On Letter Grades for Schools…

This week, I was in the Indiana Statehouse to exercise my civic duty. I provided testimony before the Indiana Senate Education Committee on a bill that voids the A-F ratings of school performance and creates room for new and more meaningful designations – a topic that affects every school and district in the state. I was honored to represent the voice of our district and other educators around the state.

Accountability is important. So is helping parents make informed decisions about the best educational options for their children. Doing it clearly, fairly and transparently is critical. What we have currently is a complex formula. The report card is more a label than something that can lead to action. It rolls achievement and growth measures into one letter which makes schools that are making a positive difference look like they are failing schools. Another principal providing testimony at the hearing shared that a visitor to her school, impressed with the learning environment and shocked to learn that the school had an F rating had quipped – “Then ‘F’ must stand for ‘Fabulous’.”

Recently, my school was accredited as an International Baccalaureate World School after three years of rigorous work. Parent involvement is high. We have tremendous socio-economic, ethnic and geographic diversity. As our demographic diversity grew, so did our scores! We hold ourselves accountable, not because of any legislation, but simply because children deserve nothing less.

When parents arrive unannounced for a tour, they often say they can’t believe we have 720 students because the hallways are quiet. They are impressed with how students are engaged with learning in every classroom they visit. They often speak of the warm and welcoming tone they sense in our school. They say they can tell the grown-ups care about the kids, and compliment us on the student work they see showcased throughout our school… and our test scores.

Our students take the state tests in the spring semester. In the end of October, when we were expecting one letter grade from the state, we were quite surprised to receive 3 instead, calculated using different criteria. The state rated us C-C-C for the last three years. In our book, that says nothing has changed. You have not grown. Things are static at your school. A single letter repeated three times put our efforts over the past three years into one tidy little box which implied all those things and hid what we do for children. I couldn’t explain in simple English how the ratings were calculated. The morale of my team was shot. I told them, “Look, no one came and gave us a pat on the back when our scores increased by 10% in just one year, so let’s just get on with our jobs.” Easier said than done. Why is this a problem? Let’s look at it through a different lens.

Let’s say a parent gets their child’s report card from our school and all it has is one letter grade – a C. They are puzzled, and say, “What does this C mean?”  We tell them it’s how their child’s progress is rated at our school. “How did you get to this letter grade?” they ask. We say, “Well, it’s a really complex formula.” If this were true, I would hope those parents would yank their kids out of our school right away and go somewhere else where the teachers could tell them how their children were doing in different academic subjects, the creative arts and social development. If a potential employer saw a college graduate’s transcript with only one letter to indicate his/her qualifications, they would probably look somewhere else to hire a someone whose competence is clearly apparent. It doesn’t make sense anywhere else. Why do we do this to public schools?

If a car dealer took April’s sales figures and gave the sales report to his employees in November, his business wouldn’t run for long. Yet spring data for schools reappears in the end of October as a report card after we are well into the new school year. If I went to a doctor who spoke in complex medical jargon and couldn’t explain what it meant, I would quickly look for a different doctor. Parents experience our school and are unable to connect the dots to see the C grade that we received. There are National Blue Ribbon Schools that have received poor letter grades despite maintaining their high standards. The A-F grades are not timely and not easy to understand either.

Public schools are an incredible resource in America, and yes, they face many challenges. The solution is not to undermine them or do away with them. One hears a lot of verbal bashing of educators – the people who hold the future of the country in their hands. Having made my second home in schools, I have seen incredibly talented educators work very hard to inspire students, partner with parents and provide tremendous instructional programs and supports. Just as we work hard to inspire every child who walks through our doors regardless of the visible and invisible baggage they bring in, we need our elected leaders to support and inspire us to do our best whether we teach children of wealthy parents or the poorest of the poor. That begins with taking data about each school’s performance, analyzing it, and giving it back to us in a way that allows us to do something meaningful with it. There’s nothing in the current letter grade that allows my staff to set goals or determine instructional changes. 

One letter on a school’s report card cannot give parents information that will allow them to compare the performance of multiple schools any more than one letter on a child’s report card can give them information about how their child is doing in multiple subjects. Information about a school’s performance must be provided in a way that is fair and can be explained. Many beautiful gems are trapped behind single letters assigned to schools that don’t say much, but imply a lot. It’s time to do away with the A-F letter grades and share school improvement stories in a way that makes sense. Our kids deserve nothing less.

The bill was passed unanimously and I look forward to seeing how this story unfolds in the months ahead.

(This post is based on testimony I provided at the hearing.)


Inspired by the Odyssey Initiative

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…

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – Gen. George S. Patton

A new school year is starting – well, it has already started at my school. We’re ending week three! What an exciting time it is – new opportunities, new ideas, new people all get to tangle together in another new beginning. It’s a time when leaders get to set the tone. An important aspect of that tone is welcoming different perspectives.

As we ‘tangle’ together, things can sometimes become messy. That’s not surprising. We have over 800 people in our school who spend more hours together during weekdays when they are awake than with their families. It would be naïve to think we’ll be sailing smoothly out of the harbor on most days. Conflicts are bound to arise and people will get miffed. Sometimes I want to just say, “People, get used to it… conflicts are OK.”

In a time when we worry so much about being politically correct at work, simply sharing a different opinion may feel like a challenge. If you think I am exaggerating, picture a meeting in your head. Someone says something and you realize that you have a different way of looking at the situation. In an atmosphere where people feel that everyone’s opinions must be validated, how are you going to air your difference of opinion? Is there a possibility that the person making the first comment might feel shut down when you present an opposing viewpoint? That others around the table might suddenly look uncomfortable? I do believe we have reached a point where airing disagreements is often seen as being disagreeable. And, if you’re in a leadership role while the person making the original comment is a member of your team, it may give the impression that the boss has spoken – so the employee must have said something wrong and now gears must shift. Ouch! How do you set the tone?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” 

–Aristotle, Greek philosopher

If professionals would consistently consider ideas, weigh them, reflect objectively and thoughtfully, then form opinions and make decisions there would be room to play with different ideas. It is not practical or honest sometimes to validate everything that is said. On the other hand, we are stretched when we consider perspectives different from our own and ultimately the organization benefits. So how do we foster a culture that honors this level of engagement?

As someone who has tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried and… succeeded a little, I can share that it’s an idea worth believing in, yet is also one that is tough to put into practice. It’s what I’ve wanted for the past decade as a principal, yet the road has been bumpy and messy. It sounded like a good idea (after all who would ever disagree if I said all voices were welcome and valued) and I hoped it would work. I was wrong – it was not a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of scenario.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

Relationships are important. We have the power to influence each other with what we say, when we are thoughtful about how we say it. However, even this is insufficient in itself. If our team members have relationships that foster trust and a collaborative spirit, this push and pull of influence will stretch perspectives in a healthy way. When conflicts are aired without the ties of relationships then there is no foundation upon which we can test the strength of ideas. A push and pull of ideas can potentially weaken the cohesiveness of a group. So, yes, having talented people is important but fostering relationships is critical to allow differing perspectives to stretch our thinking without hurting teams or our organizations.

Building trust is not easy, but it is a great first step. Sometimes we rush into things – projects, plans, activities – without stopping to see if we have strong ties to the people partnering with us. These ties come only when we trust each other. The knowledge that we can air our thoughts and do our work believing that the people around us are there for us, come rain or shine, is something that is fostered in an atmosphere of trust. Leaders have the opportunity to nurture this by giving trust to those who are on their team and modeling what they want to see in their team members. In other words, when the going gets tough, people want to know if the leader will be standing beside them. This step cannot be rushed. It takes time to earn the trust of others. And consistency in one’s tone helps to nurture it. When we are inconsistent in how we react to others on our team, we get ensnared in the game of moving one step forward and two steps back.

Encouraging and inviting voices is essential. However, just because you put out the invitation it doesn’t mean that voices will be shared. It will take time. When people realize that they will not be shut out because they have something different to say, they will be more likely to speak up. Initially it might only be a couple of people and then some more might join in. Do I feel confident that everyone on my team speaks up? No! But, do I believe that a good chunk of my team members air their opinions? Yes! It’s taken time, and it’s still not without bumpy potholes, but for the most part we try to work things out. We might miff each other at intervals, but we are typically able to straighten out such situations. I have to admit that for an impatient person like me, this is tough because I believe in the idea and I want it to happen ‘yesterday’ but it does take a long time. It is worthwhile, though, because it builds a culture that can be sustained even when you hit rough spots. When we are in the middle of one of those ‘spots’ – the kind where we might be in the middle of change with people feeling stressed out – things might seem frustrating or overwhelming. Yet, I feel we can work through these challenges if we share our thoughts with each other. It’s better for me to know than not know. Whether or not I can help them, I can at least try to understand what they’re dealing with. With more awareness, we can problem-solve together or for each other. Just as families hit rough patches and struggle to stay afloat, our teams (our families at work) have to face similar challenges and find a way to stick together to make things work. Hiding our thoughts from each other is not healthy!

Put issues on the table – air them out. One of my primary reasons for maintaining a consistent level of response to issues at work is because I need my team to alert me to issues (problems, mistakes) without hesitation. If they think I will bite (not literally, of course), they will likely hold back. If I am not aware of issues, I cannot lead my organization effectively. So I speak quite openly of my stance on how I will treat them (it’s written in stone for me). Every situation that is potentially negative (with a student, staff member, parent or visitor) is an opportunity for me to demonstrate whether or not my response pattern is really written in stone. Over time, as members of my team recognize that this is an important belief and that I will stick to it unconditionally, they become more willing to speak their minds. The more they do it with me, the more they may start doing it with each other. In my role, I need to know where the chips lie. It’s better for our organization if I know what’s really on their minds. It may not be pretty and I may not like it, but it’s a reality that my crew and I will need to engage with. If a storm is heading our way and we don’t have a way around it, we have to find a way through it. At my school, I wouldn’t say we have a perfect situation but we’ve made great gains. We’re in a good place now, and it took us a while to get here.

“A mind stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

In this case, I’m not sure that the word ‘never’ holds true. People who learn to value the sharing of multiple viewpoints and work through conflicts may turn tail if trust is broken, or if beliefs and actions are not in sync. This leadership business is a little like walking on eggshells or sometimes in a minefield. You make quick decisions numerous times a day on big and little issues, yet you must always be able to instinctively reflect on the ramifications of your actions. You may need to live with the consequences for a long time. So is this a ‘make people happy’ bandwagon? I doubt it. I learned a long time ago that my wanting people to be happy would not translate into their being happy! But, I do hope this is a bandwagon about engaging with people honestly.

Picture members of a team standing on different stripes of a beach ball (the departments of an organization). When they speak up honestly about what is happening on their stripe of the beach ball, they share with us perspectives from their slice of the organization. When I speak up about what is on my mind, I give them insights from my stripe of the beach ball. If we don’t do this, I might never know what’s happening on their blue stripe which is on the other side of the ball because I’m stuck on the red stripe and can only see part of the beach ball. I’m learning to share more about the view from my stripe too. I’ve shared this analogy with my team, and when things get tough, I remind them to let me know about what’s happening on their stripe.

If there is an inherent belief in an idea shared that goes against the grain of what the organization values, how should we challenge it? In public – to all? In private – with an individual or group? It depends on the circumstance and a leader may need to figure out when either or both are appropriate. However, if it is something that affects our core principles and requires us to take a stance, then it’s important to just step out and say what we believe. People need to know where someone in a leadership role stands on important issues. Setting the tone is not synonymous with creating ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings. It’s about reflecting on the vision and mission and taking a stance on what is important to the organization. It is always better to be clear and transparent with the tough yet important statements and not create a fuzzy guessing game about what the leader thinks. These might be the moments when the leader is the one who is not ‘thinking alike’ but wants to reset the compass for the organization. How the leader communicates this will make a big difference as to whether the stance will influence people or not.

While we may not be able to resolve issues fully, leaders must work purposefully to create an environment where people are encouraged to share their thinking without being afraid of conflict, or getting mired in it. Organizations cannot be stretched if everybody is thinking alike. People cannot grow if organizations don’t invite honest and open communication. On the flip side, we do need to challenge opinions and perspectives when necessary, and do this with honesty. A leader always has the power to step out and speak his/her mind. The true test is whether others in the organization have the same opportunity.

Undoubtedly, a leader can foster a culture where thinking differently is valued or simply shut down. The former takes time, effort and tons of patience. An organization builder will value that and work towards it.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants… Covey’s Influence on My Work

This post has been brewing in my mind for sometime now, but it brought me to the keyboard today as I look back on the influence Stephen Covey has had on my work as a school leader. Covey, author of  several books on leadership, passed away on July 16th, 2012. On the news today I heard several people mention his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, yet, I remember him for a different book.

I am not sure where I first heard his name but it was about a decade ago when I had just started my training to become a principal. I think I stumbled across a book authored by him as I wandered through the bookstore at Miami University in Ohio. While buying textbooks, I used to enjoy browsing the shelves to see what was on display for other courses. Often I left with used copies of titles which piqued my interest.  That is how I found a copy of Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’. It seemed to fall right into the realm of the overarching leadership themes and focus on vision that played through the educational leadership program. When we talked about ‘leadership’ as opposed to ‘administration’ I was fascinated by the ideas I was learning, but it was Covey’s book which gave me a picture of how this notion of leadership within a community could play out. His book opened my eyes to new possibilities were I to have the privilege of leading a school.

I was fascinated. The world of business seemed to have more warmth and connections through Covey’s lens than I had realized. He emphasized building relationships and I was keen to consider his perspective within a school setting. Today, I spent a few minutes skimming through my portfolio, created at the end of my leadership program, and sure enough I had multiple references in my writing to what I had learned from his work – I had reiterated his idea of ‘Principle-Centered Leadership’ and his notion of life-long learning.

“If you don’t experience your life, you’re not going to come up with solutions for anything. Every intention, every achievement has come out of dissatisfaction, not serenity. No one ever said, “Things are perfect, let’s invent fire.” ~ Fran Lebowitz

There was a time when I used to shy away from conflict, but then I learned from him that it is in airing our disagreements and different perspectives that we can be stretched in our thinking. Covey emphasized that to move ahead, we have to deal with restraining forces before addressing the driving forces. He spoke of how just pressing down on the gas pedal will not allow us to move forward unless we take our feet off the brake. As a school leader, I see that change is always ’round the corner, and I also see that my crew members have different reactions to the changes we encounter. We will not be able to move forward unless we engage with each other about the things that hold us back from ‘implementing’ the change sincerely, or as we say these days in education, ‘with fidelity’. In my book, engaging is about about ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’. And that cannot happen without taking the time to build relationships.

In an era of accountability in education, another notion of Covey’s resonates for me. He said that proactive people would take responsibility for their choices without placing blame on external factors. That is something I have tried to emphasize with my team – a sense of taking responsibility for our charge, learning from our mistakes and moving forward. I started my career with my 3 R’s – and now I recognize that two of them, Relationships and Responsibility, quite likely grew out of my meanderings in Covey’s books . A vision can unfold more meaningfully when there is a collective sense of responsibility, and that cannot grow in a vacuum without relationships either.

I wonder if some might read my blog and think to themselves, “OK, Subha, this relationship building, warm and fuzzy stuff you speak of is well and good but what about raising student achievement? Isn’t that your bigger job?” If I heard that question, my response would be that both can co-exist, and actually need to co-exist. Using tough tactics to require the implementation of instructional ‘best practices’ without building relationships might allow us to see the ‘actions’ and ‘behaviors’ we want to see, but they will probably be inconsistently implemented and will likely not be sustainable over time. If people don’t believe in something and if they feel like it’s being ‘done to them’ they’re going to be in fight or flight mode for the most part.  On the flip side, if a school is all about being warm and fuzzy and building a sense of community without  focusing on rigorous and sound curricular practices, then yes, we will have a caring community but student achievement will not go off the charts upwards.

Strong relationships and rigor in instructional practices can help build successful educational organizations. It takes time for good practices to ‘stick’. People will be more willing to work at something if they understand the rationale for it, and if there is an atmosphere of trust and relationships to cushion their journey as new learning takes place. Covey has written a lot about building and regaining trust. Trust is something we cannot expect as leaders. It is something we have to earn. And trust cannot be fostered without relationships.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants – people who came before us, stumbled and reflected, then took the time to share their learning and influence others. We get to hear and read what they experienced and make sense of it all by adding our perspectives and experiences to the mix. Covey opened my eyes to the big things that one wrestles with over time. I have learned to reflect on and refine the ideas, see how things fit and where they fit in my life and work. I can question big ideas and make new meaning for myself. Covey is one among many who influenced what I do and in some sense he and others have made my work exciting – it is not in auto-pilot mode and I do wrestle daily with the issues that come my way because these giants have given me food for thought. They have taught me that there is no quick formula in my work… that I have to be willing to work hard, keep my compass steady and build connections because leadership is a ‘people’ business.

I remember listening to Covey narrating one of his audio books some years back and thinking that this was someone who was passionate about his work. In his voice, I could sense his excitement and his respect for the work we do. People are fortunate when they have the opportunity to work on something they love. He seemed to be some who thoroughly enjoyed his work and connecting with others even more. Covey’s ideas are beyond warm and fuzzy – they’re easy to accept and challenging to implement. I am grateful to have engaged with his ideas so far through the lens that he shared. I do believe that in the years ahead, many more leaders will continue to stand on his shoulders as they take responsibility for building relationships and a shared vision with their crew.

Be a Compass… Be an Anchor…

Eight years ago, I picked up the phone to hear a superintendent offer me my first job as a principal. I was absolutely elated! This was what I’d been waiting for. Within minutes after I put the phone down, I was hit with the realization of the responsibility that came with the job. What was I thinking? I would be responsible for close to three hundred kids, about fifty staff members. I would be connecting with all of them plus the families at the school, people in multiple departments including our central office, the community at large… what was I thinking? Was I ready?

And then I remembered the quote that had jumped out from one of the first leadership texts I’d read, “We are crew, not passengers.” The words of Kurt Hahn reminded me that I was not alone – I now had the opportunity to partner with a larger community. The excitement built up again. Something about making a difference in the lives of others allows me to bounce back time and again. This quote fits my vision of schools perfectly – we have a collective responsibility to influence the future, and the ‘we’ does not refer to educators alone. The ‘crew’ includes educators, families, students, and the community. Our voices have to come together to shape our vision of what schools can and should be.

These notions of bringing voices together, fostering dialogue, creating conversations and finding common ground are wonderful, but easier said than done! One more important thing to do that comes with no formula, right? (This is probably the biggest theme in this blog… hence the constant learning and growing!) I’ve stumbled and bumbled through this, but never given up on perfecting this goal of inviting more voices and perspectives to the table.

In my first year, I tried setting up ‘town meetings’ to invite members of the school community to come and build a collective vision. I asked them, if someone like Bill Gates said that we could have any amount of money to build our dream school, what would it look like? It was wonderful to listen to the hopes and dreams of people from different walks of life. I invited teachers to share their perspectives. The initial staff meetings were rather one-sided – my side was always present and most of the teachers were quiet participants. However, conversations with individuals or small groups of staff were different. People felt more comfortable sharing their thoughts in these settings. I remember with great joy, a staff meeting three months down the road when this changed and the teachers started asking questions and adding their ideas. I didn’t recognize it until I was reflecting on the meeting later – but we were definitely shifting gears. Over time, I learned to hold back on sharing my observations and instead started asking questions.

A couple of years ago, I handed out cards to parents at Back to School Night, inviting them to be a compass for our school and an anchor – to bring their voices to our school and always help us focus on our vision and goals for kids (our true north), and to partner with us to sustain a sense of stability over time. Parents are sometimes unsure of how school staff may receive their questions or concerns. I said they could always put the card down on the table and say, “Hey, you said I could share my thoughts.” The giraffe was a symbol from the IPLA (Indiana Principals’ Leadership Academy) where the cohort leaders encouraged us to stick our necks out and take a strong stance on issues as school leaders. I invited parents to stick their necks out and engage within our school community.

What I’ve learned is that setting an invitational tone is very important. Yet, patience is also an important ingredient. I used to think that because people spoke about wanting a voice in the process, they would jump up and take advantage of the opportunity to do so. However, it’s not that easy. When varied perspectives are invited, not everyone is comfortable. People may be unsure of how to navigate the waters. Some are not used to it, while others jump in readily. One can seek input, but it is really up to others to give it. Building trust and relationships helps in a huge way, but this may take time (less time with some people and a lot of time with others). In the meantime, it is important to find ways to make sure that while we seek input, we don’t set the stage to listen only to those who walk through our door. There are processes and structures we can put in place (more in future blogs) to involve greater numbers of people and perspectives and build collective momentum toward the things we need to accomplish.

The most important thing I learned has been that great ideas and beliefs do not always translate easily into application. Just because I believe in something does not mean that others will see that I believe in it and jump on board readily! This can be incredibly frustrating. However, what keeps the fire burning is the joy of learning and growing, stumbling and figuring out how to avoid falling the next time, thinking of an idea and then refining it over time… knowing that while the job is not simple, it is worth doing because the school community can be an important anchor and compass for all that we are and hope to accomplish.