Saturday, September 25, 2010

It's all about building culture

I have been mulling over the theme "reconciling standards with 21st century learning" for a few weeks now, or to be honest, for the last sixteen years or so (I have been in education for seventeen years). The first year of teaching, there was no mulling or reflecting, just surviving.

Since I an relatively new to the world of blogging and tweeting, I thought I would first tell a brief bit about myself and so you could put my thoughts into some sort of context. I began my teaching career in a very large, urban elementary school in the early nineties as a Teach for America teacher. I absolutely loved it, became a certified teacher, and stayed for a total of five years at my placement school, three years beyond the two year commitment most TFA members serve. I served at my school during an interesting time period because I taught there before there were any sort of state standards and while I served standards were put into place by the state of Maryland. I have to be honest, I am not anti-standards in any way, shape, or form. Before standards were instituted, my school was the education version of the wild west. Everybody just did their own thing and there certainly was no sheriff in town to keep things orderly. I survived on some old textbooks, an educator's library card from Baltimore County that allowed me to check out vast amounts of books, and my wits. My colleagues, once they saw I was not a quitter (which was well into my second year of teaching) started to help me too.

Toward the end of my tenure in Baltimore, standards were put into place. I felt a certain a sense of relief that I did not have to come up with everything myself. I also liked that I had some sort of measure to strive for with my students. I also knew our school, with new leadership along with the state standards, began to take the education of poor, minority children much more seriously than they had before.

Fast forward ten years and I am now an elementary principal in Albemarle County, Virginia in a school that is a majority minority school with two thirds of our students qualifying or free/reduced lunch. I was placed in the school, my second as principal, to "turn it around". Turning a school around, in case you have not been reading anything for the past five years or so essentially means getting those test scores up. My first year at the school in 2007, I was confident I could raise those test scores from I guess my sheer presence. That first spring, the test scores actually went down.

That began the major "aha" moment that has carried me through the last three years of leading my school. With the scores going down that year, we qualified for a school improvement grant from the state and used some of the money on some powerful staff development the folks from Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. What I started to learn that year from this professional development that I experienced with our staff was that it was all about building our culture and it was not just about test scores. Sure, we went on to significantly raise our scores two years ago (with a dip in reading this past year) but we started to make some intentional changes in our community of learners, adults and children, that have allowed us to attempt the reconciliation between 21st century learning and the standards movement (for the purposes of this post, 21st century learning standards equals our work with expeditionary learning, hands on learning, authentic products, public audience etc.)

So now, a few years later, our school is on a continual path of working deeply and thoughtfully with state standards in a way to make them meaningful to 21st century learners, our students. We have a long way to go in the process, but I have learned some things along the way as a leader that I think, helps support teachers in public schools to deal with the tests and also make learning engaging and meaningful.

  • All learners in the building must have social and emotional needs attended to through respect and basic human kindness. Our work through Responsive Classroom has been powerful and transformative and has taught us that adult learners have a need for support and connection as much as kids do. Most of our meetings have some sort of connective time that allows to value each other or just plain have fun.
  • To borrow a phrase from Bob Sutton, the principal must serve as a "human shield" from this awful world of punishment and corrective action that we experience with NCLB. A true leader never uses threat and "if we don't get the scores up bad stuff is going to happen" kind of language with a staff. Of course, I have probably resorted to this a time or two over the years, I am human and have been in a high stress position. But as soon as a staff is threatened, innovation and change end. And I have not done it in a long time.
  • The leader must model not only good quality instructional practice, but also be completely honest when things go wrong. When you ask a staff to innovate, mistakes will happen all of the time. They are wonderful mistakes, and they will happen a lot, but mistakes must be seen as reflective opportunities and we must model that constantly. People will want to take more risks when they see a leader or colleague to the same. When I lesson plan a meeting, and the lesson does not go according to plan or was just plain bad, I admit it. That can be a powerful thing.
  • Leadership must be distributed throughout the school. I am lucky to work with a very powerful group of people. I used to try and make all or most of the decisions, and I did it poorly. Now, we are creating structures to tap into the real leadership that is evident throughout our building and are helping us to build a culture of honesty and collaboration at a level that I have never experienced before. In a committee meeting just two days ago, teachers were having a lively and spirited discussion about what true achievement in math really means in an elementary school. If that comes from me in a meeting, it is about a tiny fraction as powerful as it is when it happens among colleagues.
  • A leader needs to set in place feedback loops from both parents and staff that help keep us on course and also help us realize where we are not communicating very well. Everything always makes perfect sense in my head. My first year at my current school, everything was in my head and no one had any sense of what was wanted. Beginning this fourth year, I am trying relentlessly to see if people are understanding all of the goals and trying to get feedback about where we are in terms of that communication.

A good leader of a public school in this country is in constant reconciliation mode between standards and 21st century learning. If you put supportive, honest, and strong structures in place to help everyone in the building learn and take risks, I firmly believe that we can live well with the standards without losing engagement and deep understanding. It is a long hard journey, but in my mind, the only one worth taking.


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