Fire UP

Unleashing Potential (UP)

in Schools & Communities


William Sommers & Jorge Sciupac


“If you always do what you always did,

you will always get what you always got.”

Moms Mabley

Canaries, Trim Tabs, and the Jungle

In the early days of coal mining there were many deaths due to gases released and sometimes the gases ignited to cause an explosion.  To solve the danger of  a coal miner, someone thought of bringing canaries into the mine.  The canaries would be the early warning signs of gas being released and die.  That was the signal of danger for human.

In the jungle the gazelle wakes up each morning knowing it must outrun the fastest lion to survive.  The lion wakes up each morning knowing it must outrun the slowest gazelle to get dinner.  Both wake up knowing they will have to start running today to survive.

As Bill continues to work with schools who are struggling and Jorge helps bridge the strategic gaps of organizations, one day they were exchanging ideas about the current state of education  and wondering:

  • What are the early warning signs in our schools and education?
  • Where are we going? How can we get there in times of acceleration?
  • Are we running schools and education fast enough and creative to survive?
  • What are the gaps that get in the way to our desired outcomes?

It takes a great deal of energy to move the large rudder for ships to change direction.  Trim tabs were developed and are part of the massive rudder.  Moving the trim tabs first makes it easier to turn the larger rudder.  Trim tabs are smaller, mini rudders that use less energy.

The Educational System is not a small boat. We can offer some ideas, questions, and actions to consider:

  • Define the Current Challenge. What are the current problems, opportunities and impact of staying the course as opposed to making modifications to better assess results? ‘A ship in harbor is safe, that is not what ships are designed for.’ (Attributed to Trammel Crow)
  • What is happening in our socioeconomic environment that impact education?
  • What is currently working in schools now? What is not working?
  • Where do we want to take the Education ship? What is our destination?
  • What actions that are possible that could shift the direction to what are better outcomes?

As we look back at decades of compliance, test scores, and high control organizations the results have been more dropouts and more disengaged learners.  Test scores that were used for assessing impact of teaching are now being used to judge teachers, schools, and communities.  As Eduardo Briceño’s upcoming book, The Performance Paradox (2023), identifies the overfocus on performance has replaced our focus on the learning zone and how students and staff learn best.

Technology has contributed to reduce reflective thinking and formative assessments to be replaced by immediate responses and final judgments. Reflection produces better long-term results (see many resources e.g., Schon, Kahneman, Pink, Costa, etc.)  Dintersmith in his book, What School Could Be (2018) identifies schools in every state that have created schools and attract students to continue their learning.  Tony Wagner (2008) forecasted new work skills in his book The Global Achievement Gap.  Substantive changes can occur, the question is will we not, can we?

Social Media is creating psychological and emotional changes in our society.  Yes, technology will keep moving forward.  How about teaching critical thinking skills to provide strategies to help young people and adults know whether what is on social media is true or false?  Digital ethics will be paramount for students and adults as technology outpaces response times.

  • Establish Guiding Principles. What are the main and coherent “guardrails” that could not only establish the limits of possible solutions but direct the efforts with shared values?
  • What are the essential objectives of public education?
  • What are the boundaries of what we want to teach and learn?
  • Who are the critical players and stakeholders of the system?
  • How do we treat ourselves and others along the way?


”If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

General Eric Shinseki

Things have and will continue to change.  What are the things that should not change to create organizations that can deal effectively and efficiently with change? Amy Edmondson (2019, Fearless Organization provides many actions to create a psychologically safe environment. Multiple books in the business literature address the need for psychological safety to get the best thinking from their employees.  It is no different in schools.  First, physical and emotional safety needs to be in place.  Then, more learning for students and staff will prepare students for the world of work, public service, and positive community participation.

The most innovative companies know, without a safe environment, they will not get the best thinking of their talent.  Schools will be the place to create these learning and thinking environment to prepare young people for working in the best companies. An example is Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Richard Sheridan (2013), CEO at Menlo wrote Joy, Inc.  Read a summary at

To help create positive learning environments, conflict management will be required.  Sommers (2018) wrote Responding to Resistance identifying thirty ways to manage conflict in schools.  This book synthesizes current literature and strategies.  At the end there is a section on what to do when nothing works. (Sorry to tell you, nothing works all the time).

One strategy is Polarity Partnerships.  This occurs when two ideas are both good, interdependent, and ongoing.  Barry Johnson (2020) wrote ‘AND’ which provides many examples from politics, race, and culture, and many other issues that seem at odds with each other and has good ideas from both views.

  1. The Actions. What are some of the key actions we suggest increasing positive, productive movement? Hemingway said, “Never mistake motion for action.”
  • Gather teachers, students, and parents to involve them in the process.
  • Inquire with curiosity. The best ideas that could come from diversity and inclusion of opinions of all stakeholders.
  • Make sure that everyone feels “seen, heard and felt.”
  • Experiment, ‘if it isn’t working try something else.’ The key is quick feedback loops to know whether an action is working or not.
  • Embrace conflict. It can be a tremendous energy source for new ideas.
  • Develop a bridge from where we are to where we want to be. When two competing commitments (both good) seem to be at odds, try polarity management. Polarity strategies is a both/and process.
  • Develop a “Learning Culture.” Organizational development is a result of people development. Is there any end to learning? NO!!!  Keep learning and adapting. As Marshall Goldsmith says, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”

Communities in Schools is having very positive results with reducing dropouts (pushouts), engaging students in learning, and creating wrap around programs in schools.  Bill Millikin’s new book (2022) The Last Dropout has some specific strategies for partnerships between schools and communities.  Check to see if your locality has this program or contact the national center.


Briceño, Eduardo. (2023). The Performance PARADOX: Turning the Power of Mindset into Action. New York: Ballantine Books

Dintersmith, Ted. (2018). What School Could Be.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there.  New York: Hyperion

Johnson, Barry. (2020). And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or        Dilemma. Volume One.  Sacramento, CA:  Polarity Partnerships.

Milliken, Bill. (2022). The Last Dropout. – A Model for Creating Educational Equity. U.S.: Hay House.

Sheridan, Richard. (2013).  Joy, Inc.  New York:  Penguin

Sommers, William. (2020). Responding to Resistance: 30 Ways to Manage Conflict.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree

Wagner, Tony. (2008). The Global Achievement Gap.  New York: Basic Books


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!