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Standing in the Tragic Gap (part of a workshop on Vision)

By Rachel Boechler, Assistant Professor

Cardinal Stritch University (2004)

The role of school leaders is increasingly complex as they try to balance the many
needs placed before them, whether by government mandates, district initiatives,
building goals, or the day-to-day concerns expressed by parents, teachers, and
students. Faced with ever increasing demands, along with decreasing resources to
meet those demands, leaders struggle to stay open to the hopeful possibilities that
were once the source of their desire to serve as educational leaders. Effective school
leaders must be able to hold the tension between the reality of the moment and the
possibility that something better might emerge.

In A Hidden Wholeness (2004) Parker Palmer speaks of the "tragic gap" that we stand
in today in our world. The tragic gap can be described as holding the tension between
two opposites, or the gap between the way things are and the way we know things
ought to be. School leaders are asked to stand in this gap every day facing issues of
scarce resources with increasing student needs, of demands for accountability while
educating the "whole child," of providing motivation and support to teachers while
deeply drained personally.

To stand in the tragic gap is to recognize the importance of establishing systems of
accountability to assure learning for all students, while at the same time nurturing a
school culture that engages students as creative thinkers, risk-takers, and good
citizens. It means standing in the heart-breaking place of knowing that for some
children school is the only place they find structure, safety, and sustenance while
understanding that these children must also be held to the same standards of
excellence as children in more fortunate circumstances. To stand in the tragic gap is to
stand before a school board that demands deep "budget cuts" knowing the current
budget is unable to maintain even mandated programming. To stand in the tragic gap
is to see all that needs to be done while recognizing the limitations of time, resources
and energy you and your staff hold.

School leaders often come to deal with the requirements of their roles by developing
strategies for deflecting criticism. Whether by growing "scar tissue" or by taking on a
persona of constant "busyness," school leaders have found ways to deal with the
painful aspects of a job that can at times seem thankless (Ackerman & Maslin-
Ostrowski, 2004). It is not surprising that school leaders become cynical and hardened
to new initiatives, new information about learning, leadership, and schools of the
future. However, it is the tension of what could be balanced against the tension of
"what is" that can bring us to a place of new learninga new way of looking at an
age-old problem. As leaders, we are asked to stand in this gap and faithfully hold the
tension between reality and possibility.
We typically work to resolve tension as quickly as possible for a variety of
reasonsour western propensity for quick resolution to problems, the lack of quality
time and relationships that are critical to deep discussion and thinking, and the fear
that there is not a resolution that will be satisfying to all. There is another reason to
consider as well. Palmer (2004) suggests: "Ultimately what drives us to resolve
tension quickly, is the fear that if we hold it too long, it will break our hearts." If we
are true to our experience, we all know that holding powerful tensions over time can
be a heart-breaking experience. Acknowledging that it is possible our heart can be
painfully broken into shards, it is also possible that by standing in the tragic gap our
heart can be broken open into a new capacity (Palmer, 2004). When our "hearts break
open" we often find capacities and gifts that we never before knew existed. As school
leaders, when we show our vulnerabilities, we often find the strength of support from
others to be key in moving us forward to new possibilities. It is in places of tension
that we are often forced into new ways of thinkingwith our minds and hearts open
to some possibility not considered previously.

While our strengths and vulnerabilities as leaders can be a source of new learning for
the entire organization, it clearly takes great courage to acknowledge these qualities of
self. However, it may be this place of courage that ultimately allows us to meet our
true potential as leaders in a time of critical need in our schools. Increasingly the
literature on leadership acknowledges the need for those in leadership roles to develop
a deep understanding of self in terms of beliefs, values, strengths and weaknesses
before they can successfully lead others (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2004;
Livsey & Palmer, 1999; Thompson, 2004). The kind of leadership that is required of
those who willingly stand in the tragic gap requires habits of the mind that typically
are not addressed in leadership preparation programs: patience, humility, faithfulness,
intuition, and spiritual grounding. Staying openhearted and steadily focused on a
higher purpose while under tense conditions requires inner strength that can only be
derived by such habits.
The most powerful and sustainable progress in educational change may result not
from willful efforts to plan and push forward specific agendas, but from a profound
openness of heart and mind that allows more powerful possibilities to unfold
(Thompson, 2004). Maybe that is the true legacy of our leadershipto model the
power of open-heartedly facing challenges with courage and endurance so that we
may come to a new way of thinking. This then is the gift that "standing in the tragic
gap" may hold for the schools we lead and for our leadership practice.