On Not Solving Problems

I’m writing today at the tail end of a National Writing Project Building New Pathways for teacher Leadership Convening in New Orleans.  For the last year, I’ve been working with a smart team of NWPeeps to think about the role of badging and micro credentials in supporting new pathways for teacher leaders in the National Writing Project network.  It’s been powerful work for me as I’ve been trying to understand how best to help the network help local sites to create new and strong pathways to bring people into the network.

New people. In new ways. It’s been about asking ourselves and each other what it is that has made the traditional pathway into NWP leadership – the Invitational Summer Institute – work so well. In asking that question, the work has also been framed around how to create new opportunities and experiences for folks who should be in the network to be in it.

But asking that question can be scary – because in a way it’s saying that there will be writing project people who are in the network who didn’t come in the same way that others did.

Of course, nobody came to the NWP in the same way. It just feels like maybe we did.

The last couple of paragraphs probably won’t make much sense to anyone who isn’t familiar with the way that NWP, a national network of near 200 sites, works. Local sites are university-school partnerships that stand up opportunities for writing together, asking hard questions, and developing teachers to become better teachers of writing.

And the role of the National Writing Project is slippery, though not in a bad way. It’s slippery in the same way any governing organization of organizations is. Loose ties and local contexts mean different ways forward. I regularly forget that.

And as I was listening to teachers and professors share their experiences of trying to “create the magic” of their writing project site for new audiences, in new ways, using some new tools, I heard a couple of phrases I want to remember.

One was my friend Tanya sharing that there are a couple of ways to think about what it means to be a resource to others1. It might be that you look out into the world and see a group of folks and say, “Hey. I can fix you. I can make you better.  You need what we’ve got.”  Think traditional PD. We know what you need. Come and get it.

But there’s a second way to think about it. “Hey,” you might say as you look out into the world and at yourselves and see that there’s a group or perspective missing from your organization, or that there’s an audience that’s new that you might should be in conversation with, “That’s a group that is interesting and isn’t here.”

What you might say next then, is, this: “We need you. We’d be better if you were here and we were there a little bit.”

That’s a better way. I don’t know what you need, but maybe I need you. Let’s get better together.

Another piece I want to remember from this week, and likely keep learning and forgetting as I work again and again with the National Writing Project. As I look back from when I entered the network as an early career teacher, and as I look ahead now as someone doing work as a representative of the NWP in multiple ways, this is the thing I forget.

It’s not that my work at the national level is to make you like me. It’s not my work to solve your problem. My work is to help you remember what’s important and special and true about our shared experiences and work. My work is to help you remember just enough of that, and to help you explore how you can solve your problem yourself. Because it turns out you can.

And then you need to help me solve mine, and to remember all the stuff I worked to help you do. Because I’m going to need your help to help me do the same thing.

The work of the NWP isn’t transactional. It’s not measured in deliverables.  It’s generative. It creates the opportinity and capacity for you to solve the next challenge, and to head out on a new path, and to help the next group of folks solve their next series of challenges. Then rinse and repeat.

We’ll never be done, but we can sure make things better. I forget that in new projects and rush to get into problem solving mode. That’s not quite the right way to do it, and I’m always frustrated for myself for forgetting and grateful for the network for the reminder.

One last takeaway from this meeting for me. When I came to the badging work, I got really excited to make some badges, and build out some pathways. That was, it turns out, the wrong way forward. The better way, which it took us a while to figure out, was to instead ask the network a very hard question. Rather than making badges, we needed to ask the network was with important, what wasn’t, and how we tell the difference.

The answer to that question has turned out to be far more useful than any badge I could’ve made. Our team will spend the next year planning out how to continue to educate the network about itself. What a neat thing to get to do.

  1. She didn’t say it quite like I’m about to – the good ideas are hers, and I’ll likely screw it up a bit – but know that she’d say it better. []
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