A few summers ago, I read “The Challenger Sale,” by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson.  It’s based on the premise that the most successful professionals are not those that serve their customers, but who challenge their customers to think differently.  As a former teacher, I totally agree.


It’s how teachers get the most from their students.  They challenge them, push them, create the most conducive learning environment, and create educational experiences congruent with their preferred learning style.  If you’re in agreement with those qualities of a teacher, let me offer these five obstacles to challenge almost every popular excuse for why schools may be experiencing difficulties today.

Before stating them, it’s important to realize these are not negative comments; they’re meant to challenge current thinking.  Also, notice that these items are not numbered, because if they are numbered, it is automatically assumed that whatever has been listed as #1 is the most important.   Unfortunately, it’s something that’s been ingrained in our minds.  Even if the list doesn’t state “#1,” if the item is simply listed first, it’s still assumed to be the most important.  This demonstrates how we are held bound by the construct of “lists” and how they’re presented and utilized.

Further, a thorough examination of each item could fill volumes, and, perhaps, at some point in the future, will.  With thought, discussion and “challenging” purposes in mind at this point in time, succinct explanations will be offered.

Failure to Recognize the Need for Systems Thinking

We excel at linear thinking.  It’s built-in to our planning process.  Even some of the most popular books on business begin by putting the important things first, or handling “First things first.”

We read a book from the beginning to the end.  Students experience working through a textbook for a course beginning at the beginning, rather than starting with chapter 14, then going to chapter 7, then 15, then 2, then 26, 27 and 29, skipping 28.  We are trained through 12 grade levels of schooling through 4 years of higher education that you start at the beginning.  Even a song from “The Sound of Music” tells us, “Let’s start at the very beginning…that’s a very good place to start.”

Plans have a beginning and an end.  We’ve been trained to plan our work, and work our plan.  This was a great thought to keep in mind…until today’s technology changed all that.   While linear thinking is still important, we need to think systemically.  Today, it’s more important to think “machine” than to think “plan.”

In a system, each element of the system impacts each other. Each element plays a key role in the system, and all elements must be addressed and attended to in order to see improvement. Addressing only one element means that the others can still cause severe problems if ignored. One could even be working with “most of them” rather than “all of them,” and disaster could still result if one’s planning did not take into consideration all five elements.  It is for this reason that adhering to “Plan your work and work your plan” may be detrimental to successfully reaching one’s goals.  Today, it is imperative for one to be able to “shift” priorities quickly, rather than addressing the elements in a pre-determined succession.  Today’s classroom teachers are very familiar with this concept, choosing to address “the teachable moment” if a news item is worth of discussion and exploration rather than sticking to the lesson plan regardless of what is going on around them in their community or the world.

Parents Not Necessarily Fulfilling the Roles For Which They Are Responsible

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is specified that parents are the first teachers of their children.  The Catholic school is not, then, the place where parents send their children to be educated, but rather is the place that supports parents relative to what is being taught in the home.  The school’s role, therefore, is to serve parents so that they can “train up their child in the way they should go.”  While parents who choose homeschooling embrace this rationale, many parents still enroll either child in an educational environment under the incorrect belief that the school is responsible for their child’s education.

Administrators Are Trained Teachers – Not Necessarily Experienced Business Managers

In the business world, sometimes the best sales professionals are not the best sales managers.  Management is more about motivation, reporting, quotas, standards, surveys, balance sheets, policies and all those things that managers are expected to deal with so that sales professionals can do what they do best.  Unfortunately for teachers, many times the only way to earn additional income (if they don’t want to pick up a second job) is to become a principal or professional administrator.  While these are indeed special and responsible roles, there are times that principals long to return to classroom, especially if that’s where their true passion lies.  And, sometimes, they do, when a teacher calls in sick.  Those could be the days, however, where their leadership expertise is required in the office, or outside the school to meet with a prospective donor who stopped in and wants to make a significant financial contribution to the school.

Dependence on Unsustainable Revenue Models

Fundraising used to be the quick way to raise a couple thousand dollars to meet the budget shortfall forecasted for the end of the school year.  Now, it’s a line item in school budgets.  Some schools even have “Fundraisers of the Month.”  And that’s not a sustainable way to fund a school today.

In that same respect, some schools pay little attention to the need for an annual fund, planned giving, or stewarding and cultivating major gifts within a comprehensive Development program.

Today, schools are also finding it’s more and more difficult to fundraise.  In difficult economic times, individuals ask themselves, “Do I really need cookie dough, candy or popcorn?”  Yet, they will pay for experiences that they find enjoyable.  Enjoyable events like these which attract members from outside the school community are perceived as “a lot of work,” and some schools would rather push for more fundraisers, such as candles, fruit, holiday wreaths, calendars, magazines (wait – magazines?  Even in today’s era of apps and tablets?) and wrapping paper to supplement the cookie dough, candy and popcorn.  Add pizzas, hoagies and dessert pies and there’s a fundraiser for every month of the year, spearheaded and supported by a declining number of parents in your school.

Summer Vacation and Union Contracts

While vacations and contracts are not simply necessary but essential, the issue is not that they exist.  It’s that their contexts have completely changed from when they were first introduced.

Summer vacation does not reflect the values of the current workplace. It was part and parcel of the acceptance of public education so that children of an agrarian society could work on the farm at its busiest time of the year. Similarly, today’s calls for longer school days are also problematic, as children have shorter attention spans than ever before.  Perhaps shorter blocks of time would be better, with the ability to put the learning into practice at an early age.  For instance, six hours of schooling per day today translates into back to back to back class periods from 7 am until 2 pm with a break for lunch.  No wonder kids are tired at the end of the school day!  A redesigned school day, however, with energizing breaks, could look like this:

Class/es 7 to 8:30
Break 8:30 to 8:45
Class/es 8:45 to 10:15
Break 10:15 to 10:30
Class/es 10:30 to noon
Lunch from noon to 1
Class/es 1 to 2:30

Now, let’s add a new and necessary dimension to today’s learning –

2:30 to 3:00 transportation to apprenticeships
3:00 to 4:30 learning experience
4:30 to 5 pm transportation back to school for dismissal.

Children return home at 5:30 for dinner.   But when will the football team practice?  It seems we want to keep everything we have now and don’t want to change, yet expect changes in outcomes to occur.  If we don’t like the results we’re seeing, we have to change what’s currently in place.

Which leads to contracts.  Current contracts were written with a mindset relevant to education as it was in years past, and new contracts are simply updates of the current constructs.  It’s really time to start from scratch, since the classroom is different today, the minds of the learners are different today, the competition between schools for tax dollars is different today, and the expectations are different today.

Are the ideas mentioned here meant to criticize?  No.  They are meant to challenge current mindsets.  Recall the symbol for this blog is a tetrahedron.   One side of the tetrahedron is a triangle.  It’s the Greek letter, Delta.  And in mathematics, delta is the symbol for – change.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2018