School People and Highway Engineers: A Slightly Uncomfortable Reflection on the NAIS Annual Conference

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I am reading Bill Bryson’s 2015 book, The Road to Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain. I love the way he writes, and after buying it in the Baltimore airport on Saturday, I had to slow myself down as I found I was speeding through it too fast. I needed to savor it. Bryson, perhaps most well-known in the South for A Walk in the Woods (his story of walking a significant portion of the Appalachian Trail), has a facility for hilarious turn of phrase. I don’t want to miss the best stuff by speeding through it.

While discussing the traffic problems in Britain, he asserts this: “In my experience, the last people you want trying to solve any problem, but especially those involving roads, are highway engineers. They operate from the principle that while no traffic problem can ever be truly solved, it can be spread over a much larger area.”  Here he provides sort of a double punch line; first, he presents a comic irony regarding highway engineers–they are the least likely people to be able to solve any problem associated with roads; and second, he compounds his criticism of them pointing out that all road issues expand under their care. After I finished laughing (perhaps a bit too loud) and feeling far superior to highway engineers while awaiting my connection at Gate B18 in the Atlanta Airport on my way back to Memphis from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Conference in Baltimore last week, I began to wonder to what extent are school leaders like the highway engineers that Bryson lampoons. It was not a comfortable wondering.

My answer: perhaps we are more like highway engineers than we would like to admit. Maybe we in fact ARE highway engineers.

As school teachers and leaders, we are forever trying to maintain, repair, or replace roads–that is, if you will, for the sake of this blog post, accept that a road can a metaphor for our individual classrooms and for our entire school. These educational roads are the ones our students travel through both time and space from age three or four through high school and on through college and beyond. Very quickly this metaphor, originally built for simplicity, is tugging us toward complexity, however, for not only are we charged with maintaining, repairing and replacing sections of this road, but we are also charged with changing their path and their design as the world for which we are striving to prepare students is a moving if not impossible target.

At this year’s NAIS Annual Conference, there was a kind of momentum building to reimagine some of our road engineering skills. Now this is always the case to an extent at this conference, as we are forever working on how to improve our ability to maintain and repair our roads.  Interestingly, at this year’s conference I felt greater momentum for working toward replacing sections of our schools’ roads. Such work does not happen quickly, of course, and no reader should get nervous that any grand change will sneak up on them. That said, it was invigorating to sense such wide-spread willingness to reimagine swaths of our work over time. It is time.

So…if Bryson’s conclusions about highway engineers are fitting for school teachers and leaders, what then must we do to rise to a higher mark? This is the question that landed with me back in Memphis.

For interested readers, the Conference’s General Session speakers were particularly impressive, and indeed resonate, this year. They were: Onaje X. O. WoodbineSusan CainSir Ken RobinsonBrene Brown. Additionally, there is a fascinating conversation taking place among close to one hundred independent schools (and growing fast) regarding how we might reimagine the relationship between our schools and college admissions. This consortium of schools is called the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). Founded by Scott Looney, who serves as Head of Hawken School in Cleveland, OH where I worked a number of years ago, the MTC seeks to “change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.” St. George’s Independent School is the first participant from the Memphis area, and I am excited to see where this important effort might lead over time.

PS While I was at the conference I tweeted a lot–it is an easy way to take notes and share them..here is one I am glad I captured:

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TWO, FIVE, TEN Revisited: A Change Management Framework

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Hawken’s University Circle Extension Campus: The Sally and Bob Gries Center for Experiential and Service Learning

Last week I participated in a meeting hosted by Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. I worked at Hawken for four years as Upper School Director, and much of what I have learned about change management comes directly from that experience. The TWO, FIVE, TEN approach I describe below is something I developed later though it is derived from my experiences at Hawken, which was bold and smart in its work to move the school forward both in improving the quality of what it delivered to its students and in positively impacting its place in Cleveland’s crowded school market.

During the meeting last week much of the conversation was less about what we envisioned for the future of our schools than HOW we might best move incrementally toward those strategic visions. We know more now about how students learn (and there is much discovery doubtlessly on the way); however, the HOW question looms before us and often paralyzes us. Because of the imposing presence of the HOW question, we risk continuing to operate in ways that fall short of what we might do to serve students better because we don’t know how to move from where we are to where we want to go. I offer the TWO, FIVE, TEN approach as an option for becoming assertive at the moment we might turn back from moving in a direction we believe has value.

Below I have copied a post I wrote in 2012. At St. George’s Independent School we used this approach to create our new 6 – 12 daily academic schedule. The new schedule has landed extraordinarily well (you can see the survey data HERE). In this post I have added some more detail to original in order to put a bit more flesh on the idea. I marked the new additions I made in bold.

TWO-FIVE-TEN: A Change Management Framework

TWO: “The Non-Negotiables”

I believe there is room for two priorities that are non-negotiable. These are the goals that, if not met, should result in abandoning or re-starting the process. For me, the TWO is an opportunity for leadership to create the all important frame for the process. I have used the TWO as synonymous with a CHARGE. Leadership should not in my opinion define more than the two, but the TWO allow leadership to provide the larger compass for the scope of the work

FIVE: “The Critical Ingredients”

There is room for five critical items. The hope is that all five will be largely intact at the end of the process; however, there has to be a recognition from the start that compromise and a kind of horse trading is likely. The FIVE create an opportunity for the larger community to impact the direction and purpose of the process without the possibility of high-jacking it to a role in conflict with the TWO. In this way there is clarity from the beginning that while the FIVE are hugely important, there is no doubt that they may have to undergo some compromise to get to the ends of the process described in the TWO.

TEN: “’The Wouldn’t it be Nice if’ Group”

These are the items that capture other hopes for the initiative. Getting all of them would be like hitting the lottery, getting six of ten would be good news. The TEN provide the community with the chance to dream about what would be ideal. A community conversation involving the TWO can also provide leadership with unique insight into what the school community values. Thus it is important to give this aspect of the conversation enough breathing room even though there is little chance the process will lead to a place that accomplishes everything on the TEN list.

Approaching a change initiative this way does several things:
  • Creates appropriate and manageable expectations for progress.
  • Prevents a business or school from overpromising and under-delivering.
  • Positions the people leading the conversation to maintain focus on what is most important. Nothing is more important than the TWO, nothing on the list of TEN should stand in the way of getting as much out of the FIVE as possible.
  • Provides a disciplined framework with some flexibility. While it is important to stick with TWO and FIVE, the TEN may indeed be a slightly shorter or longer list.  
  • Gives the community affected by change a vitally important voice in that change without giving them a veto.  

I set this down here knowing that the muddiness of an actual change process will confound this approach to some degree. Getting everything to fit neatly in this form will always be difficult; however, the exercise of pushing the conversation toward these guidelines will demand a kind of discipline that is lacking in many change processes. I believe schools have often confused an earnest approach with a disciplined one. An earnest approach is one in which we express our earnest desire to reach for a new and improved program or vision without providing any understandable system for getting there. In so doing we try to insert belief  in the correctness of a direction where the labor of change management should be. With a disciplined approach, a school has a far greater likelihood of building a kind of consensus of understanding that empowers the eventual proposal for change. Done well such consensus will also accelerate the adoption of the change. The lesson I have learned through being a part of both successful and unsuccessful change processes includes this: having the right (or more accurately a thoughtfully appropriate) proposal doesn’t matter unless enough people believe in its validity. In order to make something really work to the advantage of the students we serve, many, many people (students, teachers, families) need to be invested from the beginning in achieving success. 

I have written a great deal about aspects of change management in schools. I linked three examples that you may find relevant here:

“Approaching School Days as Architecture” …and

“School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture” …and

“Creating a Progress Culture Through Pilot Programs”

 

Approaching School Days as Architecture: An Idea Revisited


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/74943290″>Asheville School Project Connect Ross Peters 2013</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/sobriquetstudio”>Sobriquet Studio</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

In 2013 I had the privilege of speaking at Asheville School’s Project Connect.  For me, returning to this remarkable small boarding school was a homecoming as I taught at Asheville School for ten years and was the founding Chair of its integrated, interdisciplinary Humanities Department. There are some great folks on the faculty there helping to lead the way in discussions about how to think about interdisciplinary work.  In 2011, Asheville School launched “Project Connect”, a biannual summer institute for interdisciplinary studies. The Asheville School webpage identifies it this way: “Through a partnership with the E.E. Ford Foundation, Project Connect seeks to help teachers and schools start, sustain, and strengthen interdisciplinary initiatives in order to equip students with the higher order skills (critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, and written communication) they will need to succeed in college and in life.” The next Project Connect will occur this June. I look forward to returning.

I didn’t realize it (or perhaps remember it) until this morning, but my comments were filmed and subsequently posted on Vimeo. My topic was “Approaching School Days as Architecture: Building Academic Schedules to Unlock Interdisciplinary Potential”, and it has some relevance to the work underway at my current school, St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN where I inherited a conversation about the academic daily schedule, which had been put on hold last Winter. The faculty committee studying our use of time and leading the way forward for St. George’s has deftly moved us to a place where we are likely to be ready to move forward with a new daily schedule for the Fall of 2016.

While some of what I shared in 2013 lacks relevance to St. George’s, much of it is clearly pertinent. One thing I continue to believe is that simple tweaking of a schedule does not produce results worthy of the effort necessary to make the change. At Hawken School and at The Westminster Schools where we thoroughly reinvented our use of time, we were able to take steps that have significantly and positively transformed the learning environment of each school. I want nothing less for St. George’s.

Much water has gone under the bridge since 2013 when I spoke at Project Connect. One fascinating experience was being invited to consult with North Shore Country Day School as they thoughtfully engaged a process to reimagine their academic daily schedule. To be able to step outside of my particular school and see another group face the complex calculus of school change was a gift. As I understand it NSCDS has moved into a new schedule for the 2015-2016 school year.

Virtually everything that has happened over the last two and half years reinforces my belief that we can create smarter, more balanced, and more strategic academic daily schedules in our schools. To get there, however, we a need a smart, balanced, and strategic process to create the right individual answer for any school.

I have written more about academic schedules:

Revisiting a Guiding Idea: Creating a Progress Culture in a School

and

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture 

A School Person’s Compass Points: Essential Advice to Center Our Work

Before I took a new post at Hawken School, I wrote the first draft of what has evolved into what I have included below. Initially, I did this simply as a means to articulate what is most important in my work in a school. I had been at Asheville School for a decade before making this move, and I realized that I needed to do something more than “dead reckon” my way into a new school. I had no intention at first of sharing what I wrote–it was me talking to me about the essential components of school work as I saw it. I was giving myself advice.

When I finished that first draft, I realized that I wanted the bullet-points to apply not only to me but also to the people with whom I work. It is in that spirit that I offer them here. Sometime toward the end of the summer, I will revise these again, and when we gather for our first faculty meeting at Westminster in advance of the 2012-2013 school year, I will hand them out to the High School faculty.

Compass Points–

General:

  • Trust the mission and commit to the school’s vision statement.
  • Strive to be a school that deserves the huge investment we ask others to make in it.
  • Earn the credibility we need to be a great school by handling parents, students, alums, friends of the school, and guests with respect, professionalism, promptness, and kindness.
  • Be purposeful. We should be able to articulate and support the actions we take, and all those actions should take into consideration the needs of students first.
  • Avoid trying to be all things to all people, and the things we choose to do we should do well.
  • Support the fundamental direction of the school.  Schools cannot operate well and certainly cannot be great if the professionals on the payroll act and speak at cross-purposes. It is OK to disagree, as well as desired and expected that people will voice their ideas and concerns in a thoughtful way; however, once a decision is made, I expect us to behave in a professional and supportive manner.
  • Take pride in the programs in which you work, keeping in mind that success in one facet of the job does not give one license to participate less in the other facets of the job.
  • Return phone calls and emails in a timely fashion.
  • Communicate with colleagues, parents, and students ahead of problem.  Be proactive.

Students:

  • Serve the best interest of the child first.
  • Combine nurture and high expectations. The best educators reveal their commitment to students not only through a thousand and one warm interactions with young people each day, but also through high expectations for each student’s positive engagement in the school community and for each student’s dedication to achievement. A school should strive to enrich its students by asking students to enrich both the school community and the larger community of which the school is a part.  This balance between demand and nurture is common to great schools. 
  • Meet and often exceed the expectations we hold for students regarding school rules, as well as civility and character.  If we are going to ask students to meet these standards, we must be willing to do the same.
  • Return papers, quizzes and tests in a timely fashion and meet grading deadlines.
  • Enforce school expectations and rules.  Beyond the specific rules, I have two basic expectations for students: a) avoid endangering self, property or others; b) avoid diminishing, disenfranchising, or humiliating others.  To create a community that understands these expectations as shared values takes the work of adults working thoughtfully with students.
  • Be present in the life of the school.  It is not possible to “just teach.”