Time to break out the nerves of steel

When I used to coach soccer, other coaches and I would sarcastically say that if you want to improve team chemistry, start winning. Of course we knew that petty disagreements and personal annoyances didn’t vanish just because your team got on a winning streak. But it was amazing to see how quickly those issues faded into the shadows when a team found themselves basking in a winner’s glow. Conversely, when that glow faded it was equally amazing to see how normally small things could almost instantaneously mushroom into team-wide drama that would suck the life out of the locker room.

Even though one might think that in order to win again we just needed to practice harder or find a little bit of luck, almost always the best way to get back to winning was to get the team chemistry right first. That meant deliberately refocusing everyone on being the best of teammates, despite the steamy magma of hot emotion that might be bubbling up on the inside. In the end, it always became about the choice to be the best of who we aspired to be while staring into the pale, heartless eyes of the persons we could so easily become.

You might think that I’m going to launch into a speech about American values, immigration, and refugees. But actually I’m thinking about the choices that face all of us at Augustana College as we start to sort through the more complicated parts of the design process in our conversion to semesters. Like a lot of complex organisms, a functioning educational environment (especially one that includes a residential component) is much more than a list of elements prioritized from most to least important. Instead, a functioning educational environment – especially one that maximizes its impact – is an ecosystem that thrives because of the relationships between elements rather than the elements themselves. It is the combination of relationships that maintain balance throughout the organism and give it the ability to adapt, survive, adjust, recover, and thrive. If one element dominates the organism, the rest of the elements will eventually die off, ultimately taking that dominant element down with them. But if all the elements foster a robust set of relationships that hold the whole thing together, the organism really does become greater than the sum of its parts.

Likewise, we are designing a new organism that is devoted to exceptional student learning and growth. Moreover, we have to design this organism so that each of the elements can thrive while gaining strength from (and giving strength to) each other. We give ourselves the best chance of getting it right if we keep the image of an ecosystem fresh in our minds and strive to design an ecosystem in which all of the relationships between elements perpetuate resilience and energy.

But in order to collaboratively build something so complex, we have to be transparent and choose to trust. And this is where we need to break out the nerves of steel. Because we all feel the pressure, the anxiety, the unknown, and the fear of that unknown. The danger, of course, is that in the midst of that pressure it would be easy, even human, to grab on to one element that represents certainty in the near-term and lose sight of 1) the relationships that sustain any given element (including the one you might currently be squeezing the air out of), and 2) the critical role of all of those relationships in sustaining the entire organism.

As we embark toward the most challenging parts of this semester conversion design, I hope we can find a way, especially when we feel the enormity of it all bearing down on us, to embody transparency and choose to trust. That will mean willingly deconstructing our deepest concerns, facing them openly, and straight-forwardly solving them together.

Think about where we were a year ago and where we are now. We’ve done a lot of impressive work that can’t be understated. (Based on the phone calls I’ve received from other institutions asking us how we are navigating the conversion to semesters, we might just be the golden child of organizational functionality!). Now, as the more complex challenges emerge and the pressure mounts, let’s remember what got us here, what will get us through this stretch of challenging decisions, and what will get us safely to the other side.

Make it a good day,

Mark

One thought on “Time to break out the nerves of steel

  1. Roz Hibbs says:

    Hello!
    Principia College left behind its hallmark quarter schedule to convert to semesters five years ago. Similar to the reasons stated on your website, our conversion was motivated, in part, to improve efficiency and increase options for students to transfer to the College. The change has resulted in some positive and some unfortunate unintended consequences. If you would find it helpful to hear from those who’ve been there and done that, I would be happy to compile a short list of lessons-learned and/or connect you with resources (faculty and/or administrative) who could provide their insights on the experience. All the best to you and your team!

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