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No problem with problems

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Voice of the Educator

As a principal awaiting the start of school, I knew one thing for certain: There would be a lot problems in the year ahead. Most educators ironically are too busy solving problems to find time to reflect upon the nature of their relationship to problems. Since reflection is essential for learning, I offer some of mine, based on a career of living with problems.

Here are the stages of my evolution of attitudes toward problems:

I wished they were few and far between. At the start of my career, I still held onto the hope that problems would be the exception to the plans that I made as a teacher. I worked under the illusion that “things were supposed to go according to plan” and that problems should be minor events along the way. This attitude however often led me to complain about them or wish they would go away as quickly as possible. Sometimes this attitude could lead to some anger regarding the people who created these problems.

I could handle them. Once I had some experience and learned various ways of solving problems, I gained a degree of confidence in being able to handle them. If students wouldn’t cooperate, I had some tools to address those behaviors. If I had difficulty with colleagues, I had ways of communicating that helped resolve conflicts.

I could understand and sort them. I learned to divide problems into two basic categories that Ronald Heifetz refers to as technical and adaptive. Technical problems are ones that can be fixed by applying known solutions. For example, logistical problems like scheduling conflicts or any gaps in procedures that could be analyzed and adjusted. Adaptive problems are ones that can’t be easily fixed because they involve human beings who aren’t “perfect.” These are problems that are inherent in the process of education and are not amenable to quick fixes.

I became patient with them and myself. Knowing that these two basic types of problems existed, I was able to approach them differently. I didn’t expect quick solutions with adaptive problems; I learned that my desire to have less problems or to eliminate them interfered with my learning from them. I gave myself and my colleagues more time to analyze and learn from problems, so I avoided the tendency of “jumping to solutions.” The more we learned about the problems, the better we got at addressing them.

I saw them as opportunities. Once I made my peace with them, I turned the corner and actually saw their positive side. I realized that my greatest growth as a professional and a person came from problems — how I learned about them and responded to them. Challenging students and staff would stretch me out of my comfort zone, and although there was still a part of me that wished they would go away, a larger part of me pushed those thoughts aside and helped me to learn from the process of addressing them.

I viewed them as “friends.” Michael Fullan took the concept of problems as opportunities and extended it a step further: They are our friends. They point out blind spots and areas of need like a friend would. Our ability to assess our needs is limited by many things, including our basic need to think we are okay and right all the time. Problems can tap us on the shoulder and say, “You are okay but you can still be better.” As this realization came to me, I learned that there was something very important for me and my colleagues to learn about ourselves, our school and our students in the problems that we faced in our work.

I realized that the “obstacle is the path” (Zen Buddhist saying): As I let go of the idea that things should go according to plan, I learned that whatever problem, difficulty or challenge that fell in our path, actually existed to show us who we are and who we could be. Our problems extend us towards others, show us how we need each other, and help us discover our strengths and our limits. They educate us in the true sense of the word. Problems are not diversions along the way; they are the way. The word “educate” is from the Latin, to lead out of, so problems become the source of our education. They lead us to become fuller and more complete professionals and people.

The best educators are people who convey this wisdom about problems to others. They exemplify a special blend of humility and confidence. They are humble because they know how much they don’t know, but also they are confident in the process of working with others to learn from those problems. The new school year is, therefore, a time of great promise and excitement for the learning that’s about to be.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at