Every January, as I step into a brand new year, I find it rewarding to think back to the previous year and consider things that touched my life and my work. Not unlike the Time ‘Person of the Year’ I find myself considering Subha’s ‘Experience of the Year’, and typically, there are many. There are the ups and downs, joys (our public school recently became an International Baccalaureate World School) and sorrows (a student, parent and staff member passed away last year while other kids battled life-threatening illnesses)… moments that knock us down, moments that help us bounce back and others that lift us up and bring us right back to the entrance to our school with our batteries recharged and our spirits energized. Each experience touched the little world of our school in important ways, helped us learn about each other and the important work we do for children, and sometimes brought us closer together as a school community. I have learned from every one of those experiences and grown a little stronger and more resilient. Here, I want to reflect on one experience that was unexpected, yet incredibly energizing and rewarding.
During the fall semester, a group of educators from the Odyssey Initiative, contacted me to ask about visiting my elementary school in Indiana. Three teachers, Michelle Healy, Brooke Peters and Todd Sutler were on an exciting journey, traveling to schools around the country to study practices that work before working on setting up their own school in Brooklyn, New York. They were accompanied by Nikki Heyman, who is filming their odyssey. I thought their project was wonderful and even before I met them, wished I was on that journey with them! Their mission and core beliefs were simple and insightful. They wanted to observe and document best practices, then adapt them to use in a school they plan to open open in a couple of years. I was eager to meet them.
They impressed me from the start. They had an agenda to maximize what they could accomplish in the few hours that they were at our school. They toured the building, visited a couple of classrooms to observe lessons, met with the teachers and interviewed them, and then met with me for an interview as well. They had a clear focus – like detectives following clues to solve mysteries (such as what constitutes good instruction). They reminded me of avid jigsaw puzzle junkies who can’t resist putting together pictures that look simple but are quite complex – pictures that come together as these puzzle enthusiasts consider nuances that will build the connections to lead them from part to whole. Some connections would be those Aha! moments, others would grow from careful reflection. Michelle, Brooke and Todd were doing this as they engaged with our school.
“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” — Don Williams, Jr., American Novelist and Poet
I’ve learned that the best teachers are terrific observers of kids and the learning process. They know where they are heading and what they are looking for. They can gauge what is going on, figure out what needs to be done next and shift gears as necessary as they reflect on, revise and refine what they are doing continuously. Perhaps you wondered why I used the term ‘solve mysteries’ above, when I referred to what constitutes good instruction. We know a lot today about good educational practices, but you see, knowing what to do and when to do it are two completely different things. We can have a lot of tools in our tool belt, but we need to use them at the right time and in the right context. It is important to have knowledge of sound instructional strategies and also critical to know when each should be pulled out and used. As such, teaching and reflecting are absolutely inseparable. Kids benefit when educators do this seamlessly. And for all that we talk about high stakes testing and accountability these days as though they are tough pills to swallow, all they are asking for is that educators be reflective practitioners. I’ve always believed that if we teach kids using best practices and teach them how to learn, the tests will take care of themselves. Using best practices however, is not simple. There are nuances to it that are tied to numerous dynamics. However, there are educators in schools who are keeping up with their own professional learning and making this happen day after day for kids. Brooke, Michelle and Todd are visiting schools around the country, to document how this unfolds and thankfully, not keeping the knowledge to themselves. They are sharing it with the larger educational community. They plan to open a school in 2014, yet the journey is where they are gathering the seeds to sow for their school.
Their visit was interesting. They knew what they wanted to do, they came in with an organized agenda of what they wanted to see, and had thoughtfully constructed questions to make their respondents reflect on the beliefs that drive actions. When they left, I felt like I had been grilled! But, I had learned a little more about my school through their eyes and more about my role as a principal. They had asked some tough and interesting questions. I am someone who likes to let ideas marinade in my head over time. Yes, on a daily basis, I make decisions quickly based on beliefs that ground my work, however responding to questions is a different matter. How does one reflect on the run, one question after another? They had made me dig a little deeper into the why’s of my work, and the wheels were turning in my head long after they left. Some weeks later, I read the first post they had written about their visit, describing a lesson they had observed in one of our classrooms. It was a beautiful piece – a description of a work of art revealed through the eyes of the viewer – they had translated an hour-long snapshot of the teacher’s craft and revealed aspects that had made it a compelling and meaningful lesson. They showed how the lesson had hooked students into the process of learning.
I’ve always believed in the power of writing as an amazing vehicle to communicate ideas. This team of educators does a masterful job of showcasing their talent through the writing in their blog posts on the Odyssey Initiative’s website – posts that not only document effective instructional practices but are made stronger because of the reflections of the authors. Their main page showcases featured articles and video clips. To experience their journey, click on the map on their main website and then scroll down to travel with them from one state to the next, from school to school, and educator to educator – to read well-written descriptions and view video clips from their journey. You will be inspired by the teachers and school leaders they’ve met, learn from their experiences, and more importantly (as one of my teachers commented) experience a validation of your beliefs about the best in schooling. You will head back to work with your batteries recharged (as mine are again just from writing this post).
The Odyssey Initiative’s visit was, for me, the highlight of 2012. I must admit, I wish I could have taken a year to travel with them and learn about education in the best way possible, by visiting schools and watching solid teaching and learning in action. On the other hand, their visit became memorable because they impressed me in the few hours I met them as educators who had a sense of purpose about their journey. They were not just visiting schools. They were inquiring into important aspects of schools – how they work and run for kids – in a meaningful and structured manner. They knew what they were looking for and had excellent questions. They were on a journey of learning – after all, learning never ends. They write beautifully about the teaching they have observed and a field I love. Their enthusiasm is infectious and energizing. They reinforced my belief in the power of educators to make a difference – not just for children but for our profession. As much as I look forward to learning about the school they plan to open, I believe they have at least a book or more they can write about their journey. And while a book might not be ready as yet, their website is. I hope you will visit and join them on their journey. I am confident you’ll be hooked! It’s worth going back again and again — I know I will do this to vicariously join them in their travels.
Bon voyage, Michelle, Brooke, Todd and Nikki!
Y buena suerte…