Independent School Capabilities Amid Crisis, and Considering Future Possibilities

The pandemic has had and will continue to have catastrophic impacts on communities around the globe. A situation’s terrible effects and people’s noble responses to them are not mutually exclusive, however, and we should acknowledge both. While grappling with the horrific consequences of this pandemic, we should also take a sober but appreciative inventory of the remarkable efforts and adaptations happening all around us.
I’ve seen some of these changes in the limited context of education, specifically at Canisius High School (NY), the Jesuit high school for young men where I teach English and direct faculty and staff formation programs. I’m proud that like many other independent schools, ours has made impressive, rapid changes to continue our mission. Ironically, my appreciation for what I’ve seen in education comes from some perspectives I’ve gained from a very different sector: manufacturing.

Learnings Outside of Education

I’d never heard of “pilot purgatory” until recently. Enno de Boer, a partner at global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., introduced the concept to me during an interview for a trade magazine cover story I wrote in 2018. The term refers to the state companies find themselves in when they try to effect transformative systemic change but fail to achieve it at scale. Instead, they get stuck in developmental limbo. According to well-researched figures de Boer compiled, 70% of manufacturers land there. Only a few manage to pull off substantial, sustainable systems change successfully. These firms emerge as the most dynamic and competitive in the changing industrial landscape.
I’ve worked closely with de Boer and a team from the World Economic Forum on two white papers focused on the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” specifically in the manufacturing sector. I don’t have expert understanding of these business principles, but as a technical writer, I’ve learned the basics.
  • Speed is key to avoiding—or escaping—pilot purgatory. Pilot programs have to be implemented widely as soon as they prove feasible. If something doesn’t hit hard, fast, and wide, it’s probably not going to take.
  • Strong leadership, effective communication, people who are open to growth, and a strong-enough incentive are crucial. If just one of those is missing, it’s unlikely the others will fully compensate for it.
  • “Step change”—or a paradigm shift, a different way of thinking that results in an improvement—is critical. An agile approach, led by small, highly proficient working teams, can accomplish this. If it fails, it fails quickly; quickly retooling and trying again without red tape can push the change forward.
Generally, this all applies to voluntary systems change. But there’s also involuntary systems change. That’s usually related to a crisis—when something massive comes speeding straight at an organization so quickly that there remains no real choice. It comes down to this: transform now or fail. There’s no sustainable middle ground. Thus, we see either paralysis or paradigm shifts—step changes in parameters, behaviors, methods, social norms, and expectations. Rapid ones. 

Examining School Capabilities

At Canisius, we are fortunate to have been relatively well-positioned to shift to distance learning quickly. We implemented a 1:1 tablet program nearly a decade ago and have been ahead of the tech curve for a long time. Our staff and students already had deep familiarity with tools and resources that are now proving critical. The paradigm shift for us, then, has involved refining our understanding of already-familiar tools—and learning to use them to their maximal effect.
Adapting to distance learning hasn’t changed our fundamental mission, but it has changed the means, at least for a while. It’s been a step change in pedagogy. We’ve had to assess our curriculum rapidly, making intentional, carefully discerned refinements. While trimming of some content is necessary, we’ve found ourselves well-positioned to double down on depth—to avoid the diminishment of instructional quality even amid reduced quantities of in-person teaching. We’ve worked quickly to radically transform our class schedule, maximize the efficiency of both student and teacher workloads, and maintain productivity while avoiding burnout. It’s an ongoing adaptation.
Those are some of the practical changes. But perhaps the most important one is the clarification of our own capabilities: we can collaborate ever more closely as a team to implement rapid, substantial change in light of a very challenging situation. That is a communitywide revelation, and once we are on the other side of this pandemic, we will emerge a stronger institution of learning for it.
When I ponder the implications of what we’ve had to do versus what we can choose to do in the future, I am encouraged. Who knows what new educational possibilities, scheduling approaches, and course offerings might emerge from having struggled through this together? Openness to growth is a hallmark characteristic of Jesuit education. This situation has shown us just how open to growth we are as a learning community—teachers, students, administrators, staff, coaches, and parents alike. That is heartening. I imagine the same is true for many other schools.
As is so often the case, the removal of some freedoms has revealed others. Not the least of these is an opportunity to deepen our knowledge, understanding, and practice in new and unexpected ways. I imagine many such step changes have taken place for countless communities and organizations against a common backdrop of anxiety, pain, and loss. No, this transformation does not diminish the horror of what’s happening—but neither does the horror diminish the human potential that it sometimes reveals. It is that very potential that will see us through this pandemic and beyond it, even as we bear together its devastating toll.
Paul Cumbo
Paul Cumbo

Paul Cumbo, a teacher at Canisius, a Jesuit high school for young men in Buffalo, New York, is also an independently published author and editorial consultant serving clients in the academic, corporate, and nonprofit sectors.


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