Spotlight

Points for Viewing and Points of View

Many of us have read and spoken about using different lenses to capture different aspects of a situation. We’ve emphasized taking multiple considerations into account when making decisions.

A trip to Vietnam in the fall of 2002 for the AASA Invitational International Seminar on Schooling taught a group of American educational leaders that entertaining the viewpoints of others may mean increasing our own points for viewing. Though we knew Ho Chi Minh City was on the itinerary, our group of superintendents, professors and school board members was amazed to find ourselves headed to the site we knew as Saigon. Many recalled the war there, and one in our midst had been a helicopter pilot in the Mekong Delta.

Leaving the Bus

As we rode into Ho Chi Minh City on a comfortable, air-conditioned bus, we noticed a city teeming with people, bustling with the more than three million motor scooters that hit the streets each day. We also saw with a bit of uneasiness that living conditions were rather dilapidated, and poverty was rampant. Some began to wonder what the accommodations would be like. And in what state would we find the schools and children? Others wondered about the reception that Americans would receive in a country that had suffered so during a war that was still recent in their memory and ours.

 

The first lesson we learned was that we would have no answers until we got off the bus. As we entered our hotel, we were escorted to a balcony where some of the most beautiful children in the world stood attired in traditional Vietnamese dress. The lovely young girls greeted us with fragrant leis and smiles. In many cases the warm welcome included hugs and kisses on the cheek.

The following day, we visited a fabulous kindergarten located in what had been the former home of the country’s vice president. The students did not let us stand apart. They quickly involved us in fishing in their tank of plastic fish, shopping at play stores and sharing their story time. Language became no barrier as smiles connected visitor and pupil. Students presented handmade presents, and a group of American school board members sang. We were learning that getting into the same room rather than observing from above and afar made a difference in what we could see, and it changed our points of view.

We derived a similar lesson from that initially intimidating motor scooter traffic. We looked out from the bus windows to see entire families aboard one scooter. Huge boxes were strapped on and transported with seeming ease. We could see no pattern to the way the vehicles darted in and out.

Getting on the Road

It was only when we got onto the roads in pedicabs that the point from which we were viewing all of this changed. Suddenly, we realized that drivers could detect spaces just the right size for moving through the hordes. We saw how drivers varied speed to keep each scooter moving along with others and to get ahead of some. We also felt the exhilaration of being part of all of that motion and recognized that merely moving through the streets took skill—and a lot of nerve.

And all of a sudden we could see into buildings and smell the aroma of meals cooking. Structures that looked similar from afar really had their own unique characteristics. Our conversation changed based on that ride. We had new points of view about the living around us.

For four of us, an evening stroll down the main street of town altered our sense of the country and its life even further. Without bus or pedicab, we crossed the street on our own. Oh, you might say, any child could do that. Well, it did take a child—an energetic Vietnamese boy who was trying to sell us ball caps—to explain the strategy for street crossing to us. We hesitated, trying to figure out how to cross a thoroughfare thick with motor scooters, when the teen-ager said to us, “Are you going to cross the street?” Upon hearing our answer, he emphatically stated, “Then don’t stop. Keep moving.” With him barking those orders beside us all the way, we stepped into the traffic and kept walking.

The key to crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City was to be part of the motion. Because we were moving just as all the vehicles were moving, dodging and passing and going with the flow were all possible. To have stopped would have certainly meant that someone or something would have been hit because of the broken momentum. We had to be literally in--not beside or above--the action to understand. Our change in the place where we viewed that action made all the difference.

All of the viewing points were needed to enable us to experience the richness of Vietnam. We really did need that global view from the bus. It also was crucial to get into classrooms and relationships face-to-face. Further, our going with the flow was not enough. We had to be in the flow of traffic to appreciate it fully.

Leadership Lessons

Our world of schools and schooling in the United States requires the same mobility for us. We might ask: In what ways do we need to afford ourselves a big, comfortable vantage point comparable to that bus? What can we learn as we use that point for viewing? At what stages must we join the traffic--that is, the day-to-day life inside schools--to understand directly what that world encompasses right now? And when must we, perhaps fearlessly and perhaps fearfully, become a direct participant in what is going on?

 

We are quick to develop and announce our points of view. Perhaps we need to be just as energetic about trying out and diversifying our points for viewing.

Cheryl Sullivan is an educational consultant and the author of How to Mentor in the Midst of Change (ASCD). She can be reached at 2221 Fair Oaks Road, Decatur, GA 30033. E-mail: cgs99@bellsouth.net