Heroic change

Change is difficult. That’s why it’s important to use models explaining where we are, why we do what we do, and how to go about creating positive change.

Using the hero’s journey archetype to conceptualize change is powerful. 1 If you’ve seen or read The HobbitThe Hunger Games, or Star Wars, then you’re familiar with the hero’s journey. Here’s a short video that does an excellent job explaining it:


It’s easy to compare the hero’s journey to many of the stories with which we’re familiar. Surprisingly, it’s also easy to apply this framework to the experience of growing as a teacher, school, or district. 2

Let’s compare this wheel to an educator’s experience: The teacher is in her classroom living the status quo, when suddenly she’s called on an adventure. (1:1 implementation, Project Based Learning, Personal Learning Plans… the list goes on.) She’ll need assistance (fellow teacher, TOSA, academic coach, principal, etc.) when she accepts the call. Then comes the departure (performing the new practice), and she’ll quickly encounter trials and approach a crisis (colleague or admin push back, disheartening initial results, physical and emotional fatigue). Through hard work and trusting her students, she’ll earn the treasure (student achievement), and the results will be shared when she returns to work in an enlightened state (new life). The resolution occurs, but it’s not necessarily “happily ever after”. The teacher is indeed changed by the powerful experience of student achievement, but colleagues and admin may not acknowledge the accomplishment of her journey. This is where the cycle begins again, only this time the teacher is the assistance–possibly for a fellow teacher, administrator, or an entire school.

It’s important to self-identify where you are on the hero’s journey before embarking on the change adventure. Perhaps you’re accepting the call. Perhaps you’re in the throes of a crisis. Perhaps you’ve returned a changed person, and you’re ready to provide assistance.

Let’s assume you’re in the assistance role. As a newly minted Gandalf, Obi-Wan, or Morpheus, it’s your job to change teachers and administrators for the better. Just explaining your heroic journey is not enough; you need to be strategic in your approach. This is where another circle–what Simon Sinek calls “The Golden Circle”–comes into play:

The message from the above video is clear: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Take a look at the Golden Circle:


As Sinek explains, you have to move from the inside/out. This means your WHY must be established before you can assist people. If you don’t have a WHY, you can’t be of service. (It’s easy to brush this off and assume your WHY has been identified, but I recommend writing down your WHY and taking a good hard look at it.)

Implementing technology in and of itself isn’t an effective WHY. It’s an outside/in approach to changing behavior. Also, providing facts, figures, and technology doesn’t change people’s gut feelings–especially if they’ve been teaching for decades. Instead, you need an inside/out approach. Sinek shares Apple’s WHY: “We believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.” Creating devices comes much later. Educational leaders must be provided a WHY that’s inspiring–because only then will change occur.

Once you develop your WHY, you then need a First Follower.


In the above video, Derek Sivers makes the case the leader’s First Follower is extremely important. “(The First Follower) is an underestimated form of leadership in itself.” This means you–as a leader–must attract a First Follower with your WHY. If the WHY is solid, then it’s inevitable a second follower will show up. Then a third. Then a fourth. Momentum ensues, and eventually teachers who aren’t joining the movement will feel left out, meaning almost everyone will join in. This is when skin in the game is developed, and trust me, skin in the game is extremely important.

Sivers calls the accumulation of followers “creating a movement”, but it’s essentially the same as taking a group on the hero’s journey.

Let’s put this all together:


In the above picture, we have the hero’s journey circle and the Golden Circle, which is pointing to “First Follower”. This is the foundation for change.

Here’s a quick recap:

  1. Identify where you or your institution is on the hero’s journey.
  2. Establish your WHY. Afterward, you can better determine and enact your HOW and WHAT.
  3. Attract your First Follower(s) and nurture their leadership. By nature of being a First Follower, they will join you as assistance along the hero’s journey.

As I stated at the outset, change is hard. Using the hero’s journey, the Golden Circle, and Sivers’s First Follower concept can help educators as they become more effective for the sake of students.

  1. Joseph Campbell popularized the hero’s journey archetype, but I learned about using this framework to conceptualize educational change at the CUE Rockstar Admin conference at Skywalker Ranch in September 2015. Jon Corippo and Ramsey Musallam developed and shared the idea; you can find out more about CUE Rockstar Admin here
  2. I used Canva to make the images in this post, but the hero’s journey and Golden Circle were not originally created by me. Joseph Campbell delineated the steps of the hero’s journey, and Simon Sinek developed the Golden Circle. The image at the end of this article is a synthesis of Campbell, Sinek, and Derek Sivers’s wonderful ideas. 

Yoda Strong

The 1:1 deployment is the least of your worries, Steve. There’s a human infrastructure fraught with God knows how many messy human problems that must be fixed. You have an educational vision that runs through your fingers like sand when you attempt to describe it. There’s the lack of belief in your own ability to lead, which is added to the understanding that there are more questions than you have answers. You want to play your part in enhancing student learning, but what is you part? Can you be effective?

These thoughts plague me as I ascend the stairs from the underground parking lot and enter Skywalker Ranch’s lobby. I cross the foyer and open one of the double doors to the courtyard. It’s warm in the sun and refreshing in the shade. I walk to my right where the morning light shines through the leaves and dapples an elegant water fountain. I sit on the fountain’s ledge.

Deep breaths. There’s a lot to process. The stakes are high when the learning of young people hangs in the balance. The complexity is daunting, and the correct path is unclear.

I look at the courtyard. Japanese maples and manicured shrubs grace the space. The trickling fountain adds to the effect. Water aside, all I can hear is nothing. This is startling. I fight the urge to dive my hand into my pocket and pull out my phone. Instead, I take off my backpack and lay it beside me. I could grab my laptop–it’s easily accessible in the bag. The WiFi must reach the courtyard.

In the middle of the space stands a statue of Yoda. A circular bush and lavender flowers wrap around the circumference of his podium. His three-fingered hands rest upon a walking stick. His implacable stare is directed toward stairs that lead to the roundabout that greets ranch visitors. I remember the selfie I already took with Yoda; this tempts me to once again reach for my phone.

I resist and lie on the ledge, rest my head on the bag, and close my eyes. The thoughts return… the complexity of how students learn best. The demands of myself and others.

Tap, tap, tap.

I open my eyes. The noise violation is startling in the stillness of this sanctuary. I’m ready to shoot an annoyed glance at someone, but I’m alone. The tapping sounded close. No matter. I shut my eyes and continue thinking.

Tap, tap, tap.

I open my eyes once again. I’m still alone. I’m about to close my eyes when I notice something strange: Yoda’s head is turned toward me. I sit up straight and look around. Is someone playing a joke? Am I being filmed? That’s got to be it–I’m going to be on a television show of people trying to sleep in the courtyard at Skywalker Ranch.

Tap, tap, tap.

Yoda is doing it–he’s tapping his metal walking stick on the metal podium and his stare is leveled at me. He then breaks his feet off the podium and cuts through the circular bush and flowers. The metal “tink” of his stick and three-toed feet on the pavers echos throughout the courtyard until he scurries up the ledge and sits to my left. He rests his walking stick beside him and folds his hands.

“Know me you do,” he says.

“Know you, um… yes. Am I being filmed right now?”

“Filmed?” He lets out a short guffaw. “And why would anyone want to film you?”

He has a point. I shake my head and then place my face in my hands. “This isn’t happening,” I say. “I must be dreaming.”

“Troubled you are,” Yoda says, a hint of a smile on his lips.

“Well, yes,” I say. “I’m talking to a statue. I’m worried this is a hoax or I’m crazy.”

Yoda lets out another laugh. “Worried you were before I came alive.”

He’s right. There’s a lot of concern–I guess you can say it’s worry. I look at Yoda. His face is kind. Childhood memories rush back. Against my better judgement, I decide to bite.

“There are many paths to take for helping students learn,” I say, “and I’m not always certain which one is best.”

“Fearful you should not be. Many paths there are, but take the fork you must and not look back.”

I nod. “I’ve tried this, it’s difficult to not look back.”

“Try?” Yoda says. “Try this you have? Take the path and then done it is. Do or do not. There is no try.”

“OK, I’ll just do. Does that take care of the fear?”

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear. Success? The highest test scores? A Jedi craves not these things. More important things there are. You must unlearn what you have learned.”

“Sure, but tests are important,” I say.

Yoda’s sigh shakes me more than his words. “That is why you fail. Tests there will always be. Ever present are homework, Accelerated Reader, and grades. Easily these forces flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the path of these things, forever will they dominate your destiny, consume you they will. A teacher’s strength flows from the students. What makes them curious? What makes them engaged? Set your mind on these things you must.”

The significance of what he just said is slow to come; that’s why I keep pushing back. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. It just seems even though things are always changing in education, nothing changes.”

“Patience you must have.”

“But school districts have taken so long to get things right. I feel like they’re finally on the cusp of something great, and it’s important we make the right decisions as soon as possible. We’re ready for change.”

“Ready you are? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is ready. Do not look to the future–to the horizon. Never your mind is on where you are. Hmm? What you are doing? Hmph. A dark place you find yourself if the future you seek. Only seek knowledge, light your way it will.”

He’s right. Thinking about everything that must be accomplished in the future is only leading me to grief. I realize my thinking isn’t helping.

“So what should I do?”

“Awww, a question you finally ask,” Yoda says. “The beginning of the path this is. Get you started I will.” Yoda closes his eyes and breathes the Marin County air. “Programs. Interventions. Theories. A Jedi minds not these things. Curiosity in the student you must build. The right technical tools for the job you must discover. Then the fork you must take.”

Build curiosity in students. Use the right tools. Take the fork. I think about these things. “I can try this.”

Yoda is looking at me with one eyebrow raised. “Action you must take. You must do. Or do not. There is no try.”

“Yes, I will take action. How do I take this back to my school district? What if people don’t listen?”

“Truths to which we cling depend on our point of view. People’s minds you may change–but many you will not. Always pass on what you have learned, but focus on the perception of others you must not. A person will find only what he or she brings into a staff meeting. Do you think Yoda stops teaching just because an adult doesn’t want to hear? A teacher Yoda is. The students Yoda cares for. Not the opinions of adults.” Yoda shakes his head.

“Your words make sense, Yoda.” I believe this, even though I’m not certain I’ve grasped everything he’s shared. “No matter the size of the obstacle, I will build curiosity in students, use the right tools, and take the fork.”

“Yes, remember, size of the obstacle matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size? Hmm? And well you should not. For my ally is student engagement, and a powerful ally it is.”

“Yoda, thank you.”

“Strong are the naysayers in education. Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.”

I lie my head on my backpack once again and fall asleep. I awake to the noise of people entering the courtyard with lunches in hand. Yoda is once again a statue, standing on his podium and gazing at the stairs leading to the roundabout.

I grab my backpack and walk up the stairs. The golden grass of the Marin hills dances briefly in the wind. Those hills go on and on…

I look just ahead of me. It’s time to get to work.