As regular readers of this blog know, I try to bring many of the skills and concepts that I learned in my nineteen year community organizing career into the classroom and into work to make educational policy changes (see The Best Posts & Articles On Building Influence & Creating Change). Lyndon Johnson — prior to his enormous, tragic and inexcusable error in pursuing the Vietnam War — was a master of a number of those skills and concepts. Robert Caro’s new book has been highlighting some of them.

An excerpt from a speech given by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin about Johnson offers a perfect description of what separates a novice community organizer from a master community organizer, and that difference can clearly be demonstrated in the school arena, as well, as I’ll explain later in this post. First, I’ll share the excerpt (Caro makes the same points in his multi-volume biography but, since Kearns speech is on the web, I’d rather copy and paste then type the passages from Caro’s book) and place in bold type what I think are the most key points:

No one understood better than Lyndon Johnson how to deal with Congress.

His mastery had really begun when he first came to Washington as a congressional aide. Living in a boardinghouse with other aides, he took four separate showers every night so he could talk with as many people as possible. The next morning, he went into the bathroom five different times at 10-minute intervals to brush his teeth. Within a week, he had evaluated which aides were the smartest, the shrewdest, the most reliable ones from which he could learn the ropes.

Many years later, as President, he still understood that he had to talk personally with as many Congressmen as possible, to learn what they needed to make them feel important. So, he would invite individual Congressmen and Senators to breakfast, to lunch, to dinner. He would call them at 6:00 in the morning. If they weren’t up, he would talk to their wives. If the wives weren’t up, he would talk to their kids—”Now, you tell your daddy to go along with me on this bill.” One Senator told of receiving a call from Lyndon Johnson at 2:00 a.m. Johnson said, “I hope I didn’t awaken you.” The Senator said, “Oh, no, I was just lying here, looking at the ceiling, hoping my President would call.”

Now, people assumed, with only partial accuracy, that the key to Johnson’s success came in his ability to trade dams, public works projects, all manner of goodies, for votes. Indeed, he was called “The Wampum Man.” But the real key to his success was the strength of his convictions and his ability to convince wavering Congressmen and Senators that if they came with him on pieces of legislation that he proposed—Medicare, civil rights, poverty, aid to education, aid to the arts—they would be creating a legacy of their own that would be remembered for years to come.

The story of Johnson’s “living” in the boarding house bathroom is often-repeated by community organizers to emphasize the importance of building relationships. In fact, community organizing is just another word for relationship-building. You have to have a relationship with someone in order to learn what they truly want. The error that many novice organizers make, though, is the same mistaken assumption Goodwin points out that many make about the reasons behind Johnson’s success — that they believe what’s most critical is delivering the “things” that people say they want — the dams and public works projects in Johnson’s case or a stoplight and a speed-bump in a neighborhood organizing effort.

Creating a legacy is really the key strategy.

Though the “things” can be important tactical tools, I always found that the best leaders were interested — in their own way — at how organizing could help them create their own legacy. It could be us having a conversation about how their children might look at them and learn from them if they saw their parents  leading a negotiation session with the mayor or how they wanted to be able to describe themselves ten years from now — the key to getting a real “buy-in” to investing themselves into making change was creating an avenue to building a legacy.

What does this mean for education?

It could mean a number of things in the classroom. I’ve had students use an exercise discussing values that are important to them; when students have behaved inappropriately, I have had them give me an example of someone they respect and then asked them to say how they think that person would have handled the situation; and have asked students how they would like their family to describe them and then make a list of actions they could take to help make that happen.

Of course, I have also combined those actions with relationship-building that helps me know what they might want today ( their interests so I can help them find a book they want to read, etc) and delivering on them.

The same holds true, I believe, with teachers we might be trying to encourage to pursue new classroom strategies, whether it is incorporating ed tech, using more discovery instructional strategies, or trying a more positive classroom management style. Perhaps, in addition to showing how this actions could provide concrete benefits to them, having a conversation about what kind of legacy they want to leave and how they want students to talk about them years from now might yield surprisingly effect results.

What do you think?