Education: The urgency of Engagement to move beyond

by Darcy G. Shenfield

The COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal on the Education industry. Almost overnight, teachers and administrators had to devise a way to keep teaching and learning going solely online, then implement fast, way too fast. Those institutions engaged in research were also hampered by limited access and awkward communication between research teams.

At the same time, several movements were born or elevated, including Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and Indigenous Rights and Reconciliation. This was on top of the status quo that is challenging educational executives and leaders. The status quo includes a workforce, like the rest of US and Canada, that sees two thirds of employees either not engaged or actively dis-engaged. Even if researchers and teachers are focused on their effort to add to the world’s knowledge by gathering facts, creating new knowledge and by expanding the minds of children and adults, there is still a chronic problem with coordinating administrative efforts when organizations are large and often acrimonious between and among management and union workers.

So what can be done now? How do we fully recover? Take a deep breath. We are in a storm, but this too is passing. Our job is to have it pass quicker and smoother based on our ideas and our actions. First idea, let’s look at the problem from another perspective. We tend to look for top-down solutions. This has always been the way and was entrenched with the industrial revolution. In recent decades, we have experimented with the idea of bottom-up efforts, but now is the time to implement bottom-up as a natural compliment to top-down direction setting. Here we are talking about a true open-mindedness to the idea, a willingness to learn.

Second, we need to realize and fully accept that as leaders, without meaning to, we have only asked for employees, managers and front-line workers alike, to only partially show up in the workplace. This often manifests as, spoken or unspoked, asking employees to not bring there personal problems to work, or asking employees to behave, think and speak within a set of norms. The result is that as workers, we compartmentalize our lives, putting parts of ourselves and our life in a sealed box while at work. The outcome is that we partially show up at work, often disguised. What if as leaders and as managers, we were open to the idea of everyone fully showing up at work? Since we are paying compensation for the whole person, why not get the whole person’s abilities?

Now that we have opened our minds and our hearts to new possibilities, here is the action we can take. We traditionally try to pull engagement out of employees by creating clever new incentives for employees to take part in our initiatives, whether they be visions, goals, or new programs. Let’s flip that. Let’s find a way for employees to push themselves forward. To set the stage for this new push, individual employees must take one big step, fully discovering who they are, in writing. Then they fully and articulately know what they have to offer the school, their colleagues, their students and their fellow researchers.

We recently took this self-discovery step with a team of educators in a Canadian post-secondary institute. By following a guided process each person created their unique, written definition of who they are that was timeless, covering their lifetime. Then each person brought their unique attributes to defining who the team is and what the team has to offer the school. Finally, we created a plan and took action to use all the abilities of the team to impact the mission, vision, plans, and goals for their department and the institute overall. The pilot project exceeded everyone’s expectations.

The key reason, beyond the willingness of the participants to be open-minded and explore, was that each person created a solid, written definition of who they are, in hours. Then sharing that knowing with each other, while going through challenging exercises and case studies, started to open up a much deeper understanding, and appreciation, of each other. As one participant put it “I’ve known you for 20 years as a colleague, but until today I had no idea who you were.” Awareness leads to understanding, understanding leads to connection, connection leads to caring, and caring, combined with action, is engagement.

This is one solution to building employee engagement, even in the tasks that have been seen as drudgery, by asking people to fully show up in the workplace, with each other, then giving them the tools, the experience and the responsibility to make it happen, to be the change. In some ways, we all try too hard, as leaders, as educators, as colleagues. In the end, simply helping people see who they are and enabling them to flourish is the answer. Now we have fully available employees and colleagues working together to tackle today’s big challenges and tomorrow’s.