Coaching Letter #66

Hi, I hope you’re well.  My dad was supposed to get here yesterday, but he missed his connection because his flight was late leaving Edinburgh, so he is stuck in Dublin for the weekend.  Aer Lingus doesn’t fly to Hartford every day.  So I find myself with a little more time on my hands this weekend than I was expecting.  I could clean the house, wrap gifts, bake brownies, mull wine—but naaah.  I would much rather be reading and writing, and I don’t want you to be stuck for things to read, watch, and listen to over the break.

Last week was particularly challenging, but there were also lots of great moments, including working with teacher leaders and administrators in Milford and with the Equity Squad in Manchester.  To be honest, before this year, I never really saw the point of Twitter—I assumed it was full of angry people having their biases mirrored back to them—but now that I have put some time into tweeting out the positive work that I see all the time, I see all the great stuff that people are doing.  So, in honor of all the greatness in the ordinary, and to encourage us to not be distracted by the bright, shiny things that are so compelling, this is a plea to ground ourselves in best practice and to build systems and institutions worthy of our students.

Let’s start with The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis’ latest book.  If you thought Bob Woodward’s Fear was scary, it’s like watching The Shining, while reading The Fifth Risk is like actually being chased through your house by an axe murderer.  I don’t know if you have given deep thought to the work that federal government does, and the data that it collects, but most of it is very far from Washington DC and much of it is dedicated to keeping us safe—from tornadoes, from economic meltdown, from dirty bombs, and from many other threats.  The Fifth Risk is an ode to bureaucracy—because good government is a powerful force for good.  If you are looking for books to add to your winter break reading list, this should absolutely be at the top.  I think everyone should read it.  There is a shorter version of The Fifth Risk available on Audible called The Coming Storm, which has the advantage of being read by Michael Lewis, and he is interviewed on this episode of Stay Tuned.

Reading The Fifth Risk reminded me of Bureaucracy, by James Q. Wilson.  Had to go down to the basement to find that one, but I was delighted to find that it was given to me by my excellent friend and colleague Ellen Miller-Brown—thank you, Ellen, it was a good choice.  I first read the book when innovation was gaining in glamor, and competition was being touted as the best mechanism for advancement; bureaucracy had a bad name.  This book made me think completely differently about the meaning and power of bureaucracy.  Good government is not inefficient or ineffective—far from it—and one of the main reasons why you and I are as happy, successful, and healthy as we are is because we live in a country where the bureaucracy, for the most part, functions the way it is supposed to.  I don’t want to sound like there is no room for improvement—and indeed, for ways to improve government, you should read any of Michael Barber’s books.  I particularly recommend How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy.  It’s a great read.

Not everyone benefits equally from government, and many citizens have been failed miserably by the systems that are supposed to keep them safe—you could read, for example, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, or watch his TED Talk, or listen to him on Katie Couric’s podcast.  If I won the lottery, I would give it all to him.  A movie is being made based on the book, coming out in 2020.

We idolize innovation—see, for example, Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators, or Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation (although, interestingly, his TED Talk has a very different flavor, focusing on finding meaning in life).   And I don’t mean to demonize innovation either, but I worry that it doesn’t hold as much promise as we think it does.  For more on this, I recommend this episode of Freakonomics, and this article in AeonSkyfall is on my TV as I write this, and I love this exchange between Q and Bond: “Age is no guarantee of efficiency, and youth is no guarantee of innovation.”  Likewise, efficiency is no guarantee of results, and innovation is no guarantee of improvement.

Whatever you do, or don’t do, over winter break, I hope you remain warm, happy, healthy, and well fed.  And for goodness sake, get some rest.  Yours, Isobel

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2018-12-17T12:26:47+00:00