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Take a Crash Course on Problem Solving from Heroic Teachers

Terrifying, chaotic, and exhausting are among the words some teachers use to describe the remote instruction they launched this spring with varying degrees of success. My guess is CEOs, small business owners, frontline employees, and everyone in between could say they’ve shared one or more of those words to describe their own situations lately—though it’s safe to say the educational system has, in particular, significant challenges.

Educator, author, and innovator Andrew Kaufman suggests all of us are teachers in one way or another and have an important role to play in each other’s lives. “We all have been thrust into one of the most challenging experiential learning classes of our lifetimes.”

Under extraordinary circumstances, Kaufman says human beings can still “practice empathy, summon imagination and maintain hope”—all essential qualities of both teachers and leaders today. This empathic, creative, and aspirational mindset that’s conducive to adaptation is not unlike what Lean Impact author Ann Mei Chang describes in her book.

Chang says innovation is at its best when we:

  • Think big. Be audacious in the difference you aspire to make.
  • Start small. Start small and scale wisely so it’s easier to learn and adapt.
  • Relentlessly seek impact. Fall in love with the problem, not your solution.

Chang highlights the founder of Health in Harmony, Kinari Webb, and how she practiced empathy, imagination and hope to create impact. Webb’s “think big” idea was that she wanted to protect a rainforest habitat for orangutans in Indonesian Borneo. By starting small and continuing to ask “Why?” to understand root causes of logging, Webb discovered that individual participation in clear-cutting trees was precipitated by health crises, which in turn created a family’s need for emergency funds. By establishing a local health clinic, she reduced the number of households participating in logging by 89 percent.

Webb’s “classroom” is not unlike that of our own professions—it just has more trees. In the spirit of Kaufman’s epiphany that we’re all teachers in the midst of one grand experiential course on how to be our best selves under extraordinary circumstances, let’s follow Chang’s proven practices with iteration and problem solving. Be great detectives about root causes to challenges and be willing to pivot—fear free—if something isn’t working.

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TOMS is an organization that pivoted because they also fell in love with the problem, not the solution. Despite giving away more than 60 million pairs of shoes, TOMS was criticized for not making a meaningful difference in the communities where shoes were donated. TOMS showed their pivot prowess by becoming students of impact. Upon determining the shoes had taken business from local manufacturers, TOMS moved to have shoes made locally, thereby creating jobs and improving local economies. Additionally, they diversified their giving beyond shoes to include necessities such as eyeglasses and clean water.  

Teaching might be one of the hardest professions in the U.S.: long hours, high expectations, minimal resources, fidgety customers, and lots of homework. Now take away the classroom—an instructor’s primary means for inspiring students—and you’ve captured education in 2020. It’s an incredible challenge that calls for the bravest of souls. Let’s model teachers’ courageous and remote classrooms and fall in love with the problem to create our best solutions. It might be messy and a little terrifying, but we all have an opportunity to influence others in a way that helps everyone make the grade.

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