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 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 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. 

Aug 24

How To Plan Better Professional Development

[Only 16 days until the release of our book, Building School 2.0! Pre-order it today!]

So… after yesterday’s post, several folks asked me to talk about how to make PD better.

There are as many ways to make professional development better as there are ways to make our teaching better… what follows are just a few. The overarching thing to remember is this – we have to be one school. The same set of values that we look for in our classrooms should be what we value in our professional development. With that:

  1. Root professional development in the work teachers do. Asking teachers to do exercises that are not based in the work of the day is inauthentic. For example, if your school wants to do a deep dive into reading across the curriculum, ask teachers to bring their current unit plans and work together to ensure that all readings that students are assigned have reading comprehension activities attached to them. Have teachers work together to study a text like Subjects Matter and apply lessons learned, and then come back together for reflection after the work has been implemented.
  2. Don’t come in with answers – come in with questions. Inquiry-based professional development, where teachers are working to collaborative to solve challenges the school faces is incredibly powerful. We’ve looked at issues of culture, of student performance, of cultural competence as a faculty, where we asked ourselves hard questions and then looked to solve them. You don’t solve hard questions in a single meeting, of course, but a committee of teachers can come up with a powerful lens or frame on a problem, ask challenging questions, and then take the outcomes of the conversation back into committee to then craft next steps. When real problems are taken up by the whole faculty, solutions can come from unexpected places, and often the wisdom of the room will end up solving the problem in ways that a single voice ever could have.
  3. Don’t plan professional development yourself. We have a committee structure at SLA that is fully teacher-led. Committee chairs come together to set broad professional development agendas for the semester, and then the different committees plan professional development in consultation with administration. Everyone has a stake in planning useful PD, because we all sit through each other’s sessions. When we all feel responsible for each other’s learning, people spend the time to make it meaningful.
  4. Prioritize – I’ve seen too many schools and districts that treat every single PD session as an opportunity to present a new idea, as if one two-hour PD session is ever enough to fully learn an educational idea enough to then be amazing at it in the classroom. School faculty should figure out what are the primary goals of the school that year, and then seek to weave those goals through all professional development for the year (or two.) When everything is a priority, nothing is, but when we set a few big goals and then ensure that the overwhelming majority of the professional learning is in service of those goals, amazing things can happen.
  5. Follow-up. If PD happens in a meeting, and then the work isn’t prioritized by administration, it’s a waste of time. If we want teachers to believe in collaborative professional development, then time must be set-aside for implementation and reflection. Otherwise, we’ve created yet another “one-off” professional development session that is easily ignored by those who choose to, and worse, disempowering to those who actually want to see the topic / idea implemented powerfully.

These are a few ideas and values to get you started — there are many more that I encourage people to share in the comments. Simply, in all we do, be thoughtful, collaborative, and empowering when structuring professional learning. When we do that, we can create those values in every classroom – for every student – in our schools.

Aug 22

Professional Development and Collective Wisdom

An old story… a young teacher comes to his first staff meeting where he sees an veteran teacher already sitting down. He sits down next to an older teacher who says to him, “You know… when I die… I hope it’s in a faculty meeting.”

The young teacher says, “Why?”

To which the older teacher replies, “So when I cross over, I won’t know the difference.”

Most educators have been through some terrible staff meetings and professional development sessions where people took turns reading to them, talking at them and maybe giving people the odd moment or two to discuss with the person next to them. And most of the time, educators are forced to sit through meetings and professional development that, pedagogically, would get them written up if they taught that way in their classes.

That’s got to stop.

There’s a simple question we should ask when we bring teachers together:

“Does the structure of this meeting / PD / whatever leverage the collective wisdom of the room?”

And if it doesn’t, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions:

  1. Do we need to be together for this or could this information be disseminated in other ways?
  2. Are we missing the chance for people to learn together and solve the problems as a community?
  3. Who does this meeting really serve?
  4. What are the meta-lessons that the participants are learning about what teaching methods are valued by this meeting?

If we want active classrooms, we have to have active PD.

If we want teachers to create collaborative classrooms, we have to create a collaborative culture in our adult learning and problem solving.

If we want teachers to value the ideas and experiences of our students, then we must value the ideas and experiences of our teachers when they come together to learn.

And if we want our schools to find innovative, powerful solutions to the problems we face, we must all learn to seek out the collective wisdom of the room.

Aug 08

Making Advisory Work

[This post comes out of Friday’s work session with the Innovative Schools network where principals and counselors and teachers and social workers came together to talk about how they care for the children in their schools. It was wonderful to spend the day with caring, committed educators, planning for ways to better care for the children in their charge.]

Lots of schools have Advisory programs, but there are many schools where Advisory is little more than homeroom. For some reason, Advisory – despite being something that many educators will tell you can / should be a great thing – remains an elusive success in too many places. And with the proliferation of education books out there, it’s telling that the quintessential book on Advisory – The Advisory Guide by Poliner and Lieber – is over ten years old.

But done right, Advisory is nothing less than the soul of a school. It is where Noddings’ ideas of the ethic of care can live and breathe in the structure and schedule of a school. Done right, Advisory guarantees that every student in a school will know they are cared for, and that they have an advocate. Done right, Advisory levels the power dynamic between teachers and students that can transform school culture from authoritarian to authoritative. Of all the things SLA does, Advisory strikes me as one of the most important pieces of our culture — and one of the most easily poachable by other schools.

But it has to be nurtured. I think in many schools, working on being a good Advisor doesn’t get the necessary professional development time, and too many teachers (myself included, more often than I care to admit) often plan Advisory last because it’s not an “academic” class. And those two things can combine to kill effective Advisory programs.

And we have to help teachers be good Advisors? There’s nothing about the typical teacher preparation program that does this. Those programs (especially at the secondary level) focus on how to help teachers be great teachers of their content, not great teachers of their children. So how do you plan for care? How do you help teachers become Advisors? What are the big ideas and questions we have to ask if we are to create powerful Advisory programs in schools?

  • How do you develop caring relationships with kids? What does that look like? How do we care for kids? Fundamentally, teachers have to grapple with this question to be good Advisors. One of our teachers at SLA says that he is “School Dad” for his Advisees, which may be one way to start to answer that question. And yes, that answer can look different for different teachers, but we have to be willing to tackle the question to make Advisory successful. Aspects of this question also include helping teachers to be good listeners to kids and helping teachers to understand the different cultures and communities that students come from, and helping them to examine issues of implicit bias so that they can respect and care for all students in a way that doesn’t simply mean that teachers look to impose their own value systems on their students and Advisees.
  • How do you make Advisory class time successful / useful? (Full disclosure here – I don’t think I did this all that well as an Advisor. I was good at the one-to-one with kids, but I don’t think I maximized the time we spent together.) Schools can and should give PD time for Advisors to meet together by grade-group to co-plan, develop themes, share activities, etc… this takes the onus off of the individual teacher to always come up with activities. Also, some of the best Advisors I’ve seen have co-planned some of the class time with the students, which also creates powerful buy-in from students.
  • How do we develop our ability to act as advocates and mediators for our Advisees? One of the core functions of a high-level Advisory is the ability for Advisors to help navigate the spaces when students and teachers come into conflict. In traditional schooling, the power dynamic between students and teachers is such that students can often feel shut down when they have conflict with a teacher. Advisors can level that playing field and help students and teachers build healthier relationships inside the academic classroom by moderating and mediating those hard conversations. Engaging in professional development where teachers role play how to be on both ends of that conversation can prepare teachers to fundamentally change the dynamics of the classroom to create more equitable, healthier schools for everyone.
  • How do we build partnerships with families? Helping advisors work with families is key to a successful Advisory program. Making sure that parents know that Advisors are there for them – as well as their children – is powerful. Helping advisors learn how to talk with families in positive ways that respects the different cultures and communities that families come from is another piece of the work that must go into building a positive Advisory culture.
  • How do you prevent “bunker mentality” between Advisors and Advisees? This one falls under the category of “What is the worst consequence of your best idea?” It can be too easy for Advisors to think they are the only adult who can help an Advisee… and it can be too easy for Advisees to be think that and Advisor is going to keep their secrets for them in unhealthy ways. Advisory professional development can — and should — engage in discussions about what can be dealt with within the context of the Advisor-Advisee relationship and what needs to involve other adults and why. And Advisors need to be open and honest with their kids up front when they say, “I cannot keep things confidential if that would jeopardize your well-being.” Learning how a trusting relationship with students must include other adults is a powerful part of building a healthy Advisory program.

The hard part about all these questions is that there are few concrete answers, and schools (and individual Advisors within schools) will come to different places on how they answer them. But these questions must be engaged in openly, honestly and often for schools to have powerful, transformative Advisory programs. There is no such thing as the “add water and stir” Advisory program. They are as different as the students we teach and the schools we teach in. But, at root, Advisory programs can be living proof of the ethic of care in our schools. They can make sure that we do, indeed, teach the whole child for every child. And they can be, as we strive to make it at SLA, the soul of our schools.


Jul 07

Old Hat, New Hat

[This is a note I just sent to the families of SLA. I present it here – with a more whimsical title that references one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books – to let everyone know what I’ll be up to next school year.]

To the families of Science Leadership Academy,

Science Leadership Academy was founded as a research and development school for the School District. For the past nine years, students and teachers from SLA have worked with hundreds of teachers and principals from the School District and beyond on how to change their practice to be more inquiry-driven and caring educators. Under Dr. Hite’s leadership, the School District of Philadelphia is starting the Innovative Schools Network – a hub for powerful new ideas for schools. As part of this network, dedicated to nurturing new models of education, SLA is well positioned to continue its work as a national leader for creating empowering educational experiences.

Today, Dr. Hite is announcing that my role in the School District of Philadelphia is expanding to oversee the Innovative Schools Network. Beginning August 1, I will serve the students of Philadelphia in a dual capacity – both principal of Science Leadership Academy and Assistant Superintendent of the Innovative Schools Network. And, because there are just so many hours in the day, I am delighted to announce that Aaron Gerwer will join us full-time at SLA as co-principal. Many of you will know Aaron as our principal fellow this past year. It has been a pleasure to see him grow into this new role, and I look forward to partnering with him this coming year.

Working with the students and teachers and families of the Science Leadership Academy continues to be the most rewarding experience of my professional career. The work your children do every day is what inspired the School District of Philadelphia to authorize the foundation of Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber and our upcoming effort, the Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

The work we will now do as part of the Innovative Schools Network is a continuation of the belief in the agency and ability of the students and families of Philadelphia. It is my pleasure to be able to continue to serve as principal of SLA and to now help other school communities serve their students in powerful, modern ways.

Mr. Lehmann

Jun 14

It’s Not Just Kid Behavior

How many times have you heard a colleague say — or said yourself — “That’s just kids?” I’ve probably used some version of that statement a few thousand times in my career as an educator.

It’s a pretty innocuous statement, in fact, it often is a kind statement used to diffuse tension or to ensure that an adult in a school doesn’t overreach to a student’s behavior.

But I worry that it’s subtly not as helpful as we think it is.

I think it may be more powerful to think about student and teacher – kid and adult behavior – on a continuum of human behavior. So much of what we see from students is, as David Perkins might call it, the junior varsity version of adult behaviors. And when we create the space for us to see our students’ behavior as more similar to our own behaviors than we’d like to admit, we can come to a place where we think about the consequences for actions in a far more humanistic way than if we think that “kid behavior” is instead something that we can make kids grow up and out of.

Am I suggesting that there’s no difference between the maturity and actions of a 15-year-old or a eight year old and a forty-year old? No… of course not, but our motivations, our responses to situations, our frequent foibles are often along a continuum where, if we look hard, we can see the adult in the child and vice versa. And that should help us forgive more quickly, seek to punish less frequently, and be willing to understand more deeply.

It’s when that teacher with the Draconian late work policy realizes that the school secretary has to chase him down for his attendance every day.

Or when that teacher who gets so frustrated by the student who always has to be the first one with a comment in a class discussion realizes that she does the same in a faculty meeting.

Or the principal who gets so annoyed with kids being loud at lunch with their friends stops to take a minute and hear the volume of their own laughter at a faculty luncheon.

That’s when we can see behavior is not simply “kid behavior” or “adult behavior,” but rather it is simply human behavior – as awesome and flawed and frustrating as we all can be. And when we see ourselves in our students, when we do not use language — even when it is meant to be kind and understanding — to other our students, we create the conditions by which we can better understand, know and serve the students we teach.

Mar 29

Post for Admins: Question More, Solve Less

At first blush, being an administrator who is a problem solver seems like a uniquely positive trait. There are certainly enough problems in schools that require solving.

But problem-solving isn’t always as important as we think it is.

Sometimes, we can rush to solve the problem in front of us in a way that feels productive but doesn’t really help us to think deeply about what is going on in our schools. Sometimes, quickly solving the problem doesn’t allow us to see root causes. And worse, simply solving the problem in front of you quickly can have unintended consequences.

As frustrating as it can be sometimes, we need to move more slowly when we look at some of the problems in our schools.  More often than not, our schools are better served when leaders don’t merely solve the problem in front of them, but rather take the time to ask questions of a range of folks to get at the real question at hand.

What we need in our schools are more leaders who ask questions of many stakeholders. When problems arise – especially ones that seem like they could be solved by just being a little harsher, a little stricter – we need to ask better questions. And we should listen to the answers.

Just like we ask teachers to do with our students.