Sep 03

Thoughts on Leadership: Better v. Different

“Well, it’s not the way I would have done it.”

One of the things that can be difficult about working toward a distributed leadership model is that people do things differently that you would. And yes, that’s also one of the best parts of distributed leadership, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

When I sit down with a teacher or a group of teachers, and they are a point where they have worked on something and now want to get feedback on it, I have to be thoughtful to make sure I look through the lens of the work that has been done, not the work that I would have done if it were me.

And that’s true, not just for administrators, but for everyone involved.

Oftentimes, committees are given the task of taking apart an idea and coming up with potential solutions to problems. Our committees are all open, so that any teacher can join any committee. When we come together as a faculty to examine what a committee has done, we have to be sure to respect the work that was done. I

It is easy to suggest different conclusions than what a group of people have come up with, but different doesn’t always mean better. There are times when a new idea or a new direction really is better than what is being proposed, but more often than not, a new idea is just different.

One of the ways to get around the better v. different challenge is to use critique, rather than brainstorming. When we ask questions of the idea or proposal in front of us, we are able to examine the idea on its merits, not in comparison to the idea in our own head. When we offer honest critique, we give other people’s ideas the airing they need before implementation. And when we allow ourselves to be open to the solutions other people come up with, we honor the work of others and create a more empowered school with truly distributed leadership.

For us to give up our ideas in those moments requires us to understand that there is, oftentimes, not a right or wrong way to do things, but different ways to do things, and that we – whether we are teachers or administrators (or parents or students) – do not have a monopoly on the right way to do things. And as a principal, if I want to empower leadership beyond the walls of my office, I have to understand that will people come up with different answers than mine, and that the honest critique of those ideas by multiple voices will often create answers that are far better.

May 27

Don’t Fall For Authoritarian Language

A young teacher in Philadelphia I know recently liked one of those teacher posters on Facebook. It was one of the ones that was a “I am a no-nonsense teacher, here to make sure you learn” posters. It included the line, “My classroom is not a democracy,” and other chestnuts of autocratic teacher-language.

I want this teacher — and all teachers — to be better than that.

I want her to understand that the choices she makes as a teacher will be better if she listens to students, not just about the questions they ask about math or science or English, but the meta-questions they ask as well.

I want her to understand her authority as a teacher doesn’t come from being “tough,” but rather being caring.

I want her to understand that when we use language that denies students agency, there will be students in that classroom that will view us as more concerned with our subjects than with them, no matter how much we tell them that we can about them in other moments.

I want her to understand that, yes, we need to hold kids accountable for their work, but if we do not listen to why an assignment was missed, we may lose a moment to understand our students better.

I want her to understand that our classrooms are about the intersections of our needs and our student’s needs, and in too many classes, the question, “What do you need right now?” is never asked.

I want her to understand that structures can be democratic, so that students can learn how and when and why to use their voice in learning — and all — spaces.

I want her to understand that posters like the one she liked is dangerously seductive, because as a young teacher who doesn’t feel fully at home in her “teacher-self” yet, the idea that we can be the authoritarian figures in our classrooms feels comforting and empowering, but the empowerment that poster was offering  comes at the cost of the agency of our students.

I want her to understand that she can be a teacher who has the respect of her students, who can create smart systems and structures that allow all students to learn, who can have a classroom that is a place of powerful learning, and who can listen to students’ needs at the same time. And while that might seem really daunting, especially in that first year, it is always, always worth it.

Feb 19

School Must Be Real Life

“You will need this some day. “

It is the thing that all of us as teachers have said to our kids at one time or another. As teacher-tropes go, it is one that makes some sense to use. Why would a fifteen year old care about when the Magna Carta was signed? Why does a third grader really care about the different kinds of rocks?

But fifteen year olds do care about power dynamics and fairness. And third graders are fascinated by their surroundings. And it turns out, understanding the world around you means understanding a great deal of the content that we teach. But it is up to the teachers to help the students to make the connections between the world of school and the rest of their lives.

At EduCon 2.5, Philadelphia superintendent Dr. William Hite told the attendees that teachers must be masters of both content and context, imploring the educators present to make school relevant to the lives their students lead.

I would go one step further. It is not enough that we help students understand how important school is, school must help our students understand how important they are to the lives we all lead. David Perkins, in his book, Making Learning Whole, writes about helping students to play the “junior varsity” game of the world they live in.

At SLA, our students have built sustaining bio-walls, they have planned a major education conference, they have created public service campaigns, they have made original films, and they have interned at over 100 sites all over Philadelphia. Whenever and wherever possible, we endeavor to help our students see their work as having real meaning now. Like the rest of our lives, not everything we do is the most meaningful thing ever done, but we strive to never teach in isolation, giving kids work that has no connection to the lives they lead.

This is at the heart of what we mean when we talk about inquiry-driven, project-based learning. And it is an important way we make sure that we work toward empowerment over simple engagement. Students will do the scut work necessary to make real connections and do meaningful work when students have ownership of the world and see how the work is important – both to their lives and to the lives of others.

And bizarrely, adults rarely are willing to spend the time learning things that are not of interest to them. All we have to do is walk into a school professional development session on the latest mandate from central office and see a group of teachers who look as disengaged as any stereotype of a teenager in a high school class could be. But walk into a school session where teachers are engaged in authentic action research or collaborating with peers on curriculum development, and you will see the learners we want to see in our own classrooms.

Why would we expect our students to be more willing to learn disconnected and inauthentic lessons than we are?

So it is incumbent upon us — in all classes — to find ways to make the work of the classroom have meaning. This means teaching mathematical problem solving so that students can apply a mathematical lens to the challenges around them. This means helping students to think like scientists and helping them do real scientific research and experimentation. This means teaching students that to think like social scientists and historians is to draw connections between the past and present, and that the space between the social scientist and the activist is slim indeed. And it means teaching students that the stories we read and the stories we tell have resonance in the way we learn, the way we live and the way we work.

It isn’t that we expect students to solve problems adults cannot. This isn’t about over-reaching about the ability of children. It is about understanding that there are plenty of challenges that are hyper-local or youth-oriented where they can make a difference either on their own or side-by-side with adults. And it is about understanding that we should not squander the energy and ideas of our young people by telling them that their ideas will matter beyond the classroom walls someday rather than daring them to share their ideas and make a difference today.

When we challenge students to make connections between the content of the classrooms and the context of their lives, school can be more than preparation for real life.

School can be real life.