Skip to content

One Key to Post-Pandemic Educational Progress: Patient Urgency

by Kathleen Porter-Magee
4 minute read

Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee shared the following with Partnership leaders and teachers as we launched the 2022-23 school year:

As we start this school year, two realities are abundantly clear. The challenges Partnership students face are real, and they’ve gotten worse over the past two and a half years. For example, the third-grade students we welcome this year have really never experienced a “normal” school year, unaffected by covid, fear, quarantine, or more. 

We know from national data and our own experience that this has taken a toll, both academically and mentally, particularly for students in the low-income communities we serve. So we know that our students don’t have a moment to waste. 

At the same time, we also know that the pace our educators and school leaders have maintained over the past two and a half years isn’t sustainable. Catholic educators across the country have been doing heroic work to serve our students and communities since March 2020, and they have literally changed the conversation about what’s possible. A weary nation can see just how important urban Catholic schools are to the fabric of American K-12 education thanks to the tireless efforts of Partnership educators and others.

Yet the feeling of frenzy has to end. It is not sustainable, and it’s not good for us, for our teachers, or for our students.

So as we launched the year with an eye toward creating a new normal for us and for our students, one theme resonates strongly: “patient urgency.”

MCHR Principal Trista Rivera and a new student on the first day of school.

The idea is actually drawn from one of our amazing Partnership teachers and leaders, Fiona Chalmers. Last year, as she thought about what our students needed from us, she described a mindset of “patient urgency.”

As we considered this summer what exactly goes into patient urgency—and how it is different from frenzied action—we came to think of it this way: it is time for us as educators to shift from being Ninja Warriors to becoming tightrope walkers.


Ninja Warriors v. Tightrope Walkers

If you have seen the television show American Ninja Warrior, then you know that it features athletes navigating insane obstacles without falling. The trickiest obstacles often require balance, like this one:

Most contestants find that speed is their friend for such challenges. Going fast and hard may not be pretty, but it keeps the momentum moving forward and prevents them from falling.

Tightrope walkers, conversely, absolutely do not run. The consequences of falling from most tightropes are catastrophic, and that changes everything about the strategy of those who do it. 

It doesn’t just take guts to get across a thin wire stretched between two buildings; it takes planning, preparation, and a thorough understanding of the physics of the human body—realities like one’s center of gravity relative to the wire and the need to increase rotational inertia—because apparently, the wires used it tightrope walks tend to spin, as if there weren’t enough other challenges involved.

All the clear vision, planning, and practice can, evidently, turn a potentially stomach-churning activity into something far calmer. Philippe Petit, who walked a wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, recounted that “very slowly as I walked, I was overwhelmed by a sense of easiness, a sense of simplicity.”

That is what we ask of our Partnership leaders and teachers: to walk into each day with such patient urgency that they and their students experience a feeling of calm simplicity, one that can only be borne of purpose and planning.


True v. False Urgency

As Harvard business professor John P. Kotter, author of A Sense of Urgency, explains, “True urgency is relentlessly sensible.” It avoids both complacency and anxiety and comes from deep determination. And it is characterized thoughtful, relentlessly focused action. The distinction between true and false urgency is key to our progress.  

So how do our school leaders move their facilities forward with true and patient urgency? We believe two tasks are central to leading with patient urgency:

  • Defining success—measuring progress toward goals that emerge from a shared picture of excellence, and clarifying expectations for planning, preparation, and collaboration.
  • Focusing efforts on the most important things, and working relentlessly to eliminate or delegate activities that are time-consuming and distracting.

Likewise, teachers can embody patient urgency in their classroom by focusing intentionally on a small, key number of moves that we already see many Partnership teachers using, including:

  • Expectations and routines that are taught and reinforced until students internalize them, freeing them—and their teachers—to focus on important lesson content;
  • Teacher planning and decision-making, so important aims remain fixed and clear even as teachers make choices of learning activities in real time, based on evidence of student understanding;
  • Warmth and rigor, manifested in classrooms where every student comes to believe that high expectations and hard work are simply “the way things are done around here.” 

Throughout the year, we will refine our shared understanding of these moves, practicing our own “rage to master” as our network team supports leaders and teachers in this pivotal time.

Creating a mindset of urgency requires more than a call-to-action, and sustaining it so that our students grow and flourish compels us to do something different than merely getting busy. By making our urgency patient, deliberate, and aligned with a clear picture of excellence, we believe that both our students and our educators can embrace the fresh start that this school year provides.