Education Trends

It Takes Heart to Transform a School

Connecting heart and mind

April 18, 2012

I work as a Transformational Leadership Coach in the Oakland Public Schools. I coach individuals, schools, and the educational system towards transformation. But what is transformation? Is it possible to coach to something I can't define? I know that what we have now is not working for the majority of children. Beyond all the statistics about graduation rates and literacy levels, I know that most kids don't love school and wake up every morning aching to get to that place where their minds, bodies, hearts, and souls are nurtured.

I'm emerging from a week of break and contemplation on transformation, fueled in part by participation in Passover traditions. How convenient to have a structured and communal opportunity to reflect on the endeavor with which I am daily engaged.

In 1993, just after I graduated from college, I moved to Havana, Cuba, to work as a journalist. I was entranced by the Cuban Revolution and by the appeal of a complete overhaul of a country's political and economic system. There were numerous statistical indicators of socio-economic justice: high literacy rates, low infant mortality rates, and so on. But what I learned in the year and a half I lived there was so simple, so embarrassingly obvious: just because an economic system is replaced, even if it brings a measure of economic justice, it's not enough. So much of the same old remained: a power structure that mirrored the one that had preceded it, with it's pervasive racism, sexism, and homophobia. People were still cruel and mean to each other -- revolution hadn't changed that. This experience redirected my life.

Both Minds and Hearts

I'm very much in favor of nationalized health care, and of a more equal distribution of wealth. I'd love to see all kids learning and reading at grade level by 2014. I'd like to see some radically different systems in place in schools. But I also know that these can't happen without the simultaneous transformation of our hearts and minds. And so I try to work on both levels at once -- on the systemic and on the personal.

I know, unfortunately, that transformation isn't attainable by firing half the people in our schools, or by issuing a list of mandates and strategic plans. I suspect a few of the adults working in schools would be happier if they had different jobs away from children, but we need humane systems to evaluate and support teachers and administrators. I wish transformation could be attained by some heavy mandates; I can't stand what I see happening to kids every day, but it seems like it's going to take a very long time. And if we neglect the personal transformation of the people in the systems, we're going to end up replicating what we have now.

For the eight days of Passover, I didn't eat any chametz -- leavened grains. The Torah says that in the haste to leave Egypt, there was no time for the bread to rise, so the Israelites grabbed the dough and fled. During Passover, in remembrance, we eat only matzo (a flat bread). Some rabbis suggest that chametz symbolizes that which inflates our egos, and offer that the dietary restrictions are an opportunity to purge our egos.

Central to the Passover Seder (the ritual meal) is the story of the escape from slavery: we tell it to our children, dramatize it, and discuss and debate it. We look for relevance to our contemporary lives. This year, I found new meaning that startled me. I have always taken issue with Pharaoh's actions, and with some of God's decisions -- inflicting the Ten Plagues on the Egyptians, for example. Pharaoh isn't even phased by the suffering, so why punish all those innocent people? But I also empathize with God -- the injustice is tremendous and Pharaoh is a closed, stubborn creature. I understand how God's anger escalates.

As the first plagues are inflicted upon Egypt, the Torah tells us, several times, that "Pharaoh's heart hardened." Later, when Pharaoh doesn't budge, God continues to bring plagues on Egypt, and several times, the Torah says, "And the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart."

Making Connections

This is what caught my attention this year: the hardening hearts -- of the oppressor and the liberator. God wants freedom for the people and demands that power concede, but in the process, it seems that God's heart is hardening. In the end, yes, the Israelites escape Egypt, (although not all; many chose to stay in Egypt) but there's also a cost: the first born of every Egyptian is dead, Moses is so psychologically damaged that he can't enter the Promised Land, and the people wander around the desert complaining for 40 years.

This year what I noticed -- and I admit with some shame -- is that lately, in my efforts towards transformation, my own heart has been hardening. My patience has been flagging, my compassion dwindling. When I see stubborn opposition to change I want to respond with anger, with plagues. If I could, would I smite them all down?

This work, in schools, is hard. It can be draining and also fulfilling on many levels. There are a multitude of spiritual and secular traditions which can support us to reflect on our choices and actions and which offer different perspectives on the business of transformation. I am grateful to have had a break from chametz and work, to notice the state of my heart, deflate my ego, and walk amongst the foggy redwoods in the hills above Oakland. I'm ready to reengage in the effort of transformation of systems and people -- and recommit to keeping my heart soft.

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