I wrote the piece above back in the early Fall for the Fall/Winter Westminster Magazine for The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. (Just click on it for a full sized rendering). Now that our first JanTerm is over, it is a good time to share what has been a stunning success. The overall satisfaction with JanTerm among students, parents and faculty was beyond our most optimistic predictions.
I have found myself reflecting on the small steps that lead together to a big step forward in a school. Generally, I have written about this under the idea of creating a Progress Culture. So far this year at my school we have been playing small ball…important moves though relatively small, as if we are simply developing the muscles we will need going forward. We have been starting to get in shape, widening our field of vision, announcing our intent, and foreshadowing our direction. The real work still lies ahead. Writing a new strategic plan is challenging enough in a school, but executing on its promise is something more demanding altogether.
As I have written before, foreshadowingis central in getting the wheels of progress to begin to turn. At times cultures need the opposite of foreshadowing, however–instead of foreshadowing, we need action that is out in front of consensus. There are moments when we need to get out first and ask for others to catch back up to us. I have written abut this before in a post called, “Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture,”and my thinking has returned to that metaphor often in the intervening months. Sometimes we may need to get the community to catch back up to us, while proving each time that we get ahead that there is efficacy in the direction and reward for coming along.
If we wait for everyone to be ready for each individual move by generously foreshadowing each small step, we will not go far enough fast enough to stay ahead of the entropy, which is bound to be clicking at our heels. I cannot think of any big moves culturally that waited for critical mass to be fully ready. Sometimes we have to go ahead and make a move in order to prove to the culture that it is ready for it.
Interestingly, this approach is not as far from the foreshadowing model as it might first appear. (Perhaps the two can even be symbiotic.) Taking some steps forward before creating broad based support is from one angle it’s own kind of foreshadowing of a culture that will be lighter and more fleet of foot. It also announces through real action that there is the institutional resolve requisite for the occasion. Taking action first on some of these small scale decisions creates an expectation of it’s own borne of the fact that we have changed they way we go about moving forward in the school.
This approach is not built to be a lasting strategy–it is tailor made for the period of time when the scale of change requires speed and decisiveness focused on a nuanced and thorough understanding of the strategic direction of the school. I have often used metaphors from the beach to help me sort out my thinking, and there is one that may illustrate my point. Imagine that you are on a boat faced with trying to go from the beach to the spot beyond the breaking surf. We would not ponder each individual step that propels us forward because the only option other than moving forward is moving backward–and we cannot move backward if we ever hope to get beyond the waves.
Once we get beyond the surf, we can engage in lengthy reflection on our path as we strive to refine our course toward our strategic vision. In fact staying with the initial strategy of preemptive moves at that point would be misguided, but until we get by that last set of big waves, we must do everything we can to preserve momentum forward, or we may find ourselves roughed up and thrown back on the beach.
Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.
I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and in a couple of conversations recently my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:
Partnerships. Local ones, international ones, public-private ones, online ones. Partnerships between schools, between teachers, between academic departments, between students, between teachers and students, between the school and students, between the school and parents, between the school and the community in which it exists. More and more the value of partnerships is finding its way into the identities and the realities of schools. Some partnerships are making their way from the co-curriculum into the curriculum, while others are pulling our schools and some of our students’ learning out of the classroom and into the world.
The first two days of this week have provided numerous examples of the opportunity to harness the power of partnerships. I have written often in Ross All Over the Map about the importance of creating a Progress Culture in schools, and of late I have been constantly reminded that partnerships will be a cornerstone of establishing, maintaining, and expanding such a culture.
This week we have welcomed students from Holy Trinity College, Mar del Plata, Argentina for a three-week exchange (we will send students to Holy Trinity in June); we have had meeting about setting up a partnership with a school in Beijing; and we have had a meeting with another school in town about exploring a partnership for a summer course for both public and private school students, which will will dive deeply into real-world/Atlanta issues by way of a problem-based approach. Tomorrow I will be part of a conference Skype for a committee for the Global OnLine Academy (check out the Academy’s new web-page–it is really nice!). My work with the committee is the first experience I have had where all the work of the partnership has occurred by way of email and Skype. The Academy is delivering quality learning experiences for students in an online setting. These students are creating partnerships with students and teachers who are likely several time zones away, and schools that were only aware of each other by reputation are now sharing faculty (i.e., a course taught by a teacher at Lakeside Academy in Seattle will be accepted onto the transcripts of students from Westminsterin Atlanta, GA, or Punahou in Honalulu, HI, or King’s Academy in Madaba-Manja, Jordan). Partnerships.
I am struck with the realization that the schools best able to nurture these partnerships (rather than just accumulate them) will be positioned to give their students the most meaningful and sustainable experiences.