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Hope, change and organising

I have never been attracted to the sort of politics that Sarah Palin has been peddling for many years. She was a prominent member of the Tea Party movement, a pressure group on the right of the Republican Party. After her stint as Governor of Alaska, she aligned herself with Trump, questioning Barrack Obama’s US citizenship. Despite my antipathy, she did say something that made me laugh out loud. Obama’s campaign had featured two key words – hope and change – which appeared on posters and were repeated in many speeches. During his first year at the Whitehouse, Palin made a speech in which she posed this question for the president: 'How's that hopey, changey stuff working out?'. I was initially appalled but then, against my better judgement, I found myself amused by the sheer gormlessness of it.

Obama was introduced to the world with his mesmeric speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 under the banner of ‘the audacity of hope’ which was to reappear in 2007 as the title of his book.The structure of his speech reflected Marshall Gantz’s concept of ‘public narrative’ (2008) which is about leading change through telling the story of self, the story of us and the story of now. Through these three layers of story-telling we can share our values, form alliances with others and take action for change. The themes of hope and change were revisited frequently during Obama’s presidency. What was distinctive about his philosophy was that he was not just asking people for their vote, he was calling upon them to become activists themselves. Before running for office, he had worked as an organiser with disadvantaged communities in Chicago, mobilising people to come together to call for change in the system that let them down. Twenty years before, Gantz also worked as an organiser with the united Farmworkers of America in the 1960s. He would have been familiar with the legacy of Joe Hill, the legendary union organiser who was shot by a firing squad in 1915. It is said that his final words were: “Don’t mourn, organize.” In the 1980s, Gantz turned his attention to political campaigns; his ideas about strategic capacity, leadership and organising were very influential in the Obama presidential campaign of 2008-09.

What has this stuff about hope, change and organising got to do with teacher leadership? The word ‘hope’ reflects the idea that human beings have the capacity to imagine a better future and the word ‘change’ reflects another dimension of what it is to be human – agency. Obama said this about the audacity of hope:

…having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict; the gall to believe despite personal setbacks, the loss of a job or an illness in the family or a childhood mired in poverty, we had some control – and therefore responsibility - over our own fate.

(Obama, 2007: 356)

Agency is the key to teacher leadership. As teachers, our sense of moral purpose tells us that something needs to change, even if it is seemingly small and specific such as a group of children are failing to access good literature because they have come to associate reading with ‘work’. We might imagine a scenario in which these students experience a breakthrough in which they discover that novels are engaging and even thrilling. This is purposeful hope at work. If you would like to read more about agency, please find my article 'Human agency, learning and leadership in schools' which can be found on the HertsCam website.

As I noted in a previous post, hope without change agentry (Fullan, 1993) is martyrdom, so teachers welcome the opportunity to become more effective agents of change. The teacher-led development work methodology used within HertsCam, and sister networks, empowers and enables teachers and others to design and lead processes of change. As individuals, they plan a way forward which involves collaborating with colleagues to develop new or better practice and get them embedded in the routines of school life. This, I suppose, is a very particular way of getting organised, but it has much in common with what Obama and Gantz were doing when they were enabling members of the community to come together to improve things and become advocates for better futures.

As I argue in the article mentioned above, agency is the key to successful human endeavour, but agency is just a capacity, a potential. Change comes about when people articulate hope, focus their imagination, envisage possibilities and then organise pathways to that better future.

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