I love metaphors. I think they are excellent tools in learning to promote higher level thinking and help learning stick. Metaphors provide something for us to relate to that we already know and understand so that we can connect our new learning in an innovative way. My most recent leadership metaphor came to me when I was participating in a session with the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute and they asked us to juggle scarves. First, we had to juggle by ourselves and without any interaction or feedback from anyone else. Very few in the room were able to juggle the scarves successfully.
After we had attempted to teach ourselves, we had the opportunity to work with others and provide feedback and encouragement. Collaboration increased the rate of success tremendously. What resonated with me as I walked away (besides the fact of how cool it was that I learned to juggle scarves and taught someone else as well) was the power of clear, constructive feedback.
Not long after that, one of my campus leadership teams hit a real roadblock. We have faced some real challenges this year. People were exhausted. With Halloween, the Super Moon, and an election season with lots of negativity, not to mention some unexpected situations with students, we had stretched our productive coping mechanisms thin and resulted in a heated meeting. I know everyone left feeling frustrated. As I reflected, I think I was most discouraged that the snowballing anxiety had resulted in angry outbursts that still weren’t necessarily clear about the real issues or root causes. They were mostly just an expression of exasperation. I was upset with myself that my team had reached this point and I had missed the signs. How could I have let my team down? I definitely felt like my leadership juggling was resulting in everything hitting the ground.
The whole experience got me back to thinking about juggling scarves. Leadership in education is much about juggling scarves. This is because juggling scarves isn’t like juggling balls. The motion is entirely different. Instead of a circular motion, it is more of a crisscross. Rather than an immediate gravitational force, there are a few seconds of floating. It requires focus, rhythm, and gentle touch to get the scarves flowing. I think this is how educational leadership works as well. You are constantly crisscrossing to monitor, check, and keep everything moving. You have to use a gentle touch, because if you grab, cling, and forget to let go, you can’t catch the next scarf. You also have to keep everything at eye level to monitor the progress and make adjustments. Educational leadership has to be intentional, but with a light touch and keen perception.
A few weeks later, I repeated the experience I had learned with my leadership team. I added some of my own twists. Not only did they experience learning to juggle in isolation, my twist had to do with the type of feedback when it came to that time. The jugglers were paired with someone who could only give nonverbal feedback. They could use their faces, body language and gestures, but no words. Some smiled and clapped. Some looked disinterested. Others looked angry, and some even grabbed the scarves away to demonstrate in frustration how to do it.
Feedback is just as critical. When the team gives clear feedback about your strategies, you can use your mental energy to make adjustments and improve the flow. When you take your eyes of the scarves and try to read someone’s face and decipher nonverbal feedback, your focus has moved off the scarves, and they are more likely to fall to the ground. As leadership teams, we have to give clear, constructive feedback on the process, so we do not get distracted from the goal and all the scarves stay up in the air. However, if the scarves fall, you don’t give up. You pick the scarves up and start again. Practice improves the process and the chances for success. Add in a team providing clear, constructive feedback and encouragement, and the probability of achieving the desired outcomes are even more likely.
This is how leadership works. Scarves hit the ground. Practice improves the process and the chances for success. Add in a team providing clear, constructive feedback and encouragement, and the probability of achieving the desired outcomes are even more likely.
I can say I am fortunate to have great educators around me. They are willing to take risks, make mistakes, and learn together to do what is best for our students. As a result, I do believe that for now, all the scarves are up in the air and moving again!