The ability to shift perspective is a leadership superpower. It can reduce unnecessary suffering and promote creativity. As school leaders, we need to constantly shift perspective to better support our students, teachers, parents and community.
“Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.” ― Wayne Dyer
On the bumper-to-bumper, podcast-filled drive to work, there are many opportunities to think about perspective. Let's start with traffic. Why does someone cutting in front of another person enrage one driver but amuse another? One possible answer is that some people are better at shifting their perspective. They seem to be able to press pause, flex their minds and see the situation from another point of view. Others, often to their own detriment, are stuck on fast forward, imprisoned by their first thoughts. I believe that the ability to intentionally shift perspective, to find a place that reduces internal suffering and increases creativity, is an essential leadership superpower in these topsy-turvy times. And yes, it can be taught.
An excellent anecdote about perspective is described in Dan Heath's brilliant book, Upstream: How to solve problems before they happen (2020). Heath retells the story of Jeannie Forrest, Dean for Alumni Engagement and Development at Yale Law School, who was sitting in the back row at a faculty meeting, frustrated. A guy with a big head kept blocking her view. But Forrest had an epiphany. She didn't have to stay put. She could move her chair. So, she did. That flash of insight became a metaphor for Forrest as she realised you could move your chair, cognitively, in any circumstance.
Forrest's example demonstrates several powerful lessons. Firstly, taking ownership of any problem increases your sense of agency. Secondly, the act of moving your chair can provide a fresh perspective on a frustrating scene. Shifting perspective increases critical thinking (I wonder what this looks like from this vantage point) and can minimise suffering (I don't have to keep believing this thing that hurts me. There is another way to see this).
To be effective as a leader, you need to cultivate moments that decrease stress and increase creativity. This is good for you because it allows better decision making and helps manage a group’s ability to solve problems more efficiently. Given the benefits of cultivating perspective, I wanted to share a couple of strategies I employ to move my chair on issues from perspective in space and time to student perspective.
Perspective in Space
In my neck of the woods, we are warming up for the spring season of exams for senior students. Exams can often be stressful for students, teachers, leaders and parents. One way I counter the stress of exam periods for myself is by invoking the perspective of ‘space’. Up close, at a distance of ten metres, exams may look formal and officious. Rows of stiff tables and pursed lips. But far away, above the earth where the world rotates rhythmically around the sun, exams no longer matter. Neither view is right, but the act of shifting perspective frees my thinking and lightens my mind. I can move my chair between these two perspectives, understanding the importance of summative assessment but recognising that, whatever the outcome, the world won't stop. Between these perspectives is clarity and, fingers crossed, wisdom.
Perspective in Time
Another perspective I find useful is jumping in my time machine. If I am planning to make an important decision about our school, I like to zip back to 1902 when Sisters Vera, Rosalie and Susannah of the Sisters of the Church founded Perth College. I try to see the situation from their vantage and consider their point of view. But I can't spend too long there because there are no coffee machines and I want to consult our future students too. I also take myself to 2031 and I want to consider how this decision would impact these students. Drawing on my days as a Humanities and Social Studies teacher, I think of these two perspectives as belonging to the archaeologist – the practical researcher who looks back to dust off the foundations holding up the present and the oracle, the prophet with one twinkling eye on the future. In scrolling between these two views, I aim to improve my thinking and thoughtfully inform my decision making.
Students are great at shifting perspective. This is particularly clear when it comes to social justice issues. This year, our Year 12s walked empathetically and articulately in the shoes of many groups whose needs are often invisible to those in power. On many occasions, they have moved my chair on issues such as gender inclusivity, showing me that exclusion is its own form of social pain we must consider.
These lessons in shifting perspective and seeing the world from another vantage point are powerful because they demonstrate that we don't have to be locked into the automatic way of thinking. For our school, as we approach the end of Term Three, there are a number of perspectives we want to challenge. One is the threat and alienation exams can invoke. For some, exams are like a ‘day of judgement’ with one's whole identity on display anxiously waiting for, at best, approval and, at worst, shame. Neither is helpful and we need to find a new perspective on exams.
High-stake moments don't have to be so crippling. A great example I have mentioned many times was modelled by Australian high jumper and Tokyo Olympics silver medallist, Nicola McDermott. McDermott went from seeing competition as a threat to her entire identity to cherishing it as an opportunity to reach her potential. Her breakthrough moment came when she realised she was already loved, by God, and didn’t have to prove her worth through sporting achievements. Instead, she reframed competition as an opportunity to excel, to put the cherry on the cake. Likewise, I want our students to understand that they too are already worthy, already loved, and that exams can't affirm or challenge that. Exams are a measure of a precise and particular performance and not a judgement of a person.
I do like my time machine. There's no traffic to contend with and it often leads to the rediscovery of precious treasures. I am pleased to tell you that, in 1902, the Sisters felt similar about exams. Their dream was to educate students "not merely [to] gain distinction in examination lists, but also [to] be fitted to gain distinction in the greater business of life. To play an important part in shaping the future of this growing and promising country". The Sisters wanted to form remarkable women to make a positive mark in a changing world. Our future students want that too.
My job is to keep that story alive. I also want to share it with other schools and school leaders for the good of our society. We need a new perspective on assessments, one that doesn't fuel the ever-present threat of anxiety. As a community of leaders, I’d love to see us sharing a more balanced perspective on exams for the benefit of our students, teachers and their families.
How have you moved your chair to reframe high-stake assessments for your senior students?