If It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, It Takes a Community to Educate them ALL

This past April, I had the opportunity to deliver my Courageous Journey final presentation and earn the CJ Endorsement (http://gomasa.org/courageous-journey). As I reflected on my journey over the previous three years, I was struck by the fact that my systemic change work was centered on my new “Why” for education.  The “Journey” and reflection have been at the center of my push to change the way we work with today’s students so we can meet the needs of ALL of them.


Most educational institution’s strategic plans, mission/vision statements, or annual education reports make reference to ALL students. But ALL means ALL and that’s a really hard thing to get our heads around when we stop to think that there are roughly 1.6 million kids in Michigan schools. Add to that, the fact that we aren’t educating these kids for our past, but their future and educators are faced with an exciting challenge. We know what outcomes our current system creates and without systemic changes I believe that those outcomes will decrease the number of students that will be ready to contribute in the ever-changing workplace and society of the future. Regardless of which side of the “broken education” argument you’re on, I think we can all agree that more of those same results don’t equal success for ALL students. 


Our schools and classrooms continue to look like they have for a long time. While there is a push for any time, any place, any pace learning we still have a long way to go, but the bridge is being built. For me, the bridge has to be built with change around personalization, if we truly want to meet the needs of ALL students. To personalize learning for our students we need to embrace available technologies and foster collaborative environments working and learning environments for our teachers, students and community. Educators will need to identify those practices that are working in our current system and continue to use those while they balance implementing new tools, strategies, programs and learning environments.


I have been and will continue to be a strong advocate for the effective and well thought out use of technology in our classrooms and learning environments. Personalization without the use of technology is a tough task and one that requires teachers to work harder than they would if they leveraged the tools that are available to them in today’s educational environment. We continue to add to our teacher and student toolkits as we build the bridge to our educational future. At the same time, I am also a strong advocate that technology, alone, is not the answer to our educational needs. Our students need to connect with adults, to develop strong mentoring relationships that allow those adults to model the behaviors and life skills that will lead to success, not only in the workplace, but is all aspects of life. Our teachers are phenomenal, but with the large amount of diversity they see in their classrooms, our schools need support in finding mentors to connect will ALL of our students. As I continue to talk with businesses across our community I am inspired by their willingness to connect with educators and our students. The conversation is very different when we engage them in terms of their expertise and the possibility of connecting with our students in an authentic way, versus with our hand out for money or financial support.


In this past year, we have had the chance to work with some amazing educators, businesses and organizations to create some very exciting programs that are allowing our teachers and students to learn in new and engaging environments.  I believe that these partnerships will be the foundation for our educational future. We partnered with the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway (http://www.outdoordiscovery.org/home) to create our nature-based preschool program, Little Hawks Discovery Preschool (http://little-hawks-discovery-preschool.hamiltonschools.us/), and engage our youngest learners in a new and exciting way.  We have a teacher completing his MBA who is working with the West Coast Chamber of Commerce and local businesses to create the YEAR (Youth.Entreprenuereal.Advancement.Resource) Program that will allow students to develop their entrepreneurial passion and skills. Our district has also partnered with the Model Communities Education Initiative lead by Herman Miller, Haworth, the West Coast Chamber, Lakeshore Advantage, neighboring public schools, a private school, a charter school and our ISD to create the “Connections”(http://www.oaisd.org/oaisd/departments/careertechnicaleducaton/collegecareerreadiness/connections/) program. This program will create educational opportunities for teachers and students that will embed work relevant experiences, employer based learning, career exploration and employability skills into the school curriculum beginning in sixth grade and continuing through graduation. We are also in year two of the iChallengeU program (http://www.oaisd.org/oaisd/departments/careertechnicaleducaton/collegecareerreadiness/ichallengeuprogram/) that connects students, teachers and businesses/organizations for a two week Project Based Learning collaboration around an issue currently facing the partner business or organization. 


There is an old saying: “It takes a village to raise a child,” and I believe that if we truly want to prepare ALL kids for success, then it will: “Take a community to educate ALL children”. If we continue to work collectively, our future is bright. It can be a future that will bring with it the confidence to say every child leaves our system equipped with a love of learning, real life educational experiences and the ability to solve any problem they encounter as they take the next step in their courageous journey toward success in life. 

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There is an Elephant in the room. He’s got a Laptop, an iPad and ear buds.

Make no mistake, society is changing. The question: “Is education keeping up or falling behind?” We are facing unprecedented educational times in Michigan and the courage necessary to meet these challenges will not be for the faint of heart. The students that walk through our doors everyday are digitally connected and for the most part we aren’t. What’s worse (queue elephant) is we know they live and learn digitally, yet refuse to acknowledge that fact and continue to foster a teacher centered learning environment. I believe we know we have to change and that word…CHANGE is getting in the way. We know we have to work with today’s student differently and we choose not to change the way we teach and facilitate learning.

This is difficult to write because it will push some educators to take a hard look at change and we are all members of school districts where culture is a key component to all of the good things we have going for our students. I want to make something very clear, I LOVE GREAT TEACHERS and this is not meant to be an attack on the finest profession in the world, but it is a call to action. It is a challenge to be better tomorrow than we are today, an opportunity to address the elephant in the room, and to take all of us where we are today and build a transparent plan to grow as a community of learners.

Digital citizenship is here to stay. Our students aren’t going back to the “good old days” or choosing to learn the same way we did. But, we can’t truly engage kids until we allow them to live one life, not two. They live an interactive, plugged in life until they walk through our doors and we turn them off and start their second life, a life of compliance because the adults haven’t figured out how to stop teaching and start facilitating.

One of the analogies I ‘ve used to illustrate how we educate today compares what we do in our classrooms to an airline flight. In both cases we enter and take our assigned seat. We are asked to turn off all electronic devices and pay attention while someone, teacher or flight attendant, talks at us. In the case of the flight attendant they tell us things that we either know or could learn from the pamphlet in the seat back in front of us. If we can’t figure it out with the reference guide provided, we could always ask someone around us “an outside expert “or a “classmate” who may be able to assist us in completing our task. Either way we are turned off and forced to comply with a set of rules we would never agree to or work under in any other area. We can’t wait until we “reach a safe altitude” so we can turn ourselves back on. But, even airlines are starting to keep up with the information age and have gone so far as to provide wireless service to passengers once we comply with the initial rules.

If every other part of society is finding that digital innovations are allowing companies to reimagine themselves and compete locally, nationally and globally, schools can’t expect to be exempt from the same changes that are altering everything around us. We shouldn’t pretend that these changes aren’t going to affect us. We have played around the edges of educational change, trying hard to tweak the 20thcentury structure that is based on an industrial model executed through an agrarian calendar. We have changed in our personal lives, yet haven’t brought those same tools into the classroom. We “surf the net” with regularity. We are on Facebook and Twitter. We subscribe to iTunes and “entertain” ourselves with a multitude of “Apps”. We use our cell phones to book flights, make reservations, find directions…the list goes on and on, but we fail to use that same mind set of making our personal lives easier and more connected when we work with kids. Do we think that if we don’t teach them with these tools or keep them unplugged that they aren’t going to go online and make mistakes? Wouldn’t we rather have them work through these mistakes and learning opportunities with caring adults around to guide and support?  Is ignoring what students are doing in their personal lives the right thing to do? Are we comfortable wiping our hands of the choices they are making on their own when we know that this issue will only grow as the devices they have access to make our world more digitally connected?

As the roadblocks to learning, communicating, and collaborating disappear, as what it means to be a productive learner, citizen, and employee shift dramatically, it’s time to ask how educators, teachers, principals and Superintendents are responding. Are we doing what we should? From what I have seen it is pretty clear that most of us are not. I say most because I have seen some amazing educational leaders making the tough choices to equip their teachers and students with the tools and resources needed to have ubiquitous access. I have seen leaders take a chance on “outside the box” ideas brought to them by creative, courageous teachers. This has to become the new norm, providing support to committed groups of teachers willing to change they way they work together so it can be modeled for the masses. These teachers have done amazing things in regards to engaging kids and an engaged learner will run through a wall for you. I have watched teachers “flip” their classroom allowing for their “lecture” to be assigned as homework so that they have every minute allotted to them to guide and facilitate learning while they have those kids in their room or learning space. I have watched teachers replace worksheets that filled time and were graded once a week with iPad apps that do the same things and give the student instant feedback.  I have watched a teacher take a classroom of students and allow them to recreate commercials, videos, movie clips and their own short films. Enough to fill hours, inspire and bring adults to tears. These are a few of the amazing things I have seen educators do when they embrace the tools our students want to learn with.

Can we as educational leaders do better? Given the scale and scope of the transformation occurring around us – and their power and potential for student learning – we MUST do better. It’s tough to consider how little we’ve done to stay relevant. A learning revolution has taken place and we have missed the first act. We failed to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

If we take current trends and advance forward, we can tell that teaching and learning will be more digital and mobile than it is now. It will be more self-directed, individualized, and personalized. It will be open and more accessible allowing teachers and learners to interact 24/7. We can’t dig our heels in or go backward on any of these paths. We need school leaders who can envision the implications of these changes to teaching and learning. We need administrators who are willing to look differently at the spaces we use and design or foster new learning environments to reflect how our new technologies can now allow us to work. The days of the brick and mortar classroom as we know it are coming to end. The question isn’t if, but when will these changes be embraced. We need leaders who are brave enough to create a new paradigm instead of simply tweaking the status quo. As educational leaders we have a responsibility to be relevant and cognizant of the needs of children and education today and to prepare our teachers and students as best we can for tomorrow. Our priorities must change and focus on preparing everyone for the world today and tomorrow, not the way things used to be. Otherwise, what are we here for? Who’s going to prepare these teachers and students if we don’t?

So now that I have framed this issue, do I have a solution? I do. One that on the surface is almost too easy. I believe we need to take the buzzwords of today and implement them for the right reasons. Not because some legislator or our governor thinks we should, but because the words are right, the meaning is wrong. For me the words used to condemn educators today are the same ones that can set us free. For me transparency and accountability are those words. Used correctly they can change how we work and embrace the elephant in the room while we do the right things for our students, our colleagues and ourselves.

Let’s start with transparency. I believe that we all have to open our doors and share what we are doing on a daily basis from the Superintendent to building administrators and to teachers in their classrooms. We have to remove the buffer, the idea that teachers are independent contractors who are left to work their craft. I believe we need to do this to identify our strengths and share the wealth of knowledge that resides in each of us so we all benefit from our collective intelligence. We are far better as a sum of our parts than working in isolation. I think we can all admit that for most traditional educators the technological boom as I stated earlier, has passed a lot of educators by as we continued to “do school” the way we always have. If we can increase the level of transparency we can build growth plans for everyone, focusing on specific measures to change how we teach and learn, embracing the technologies of today and allowing students to use the tools they are most comfortable with.

This type of transparency leads to the right kind of accountability. Accountability to honor an improvement plan, that each of us as educators, build not in fear, but as fellow life long leaners. This not only fosters individual and institutional growth, but also allows teachers to learn along side their students. In this new model we can experiment and take risks because the focus is on growth, and we can’t grow unless we are willing to fail once in a while along the way.

These are unprecedented times and our students are entering school at a time when information is growing exponentially. The tools available to foster collaboration among educators and engage today’s learner are just beginning to be realized. Do we have the courage to change? Or will we be left behind?

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Stop Managing and Lead

Now is not the time to end with periods, it’s time to start with questions. No matter your role — student, teacher or administrator — I pose these questions:

  • Are you willing to do whatever we can to meet the needs of all students?
  • Are you ready to try something new so you can produce better results?
  • Are you willing to ignore the negative and focus on the positive?
  • Are you ready to learn?
  • Are you ready to LEAD?

I’ll be the first to admit that my perspective is biased. Today when I walked into my office and looked around the cluttered space I saw a total lack of management. An office cluttered because I didn’t take the time to put it back together after a flurry of activity.  An activity that had me digging through old files, rereading sections from the last three or four books I read and compiling notes from online research I had plowed though, guided by my PLN. I admit in these thoughts I have applied my lens to a big issue, and management and detail are a weakness of mine. I go 100 miles an hour and work like my hair is on fire. I try to do too many things at once. Sometimes I speak when I should listen. I am a flawed leader. I take my lumps with the best of them and admit my mistakes more than I would like. But my belief is strong, we can’t change our system for the better if we spend all our time managing, too afraid to lead.

I have been struggling for a while with the negativity that abounds in education today. Negativity piled upon us because when we sipmply manage our systems we let others tell our story.

  • YES, the public is less than enthralled with us as a system.
  • YES, legislators across the State and Nation are bashing us at every turn and enacting legislation for a variety of reasons that will effect our next steps.
  • YES, teachers are feeling the stressful effects of change.
  • YES, our students aren’t “testing” as well as their global counterparts. www.oecd.org/edu/pisa/2009

YES, I could continue for a page or more full of affirmations of negativity. I have made a choice not to, because I “CHOOSE” to focus on the positive, I choose to lead.

We are leading and learning in the most exciting educational time in history! Opportunities for learning abound. We have a chance to craft and tell our stories in ways some educators never thought possible. That won’t happen if we focus on management. What can happen when we lead is endless and I look forward to those stories being told. For a long time, management and closed door teaching and learning got us by. Getting by has never been good enough for our students. It isn’t good enough for my children and shouldn’t be good enough for yours.

What we do is clear……We educate kids. How we educate kids is clear (insert my lens here)……in single classrooms, based on an industrial model, executed through a time-bound, agrarian calender. Why we do it……..now this where I get excited! Why? Because every child deserves a chance to learn and create, to be prepared for anything and everything when they walk across that stage and we call them graduates. Graduates of one portion of their life, ready to continue to learn in the next stage of their life. To do that we have to focus on educating students for their future, not our past. We have to embrace change and being comfortable with uncomfortable. Willing to live on the edge of our knowledge, moving between success and failure, willing to embrace that we will never arrive.

I am excited for tomorrow, purposely ignoring the negative. I am blessed to be able to lead in an organization that wants to grow and provide personal experiences for our students with exceptional results. I acknowledge the position education has created for itself and work everyday to shake up the status quo, to embrace learning and support educational experiences for adults and students alike. As an educational system we made the bed we have today, but I choose not to sleep there. I get up everyday looking for opportunities to craft a new reality for education. We won’t eliminate the negative unless we embrace the can’s and find a way around the can’ts. Now is not the time to end with periods, it’s time to start with questions. 

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