Superintendent's Circle

Douglas Howell

Merge Ahead


Nearly all of us have driven the stretch of I-15 between Pocatello and Idaho Falls multiple times over the past few years. Inevitably, each of us has encountered road construction that requires the merging of traffic. For those of us from Idaho, two lanes on the interstate seem sufficient to handle the flow of normal traffic. Unfortunately, one lane has a tendency to create uncertainty and discomfort.

When faced with the dreaded merge, something inside of us may change. We see the warning signs ahead, the speed limit reduced, and we are confronted with making multiple decisions within a very short period of time. One decision seems to eclipse the rest: Will I begin the process of adapting to the merge or will I attempt to pass other vehicles in front of me?

For this very example, Cynthia Gorney coined the terms “Lineupper” and “Sidezoomer.” As deduced from the terminology, the Lineupper proceeds with caution and joins into the cadence. Meanwhile, the Sidezoomer moves or remains in the opposite lane in an effort to keep the flow of traffic moving and forges ahead.

Personally, I have taken both roles while driving. On one hand, if the lane is still open, shouldn’t I fill the space to allow more cars access into the space I vacated? Doesn’t this method allow more of us to get to where we ultimately want to be faster? On the other hand, should I stay in my existing lane with those ahead of me and wait my turn?

So which method is right for the merge? Or as the 1980s band The Clash put it, “Should I stay or should I go?”

In an object lesson using the imagery of your mind, think of it like rice being poured through a funnel. The smooth grains move along to fill the space created by the movement ahead. As you continue to pour, the grains filter from a large space into a very narrow space until they are all released.

Under present conditions, we have all experienced a sense of discomfort and uncertainty beyond that of a traffic merge. Whether the apprehension is masks, physical distancing, CDC guidelines, personal or business finances, or hybrid learning, truly, the list is endless. Using the model above, some of us may be Sidezoomers and want to move things along in an effort to return to the way of life we knew before COVID-19. Others of us, however, want to take more of a Lineupper approach. Neither approach has to be right and the other wrong. Rather like rice, we can navigate our way through the “jam” together.

It goes without saying that under current conditions, feelings of anxiety, frustration, fear and even anger have been elicited or escalated in our lives. Our minds and bodies are programmed to deal with challenging circumstances in multiple ways. At the core of survival instincts is the “fight or flight” response. This carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of chemical/hormonal changes and physiological responses allows us to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams and political or social disagreements related to COVD-19.

How do we confront and combat these stressors in our life that lead to the emotions above? In addition to relaxation and physical activity, one of the best is through social support. Friends, acquaintances, coworkers, relatives, spouses and companions all provide a life-enhancing social network and may improve our mood and disposition; specifically, this is known as the “buffering hypothesis.”

Essentially, the buffering hypothesis, or theory, contends that the presence of a social support system helps buffer, or shield, an individual from the negative impact of stressful events. In addition to improving chronic health diseases, studies have shown a correlation between a strong social support system and the reduction of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses. Human beings are social creatures, so it makes sense that a strong social support system would have a positive impact on mental and physical health.

Where will we turn to find the strong social support system that will improve our mental and physical health? The answer actually begins within each of us. Like the merge, however, we have to collectively find a way to keep moving forward. Whether a Lineupper or Sidezoomer, we need to create a social support community buffer that recognizes differences while working productively toward the best outcome for all.

We must remember that public education is an educational promise that we fulfill to our learners in partnership with parents/guardians and the broader community. In doing so, we commit to continuing to work together to find solutions that will best help us fulfill that promise to the learners we serve no matter what roadblocks are presented.

Ultimately, we will all reach the end of the construction zone; hopefully, safe and unharmed. From there, our destinations may vary greatly. Whether it was during the alternative route or as we are leaving the construction zone behind us, we have made adjustments and improvements that we will carry with us the rest of our journey.

Although the detour is difficult, later on down the road we often find that we can reflect on the silver linings that emerged from the challenge.

Dr. Douglas Howell is the superintendent of the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25. He was born and raised in Pocatello. He attended Idaho State University and graduated in 1989 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in secondary education with a double major in health education and physical education and a minor in science. He completed an education administration certificate from ISU in 2001 and earned a Doctorate of Education in educational leadership from ISU in 2006. In a career that spans nearly 30 years, Dr. Howell has held various roles within PCSD 25, including teaching and administration. He has been superintendent since 2016.


Archived Superintendent's Circle