It wasn't until graduate school that I was introduced to the powerful ideas and words of Phil Schlechty. I was assigned Schools for the 21st Century: Leadership Imperatives for Educational Reform to read for class. What stood out for me most was the idea of teachers as leaders and inventors of knowledge work for students. We can command their attention, but we have to engage students through the design of knowledge work that requires them to use ideas to produce a purposeful result. I was hooked.
The way in which Dr. Schlechty urged us to rethink roles in the classroom for students and teachers extended to leaders and districts. Some of the most powerful work I have been engaged in was when I was working in Forsyth County Schools, a Schlechty Standard-Bearer District. Under the leadership of a forward thinking Superintendent and Board of Education, the entire district revisited our roles and developed a shared vision that our core work was teaching and learning. Learning was a moral imperative of everyone within the system. He challenged our thinking and pushed everyone to create, and actively participate in, a true learning organization.
I can say that I was profoundly affected by this work and, to this day, still consider "planning a lesson" as "DESIGN for LEARNING". We promoted Schlechty's Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents within our district. We studied the design qualities. We designed lessons together. We measured student engagement. It was powerful.
The excerpt below is from the introduction of Working on the Work.
Nowadays, public school educators are under increasing pressure to improve student performance. There are at least three ways educators might respond to this pressure. They can:
Dr. Schlechty quite eloquently stated that we cannot cajole students into compliance. He went further to state that we cannot bribe teachers with merit pay or force evaluation systems that cannot rationalize teaching. He urged leaders to "embrace the notion that their job is to work with teachers to improve the quality of the work teachers provide to students". The WOW book, written in 2002, is just as relevant today.
Schools cannot be made by great teacher performances. They will only be made by great student performances. - Phil Schlecthy, 2002
Forsyth County Schools had a great run for over ten years with The Schlechty Center and I can honestly say, it was transformational. It is not often that you are personally influenced so greatly by one thought leader - but WOW - I was and still am. He was an advocate for public education and his common sense approach was captivating. He warned us of outside forces that threatened our work and he encouraged us to remember that public education is the cornerstone of our democracy.
THANK YOU, Dr. Schlechty. May your work carry on to influence the hearts and minds of educators everywhere. Dr. Phil Schlechty passed away on January 7, 2016. It is comforting to know that The Schlechty Center is committed to continuing their work with teachers, leaders, and Superintendents in his honor. www.schlechtycenter.org
The picture below is from Forsyth County Schools' first WOW Conference and the amazing Teacher Leaders who helped co-design learning experiences that launched a movement in our district. This picture sits in a place of prominence on a bookshelf in my office and serves as a reminder of all that is possible.
Standards, Instruction, Assessments, Oh My!
Accountability has become the Wicked Witch of education. It has bullied its way into our institutions of learning and has, in some instances, taken away the joy of teaching. While I am not foolish enough to think that accountability will go away, I am advocating for the death of accountability in so much as it has killed creativity in our classrooms. In my experience, schools serving challenging student populations tend to focus on the basics in a very traditional manner. There is an emphasis on providing students that are below proficient with multiple opportunities to learn discrete standards. This lends itself to a “drill and kill” scenario many students could equate to the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz - very scary and very predictable.
Ensuring that standards are “covered” will only result in short-term success on lower level standardized, multiple-choice tests; whereas, teaching standards that are integrated or taught within an interdisciplinary unit of study allows students to go deeper into the content, to recognize the relevance for what they are learning, and to attain higher levels of learning. With consideration of the national assessment movement toward more performance-based measures and rigorous items, it would seem this is the time to make a radical shift good for all students. Teaching should include opportunities for project-based learning and inquiry while incorporating critical thinking skills and problem solving. While there is a place for benchmark assessments and a scope and sequence, we must empower teachers to veer from lock-step pacing guides to integrate standards into real-world projects and learning experiences. Teachers have shared with me concern over their students reading below grade level or not having the numeracy skills required to complete these types of tasks. However, if not given the opportunity to engage in meaningful work, we will lose them. Students will become disengaged and we will lose something more precious than getting “off the list”. We will lose our children, and I would venture to say, even more of our teachers. These learning experiences hook our kids and increase the level of engagement while making teaching more joyful.
Similar to the way Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion worked together in The Wizard of Oz, teachers can leverage expertise and share the workload when collaborative teams are established. The profession of teaching has changed dramatically in the last several years and without a network of supportive individuals who share the same mission, the work can be daunting. We must create safe places, not only for our students, but also for our teachers. We need to take risks, make mistakes, and be free to learn, relearn, and unlearn. Professional practices that will transform teaching and learning don’t come with a script. The schools that I have worked with that have made the greatest gains are those with teams of teachers that work cohesively and with one singular mission.
Call to Action
Once Dorothy and her team arrive at the Emerald City, they were disappointed to find the wizard was only a character brought to life by a man hiding behind a curtain, some smoke and light effects. Disappointed? Yes. However, the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion soon found out that they had all they needed. It is simply unfortunate that we are in a time in public education where our professional educators go to great lengths to seek answers from the outside, similar to the wizard. I would argue that classroom teachers and school leaders have the brains, the heart, and the courage to make magical things happen for students across the nation. The Accountability Wicked Witch has frightened us into believing we need to seek external programs and reforms – when quite frankly, we need to focus on engaging instruction and invest in the teachers and leaders within our own schools and districts.
Recall the lessons you have been taught in your lifetime that stand out for you. Were they real-world, collaborative, challenging, or fun? Were they hands-on, creative, or product/performance-oriented? Did someone model for you, provide extra guidance, or create a safe place for learning? Engagement shouldn’t be only for those that are already proficient or above. It is key to developing creative learning cultures that result in dramatic achievement gains – and graduates!
Now, put on those ruby slippers, close your eyes, click your heels three times and say:
“There’s nothing like engagement! There’s nothing like engagement! There’s nothing like engagement!”
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