Friday, October 12, 2012

Risky is the New Safe

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the "fear of failure" that prevents organizations and schools from changing and adapting to the current issues and problems facing education and student achievement. (  I would like to expand on this theme today and comment on a piece I read by leadership writer, Steve Keating (2012). It's entitled:  "It isn't safe to play it safe"1. While his blog is directed toward business and organizational change, there is much to learn that we can apply to our schools.

 "The only way to be safe today is to take a risk! I'm not talking crazy, thoughtless risk; I'm talking about thoughtful, considered risk. Doing the same thing next year that you did last year will not get you the same results. The people that thrive in the coming years will be the first who realize that just because something was the right thing to do yesterday doesn't mean it's still the right thing to do today (Keating, 2012)."

What a powerful message for 21st Century School Leaders!! To assume previous practice is just fine does not make it an effective strategy for today or  tomorrow.

How many times do we hear from the status quo types the disinterested phrase: "But, that's how we always did it."These are the people in schools- and in organizations in general- that frustrate the progress of dynamic change in schools. They are comfortable in their classroom and unwilling to confront the possibility of change because it is too "risky"! As Cindy Ventrice writes: "That's the way we’ve always done it," a phrase that cripples our imaginations and limits our potential 2.

My next door neighbor just retired from his place of employment after 30 years. As he was cleaning out his desk and his office he came across a notebook given to him by his predecessor in the job. He told my friend, this is the notebook that explains everything there is to know and do about the job he was inheriting. My neighbor, Doug, said he never looked at it once in the 30 years he was with GE, since he did not wish to be influenced by routine, but wanted to place his own spin on the job. Thirty years later he took it out of his desk and threw it away.

A few years ago, my predecessor as Superintendent in our school district announced at the opening day of the new school year that "Bethlehem was a good school district, not great! Good was the enemy of great." In one simple phrase he disarmed the comfort level of an entire faculty and community, and shook the inner recesses of the organization to begin rethinking how our school district needs to take a good look at how we have done things, reflect on these practices and change things up for the future. 

Naturally, this presentation met with controversy, frustration, bickering, ridicule, and commentary that slowed the pace of the change effort desired by the superintendent. But, he wasn't scared to stand in front of the organization of 800 people and light a fuse of risk, change, challenge and redirection. He didn't play it safe that day, but created a risk opportunity for himself that had the best intentions of the students in his thinking and his mindset.

 "No matter what you do and no matter how you do it, it's highly unlikely that you can maintain your success by just continuing to do it indefinitely. The world is changing everyday and everyday it changes a little faster than the day before. There is no more 'safe', you either accept the challenge of risk or you accept your fate. The choice is yours (Keating, 2012)"

Remember, in education "risky" is the new safe. 

1.     Keating, S. (2012, October 12). It isn't safe to play it safe. [BLOG]. Retrieved from October 12, 2012 at

2.     Ventrice, C. (1998).That's the way we've always done it. [BLOG] Potential Unlimited.  Retrieved October 12, 2012 from