At a crucial point in our nation’s history when faced with unprecedented threats and challenges, one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, challenged his colleagues to consider their behavior and commitment to each other. He is quoted as urging, “We must, indeed, hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”
It is true that educators and educational leaders may not be facing the existential threat presented early in our nation’s history. Yet, it is difficult to deny the extraordinary circumstances and political attacks under which schools and school districts find themselves as we begin a new school year.
The disruption created by COVID-19 has left many students in a kind of “learning limbo” and families frustrated and impatient for stability and predictability. Meanwhile, conflicts over masking and other virus countermeasures continue. If these issues are not enough, educational policymakers, leaders, and educators are being barraged with accusations of biased instruction and engaging in the examination of issues some constituents want to be avoided. New laws are placing greater restrictions on what can be taught and even discussed in classrooms and with students.
Unfortunately, schools and school districts do not have a history of collaboration. Too often we choose to be competitive, even isolating. We focus internally and “do our own thing” rather than learning from and adapting what others have developed. In fact, sometimes a decision made in one school or school district can be the reason for making a different decision in another.
This tendency can deprive us of useful ideas, creative options, and effective strategies even in stable times. However, these are far from normal, predictable times. Still, many educational leaders are trying to “go it on their own” and are not reaching out to colleagues for advice and support or to engage in collaborative efforts.
It is time to put away our natural tendency and overcome our inclination go it alone. The issues facing schools now are not unique to any one school or community. In fact, some of the contentions and disruptions we are experiencing are not random, nor do they originate within any single community. Many of the conflicts and demonstrations are coordinated across communities and calculated to sow suspicion, doubt, and skepticism.
Of course, each of us reports to our own school board. They will make their own decisions within the bounds of state requirements and local policy. However, school board decisions are typically made with our advice and counsel. This is the way the system works. School boards depend on staff members to keep them informed, offer insights, and present well-informed recommendations. The leadership and policy support we provide locally can benefit from the thinking, experience, and successes of others within the region and beyond.
We do not need, nor should we attempt, to be in full lockstep with others who may not share cultural nuances and face circumstances different from ours. Just knowing the thinking, rationale, ideas, and options considered by others can position each of us to make wiser decisions.
Knowing the issues and challenges other leaders and organizations are facing can help us to plan and prepare should they spread to our communities. This knowledge can reduce the opportunities to be played against each other and criticized for not doing what others have decided to do. Further, the connections we make and relationships we build can give us important emotional and psychological support when we find ourselves buffeted by accusations, false assumptions, and untruths.
In the long term, the relationships and processes we develop to help us navigate the current circumstances can help us continue to learn and grow together when the issues we face have passed and a new set of challenges emerges. We can build a foundation of working together that reduces the likelihood that in the future we will have to consider whether we will “hang together, or hang separately.”