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A ‘balcony’ perspective while in the moment

February 03, 2020

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of perspective.

This might seem natural as I prepare to transition to a new role as dean of Drake University’s School of Education this spring. However, I also thought about it in the context of teaching and leadership during the recent Emerging Educators Academy, where I was invited to speak. Perspective was this year’s theme.

I recalled what Ron Heifitz and Marty Linsky stated in their book, Leadership on the Line: “Few practical ideas are more obvious or more critical than the need to get perspective in the midst of action… Great athletes can at once play the game and observe it as a whole.”

This approach is also true of great teachers. They can toggle between being wholly absorbed at one moment in teaching students and in an instant take, as Heifitz and Linsky call it, a “balcony perspective” of the action in the classroom. I’ve seen this alternating perspective approach countless times in my school visits across Iowa.

For example, I love watching elementary teachers work one-on-one with a student on a challenging reading or math lesson and then catching that teacher for a quick visit about how that one student interaction fits within the bigger picture of what the teacher is hoping to accomplish with the class as a whole.

And at the other end of the age spectrum, I always enjoy it when a construction teacher wipes the sawdust from his or her hands after building a house or some other impressive structure with students to shake my hand and tell me about the skills the students are developing and how these skills set them up to be college and career ready. Again, the teacher moves seamlessly between being in the moment with students while maintaining a balcony perspective on where the lesson should lead them.

A critical challenge to maintaining a big-picture perspective is the siren’s call of distractions that seem urgent at the time but ultimately threaten to shipwreck the learning journey.

One of my favorite books is Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions by James Ryan. In the book Jim examines five critical questions. The fifth and final is, “What truly matters?” 

As Jim states, “It’s the question that can help you separate the truly important from the trivial and can help you maneuver through the minutiae in pursuit of the momentous.”

This is the most important question all educators – first year teachers, teacher leaders, administrators, counselors, and even the Department director – need to consistently ask in order to maintain a healthy and helpful perspective.

Teaching and learning can be an overwhelming process. It’s easy for all of us to feel outmatched by the task in front of us. But when we are able to step back and take a balcony perspective to identify what matters most, we not only feel a sense of relief but also increase our effectiveness.

I’ll always remember the afternoon before my first day as a teacher. It was August 1998 in Tunica, Mississippi. The temperature hovered around 100 degrees and I was hot, tired and anxious about my very own students walking into my room for the first time. I wrapped up my final first-day preparations and stepped into a fellow first-year teacher’s classroom, only to find her buried in rolls of paper as she attempted to create, from scratch, a wall-sized atlas in her room. While this was a cool idea, both she and her students would have benefited had she scrapped the project and gotten a few more hours of sleep.

Fast forward 17 years and I was walking into the Grimes Building in Des Moines as director of the Iowa Department of Education. By then, I had seen, and attempted, enough wall-sized atlas projects to know the importance of focusing on what mattered most. At the same time, though, I felt an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility to tackle head-on every problem that came across my desk.

While it took a few years to articulate, I eventually discerned that what mattered most was focusing my time on those things that ensure every learner in Iowa is safe, healthy, engaged and prepared.

After years of practice, I’m now better equipped to be in the moment and meet the challenges that are both urgent and important while never losing sight of the bigger mission and vision of our work.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on October 20, 2021 at 5:57pm.