Much of the conversation around education reform has focused so much on how do we get better teachers, get rid of bad teachers, etc… that it powerfully misses the forest for the trees. While, yes, there are some bad teachers, and yes, it is important how to figure out – from a policy perspective – how to recruit more amazing folks into the profession, the conversation is framed in such a way as to miss a major point of what is needed to create healthier, better schools.

In so many schools, teachers are working in isolation or if they are collaborating, it is departmental online. Schools are not, as a whole, places where we make it easy for people to thrive. It is almost a meritocracy of Herculean proportions where people succeed despite the system, not because of it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I walk around SLA. We have had a very stable faculty, and it is amazing to watch teachers who have been at SLA for a bunch of years and be able to reflect on the growth and change they have gone through during their tenure. And what I really believe is that all of the adults at SLA are better because we are there together. And, of course, that has incredible, powerful effect on what students can do.

And it’s funny, because so many visitors who come to SLA say something to the effect of “What you do is possible because you have such incredible teachers.” And yes. That is true. Unequivocally. But we also have incredible teachers because of what we do. And that’s really important. There are teachers at SLA who may not have stayed in the profession had it not been for the work they do at our school. There are teachers who would have been (and were) frustrated at other schools. There are teachers who would not have had the chance to grow and fail. And all of them are amazing people and educators who I am thankful to work with everyday.

And this is every bit as true for me as well. I don’t think I would have necessarily been a good or effective principal in a different environment. I’d like to think that I’ve made some good choices that enabled SLA to maximize the chance we got to do something unique and powerful, but in the end, the work of everyone at SLA in believing in and filling out the day-to-day details of our dream has made me a much better principal than I would have been somewhere else.

And I say this because I still believe that one of the worst things about American education in 2012 is how much human potential we squander at every level – teacher and student. So here are some thoughts about how we’ve managed to create a system at SLA where we have been able to grow together as a faculty:

  • Create a common language of teaching and learning: We have a laser focus on our core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. We have the grade wide themes. We have evolved in our use of UbD such that we now have tailored it be even more reflective of the way we teach. We continue to have a school-wide rubric that creates a language of assessment. And we have spent the past three years developing standards-based language that we are working to leverage more and more deeply. Each of the things have deepened our ability to be successful in our classrooms as kids progress in their understanding of what it means to be in an SLA classroom, but also, each of these things are workshopped and developed as a faculty, so that we learn from each other.
  • Evolve carefully: How we do those things — and plenty of other structures as well — have changed over time, but all of them have (hopefully) evolved along a sensible path. We try very hard not to make sudden and jarring shifts in the way we work at SLA. That has allowed us to keep getting better at what we do without having to tear down huge swaths of what we do. I am always a little incredulous when I hear schools talk about initiative after initiative that represent fundamental shifts for teachers and students. I couldn’t live with that kind of instability.
  • Teach and learn transparently: Whether it is EduCon or our PLCs or our blogs or how the Advisory system creates shared responsibility, we really try to do what we do out in the open. So we learn from each other all the time. We also share what we pick up from other places all the time. It has created a culture of learning at SLA that keeps making us better. The transparency has also increased the level of collaboration and dialed down the level of competition among faculty – again, something we also deliberately work to do with students as well. Teachers at SLA don’t hide their best work, afraid that a colleague will “steal” it. Folks are deeply, deeply generous with their work, and that has incredible benefit for sharer and share-ee.
  • We still work to build consensus, even when it’s hard: It isn’t easy to get there, but we still work to build consensus around our big ideas. This really does allow us to acknowledge concerns and fears and unintended consequences and therefore evolve slowly and smartly. That’s important, as we don’t really move forward with half-baked ideas all that often. (And I think I could be very guilty of doing that in another situation.)
  • We share the load. Everyone at SLA works hard on something outside of their teaching responsibility. Whether it is a committee chair or coordinating events, everyone at SLA has a distributed piece of the leadership load. That gives people a sense of the whole beyond their own classroom which has helped all of us keep our eye on the big prize.

There are probably more things that have allowed us to grow together, but all of these things are systemized at SLA in such a way that our growth as a school hasn’t been accidental. With each day, I am more and more convinced that it is possible to have a sensible structure to progressive education that allows everyone – students and teachers and administrators to healthily grow better together. It is this idea that I would like to see gain more traction as we talk about how we want to evolve our educational system as a nation.

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