Managing Polarities

Back in January, we invited the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) to our in-service day for professional development of the faculty and staff They instructed on several aspects of leadership which we could employ in our daily work and, in turn, to teach these strategies and tactics to our students who will grow up to be leaders of character. 

Polarity thinking was one of the topics on which CCL presented The discussion centered around two competing yet interdependent ideas. Usually, some in the organization believe idea A is most important, while others believe just as strongly that idea B is the route to pursue. There usually is tension in the organization around these two competing ideas. 

It is the leader's job to "narrate the polarity."  This means encouraging both sides to consider the positives and negatives of each approach as well as the short-term and long-term effects of pursuing each. In investigating and debating these polarities, three things are important:

  1. Start and gain agreement in the organization of the "greater purpose."
  2. Create a safe environment in which people are comfortable giving their point of view.
  3. Replace "but" in conversations with "and," which helps to bridge differences and challenge everyone to think more out of their box.

Little did we know that ten weeks later, COVID-19 would crash upon us. We found ourselves not debating amongst ourselves. Rather, we needed to address polarities that the disease forced upon us. 

One major polarity was the need for isolation when the essence of our school is living in community While we ask parents why they enroll their children here, after rigorous academics and faith formation, community is always mentioned. One of the hallmarks of a Sisters of Notre Dame education is the importance of community. 

At first, we were so consumed with how to deliver education remotely, the issue of community was not at the top of our worry list. However, as the weeks away from each other passed, it became clear that community was a major void our students were feeling. We then held divisional parades; moved to more live, synchronous learning; and held many of our ceremonies virtually. The loss of community was most intensely felt by our seniors. We ended up holding nine graduation ceremonies by advisement, so there was togetherness among those they spent the most time with over their high school career. These solutions to the polarity of isolation vs. community came from thinking and using "and" rather than "but." 

Another polarity was managing our deeply-held belief that hands-on, in-person learning is the best approach to educating children in their preschool, primary and secondary years. Of course, the Montessori method is entirely about hands-on learning Teachers in the Upper School strongly believe students have too much screen time in their lives, and it is stunting development of their social skills. Therefore, they try to limit screen time during the school day.

COVID-19 threw cold water on that deeply­held belief We had no choice but to revert to the screen for any kind of learning to continue. Montessori teachers had to dive into unfamiliar technology to keep learning happening It is 
a challenge to engage a toddler in anything happening on a screen, but the teachers did their best, even though they knew Dr. Maria Montessori was turning over in her grave. 

As we planned for the children to return in August, we faced another polarity: mixing vs. apart In the lower grades, we normally schedule classes and specials, so the children have an opportunity to know others in the grade Specials, sports and lunch are especially good at mixing up the children. Yet, the threat of virus transmission compelled us to do the opposite We had to schedule the children so they stayed in a small cohort throughout the day If we did have evidence of disease spread, we would only have to quarantine the cohort rather than the entire grade This was much harder to do in the Upper School, but we did our best We also had to eliminate many favorite activities like the older children participating in an activity with the younger ones. 

The greater purpose in all of this is to have all the children in the building learning from the teacher and each other. Within that purpose, we have had to manage the polarity of what we think is best for the education of children versus what we must do to minimize disease spread among the students and the teachers. This has resulted in tough and, in many cases, expensive choices. As the Sisters did when they ran the school, the entire organization has had to wrestle with many polarities to ensure the greater purpose is achieved. That is the Summit Way.

This article was published in the Fall 2020 issue of The Summit magazine. Read the full issue here.