Education depends on safe, orderly, predictable systems—something that the COVID-19 pandemic undermined. It’s taught many of us how interdependent we all are and how interconnected our systems can be.
There are examples on almost every level. Our regional educational school district, after moving locations, hasn’t had office furniture all year, due to the shipping crisis. I recently visited several middle schools that only have porta-potties after students vandalized bathrooms at the start of the school year, spurred by a destructive social media campaign. Orderly school board meetings are interrupted with heckles and protests around issues like masking and vaccination, reflecting raging culture wars. On the front yard of my local elementary school, a bus is parked with a giant banner advertising the desperate need for bus drivers, a dramatic display of the labor shortage throughout America. Administrators are acting as substitute teachers, mopping floors, changing diapers…whatever it takes to simply keep the system going.
It feels like chaos, and it isn’t just our systems that are falling apart—it’s people, too. The mental health crisis among children that was already occurring before the pandemic is at epic proportions, with reports that up to 80% of children are now suffering from depression, anxiety, and other issues. Articles that “the kids are not OK” were followed with articles of how “the teachers are not OK.” But what’s really not OK are the systems themselves.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” as the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said.
At the onset of the pandemic, some educators saw hope that perhaps as typical school systems were disrupted, things would never “go back to normal”—and that would be a good thing. Maybe the pandemic would be a catalyst for educators, students, parents, and community members to come together, on behalf of children, and totally rethink education and how we could better serve all children.
It’s a perspective that brings to mind the ideas of ecologist and Buddhist thinker Joanna Macy. She spoke of the “Great Unraveling,” a time when the colonial- and industrial-era systems that never were working for those on the margins would become so dysfunctional that society would begin breaking down—and even those who seemed to benefit from the systems would suffer.
Macy—along with other systems scientists like Margaret Wheatley—argued that this unraveling would give way to the “Great Turning,” when systems of oppression and competition would give way to new systems based on paradigms of equity, relational connection, and well-being.
Historically, times of change need strong, visionary leaders to harness positive outcomes. But, unfortunately, educational leaders have been under too much stress keeping up with day-to-day crises to imagine, much less implement, sweeping change of a kind people like Macy envision. For many, any optimistic images of “not going back to normal” have morphed into dystopian disarray.
Managing dystopia is certainly more in the comfort zone of education leaders than leading a turn toward a more equitable paradigm. Administrator licensure programs primarily train new leaders to comply with current laws and systems; they aren’t training administrators to be revolutionary! So not only are our public school systems not designed for second-order change—which requires changes in beliefs and behaviors—but our leaders are not trained for transformative change. That’s what drew me to participating in a new professional development program, Transformative Educational Leadership (TEL), which is designed to prepare leaders to effectively facilitate system-wide educational change—and evaluations so far suggest TEL’s efforts are paying off.
The science of transformation
In schools, there is a constant striving for improvement, but improvement—getting better at what we already do within the systems we already have—will never fundamentally change who we are or how we think. Improvement will never erase inequities. We will continue to get the same results unless we are able to see education in a completely new way.
First defined by sociologist Jack Mezirow in 1978, transformative learning theory recognizes that adults learn differently than children in some fundamental ways. When adults engage in learning, they bring with them a wealth of life experiences and a highly developed worldview. Adults’ prior knowledge is certainly an asset but also a stumbling block to learning, because it is difficult for adults to recognize their socially conditioned mental models.
There are essentially two types of learning—technical learning, where adults learn new knowledge or skills and assimilate that new knowledge within their current worldview, or transformative learning, in which adults open their minds to new ways of thinking and take on new roles and behaviors. Adult learning theory says that unless we engage in transformative learning, adults aren’t truly developing or expanding their capacities.
The same goes for organizations. Organizations, such as schools, can learn, but unless they are engaged in transformative learning, they aren’t changing the underlying beliefs and behaviors that created the inequitable outcomes we currently experience. As Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved with the same level of consciousness that created it.”
The challenge is that transformative learning isn’t easy. In fact, it’s terrifying.
Transformation is analogous to a chemical change—once it happens, there’s no going back. As individuals, when we transform, we give up who we are and enter the unknown to become someone new. As institutions, transformative change is difficult to endure. What if our school transformation effort fails and makes us look unprofessional, leads to more chaos, or, worst of all, harms children? Conditions can get a lot worse before they get better—a process that systems science calls an implementation dip.
Few school leaders naturally have the guts, the vision, the disposition, and the skill to lead transformation. Fortunately, I believe we can train leaders who can help staff, students, and families to understand what is happening and perhaps even get behind the transformation.
Transformative Educational Leadership
The founders of the TEL—Linda Lantieri, Meena Srinivasan, and Daniel Rechtschaffen—were all leaders of the social-emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness movements in education. When they designed TEL, they used the best in brain science as well as adult learning theory to create a program that addresses all levels of change—working from the whole person to the whole system.
The year-long TEL program begins with a five-day opening retreat in the summer and concludes with a parallel five-day retreat in the following summer, with a mid-year virtual three-day retreat in February. Cohorts also participate in regular bimonthly virtual gatherings throughout the course of the year. These webinars use flexible grouping for a variety of learning experiences: applied learning, racial affinity groups, role-alike groups, and the opportunity to intimately engage with thought leaders like john a. powell, Peter Senge, Zaretta Hammond, Daniel Goleman, Martin Brokenleg, and many more. Each session weaves contemplative practices with individual and small-group reflection, along with whole-group meaning-making where collective wisdom emerges.
TEL provides all this programming within a “beloved community,” offering a holistic, therapeutic approach to healing the trauma educators are experiencing and the psychological safety among their peers needed to critically reflect and to take risks, particularly around disrupting patterns of racial and systemic oppression.
So far, TEL has been implemented with two cohorts of 50–60 educational leaders, with the third beginning in July 2022. Early research findings on the TEL program indicate powerful results. In a multi-year study, Metis Associates captured quantitative and extensive qualitative data to generate a deeper and more meaningful understanding of TEL participants’ transformative experiences.
One of those participants was Emma Batten-Bowman, assistant principal at a high school in Oakland, California. Batten-Bowman came to TEL ready to quit her job, feeling fed up with what she calls the industrial complex of schooling. “TEL has changed me both personally and professionally,” she says. “I have always intellectually wanted and tried to pursue the threads of SEL, equity, leadership, and mindfulness, but TEL has brought the heart and regular practice to my intellectual commitment. Now, I love my job, I love my colleagues, and I now see a clear, sustainable path to lifelong work in education.”
TEL recognizes that transforming educators’ privilege, biases, and habits around race is more than a matter of asking people to “lean into discomfort,” as so many programs suggest. TEL employs transformative learning techniques to help educators experience deep learning at the subconscious and somatic levels, so they can authentically take that change into their schools.
From inner awareness to outer transformation
TEL’s theory of change is that when individuals develop and transform inwardly, they will take the kinds of actions at the personal, professional, and systemic levels necessary for every child and adult to flourish. Batten-Bowman’s TEL story describes how the process of cultivating her inner awareness helped transform her outer life as a leader.
Some of the strongest patterns in Metis’s research findings demonstrated a greater understanding of equity issues for TEL participants, particularly around race. Survey results from the Metis study reflect significant changes in TEL participants’ confidence and commitment to using equity as a guiding principle in making decisions, despite the challenges.
TEL’s dramatic results are partly due to TEL’s commitment to building cohorts that are highly diverse—about half are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color—and to building a supportive learning community where educators can be vulnerable.
“Through TEL my eyes really opened up to issues of inequity, especially around race,” says Jane Hsu, a principal in Manhattan. “TEL has helped me to lead that work and really fuse social-emotional learning with equity. They are so connected!”
TEL provides educators with the opportunity for individual transformation and to build necessary skills to lead institutional transformation and social change. Part of what makes TEL so remarkable is that it addresses both the existential and practical challenges of transformation.
“TEL is about creating, harnessing, and developing a new kind of energy in schools and in people who do that work,” says Adrienne Cirone, an assistant principal in Remsenburg-Speonk School District in New York. “Before TEL, so much of that work was in isolation, and it was frustrating. I needed a community to help me do that, and to understand even what that meant.”