square since I joined Worthington in 2008. There are no assigned seats for the meeting but most of the time people choose to sit in their normal locations. Last spring I walked into 220 a little late and everyone was in the room but me. They were ready to meet. They had their materials. Some had lap-tops open. Cell phones had been left outside the room. Everyone was ready except the room was set-up like a U with a table up front. All of the tables weren’t connected and it certainly wasn’t in our usual square.
I looked around incredulous. I appreciate that everyone is here on time and ready to work but I’m thinking to myself I work with savages. Why aren’t the tables set-up? Now the story I’m telling myself in my head is not a good one. Are these people so lazy that they couldn’t move a few tables around? Do I really need to do everything in this school district myself? Now, I work with incredibly dedicated people and thus this story in my head is ridiculous, but come on now, why aren’t the tables set up correctly?
They looked at me. I looked at them. Then they all burst out laughing knowing that this table set-up would be more than I could bare. They got up and moved the tables around. I was a bit sheepish thinking, am I really that predictable and obvious? I could have held the meeting like that. Really, I could have…. I’m cool with change. You know Big things Big, Small things Small…
Whether it’s moving the Friday meetings to Thursday, where I park my truck (which btw I sold since I couldn’t park in my spot anymore) or how the room is set-up for cabinet I guess maybe I do struggle to handle change well. And I suspect I might not be alone in this regard. Public education and Worthington Schools have changed greatly over the past ten to twenty years but our brains have not. Part of the challenge we face is that we are working in a 21st century school district with brains that are designed for living on the savannah.
One part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) where we do all our planning, considered thinking and reining in our emotions, has evolved but the rest of the brain has not changed much at all, and therein lies the problem.
For our brains the key aim is survival, and they have done a good job of this, which is why we are all here today. To enable us to survive, the brain wants to do two key things: avoid threats and seek out rewards. Of the two, avoiding threats is by far the more important.
We can go without food, shelter, even water for a while but if the predator gets you then it’s ‘game over.’ As part of this drive to avoid threats, the brain wants to be able to predict and have certainty. If the brain can predict what is going to happen, then it is much better placed to protect us. It follows that when our brains have information and certainty they find this rewarding – it feels good.
For us in Worthington what does organizational change big or small mean? It means the brain cannot predict and certainty is taken away. Our brains find this very uncomfortable. It is as if an error alert has gone off and our brains cannot settle. The ‘fight or flight’ response has been triggered, sending blood to those parts of our brains that prepare us to run away or fight, and away from the prefrontal cortex where we do our considered thinking.
It takes a strong will to push past such mental activity — and the same is true on the level of organizational change. With even a small change we will experience discomfort. The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity for higher thought is decreased. Just trying to change a routine behavior sends out strong messages in the brain that something is not right. These messages grab our attention and they can readily overpower rational thought. Change itself thus amplifies stress and discomfort; and we all tend to underestimate the challenges inherent in implementation of change.
Yet, change happens all the time. It has been accurately said that the only real constant in our life is change. In Worthington we’re about to experience significant change. We’re planning to move 6th grade to our middle schools. We’re redesigning all of our middle schools and opening a new middle school in Perry. We’re working with our community in changing our middle school and high school feeder patterns. We’re adding modular classrooms. This year we will open with 20 modular classrooms across the district. We are constantly changing how we assess and teach primary reading. Recently, we’ve changed our math program and we live in a rapidly changing community and culture.
In addition, our students are changing and it’s clear that they have poorer emotional health thanks to new media. Twenge finds that new media is making teens more lonely, anxious, and depressed, and is undermining their social skills and even their sleep. iGens “grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet.” They spend five to six hours a day texting, chatting, gaming, web surfing, streaming and sharing videos, and hanging out online. In addition, students are considerably less independent to begin the school year and parents are far more protective than parents were in previous generations.
I recently heard that there are two truths: No one likes change and no one likes when nothing changes. So, if we’re wired to resist change and change is constant HOW do we respond? As we begin this school year we all have to ask ourselves that question. Change will happen. I know my brain is wired to resist it. But HOW I choose to respond means everything.
I can resist and just allow it to happen. That’s an option. When I choose that path it puts me in survival mode. I’ll likely live through it but I’ll spend my emotional capital bemoaning the change. I’ll remember the past with fondness but likely not accuracy and that tension will always be bubbling right below the surface. If we’re not careful we can spend our lives in survival mode. Never rising out of it. Showing up for work everyday just thinking about how much better the past was.
A better option than choosing to live in survival mode is to recognize that our expectations shape our reality. If we’re intentional in the change process we can move from survival to belonging. HOW we react to change matters. Through focusing on the positives of the change and through dedication, hard work, and caring for one another we can move from survival to belonging. When we move to belonging our energies and talents come together to fulfill the greater purpose of our work in serving others.
HOW we do anything means everything! How we choose to react to change big or small will determine the life we live. Collectively, when we understand how we’re wired to resist but instead choose to focus on the positive aspects of change we can come together to create the future we seek both for one another as professionals and for the students we serve. In Worthington our mission is to empower a community of learners who will change the world! In our constantly changing environment HOW we do anything will mean everything!
This year in Worthington we’re focusing on the HOW. How we care for our kids. How we work with our community. How we together tackle the inevitable changes that we seek. How we do anything means everything. Together we will grow and excel! Go be awesome this year!”