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.