Professional Learning

How to Divorce Your District

June 20, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

Nineteen years ago I joined the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in Oakland, Calif., and at the end of June I will resign. I've never been through a divorce with a spouse and I don't mean to precisely equate my experience with what I know (as a child of divorce) is an intensely painful experience, but it feels like the closest equivalent as I end the longest professional association of my life.

In OUSD, I taught second through eighth grade with middle school students being my favorite. I helped start the school ASCEND, a phenomenal school, and learned what is possible when a group of people put their heads, hearts and hands together. This experience catapulted me into the awareness that in order to transform schools we'll need to pay a lot more attention to professional development for teachers and leaders. I became an instructional coach, then a leadership coach, and finally an administrator leading a team of coaches.

The memories are a flood of emotions. What stands out are the faces of the kids I taught, the images of their faces as they learned something new, the conversations with their parents, the visits to their homes, the joy of being at their high school graduations, the love I felt for them (swells of gratitude for those opportunities). This is what I'll let be dominant and not the dysfunction.

I no longer feel that what I have to offer can be received in this district. For the last five years, many of the efforts at transformation that I have been involved with have been stifled, dismantled, or shut down without explanation. I live in Oakland, I love this city, and I wanted to retire from this district, but I have to accept that what I want to give -- in the way of school transformation -- can't, at this moment, be received. This was a difficult and painful awareness to land on.

I made my decision to leave in the early winter and since then I've been reflecting on this process of separation. I thought I'd offer some suggestions for how to divorce your district in case you're contemplating such a decision or leaving a meaningful professional relationship.

Know When It's Time to Go

John Gottman, a psychologist renowned for his work on marriage and relationships, says that for a relationship to be healthy, both positivity and negativity are necessary. The magic ratio is five-to-one: in a stable relationship there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative.

So how's your relationship with your school or district? When was the last time you received positive feedback on your work? Are there people who acknowledge your contributions?

In the last few years I've spent far more sleepless nights mulling over some work-related thing (often work-related drama) than over anything else in my life. I shed tears, invented new curse words, and spent hours in therapeutic coaching sessions with a friend trying to sort out my feelings about the district where I've worked. This year I recognized it was time to go. The magic ratio had tipped and there were a pile of other indicators pointing to the door.

Practice Systems Thinking

In difficult moments, we often blame to relieve emotional distress, at least this is my tendency. However, I also know that ultimately this doesn't make me feel better. As much as I'd like to blame a few people in OUSD for putting up barricades to what I'd like to offer the children, teachers, and administrators in this district, ultimately I can't blame any individual.

What relieves the emotional distress is practicing systems thinking -- a conceptual framework for seeing interrelationships and patters of change. (Here's a great resource on understanding systems thinking in education.) Systems thinking gives me perspective, insight, and understanding into the complexity of a large school district. It helps me acknowledge that nothing is personal -- not the barricades nor the lack of appreciation. It's a product of this dysfunctional beast of a system. I can stand back, far back, and say, wow, what a mess. I've seen this for years and have tried to work within it to change it but now it's time to leave.

Tell an Empowering Story

What will seal the emotional deal of my tenure in OUSD is how I choose to interpret my experience. I can tell a story in which I was a victim, unappreciated, and undervalued. Or I can say, "Right now, there isn't the kind of space I need here and so I'm choosing to leave." The way that we interpret difficult experiences is directly correlated to our emotional resilience, to how we bounce back from adversity.

Of my 19 years at my district, I'm going to tell a story in which my students and their parents appreciated me deeply, and in which I led an effort at transformation in one little corner of the district and created a healthy learning space for a group of coaches. I'm going to tell a story where I had agency and made decisions about my work and where I learned a tremendous amount and grew in ways I never expected. I'm going to spend many years telling this story.

Say Goodbye With Gratitude

The sadness I feel in leaving is tightly connected to the mountains of gratitude I feel for having been a part this district, for the people I've met, and for what I've learned. When I think over the years, I focus on remembering my beautiful, brilliant students, and the moments when we were both learning -- in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, as well as in our dingy portables and classrooms. I remember my optimism and excitement when we started ASCEND and I feel voluminous gratitude to those who led that effort. I think of the teachers and principals I coached and am grateful to have been a witness to their learning. I think of my colleagues who have generously pushed, counseled, and advised me; I've been incredibly lucky to have a continuous stream of amazing colleagues. And I think about the team of coaches I've led for the last two years: a group of people who have transformed the way I think about teams, what is possible when we work together, and who helped me discover who I am as a leader. I am so grateful.

When you leave your district, acknowledge the love and contributions.

Find the Humor

Humor has long been my family's antidote for adversity and I drew on that legacy this year. I also find music to be therapeutic and last December I created a "Playlist for Divorcing OUSD" which included, "I Will Survive," by Gloria Gaynor. In my car as I drove to work, I'd belt out the lyrics, I'm saving all my love for someone who's loving me.../ You think I'd crumble? You think I'd lay down and die?/ Oh no, not I.

I also found breakup songs in Spanish to be cathartic. I highly recommend, "Me Voy," by Julieta Venegas, who sings, Porque no supiste entender a mi corazón/ Lo que habia en él / Porque no tuvieste el valor de ver quien soy...Because you didn't know how to understand my heart/ because you didn't have the courage to see who I am...What a shame, but good bye/ I'm saying goodbye and I'm leaving/ Because I know something better is waiting for me/ Someone who knows how to love me... .

These lyrics helped me access the deep emotions and grief that this separation brings up. I'm grateful for this too -- the access allows for release and after the melodrama diminished, I'd laugh at myself.

Step Into the Future

I know that many of us are or have been in unhealthy professional relationships. I've definitely seen a lot of dysfunction and toxicity in the district where I've worked as well as elsewhere. If we're going to transform our schools, we'll need to attend to our relationships within organizations, to the ways we communicate, and how we make decisions and how we recognize and acknowledge strengths and areas for growth. This is the work I'll be doing: developing coaching programs, helping schools and districts become learning organizations in which everyone is engaged in refining their craft, and cultivating emotional resilience amongst educators. I know that if we're going to transform our schools into the kinds of learning places where our children will thrive we need to attend to the culture of the adults who work in schools. It's to this endeavor that I'll continue to offer my services.

My final day as a district employee will be June 30. On that day, I am committed to stepping into the future telling stories of gratitude for the 19 years that we were together and acknowledging that this district will always be a part of me. I'm a much better educator, mother, and human being because of it.

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