The Fable of the Table: Empathy for the Worried Administrator

This post originally appeared on co-author Allison Zmuda’s blog at

What if school leaders governed less from a place of fear and worry and more from a position of excitement and possibility?

A table is a fixture within a kitchen. It is sturdy and upright. It may have dings and scratches – signs of wear and use – but it does its job. Despite its imperfections, the table has a purpose. It is a place for preparation and rest. It can be a catch-all for mail and even liven up the room with an arrangement of cut flowers.

Without that table – even if for a brief time – the kitchen loses a fundamental part of its identity and functionality.

The Worried School Leader

Think of a school as that table, the kitchen as the community that relies upon it. It is solid, sturdy, predictable. Think of a school or district administrator entrusted to care for that table. Moving, adjusting, even resurfacing that table causes disruption and welcomes anxieties. Getting a new table would be a huge hassle if there were a gap between the old and the new. Where to put the mail? Where to eat? Better to leave well enough alone.

That is the worried school leader. Reliable schools may not excite or thrill, but in a world of constant disruption and chaotic expectations, stability and calm have significant worth.

The Innovating School Leader

An innovating school leader takes a look at that table and appreciates it for what it is … but also sees great potential. He or she wonders how great it would be to have a drawer underneath.

What about hinges? A drop-leaf? Perhaps adjust its orientation and reposition within the kitchen itself. Upon crouching down and looking at the table legs, it’s clear there is room for growth. There’s enough space to add wheels! Solid, substantial, industrial, farmhouse wheels, too … not the cheap brass casters of dollar stores and chipboard furnishings.

How amazing can this table become with an open mind and patience?

The Price of Innovation

When those rooted in stability meet those who dream of what is possible, misunderstanding, mistrust, and missed opportunities arise.

See, adding wheels would mean flipping the table upside down, something that would nonetheless result in discomfort. Granted, it wouldn’t be for long — perhaps an hour at most — but the simple thought produces anxiety.

Adding a drawer would also require a flipping of the table, but that would be for an extended time. It could be several hours, even a day or two.

Adding a hinge would make the table that much more practical and flexible, but will take a week for proper fitting and finishing and — most troubling of all — if it doesn’t go well, the table will bear permanent scars. It might not even function as well as it has for years.

The worried school leader has good reason to worry.

The innovating school leader has good reason to innovate.

If these two parties cannot find a way to empathize with one another, doors may close — literally and figuratively — as their visions for student success fragment. With every splinter, efficiency wanes and the likelihood of any pursuit achieving its goal lessens.

How might we resolve the tensions between the two?

This post was co-authored by Allison Zmuda and Dan Ryder. Allison is the founder of the Learning Personalized community and a full-time education consultant working with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Dan is a veteran English teacher who presents workshops on technology integration, improvisation and design thinking throughout the state and beyond. Find him at

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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