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Are They Comfortable? Be Alarmed.

Posted by on in Education Leadership
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His alarm clock has been blaring since before 6:00 AM. From the upstairs back corner of the house, it loudly screams a rhythmic and determined, "Get up! Buzz! Get up! Buzz!" My son couldn't care less. There is not the slightest hint of movement behind his closed bedroom door. Although I am annoyed, I do marvel at how my 15 year-old can sleep right through that nagging alarm. How can he remain so calm, so comfortable in his bed?  He defies the science of psycho-acoustics!  Buzzers, sirens, horns - they should arouse some sense of urgency. Not for my son.  I'm not even sure he hears that alarm. Or, maybe he does hear it and simply chooses to ignore it. Either way, I don't like it.
I sit there listening to the alarm bounce from wall to wall throughout the house. Do I climb the flight of stairs to his bedroom and pull him out of his comfortable place? My efforts will likely be met with a heartfelt teenage, "Dad, don't harsh on my Saturday mellow," followed by a swift brush-off roll over in his bed.  Maybe I should just hit the snooze button for him, and allow him a few more minutes of sleepy comfort? I am annoyed, but at the same time envious that he can remain so comfortable with that cacophony of loud buzzing just inches from his ear.  Amazing!
I don't sleep through alarms, and I never hit the snooze button. That alarm yells at me one time and I am up, out of bed, and making a bee line to my Keurig. Alarms, bells, whistles, and sirens: they all put me on edge.
I grew up just a few miles from the Shipping Port Atomic Power Station in western Pennsylvania. Eastern P.A.'s Three Mile Island meltdown and an exaggerated speculation that Cold War Soviet missiles might be pointed at our nuclear reactor made the daily emergency siren tests impossible to ignore.  When those practice sirens were tripped, every townie stopped, young and old, even if just for a second, to quietly ask themselves if this was IT, if this was THE siren calling the alarm for imminent nuclear disaster. Nobody would dare hit the snooze button on that alarm.
There are few alarms I would dare to ignore as a school leader. Some alarms are blatantly conspicuous, like an angry parent reporting an inconsistent grading practice, or a disengaged student who flat out tells me she doesn't like school. There are also more subtle alarms, cued by the voice in my head warning, "I don't think they are following anymore" or "I'm not sure teachers fully buy-in to the vision." Hit the snooze button on any one of these alarms, and even the most seasoned of school leaders may find themselves dealing with a big hot mess down the road.
Sometimes alarms are covert and disguised as "EASY" buttons. Sometimes, like my son's non-reaction to his morning alarm, the presence of comfort in what should be a challenging and difficult situation can serve as a quiet alarm that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
We recently adopted a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum and program for grades K-5 in my school district. Instructional coaches from several schools have contacted me daily over the past couple of weeks with a variety of concerns and questions. Teachers are struggling with the new ELA framework, because it is a departure from the way many of them have been teaching. I am relieved that teachers are struggling, because it is a strong indication that they are knee-deep in in this paradigm shift, and they are getting messy with these new instructional strategies and materials. It means that they are demonstrating an urgency to change, to move away from ineffective teaching practices. They are making noise, because change hurts. Don't get me wrong; I want everyone to feel comfortable with the new program. However, this early in the game, nobody should feel comfortable. Implementing any new program with fidelity should be challenging, disorienting and disruptive. 
It sure is tempting to fall back on our love of comfort in the face of disruptive change. However, our love of comfort can be the enemy to greatness. In Louder Than Words: Harness the Power of Your Authentic Voice, author Todd Henry (@ToddHenry) writes, "...growth demands that you push yourself to your limits. A piano virtuoso will not continue to improve if she practices only the chords and scales that are easy for her, nor will a writer improve his craft if he stays in his comfort zone." For great things to happen for students in our schools, we have to step outside of our circles of comfort, take risks, shake some feathers, rattle some chains. Comfort in the face of disruptive change should be alarming to any school leader. 
I went to a meeting last week where a group of educators were mulling over a rare opportunity to re-imagine job descriptions to better meet the needs of children. Change, that ugly word, drove many in the group grabbing for their love of comfort.  I was alarmed that their love for comfort might become a barrier to great potential for changing kids' lives. The discussion focused on "what I like to do" rather than "what we must do to help kids". Choosing comfort over student needs; choosing comfort over potential impact: these are mighty loud alarms.  
What should I do as a school leader? Do I hit the snooze button and leave them be, resting in the familiar and comfortable?  Or, do I turn the alarm off, "harsh on their mellow" and shake them out of their sleep and into momentary discomfort in the names of change and potential for student greatness?
The alarm is sounding. Are we choosing comfort over impact? Many educators are willing to leave the comfort and work through discomfort if they can clearly see the higher purpose. It is our job to lead them through the discomfort in the name of that higher purpose.  What discomfort are you leading today that propels your school forward toward that higher purpose and the potential for student greatness? 


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Jim Detwiler is the Assistant Superintendent for Learning Support Services in the Boone County Schools, Kentucky. He is a former elementary school principal and music teacher, and frequent Magic Bean Buyer. Jim promotes developing students' 21st century skills through engaging project based learning and innovative teaching & learning. He is often heard telling students, #GoMakeStuff! He holds an EdD in Education Leadership with interests in parent engagement and effective teacher dispositions. Jim is most happy when he is with his beautiful wife and two children lost in Orte, Italy. He is a 2014 Bammy Award Nominee and a 2014 Kentucky PTA Outstanding Educator. Follow Jim's school district on Twitter using #Boone2020.  Two fun facts about Jim: He walked a tightrope in his High School production of "Barnum", and he enjoyed 15 minutes of Andy Warhol fame when he and friend Chad made the viral YouTube video "Snowhemian Rhapsody" Nutty School Closing. Contact Jim on Twitter @JimDetwiler1 and on Voxer at jdetwi691.

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Guest Friday, 21 October 2016