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A Line in the Sand Part II

In the Sand

Drawing a line in the sand.

Drawing the line, we tend to focus on the form and shape of the line, the specifics. Where do we draw the line? What are the consequences? All the consequences. For all the stakeholders.

But what of “in the sand”?

In the sand.

To me that is as important.

We are not drawing a line in concrete.

The incoming tide will erase the line.

The wind will erase the line.

Children playing will erase the line.

Every situation is different.

No mandatory sentencing.


We want principals in our schools, our leaders, to take into account the needs of the individual students as well as the needs of the students as a group and of the organizational, systemic imperatives faced by our schools. And they are doing so in the context of understanding the capacities of their team, the knowledge and skills and wisdom of their team. At that very moment.

Discipline policy will give principals a range of options in addressing difficult behavioral situations, “sentencing guidelines.”

Teachers need to draw the lines in the classroom sand, but principals are faced with the challenge of drawing the ultimate line. Principals have the authority (subject to review) of expulsion, the responsibility to decide that to cross this line is to go beyond what our team can manage in a productive way at this time.

A big responsibility.
A responsibility with accountability.

We create accountability by writing down the decision and rationales and by subjecting these decisions to a process of review. Did our actions have the effect which we intended? What have we learned from a successful outcome? And more importantly, what can we learn from our errors and mistakes? How do we know that we are learning from our mistakes?

That is the standard of leadership that I feel we must hold ourselves to.

We owe that to the students and families we’ve failed.

We owe that to the Buffalo.

We are asking a lot of our teachers and principals. Draw a line in the sand, taking so much into account. Draw a line in the sand knowing that you will never get it “right”. You will never draw the perfect line. Do it anyway. You have do something. And keep learning.

And we need to keep learning as an organization. Our structures must be built to accommodate, to learn.


When I think about learning, I think about Piaget. In a nutshell, Piaget imagines our minds as structures built up through experience, through complementary processes which he calls “assimilation” and “accommodation”. As we interact with our environment, data comes in through our senses; and our inclination is to assimilation, putting the new data into existing boxes in our minds. That’s our structure. We have a filing system. We sort our incoming emails into files. We are organized. We learn stuff, meaning we are able to recover more items of knowledge because we have stored them in a filing system which we can access.

In our schools, one of our core values is a commitment to lifelong learning. For some people, this means filing away more and more information. We never stop learning new stuff.

For me and I think Piaget, the big deal of learning is not assimilation. Accommodation is the big deal.

If we are awake to what is actually going on in life, in our lives, we notice that there is no file for some piece of new stuff. Rather than forcing it somewhere where it doesn’t fit, we create a new file.

This is accommodation. That is the beginning of real learning. But the really big deal occurs when we notice that our “filing system” isn’t working all that well. Then we reorganize our files.

The amazing thing is that when we reorganize our filing system, we see the world differently, we experience life differently.

That is real learning.

It is not always an easy or comfortable process.

Bernie referred to Piaget’s structures as “our conditioning.” We all cling to our conditioning, to our filing systems. For me, Zen practice, doing zazen in particular, is a way of loosening the hold which our filing systems have on us.

The challenge in organizations is more difficult. I have spent years in organizations in which seemingly everyone knew that systems were out of date. And yet no one could re-organize them.

Here we are. We need a new policy, a new filing system. That will fix everything.

Well, it may seem to for a while. The new system may seem to work better than the old one but it will get old too.

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss,” sang The Who.

The System

Meet the new system. Same as the old system.

What we need is not a “new” system but a learning system. We need to build organizational systems which continue to learn, to grow, to accommodate.

This is the great leadership challenge in our schools.

Learning, real learning, requires unlearning.

Leaders need to build team pride, espirit. An obvious path seems easy. Just keep announcing what a great team we are. Teams seem to love leaders who tell them how great they are. But leadership is not cheerleading. If our leaders are to build real learning teams, they need to celebrate the teams we are becoming, to celebrate the recognition of failures and the unlearning which is essential to growth.

I am often asked if I think leaders need to meditate.

Don’t know.

I need to meditate. In order to keep letting go of what I think I know, to let go of my accomplishments, I need to keep coming back to the center, to the present moment, to my breath. Nothing extra. Just right here now. Zazen, Zen meditation is my practice which brings me back.

There are other practices. This Zazen practice is the one which I am empowered to teach so if asked I will teach it.

Beginning Again

No, I don’t think all leaders must have a zazen practice. But I do believe that in order to lead, one must have a practice which brings you back to a place of not knowing, to a place and moment of freshness, to a place of beginning again.

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