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4 Lessons Learned From Differentiating Leadership

Today's guest post is written by PJ Caposey. PJ is the Superintendent of the Meridian School District in Illinois and an ASCD Emerging Leader.

Differentiated instruction has been a hot topic across Education Week and its blogs in recent weeks.

Raise your hand if you've sat through a poorly done professional learning activity that could not end soon enough.

Raise your hand if you have sat through a well-done professional learning activity that did not reach you because you simply had too many other things on your mind.

Raise your hand if you've sat through a well-done professional learning activity that may have made a difference for some teachers, but did not address your grade level, content area, or current professional needs.

I visualize that everyone reading this (metaphorically) has their hand raised at this point. Now imagine having to attend such a professional learning activity for multiple hours every weekday for forty straight weeks. Can you even fathom such a harrowing experience? Unfortunately, this is quite possibly how many of our students feel.

I feel bad for my students because, although I would have had my hand raised for all three scenarios above, it never occurred to me that my students could feel the same way about my (riveting, I am sure) lectures about Ethnographic studies of society. The power, and need, of and for differentiation came to me once I became a building and district leader. Four vital lessons about differentiation I learned as a leader are directly applicable to any educational leader or teacher.

Lesson One: Kids, not content. People, not programs.

Education is the most human of all industries. The minute focus moves from serving others and on to literally any other thing, effectiveness of all involved suffers. If as Superintendent I care more about promoting an initiative than I do about growing the members of my team, progress will stall. Even if the one particular initiative is successful, ultimately organizational success will stagnate. This is true in the classroom as well. If the focus is about facts and figures and not the faces in front of you, differentiation becomes a futile effort over time. Kids over content - people over programs.

Lesson Two: Change yourself before you can change the world.

Servant-leadership and the service mindset are often discussed in educational circles. Let me be abundantly clear: unless this is your focus as a professional and you feel as though you have a moral imperative to help others, differentiation becomes perhaps the most difficult of pedagogical or leadership changes. Differentiating is difficult and is seldom exceptionally well-done. That being said - if you believe your job is to serve each individual put in front of you and positively impact their life, then you believe in differentiation. If not, you must change yourself before you can change the world.

Lesson Three: Growth, not attainment.

This is quite possibly the easiest lesson to learn and master. A focus on differentiation means a focus on the individual in front of you growing to their maximum level. The minute arbitrary attainment guidelines are set, the process becomes artificial. Differentiation, if it is going to be successful, is not about moving all students from Point A to Point B - it is about moving each student from their Point A to their Point B.

Lesson Four: Floors, not ceilings.

The label for this should be Lesson 3a. While differentiation must focus on moving people from their current position and moving them forward, high expectations for all must always exist. This is the challenge for anyone trying to differentiate - how can expectations motivate some and not set a ceiling on the performance of others. That being said, the most underserved population in schools may well be those students that need little, if any, support to attain standard. Too often their typically high performance turns school into a place where they comply and earn artificial grades instead of a place that adequately challenges them. This becomes the challenge for leaders and teachers alike - setting floors (which are really high expectations) for all, and ceilings for none.

PJ Caposey is a Class of 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader and Superintendent of the Meridian School District in Illinois. He is an award-winning educator specializing in school culture and evaluation. Along with Todd Whitaker, he co-authored Teach Smart: 11 Learner-Centered Strategies that Ensure Student Success.

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