The Fable of the Table: Empathy for the Worried Administrator

school administratorsWhat if school leaders governed less from a place of fear and worry and more from a position of excitement and possibility?

A table is a fixture within a kitchen. It is sturdy and upright. It may have dings and scratches – signs of wear and use – but it does its job. Despite its imperfections, the table has a purpose. It is a place for preparation and rest. It can be a catch-all for mail and even liven up the room with an arrangement of cut flowers.

Without that table – even if for a brief time – the kitchen loses a fundamental part of its identity and functionality.

The Worried School Leader

Think of a school as that table, the kitchen as the community that relies upon it. It is solid, sturdy, predictable. Think of a school or district administrator entrusted to care for that table. Moving, adjusting, even resurfacing that table causes disruption and welcomes anxieties. Getting a new table would be a huge hassle if there were a gap between the old and the new. Where to put the mail? Where to eat? Better to leave well enough alone.

That is the worried school leader. Reliable schools may not excite or thrill, but in a world of constant disruption and chaotic expectations, stability and calm have significant worth.

The Innovating School Leader

An innovating school leader takes a look at that table and appreciates it for what it is … but also sees great potential. He or she wonders how great it would be to have a drawer underneath.

What about hinges? A drop-leaf? Perhaps adjust its orientation and reposition within the kitchen itself. Upon crouching down and looking at the table legs, it’s clear there is room for growth. There’s enough space to add wheels! Solid, substantial, industrial, farmhouse wheels, too … not the cheap brass casters of dollar stores and chipboard furnishings.

How amazing can this table become with an open mind and patience?

The Price of Innovation

When those rooted in stability meet those who dream of what is possible, misunderstanding, mistrust, and missed opportunities arise.

See, adding wheels would mean flipping the table upside down, something that would nonetheless result in discomfort. Granted, it wouldn’t be for long — perhaps an hour at most — but the simple thought produces anxiety.

Adding a drawer would also require a flipping of the table, but that would be for an extended time. It could be several hours, even a day or two.

Adding a hinge would make the table that much more practical and flexible, but will take a week for proper fitting and finishing and — most troubling of all — if it doesn’t go well, the table will bear permanent scars. It might not even function as well as it has for years.

The worried school leader has good reason to worry.

The innovating school leader has good reason to innovate.

If these two parties cannot find a way to empathize with one another, doors may close — literally and figuratively — as their visions for student success fragment. With every splinter, efficiency wanes and the likelihood of any pursuit achieving its goal lessens.

How might we resolve the tensions between the two?

This post was co-authored by Allison Zmuda and Dan Ryder. Allison is the founder of the Learning Personalized community and a full-time education consultant working with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Dan is a veteran English teacher who presents workshops on technology integration, improvisation and design thinking throughout the state and beyond. Find him at


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Jim Rickabaugh
7 years ago

The analogy of the table works for me. It is a central, familiar, dependable and predictable fixture in the kitchen, just as the schools we attend and to which we send our children are familiar. In fact, we often are even willing to compromise what we really need to protect the comfort of what we know, even if it does not serve our needs or meet our expectation the way it did in the past. After all, it is not the table’s fault that what we need and expect grows and changes over time.

The disruption connected to repositioning, refurbishing and replacing the table also sounds familiar. Change can be anxiety producing, especially when it involves something so familiar. Reactions to changes in schools can sound and seem much the same.

Yet, there is real potential for resolution between the worried administrator and the innovative leader. The resolution lies in clear, compelling, shared purpose. If we begin our communication and preparation with “why” repositioning, refurbishing and, even, replacing is critical to accomplishing what is most important to us and invite ideas, input, investment and commitment, we can move through much of the disruption, fear and confusion to a better place. Unless the”why” of change is transparent, compelling and helps us see a path to a better place, living with what we have seems safe and rational. We can expend endless energy and damage relationships arguing about “what” we are doing and “how” we are doing it because we do not have clarity or agreement about “why.” Of course, some will still be fearful and want to avoid disruption, but being clear about “why” can even help these people see the need and eventually adjust to a new normal.

Allison Zmuda
7 years ago
Reply to  Jim Rickabaugh

The power of “why” is so important, especially when the articulation, communication, and refinement is a collective one. Thanks so much for adding your thoughts, Jim.


[…] am reminded of a recent blog post I co-authored with personalized learning guru, Allison Zmuda. We present my “Fable of the […]

6 years ago

This website was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something
which helped me. Many thanks!

Laurie Brasche
Laurie Brasche
6 years ago

Great analogy. As I think about moving PL forward at our elementary school, I am wanting a video to show teachers what it can look like in their classrooms. In order to allay fears about the altering of the kitchen table and to present a clear vision, I think a video would help tremendously. Any suggestions????