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Mulling it Over! Fast or Slow

sayReflection (or mulling things over) is the ability to inquire, mentally concentrate, carefully consider, and evaluate our experiences. Reflective thinking can be used on action, in action, and for action. When used on action we review past experiences to determine what happened and how could we have done it better. When used for action, the evaluative way the skills of critical thinking and creative thinking are important.  When used in action we act intuitively relying on the rules of thumb we created when reflecting on action. Using these three tactics, reflection becomes a powerful strategic thinking skill that enables us to evaluate, decide and embark on new paths. The following vignette of how a school found its purpose illustrates how it works!

When I assumed the duties of principal of brand new high school a half a century ago I had been a successful principal for 4 years. The challenges were to open a state of the art school complete with swimming pool and theatrical auditorium and integrate students from the two schools that were closed to create this new one.  The poor kids finally had a place to meet the rich kids and vice versa.

I was eager to set a sound direction and get off on the right foot so I decided that I would pick on the ninth graders; figuring they would be the easiest to convince before moving to meeting the upper grades.  So I called a “get to know each other meeting” in the auditorium of all ninth graders and their teachers.

The students came to the auditorium with their teachers but sat with their friends. The pleasantries did not last long.  No more than ten minutes into our meeting, I noticed students throwing spit wads; talking loudly to their friends and in general being inattentive and disruptive.  I asked them to stop their rude behavior explaining that we had important business to do. What happened next still astounds me these many years later.

Rather than giving me their attention they became more disruptive – the more I insisted the more they persisted. After 15 minutes of trying to talk over the din, I sent them all back to their homerooms with their teachers. But it bothered me; and I thought about it all during the day.

That night I told my wife what had happened; that I didn’t get off on the right foot with these kids.  She said will it’s “probably not as bad as you are making it out; it will seem better in the morning.”  But it bothered me; and I thought about it all night long.

As I lay in bed, mulling over the events of the day – the fact that these 13 year old students had “called out the principal and the principal did not know how to deal with it.” More importantly to me was that the teachers had witnessed it. As the night grew longer the immensity of the issue crystallized, I concluded that it was me or them; I was the principal and I was going to run this school! But, how?  I had a lot to overcome.  By 4 am a plan was beginning to form yet the moment of Kairos had not occurred. By 6 am I was positive what should be done. 

At 8:30 am, I announced that I would like the teachers and ninth grade students to meet me in the auditorium.  This time I had a plan. 

I got there first. As they came in I asked them to all sit on the left side of the auditorium.  Happily they complied, and they were quiet. I guess they knew they had acted out yesterday and it was time for redemption by me.  I don’t know why but they complied. 

I then took the stage, and began to talk not of yesterday but of tomorrow – what I hoped the school would look like when they were seniors.  Not an unruly place but a place where all views and feelings were considered - Where people acted civilly toward each other - Where students wanted to come to school and enjoyed their teachers - Where learning occurred - Where we were recognized as the best school in the district; not just athletically  - Where we were family.

Relating my vision of the future didn’t last more than 10 minutes.  Then, I asked them to do something. I said, “I have tried to express what I would like this school to become.  Now I would like those of you who agree with me to get up and move to the other side of the auditorium and take a seat.”  As I said this I walked across the stage to the other side and nervously waited. 

A teacher and a few students moved quickly. Several more joined in. Their teachers joined in, and soon they had all moved to my side of the auditorium. I thanked them for agreeing with the vision.  But before I could get much further, I spotted a boy in the back of the auditorium throw a spit wad at a girl a few rows ahead.  I stopped on a dime and pointed directly at him.  I asked, “What is your name?” He said “Stanley.”  I said, “Stanley, when you moved to this side of the auditorium you agreed with me and the rest of the class on the kind of school we wanted to create.”  I moved closer, “and Stanley in our school that type of behavior is not acceptable. Now get up and pick up the spit wad and apologize to the girl you just hit with it” 

There was dead silence!  But I glared directly into Stanley’s eyes and held my breath and waited.  Luckily I didn’t have to wait long, Stanley picked it up gave her a nod (which I accepted as an apology) and sat back down. I thanked him and thanked his classmates and noted that today we took the first steps to becoming a great school.  Now together we needed to stay true to our goal and make it happen. 

I didn’t push my luck!  I then quickly asked them to return to their homerooms and have a great day and a great 4 years at OUR School! 

Leadership Lessons

What is the message here? Well for the students, faculty and school the outcome was good, in four years when the class graduated the student speakers related the story of “calling the principal out” and the effect it had on their school life. Sometimes it takes a disruptive event to create the focus, emotional attachment and bonding into a cohesive whole.  

For leaders there were several messages. The practitioner critics of reflection say, “I don’t have time to think!” In reality, reflection is not a “when you have time to do it phenomenon.”  You don’t need to set time for reflection (even though that is a good practice) When you need to reflect you will reflect!  Reflective thinking is not just thinking on action - pushing back, looking up in the sky, twiddling your thumbs and losing yourself in reverie. It is also about thinking in action and thinking for action.  Reflection can take weeks, months, hours or minutes.  

A second lesson is that leaders who work in a strategic way must learn to inquire after the moment, before the moment, and in the moment. When I was lying in bed at 2 am I was reflecting on action (what had happened.)  My moment of crystallization around 5 am was the result of moving from reflection on action to reflecting for action (what needed to happen). In deciding on a course of action around 6 am I used critical thinking skills to evaluate and chose among the alternative responses.  When I chose to put students on one side of the room and ask them to move I was using my creative thinking skills.

A third lesson is that when I reacted instinctively to Stanley, I was reflecting in action.  Experience and reflection on it is the key to reflecting in real time. I was in the moment and need to react quickly. The fact that I had not experienced the rude behavior of students in my previous school left me without the requisite practical knowledge to reflect in action.  But upon reflection, I was able to deal with Stanley on the second day.

Put on your thinking cap on for a moment. What other leadership lessons can you draw out of the saga of how a school found its purpose?
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