Facing Complex Issues – A Lesson in Teamwork


Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision.  The ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organizational objectives.  It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.  ~Andrew Carnegie

It was an early morning in October that I found myself part of the audience of a PowerPoint presentation on chronic absenteeism; a topic that I was unfamiliar with. As a college senior, this experience was apparently rather ordinary – I am not new to PowerPoints, early mornings, or learning new things. However, what did make it extraordinary were that other 30 other individuals that made up the audience along with myself – the Trustees of America’s Promise. I am not sure what I was exactly expecting when I was told I would be attending the Trustees meeting, but I did not expect a meeting of the most prominent leaders in the field of child development to resemble one of my college classes. It was clear that I was not the only person in the room learning something new, and I was not the only person excited about it.

Not only were trustees engaged in the presentation, but a lively discussion followed during which trustees suggested ways in which their organizations could be involved in the area of attendance. This meeting and my subsequent work with the topic of attendance is one of the most significant experiences I have had as an intern for America’s Promise because the issue of chronic absenteeism exemplifies the complexities of the drop out crisis and allowed me to reconsider the realistic potential of collaboration.

After the board meeting, I was given the project of exploring the topic of chronic absenteeism more thoroughly – looking at what it is, what causes it, who should be concerned, what are the potential solutions, and how can partners be involved in the solution. Not only is this a significant problem, it is a complex and difficult issue to address because so many factors can be involved in causing students to become chronically absent. Students come to struggle with attendance because of difficulties associated with poverty, unreliable transportation, caregiving responsibilities, bullying, chronic health issues, and many more.

The more factors that I discovered can lead to chronic absenteeism, the more ways it became clear how partners could become involved as part of the solution. Mentorship, afterschool, health programs etc. can all improve student attendance and lower rates of chronic absenteeism. Most importantly, what I took away from my experience was not that there were a variety of ways organizations could possibly work together to improve the issue but rather, it is imperative that organizations across several fields work toward addressing this issue if we are to see improvement. Addressing issues that lend themselves to the drop out crisis must be tackled on multiple fronts and in multiple ways, like the crisis itself.

Now this is not to say that my research on chronic absenteeism was the first time that I considered the importance of collaboration in addressing complex societal issues. If you had asked me before my internship whether collaboration was important for ending the drop out crisis, I would have surely agreed. However, what made my project on attendance so significant to me was that for the first time I was able to see collaboration as a reality. I always viewed collaboration as ideal in theory for addressing social problems but unrealistic in practice (I’m sure I’m not the only college senior who holds these cynical views). However, after interning at America’s Promise, and witnessing the enthusiasm to collaborate and work together that was palpable at the Trustees meeting, collaboration became more than just ideal but rather, an effective and necessary approach in addressing the drop out crisis and its various issues.

I did not expect that my research on this particular issue would expand my understanding of the drop out crisis by exemplifying how, like the crisis itself, chronic absenteeism must be addressed through multiple strategies on multiple fronts. Nor did I expect the Trustees meeting to, at the risk of sounding cliché, teach me a lesson in teamwork. Yet both were valuable lessons from my experience as an intern. They leave me with a realistic, yet optimistic outlook regarding the continued effort to end the drop out crisis and the role of collaboration, such as that exemplified by America’s Promise, has in tackling this and other problems.