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Schools of Our Dreams

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). Today's post is from Joshua Parker, a Title I Gap Reduction Specialist within Baltimore County and the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year.

"What happens to a dream deferred?" -Langston Hughes

What if you could work in the school of your dreams? What would it look like? Feel like? Now, think of your school and schools in urban districts across America. How close are these schools to your dream-school? Strip away the implications of your answer in terms of test scores and performance-based pay scenarios and grasp with your heart how it would feel to work and learn in schools where dreams are just infrequent visitors.

Teacher evaluation systems, high-stakes tests and new curricula are the wrapping paper surrounding school reform; obscuring the most important gift we could give - the existence of the schools of our dreams throughout the country. Throughout my career in urban and Title I schools, a main frustration for each school community is that school-work is draining. It seems that few strategies can accelerate scores, normalize empathetic student (and teacher) behavior or alter the trajectory of students slipping between the cracks. Despite herculean efforts and intentions - it's just not working.

This sentiment pervades teachers' lounges, sotto voce classroom conversations and sigh-saddled reactions to the next 'new thing' presented at faculty meetings. The source of this frustration isn't the tough conditions, but rather a fading belief in the possibility to solve them. These feelings can daily sap energy and motivation from teachers and students; there's a scripture that says 'hope deferred, makes the heart sick.'

Despite the challenges faced in these schools, I still believe that we can make every school the school of our dreams. It can be done, must be done and will be done if we commit to creating the conditions for dreams to flourish in every classroom. More specifically, these conditions could be the following concepts: effective organizational leadership, comprehensive data analysis and empowering pedagogy.

Discipline creates desire. What you discipline yourself or organization to do, ends up being desired, practiced and standardized. The standardization of quality habits results in a culture of, as my superintendent Dr. Dallas Dance puts it, deliberate excellence. This discipline of quality repetition and attention to what works flows from effective leadership. Impactful leadership overcomes common dysfunctions of leadership teams, from the seminal book by Patrick Lencioni, such as: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. This type of leadership solves these issues by investing time in the process and the people who will lead the change while also understanding that some discomfort and vulnerability amongst leaders is critical to becoming unified and consistent.

Along with overcoming these obstacles, effective leaders give clear expectations to the students and the staff (on instruction and on discipline) and are insistent upon a shared vision. Every person, from the principal to the students to the substitutes to the janitors must know the vision of the school and the three effective habits that every class focuses on to turn vision into reality. Effective leadership then collaborates with internal and external stakeholders to establish the few, comprehensive data points that will be critical to sustaining a dream school.

There are data that you date and data that you marry. Staff and students in dream schools know the difference and focus intensely on data of the 'marrying' type. There are traditional sets of data that are foundational such as state, district and classroom level assessments. There are other data sets that are often dismissed or not even collected: subject-specific diagnostic assessments, student surveys about their teachers and learning experiences, staff and community feedback, extracurricular participation, amount of project-based assessments and/or number of out-of-school enrichment experiences (per content). From this mixture of qualitative and quantitative data, specific goals should be created that are tracked regularly.

Once the specific goals are established, then all professional learning should be centered on identifying and cultivating behaviors within teachers that will enable students to reach those goals. Finally, to promote transparency with and commitment from the community, the data points and progress towards them should be shared with local businesses and churches. With an effective leadership culture focused on difference-making, a new brand of student-centered pedagogy can emerge.

Teaching that is culturally (and statistically) responsive, rigorous and relevant is teaching that empowers. It empowers students to understand the nature of knowledge, but also the application of knowledge and is a way of teaching that doesn't force students to deny their rich heritage in order to obtain knowledge and skills that will enable quality participation in this society. This empowering pedagogy emphasizes critical thinking as an outgrowth of daily instruction and is a concept that the teachers of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year are committed to promoting through resources, research and discussions at the local and national levels.

Finally, this empowering pedagogy gives students opportunities to critique and evaluate (information of all types), research and record (histories and literature of various cultures) as well as publish and present (original and historical works) consistently. This empowering pedagogy continues to live and grow within each teacher because the leadership team has established a system of professional learning that keeps teachers engaged with expert information on effective instruction via books, conferences, lectures and multimedia experiences. What will save teaching - is teaching.

Add to these three core elements the practice of giving each student a place to connect within school via a caring adult and/or an extracurricular club and you have the conditions in place for students to realize their dreams inside of every classroom. Every dream begins with a thought and every thought begins with an intention.

To sustain these dream schools, we need to intentionally engage in activities and conversations, inside and outside of school, that pour into us daily, restorative energy. Through this close fellowship with positivity, we are better able to have the power to fuel our next generation of dreamers. We are their dream trustees, spending our professional lives upholding and releasing their dreams world-wide. If we fail, those dreams may just 'sag like a heavy load. Or explode.'

--Joshua Parker

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