What We Can Now Do: Permissions

By Ross Peters, Vice President of School Strategy


Recently, it has been hitting me all the time.


An idea that had no articulated space in my mind several months ago is now forming itself into MPH’s (Metaphors Per Hour)…as I hack on my guitar, as I lose track of Zoom conversations, as I sleepily turn off Don Lemon at midnight, and, most relevant for the moment, as I take the boardwalk path over to Emory University, so I can walk around Chandler Lake and make it home before dusk turns to dark (see the photograph of the boardwalk taken by this maskless iPhone photographer).

Tonight was the first time I have been able to take my walk without a mask. This was the first time in a year when I gave myself PERMISSION to leave my mask behind. It has been a couple of weeks since my second vaccination, so the world is opening back up to me. Over the weekend, my wife and I drank two beers each at a bar! Not even kidding! Boom!


As a result, I have been thinking about permissions rather than limits–and for leaders: permission-setting rather than limit-setting. Indeed, the set of permissions with which we operate in schools and in the world is changing quickly now. Finish this sentence: “Before long I will… .” I’ll go first: “Before long I will be back in the Atlanta Airport parking deck trying to find my car after returning from Boston or LA or DC.” I hope you found that there are myriad things we couldn’t do over the last year that are coming back.

Most interestingly perhaps, there are some permissions we never had before that we have now, and it will be vital in schools to recognize that we need to use them or lose them. So, in addition to sentences that begin, “Before long our school will return to or our school will be back to,” we will also be able to say, “Before long our school will forge ahead toward a better way of… .” The hard part will be discovering not only what our permissions are–what is now possible–but also exactly how we can take advantage of them to further our work with young people.


Understanding our permissions—setting them, maintaining them, challenging them, operating within them, adjusting them—is critical in this extended crucible moment in history. Our failure to understand permissions, and how they change, limits our ability to impact the world around us and to create necessarily bold plans for the world we inhabit. We cannot meet the challenges that lie ahead for our schools [or insert anything you care about] if we move into the future tying our own arms to our sides by failing to understand our permissions: what we can now do.

I spend the bulk of my professional life thinking about how schools can become more effective, more sustainable, more humane, more engaging, and more equitable. I have over the years become tired to exhaustion with folks saying that we are at a crossroad–if we are always at a crossroad, we are actually in a parking lot, not a crossroad. This–the pandemic, the national reckoning with systemic racism, and everything else that has wedged itself into the last year and half–is different, and if we blink, we will miss not only the healthiest ways to move forward, but also the remarkable opportunities that may lie before us. We can and we must do better for kids. To do so is of existential importance. If we can not take a step forward after this brutal prompt, what would it take?

These three questions are intended as a start to discussions of changed school systemic permissions:

1. How might a school now accelerate the time frame of school change processes?
2. How can a school drive sustainable progress through a school’s mission, values, and strategy? And,
3. How can a school open the door to challenging conversations that create both a healthier school culture and better experience for all students, particularly those from traditionally disenfranchised groups?


[I recently led a webinar on this topic. You can find the playback here. That presentation provided the slides in this post.]


Photograph from Emory University (4/29/2021)