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Book Review: Hard Lessons by Jonathan Schorr

I always like reading about industries unfamiliar to me firsthand because success and obstacles have common threads across industries, and looking from the outside in often gives a perspective that is tough to see when you’re waist deep in immediate issues.  Jonathan Schorr’s Hard Lessons is a play-by-play of Oakland’s struggle to open charter schools in the inner city.  Told from multiple points of view — teacher, student, parent, administration — it’s a fascinating story but also a good coaching book.  Some lessons from Hard Lessons:

Progress can take a while.  Schorr spends time describing the difficult start-up phase before and after the charter schools opened.  You can feel how slow and seemingly hopeless the circumstances were.  Yet, because we can see the fruits of plowing through the difficulty, we get the benefit (without the interminable wait) of hindsight and the encouragement that we too can prevail if we want something as badly as some of those parents wanted a good education for their kids.

But just because we push doesn’t mean we have to rush.  Some of the biggest problems came when decisions were rushed — hiring calls where no references were checked, teachers using an approach without training and therefore digging a deeper hole for themselves.  There are numerous examples of haste makes waste here.  It reminds us that even when we want to move things forward, we shouldn’t push things.

Sometimes you need to reconsider options you earlier might have dismissed.  The parents who lobbied so hard against the district schools later aligned themselves with the district when a new administration came in.  Great lesson on how we shouldn’t be afraid to go back, reassess, and perhaps move in a direction that was not ideal before.  Our circumstances change, and we should always adjust for what’s best now, even if that means doing something deemed less than ideal before.

I strongly recommend looking at experiences and stories outside your immediate sphere of knowledge, as Hard Lessons provided for me.  You will stretch your mind, learn something new, and possibly get unstuck on something that currently feels intractable.

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