Recently I was reflecting on an experience I had in the fourth grade. We had reading groups divided by ability levels. There were five groups. I was in the middle one. It seemed automatic, if you were in the middle group your paper always came back with a C. It did not matter what the subject was, the grade was a C.
Then one day everything changed. There was a girl, I cannot remember her name, but I remember she was a nice person. She was in the B group. The teacher read her paper and started to yell. She called my name and told the two of us switch groups. She said, “You have been doing much better lately and there is no reason why you cannot perform in the B group. I said nothing but quickly walked over to my new desk and sat down.
Everyone in the room was stunned. The entire notion was unthinkable. Never before had the structure been altered. You were what you were and there was no way to become more or less.
After that everything changed. The grades on my papers went up in reading, history, math, and all the other subjects. I knew that something was happening beyond individual performance. I had moved into a new social class. I was entitled to new privileges, new status, and a new identity.
The implications went beyond the fourth grade. Every year they put me in the B group because I was in the B group the year before. In high school I often thought about the fact that I was in the college preparatory track because of that day back in the fourth grade. The day I graduated from college, I thought about that day back in the fourth grade. The impact was forever.
I often reflected on the event. Maybe I had handed in a few assignments that were better than usual, I do not know. Maybe the girl had handed in a few that were not so good. In the course of the year, how many other kids had done similar things? But this day the teacher reacted and the universe was altered.
While the formal impacts were obvious, there were two that were less obvious. The first had to do with the system. I was a street kid, and even in fourth grade I was a little cynical about the system. But after that event, I was more trusting of my own assessments. I was a lot less willing to believe in the categorizations the system handed me. I knew the boundaries were arbitrary. I always questioned implicitly or explicitly, and I looked for my own path. In fact, I preferred my own path.
The second impact I prefer not to think about. But in recent years it returns more frequently to my mind, and I wonder about that girl who was moved down. Where is she today?
I think this story has many implications. If we were the parents of that little girl, we would have been deeply troubled by the actions of that teacher, even if justified by performance. Yet as leaders, we make daily decisions that have similar outcomes for other people. Making such decisions is necessary, doing it without deep awareness and concern, is not.
- As your read this case, what memories come to your mind?
- Have you ever suffered or rejoiced because of a decision made by another?
- When you examine you own pain or joy, what lesson comes to you about positive leadership?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?