Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Year’s Day and the Man in the Mirror: What Can We Change?

(this post was previously published in a slightly different version at

On New Year’s Day, 1990, the newly elected president of a newly democratic Czechoslovakia stood in front of his people and spoke about the fall of Communism and the challenges that lay ahead. He started his speech like this:

My dear fellow citizens,

For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

This president was no ordinary politician. He was Vaclav Havel, a playwright, essayist, fan of The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, and someone who had spent years in prison as part of a resistance movement that had taken the dangerous and radical step of demanding that the government obey its own laws and live up to its principles.  You might not think that a ragtag bunch of writers, musicians, and artists could pose a serious threat to a repressive, Communist government. You might not think that simply demanding honesty and truth would be enough to make a government afraid of you. But you’d be wrong. The regime feared this group, locked them up, and banned their artworks. Apparently they were right to be worried, because, in the end, the government collapsed and Havel was made president...without anyone firing a shot.
So Havel was carried off to the castle—almost literally—and in his first New Year’s address, he chose not to be triumphal, puffing people up and filling them full of unwarranted optimism or a false of superiority. He didn’t say, “We won! We’re great! We can do anything.” He said, “Let’s get real.”

In a couple of weeks, it will be the 20th anniversary of the day I arrived on the Slovak side of what had once been Czechoslovakia to teach English—inspired, in part, by the life and work of Vaclav Havel.  So I’ve been thinking a lot about the man, and New Year’s Day, and what it really takes to make a new beginning—a beginning that leads to something new, and real, and lasting.
We have a history of making resolutions at this time of year—promises and commitments that often deflate and blow away before January is even finished.  We shoot for the moon and hit…well, usually we hit nothing.

But what if we had a different tradition? What if, instead of making grand promises, we made little, private, Havel-esque New Year’s Addresses to ourselves instead? What if we took a little time, when the year was young, to look at ourselves in the mirror and say: Let’s face facts. I know what you want to do. I know all the things you want to accomplish. They’re good and noble things—important things. But let’s be honest about what we’re dealing with. It’s just you and me in here, so…let’s get real. 

Telling the truth can be a pretty brutal exercise. Vaclav Havel knew that. In his most famous essay, he made it clear that the most radical thing a person could do in a world built on lies is to live in truth—to say No—to refuse to play the game. It’s a brave thing to do, but one rarely gets awards or medals for doing it. The speaker of truth, they say, must show no mercy…and should expect none in return. So in the privacy of my own mirror, showing myself no mercy (and expecting none in return), what would I say in these first days of 2013, if I were brave and honest enough? What kind of New Year’s Address would I make to myself?
Well, since this began as a blog post for my company and not the Dr. Phil show, I’ll stick with educational topics. We have a lot of exciting things in the works for the coming year—some ready to roll out this month, some aimed for Back-to-School. But I think I’d have to confess to the mirror that no matter what I might be hoping for in terms of educational change, innovation, revolution, or evolution, a lot of our work will end up being resisted or ignored, even by people who agree with our goals.  It will be a lot of sound and fury signifying…well, less than we had hoped for. In the harsh light of the bathroom mirror, before we’ve even begun, I know this to be so. And I would have to say it to myself.

Doing new things is hard. Helping other people do new things is hard. It means giving up something old and comfortable, and when push comes to shove, people don’t like to do that. Nobody likes change, and most people don’t do it unless their backs are against the wall and there are no other options. I’m no different. We love the idea of change. That’s the easy part. We love the idea, and we love to make lists: I need to lose 20 pounds; my school needs to differentiate instruction; my country needs to overhaul entitlement programs. We all know what we need to do. We’re just not so good at doing it. 

So if I was going to look at myself in the mirror and say “Get real,” I’d have to say: “Listen. You know and I know that 90% of resolutions and big plans fail or never even get started. Maybe 95%. But that’s not 100%, so you can’t just roll over and give up.  You’ve got an honest chance, a real chance, at making that 5% work. So try for that, this year. Don’t try to do everything. Pick your battles.”

In the world we live in as educators—the world of 10,000 mandates—that’s a hard message to hear and live by, but I think it’s an important one. At the company where I lead a curriculum development team, we’re trying to take it to heart. We’ll be launching new programs later this month to support teachers in implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English and Mathematics for grades K-8, and in disciplinary literacy for middle and high school science and social studies teachers. The programs will provide teachers with downloadable, on-demand videos, live professional development workshops, on-site coaching support, and robust, useful teacher resources to support instruction. We are excited about these programs and look forward to seeing them go out into the world. But we know they aren’t going to solve all the problems of the world. They’re not even going to solve all the problems of the Common Core.

Throughout development, we’ve tried to hold onto the idea that Common Core implementation is a process, not an event. It’s not a “thing” you can just “do.” We can’t expect teachers to become expert at these new standards in a single day or even a single year. If we do expect that, we’re bound to fail, and so are the teachers. Because of this, we are not attempting to provide support for all things to all people. We are hoping that if we can focus on a few, key issues and challenges this year, teachers will have a real chance to grow, learn, and experience some success.
But chances are, we’re going to fall flat on our faces at least once, somewhere along the way. We all will. It’s inevitable. It’s the only way we learn how to do new things and grow. No baby goes from crawling to walking without falling down a few times. And we are all babies, every time we leave our comfort zone and set off into undiscovered country. So even if we don’t try to do everything, we’re still going to have some struggles doing anything if it’s new.

The only way to avoid failure altogether, as far as I’ve ever seen, is to resist the new, to refuse experimentation and to sneer at innovation—to stubbornly cling to what we have always done because it’s safer, and we know that at least to some degree, it “works.” But that resistance is a failure of its own, in the end. It’s the kind of failure that doesn’t teach. It’s the kind of failure that doesn’t open doors. It’s the kind of failure that lets the world pass us by while we stand unmoving, unmovable, and increasingly alone.

So let’s be willing to fail a little this year, without using that failure as an excuse to surrender or go backwards. Let’s take a shaky leap of faith, knowing that the odds are good we’ll fall flat on our faces. It might hurt a little bit. It might be embarrassing. But we’re all adults here. We’re school people. We’re tough. We can get up, dust ourselves off, and say, “All right. Let’s try that again.”
Little by little, we’ll get better. Little by little, we’ll learn. And maybe, a year from now, the face in the mirror will smile back at us and say, “Not bad.” And that smile—that baby step—that 5%— might just be enough to set a new world in motion.

After all, as our great, American poet, Michael Jackson, once said, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”
A change. One baby step at a time.