About Chris Lehmann

Founding Principal Science Leadership Academy Philadelphia, PA
Jun 30

Council of Elders

I’m on the plane back from ISTE 2016, after four days of more powerful conversations that I had a right to expect.

This was my tenth ISTE. There is something incredible about going back, year after year, to a community that has watched me grow up professionally and has watched SLA go from a scrappy little start-up to now three schools and a non-profit working to spread inquiry-based education to a wider array of schools. And this year, what struck me is how many people in this world have become a big part my council of elders over time.

And that’s the idea I want to play with tonight.

A council of elders isn’t necessary the folks who are older than you, but they are the folks whose perspective and wisdom can push your thinking in important ways. They are also the folks who you trust enough not to tell you what you want to hear or allow their words to be colored by their own interests in what you are doing. They are the folks whose lived experiences have given them a window into your life and your challenges that allow you to see yourself through a different lens.  And often, I think, some of the folks on your list have to be the people who aren’t there every day, so they can give you that “step back” perspective that might not be as easy to see to the folks who are in your life day-to-day.

And, most of all, they are the folks who listen well – and know you well.

I think every leader needs her council of elders. They are the folks who keep you honest. They are the folks who can show you a roadmap when you can’t see one. And they are the folks who can get you out of your head long enough to see solutions other than whatever solution you are currently grinding your gears over.

The trick is knowing you have them – and knowing you need them. In the end, having your council of elders is nothing more or less than the collaborative part of reflection. It’s about carving the time to reflect and remembering to have the humility to know that sometimes, we need others to hold the mirrors up to ourselves for us.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day to forget all of that. It’s too easy to think that our challenges are so uniquely ours as to not ask for other perspectives. It’s too easy to think that people don’t really mean it when they say, “Call me if you need me.” But none of that is true.

I was reminded this week of how powerful my council of elders is, and how important they are to me. Thanks ISTE for bringing together so many amazing folks. And I’ve got new marching orders for this coming year to remember to check in more often with so many folks.

And, of course, I’ve got to remember to pay it forward, and remind the folks to whom I’ve said, “Call me if you need me,” that I meant it too.

May 15

School Design and Civil Rights

The Obama administration took a huge step forward in the fight for the rights of transgender students when they published their guidelines for restroom usage in schools this week. It is an important step that has generated all the controversy one would expect, given the history of the fight for civil rights in America.

And perhaps this is a chance to use school design to rethink how school structures one of the basic structures of school – the restroom.

To wit – what if all restrooms were unisex?

I was in a great Philadelphia restaurant recently that had unisex restrooms. There was no door from the main restaurant into bathroom. The sinks were around the corner as you walked in, and the sinks were open to all. The stalls were in the back half of the space and had floor-to-ceiling doors – creating a private experience for the person actually, you know, going to the bathroom. I admit, it was a little strange for a second to come out of my stall at the same time as a woman two stalls down, but only for a second. And I think that would be the experience for most kids in school as well.

Any school with this design could completely short-circuit the issue of “which bathroom.” It would ensure that no transgender student ever had to face harassment or bigotry based on which bathroom they chose to use. It wouldn’t mean that the issues transgender student face would end – far from it – but it could make life a little easier for students as schools and society continue to evolve. And it would give schools one more entry point to the necessary conversation about civil rights for transgender students.

And the thing is – this might allow us to get bathrooms right for all kids, too. Bathrooms are – in many schools – places that often end up as less than awesome. Most recently, a young woman lost her life in a bathroom fight in Delaware. But school bathrooms have been terrifying places in too many places for a long, long time. Maybe, with new designs that made less of the space walled off, we could create safer spaces for all our students.

We need to do the work of creating more safe, more inclusive, more accepting and more understanding schools. Much of that work has to be done through the words and deeds with which we live our lives. But as we seek to make schools — and society — more equitable, let’s remember that there are ways to improve the design of the very spaces we inhabit that could have profoundly positive impact as we work to achieve those goals.

Apr 12

Join the SLA Team!

It’s hiring season in Philadelphia, and the Science Leadership Academy schools have openings at all three (three!) campuses!

Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber is hiring for it’s final founding cohort, as next year will “fill” the school. They are looking for the following positions:

  • English
  • History
  • Biology
  • Math
  • Physical Education
  • Counseling
  • Special Education

Science Leadership Academy – Center City

  • History
  • Math

Science Leadership Academy Middle School – Be part of SLA-MS founding faculty!

  • Elementary Education
  • Special Education
  • Art
  • Counseling

Call for Teachers:

  • “How do we learn?”
  • “What can we create?”
  • “What does it mean to lead?”

These three essential questions form the basis of instruction at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) a Philadelphia high school opened in September 2006. SLA is built on the notion that inquiry is the very first step in the process of learning. Developed in partnership with The Franklin Institute – a nationally recognized science and technology museum – and its commitment to inquiry-based science, SLA provides a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

The Science Leadership Academy is looking for faculty to continue to develop and implement a rigorous, inquiry-driven, project-based curriculum. In addition, all teachers at SLA have an advisory class where they work with the same students for four years. SLA is a national model for “School 2.0,” a reform movement that seeks to harness the tools of technology, tied to a progressive pedagogy, to re-imagine what high schools can be. As such, SLA is a 1:1 laptop school that uses multiple resources – web-based and traditional – to create meaning and understanding.

Qualifications:

  • Applicants must be PA State Certified or eligible for PA State Certification in their subject area.
  • Applicants must be committed to the idea that we teach students first and our subjects second.
  • Applicants must be willing to challenge students to work in an inquiry-driven, project based environment.
  • Applicants must be willing to work collaboratively.
  • Applicants must be willing to work in a diverse environment with students who reflect the rich heritage of Philadelphia.
  • Applicants should have a strong background in technology infusion into the classroom and be willing to see their classroom as happening both on and offline.
  • Applicants should have an interest in developing extra-curricular activities.
  • Applicants should be energetic, flexible, and have a strong desire to work with administrators, fellow teachers, parents, and students to create a school that reflects SLA’s core values.

How to Apply:
For more information, please visit http://www.scienceleadership.org, http://www.slabeeber.org, http://slamiddle.org/ or contact SLA at teaching@scienceleadership.org. Resumes and cover letters can be sent to teaching@scienceleadership.org but all applicants must apply through the School District of Philadelphia Site Selection Process as well.

Contact Info:

SLA @ Beeber: Principal – Chris Johnson

SLA – Center City: Co-Principals – Chris Lehmann / Aaron Gerwer

SLA Middle School: Principal – Tim Boyle

Email: teaching@scienceleadership.org

Mar 27

Design for the Best Outcome

Years ago, when I was a teacher in New York City, there was a memo that came from Central Office that stated a new policy that made it against policy for teachers and administrators to hug students. I remember my boss’ reaction to it – no one was going to stop her from hugging her students. But you can imagine what happened to create that memo. There was probably a spate of incidents involving teachers being grossly inappropriate with students, and as such, the Central Office sought to solve that problem with a policy that drew a harsh, bright line. The problem is that the policy also outlawed a behavior that thousands of caring educators engaged in every day that made the work of schools a more human and humane and caring endeavor.

 

This kind of policy move is hardly unique to New York City. It exists in schools and districts all over the country. It is at the root of textbook companies who market products to schools that require almost no imagination or thought on the part of teachers. It is at the root of the filtering software and technology policies in many districts that ensure that the internet that kids experience in school has little to no relevance to the way people interact with technology out of school. And it is generally responsible for restrictive cultures in schools where a bland and uncaring education rules the day over any notion of innovative or passionate learning might take place.

And as an administrator, I can speak to the seductiveness of such thinking. It’s easy to think that with the right policy… the right rule… we can keep our schools safe and productive and neat. But that’s not what learning needs to be. When I was in graduate school, studying for my principal certification, I was lucky enough to study under Tom Sobol who – more succinctly than I am doing now – explained the problem with this line of thinking perfectly:

You can regulate the worst abuses out of a system, but you can never regulate goodness or excellence, because goodness and excellence lie within the hearts and minds of the people within the system.

And that’s it. That idea should be at the heart of our design principles when we think about schools and their systems.

This is at the heart of the idea of designing human systems. There’s no question that we need systems and structures in schools, but we need systems and structures that are aspirational, dynamic and deeply, deeply human. A well-structured human system is one that enables good people of honest intent to learn how to do great work with students more quickly, more powerfully than if the system did not exist.

This doesn’t negate that there are regulations that govern our behavior in schools. Those do exist for a reason – to, as Prof. Sobol said – to prevent the worst abuses. That is why union contracts mandate how many minutes teachers can teach in a row, and that’s why the procurement manuals of most districts are thicker than many textbooks. We have to keep people -kids and adults – safe, and we have to make sure that schools do not have financial abuse. Those are real and serious things.

But we need the other kinds of systems as well – the ones that help us be better together. And it’s something school administrators should think about every time they sit down with leadership teams to create policy:

“Am I doing this because I’m afraid of the worst thing, or am I doing this because I want to make it more possible to create amazing things?”

And we should look to be aspirational in our policies, procedures and systems as often as we can — after all, when the systems and structures that we create are aspirational, then our classrooms and the messages we send to the children inside of them will be aspirational as well.

Mar 24

Join Philadelphia’s Innovation Network!

This is an exciting time in the School District of Philadelphia as we seek to hire 800 new teachers to join us this fall to teach the children of this city, and the Innovation Network is part of that effort!

On Wednesday, March 30th from 2pm – 6pm in the School District of Philadelphia Auditorium at 440 N. Broad St., we will host the Innovation Network Recruitment Fair! All of the schools of our network will be there to meet prospective teachers. All of our schools are hiring for next year, and we are looking for teachers who want to be part of a network of schools dedicated to the idea that schools can be authentic, empowering, caring and modern for all its members – students and teachers alike. Our schools are:

You can also download our Innovation Network Recruitment Flyer.

In addition to our teacher hiring, we are looking for a Professional Learning Specialist to join our network! This person will work with our principals, our network team, the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel and other partners to re-think what pre- and in-service teacher development can mean in an innovative school culture. It’s an exciting opportunity for someone to really help us re-think what adult learning can look like in innovative school models.

Come join us in the Innovative Network of the School District of Philadelphia and help us to build some of the most exciting schools in the nation!

Mar 22

Schools Are Fragile

There are no shortage of ideas about how to improve schools. Zac and I wrote a book filled with them. And every year, principals and teachers come together to try to figure out how to make their schools better places – writing school improvement plans, creating sub-committees, spending time trying to make things better. It is the language of our national discussion around education – how do we fix our schools?

But there’s another thing we need to look at – throughout the last twenty or thirty years, whether it is the Gates small schools initiative, the charter movement, or any number of initiatives like the Boston Pilot schools or the New York City iZone – we’ve started thousands of schools in this country… and most of them started with incredible promise and idealism and energy, and not enough of them stayed that way.

There are many reasons for that – budget cuts, superintendency changes, leadership change, mission drift and more – and what that shows is how real regression to the mean is in education. It is the thing that we have to think about as we look to make schools better places — how will we sustain the changes we make? How will we sustain innovative ideas — or even just the best old-fashioned ideas.

A long time ago, when I was starting SLA, someone told me that leaders either had start-up energy or sustaining energy, but most people didn’t have both. I didn’t want to be a short-time founder. I wanted to be at SLA for a long, long time – and I still do. But to do that, we had to think about fragility. How were we going to nurture SLA after we’d built it? How would we keep working to make it the best version of itself while also being careful not to work people too hard, take on ideas and concepts that would pull us away from our core mission, and of course, navigate the changing winds around us. I didn’t realize that we were also going to have to get through one of the worst crises in educational history, too, but there we were.

And SLA is celebrating its ten year anniversary this year. If the ten years of our little school has taught me anything is that we have to think as deeply about sustainability as we do about start-up. We have to recognize that doing something different, something that pushes against the dominant narrative, requires eternal vigilance. There’s never the moment you can relax and think, “Whew… we’ve arrived.” Every year brings a new 9th grade class. Every year brings new challenges. And every year, you have to work to maintain what you’ve built – while always trying to figure out how to make it better too.

Because schools are fragile – no matter how strong we build them, we have to always remember that they will take just as much energy to keep them strong.

Feb 19

Building a Learning Network

I’m writing this post at the end of first ever day and a half long retreat of the Innovation Network. We had the opportunity to come down to North Bay Adventure Camp and use their guest house for our retreat.

There’s something incredible about getting away into a new environment to give everyone freedom to fully immerse in ideas. Yes, when you have eight principals all away from their schools, the reality of the cell phone is always there, but overall, everyone felt “away” and able to focus on the work at hand.

I had two goals for the retreat – One, I was hopeful that we could create the conditions by which every school would have the chance to dig deep into a challenge they were facing. And two, in leveraging the wisdom of the room, we would get the chance to really deepen our commitment to being a learning network together.

We used the National School Reform Faculty protocol Consultancy for the bulk of the day’s work. Consultancy is a really powerful protocol that creates the space for a deep dive into a challenge or dilemma that someone is facing. It really requires folks coming together in a safe way, because you are asking people to ask probing questions of each other and asking people to listen without defensiveness to critique and ideas. There has to be some real trust in both process and people for it to work well. We used some nice ice breakers to get into the work, and the fact that this group has been working together with a common mission of creating schools that are authentic, empowering, caring and modern really created the space for us to enter into the work.

Each iteration of the consultancy takes about 45-50 minutes to go through, and as the facilitator, I can say that there really has to be a premium on following the process so that the consultancy stays focused. It can end with the presenter walking away with a fresh lens on the problem and a lot of ideas to try to solve it. For us, it also meant a day that started at 8:30am and ended at 8:30pm with working lunch and dinner (and a two-hour break in the middle of the day to learn more about North Bay and to go on a truly insane ropes course that was every bit the bonding experience you’d think it was. (6th graders do that? Dang.)

Neil Guyette of @USchoolPhilly makes the big leap. #phled

A video posted by Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann) on

 

The day was exhausting and awesome. And everyone agreed that we accomplished both goals. And it’s energized me to figure out how to better use our monthly network meetings when we come together once a month back in Philly.

And importantly – we did it ourselves. We used smart resources from other places. We shared some readings, we used ice breakers that we learned from other folks, and we agreed to use a protocol that can feel a little forced the first time you use it. But we didn’t assume that someone was going to come in and solve our problems for us. We agreed to be our own best resources for each other, and that made all of us better, not just because of the trust we gained, and not just because we all were able to see how the problems everyone was struggling with had application in our own schools, but because there’s something amazing about learning together, solving problems together, and gaining belief and trust in the idea that if we just keep asking hard questions together, we can come up with the answers we need together.

And when adults can do that for one another, doesn’t that reinforce how important it is that we do that with our students as well?

 

Feb 06

Unspoken Rules

I love using this clip as a way to spur people to think about the unspoken rules, policies and procedures that exist in schools.

The overwhelming majority of schools have a student handbook, codes of conduct, etc… but often, those are only the stated policies, and often, the unstated policies are as much what govern the school as anything else.

And while it’s my contention that we don’t want to create schools where every last behavior / idea / action is regulated by some 400 page handbook of student and teacher behavior, we also want to be aware of — and reflective about — the unspoken rules and practices of our schools. When we are, we create more intentional schools where the ideas and systems that power our communities are transparent and understood.

It’s worth noting, as well, another reason it is so very important to unpack unspoken policies. Schools live in the world – and that world is one where issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism continue to do great harm. One very powerful way to combat the inequities of our world is through intentionality. When we examine the unspoken practices of our schools, we can unpack the questions, “Who is benefiting from this behavior? Who is harmed by it? And how can we ensure that the practices of our school are equitable?”

And, for me, this practice starts with adult behaviors and practices. It’s why I care so deeply about the relationship between a school’s mission and vision and the systems and structures that enable that mission. When mission and vision are shared and deeply understood and believed by everyone, and when the systems and structures that govern the school are aligned with that mission, then the practices – both those in the handbook and those that are not – can align and be understood by all.

There are ways to unpack the invisible or unspoken policies. Some questions a faculty can ask itself to spur the process:

  • How are “everyday” decisions made at the school?
  • Who is tapped to get work done when it falls outside the scope of an established job description?
  • What voices are around the table when an issue arises?
  • What is our first reaction to student behavioral issues?
  • How are parents involved in the decisions of our school?
  • Do we examine the mission of the school when we make big decisions? Small decisions?

And, inside the individual classroom, teachers can do this work as well with questions such as this (and these can be asked school-wide as well):

  • How is the mission of the school made manifest in my class?
  • Who does my grading policy benefit?
  • How do students figure out how to succeed in my class?
  • Why are the seats arranged in my classroom the way they are?
  • Where is there space for students to influence the governance of my classroom?
  • How does every student find space for their voice in my classroom?

And so on… I’m sure everyone can think of more questions to add to the list.

The purpose is that every school can be intentional in their process. We can unpack the unspoken (and spoken) rules such that we can create schools that more purposeful and more equitable in the ways in which they function.

[Oh… and I promise not to go months without writing again…]

Oct 31

Why Care Matters #SpringValleyAssault

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Spring Valley assault. Lots of people have written about it in important ways. What that video showed in the context of racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement is of paramount importance. The larger socio-political ramifications of that video – of what happened to that young woman – are a devastating example of how our schools fall far short of the promise of equity and justice that so many of us who are teachers aspire to. 

And, as others have written, this clearly was not a one-time event. The reaction of the students showed they had seen behavior like this before. There was no reaction of shock, as there should have been, when seeing a classmate thrown to the floor violently. 

But beyond whether or not the administration knew they had a police officer known as “Officer Slam” in their building… or even what it means to have police officers in schools… there’s a question that needs to be asked — would this have happened if there was a system in place so that every student in that school was powerfully cared for?

Because, as horrible as the actions of the officer were, the school failed that young woman before the officer ever put his hands on her. They failed her because the adults cared more that she left the classroom than they did about what was causing her to shut down in that way. 

This event is why it is of the utmost importance that we as educators understand the difference between “care about” and “care for,” why it is important that we say “We teach students,” rather than “We teach subjects.” Because when we acknowledge, understand and truly believe that no subject we teach is more important than the child in front of us, then there’s no way that the teacher or the administrator makes the wrong-headed decision that getting her out of the room was far more important than finding out what was wrong. And there was no way that the teacher and the administrator would not have known that the young woman had just lost her mother. 

This is why it is essential that we create systems in our schools where every child is known and every child is cared for. In our schools, every child should know who their advocate is, and that advocate should ensure that students in crisis are known and cared for by all. At SLA, that is our Advisory program. At other schools, they call it family group. In some middle schools, it’s a looping program so that students and teachers stay together. But in every school, there should be a structure in the school day so that the adults— all of the adults, not just the counselors — have the time to care for the children.

And this is most important for students who have been underserved by our schools, because oftentimes, those students who have been underserved feel that no one cares about them at school. And too often, those students are the same students who are sent a message every day that our society doesn’t care enough about them either. We need to couple the structures like Advisory with professional development toward cultural competency so that all teachers understand what it means to truly know and respect students, no matter the differences (or honestly, sometimes similarities) between teacher and student. We can build systems and structures that cross racial, gender, socio-economic boundaries and allow everyone in our schools to be seen for all that they are in powerful, positive, humanistic ways.

Because every child deserves to be known in school. Every child deserves an advocate. It cannot happen by luck or fiat. We can’t just hope it happens. We can’t just tell the stories of the teacher who has some of the kids eat lunch in her classroom every day… or the coach who drives her players home from practice. To do that and to not systematize it so that every child is known is to all but guarantee that some children will go through school isolated and uncared for. And, in the world we live in, we can be sure that that will disproportionately happen to children of color and children of poverty. 

We can do better. We can do it now. In all our schools. We owe it to every child we teach. We owe it to her. 

Sep 15

Black Students Matter

[Articles informing this piece — The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Will School Discipline Reform Really Change Anything by Melinda Anderson.]

If the last year has taught America anything, it’s that, as a nation, we have to admit that we’re nowhere near as far along in working toward racial equity as we’d like to believe ourselves to be. And as educators, we have to own that our institution – school – is part of that larger society. And as such, the schools that we love too often reinforce the inequity that we see in society at large. Whether it is the unequal rates of suspension or the unequal access to advanced classes — to name two examples — we have to own that our schools do not serve black students as well as they serve white students.

We have to be able to say that. We have to be able to own it. Because if we don’t, we will never be able to fix it.

There are parts of this that we will need help to do — inequitable and unequal funding remains, to my mind, the single most anti-democratic policy in this country — but there is plenty we can do inside our own schools and classrooms.

As educators, we have to be willing to examine every policy from the lens of equity. When we ask ourselves – with everything we do, from seating charts to grading policies to the content we teach – “Will this reinforce or lessen the inequities the black students in my class face in our society?” then we demand of ourselves actions that make our classrooms and our schools more equitable and honorable places.

And when we do so out loud, sharing our thoughts with our colleagues, with our students, engaging in reflective practice about how and why we make the choices we make, we engage others in our process, increasing the possibility that we won’t make the mistakes of hubris, thinking that we know best because, after all, we’re the teachers. Asking others, thinking together, coming from a place of inquiry helps us to see our own blind spots Because thinking about equity – and our role, unwitting or not, in reinforcing that inequity – is painful. It forces us, as teachers, to question the very thing we hold dear – our ability to positively impact the lives of the all of the children in our care.

If we are to learn from the world around us, then let this be the year that we examine our own house and commit to examining our policies, procedures and actions through the twin lenses of racial equity and racial justice. Let us make sure that the pieces of school that are within our control are just, fair and right, so that we are worthy of the best hopes of the students we teach. Let us understand that our best hopes of the American Dream has never been fully realized for black America, and let us understand that, despite the efforts of many caring educators, that has been true of our schools as well. And let this be the year that, with open eyes and intentionality, we seek to right that wrong, because, indeed, black students matter.