Setting a vision

In my last post, I spent some time talking about the strategies I used to build relationships with the staff of my school after I transitioned into the role of principal of Fishers Elementary School. After spending that time listening to our staff, it was clear that there was a lot of energy, a lot of ideas, and a willingness to grow. But what it seemed was lacking was a clear direction. During an early meeting with the staff, we started talking about the process of building a vision of learning for Fishers Elementary School. We all agreed that there needed to be one, and that it needed to start with each one of us – our beliefs, ideas, and personal passions about teaching and learning.

In order for someone to understand what they are doing, they have to also be really clear on the how and why that goes with that what. Simon Sinek has a book and a TED Talk titled Start With Why (the book is a quick and easy read, or you can check out the talk here). In both, he shares the idea of The Golden Circle. In both the book and the talk, he explains that the people and companies who are the most successful have a really clear definition of their Why, and then work their way out on the Golden Circle. But most companies or organizations start with the what and work their way in. I felt that if we wanted to have a really clear understanding of what we were trying to accomplish at FES, we needed a clear definition of our why.

For our January staff meeting, I planned, then presented my own version of an Ignite session (if you’ve never done this, it’s a 20 slide presentation, where the slides automatically shift every 15 seconds) titled “My Why” (I wrote a post about it a while ago – you can read about it here). I then encouraged everyone to take some time in the coming weeks to think about their own why.

At our next staff meeting, we came together again. It was a chance for us to all reflect on our personal why. I encouraged everyone to sit in a grade level team, and with that team, they had a short amount of time to discuss and define a shared why. We then used a collaborative powerpoint document, where each team created their own slide. The work around defining our why was so important in helping all of us to be really clear on our beliefs about education and learning. It’s the why that drives what we do, not the other way around.

As we were spending time talking defining our why, we also talked about the importance of a shared vision. A Vision for Learning for FES that is written by one person based on their beliefs is not going to be meaningful to all the stakeholders. We started talking about who else we needed to get input from. In these conversations, we knew we wanted the thoughts of our students, we wanted the thoughts or our families, and if possible, we wanted the thoughts of our community. We wanted to make sure that whatever our Vision for Learning was to be included in the ideas of multiple stakeholders.

In February, we were planning to gather the thoughts about learning from our community. It was a couple of days before an upcoming PTO meeting and I was sitting in the conference room with my leadership team. As we were talking, someone pointed at a bulletin board in the room and said “Well, we already have a vision statement right here.” I was floored. “You mean I’ve been here for almost 3 months, and I’ve talked with all of you about developing a vision, and nobody told me that there was already one on a bulletin board?” (OK, maybe my fault for not noticing.)

But what I quickly came to realize is that the vision that was on that bulletin board was nothing but words on a wall to most of the people in the building. They did not feel that the vision that was on the wall accurately reflected them. I’m not exactly sure who all was involved in the writing of that vision, but it wasn’t a shared vision. It didn’t drive the decisions that we made about learning in our building. It was just words on a wall.

To gather some thoughts, we started with 4 questions. Those questions were driven by the book Thrive by Grant Lichtman and included:

We asked these questions first in a staff meeting, and then in our PTO meeting. The thoughts we gathered were so impressive!

These responses were collected during a staff meeting and then a PTO meeting on March 11th. When we collected these thoughts, we did not fully grasp what was about to happen in our world. On March 13th, we let out of school earlier than scheduled for spring break due to concerns about the risks of Covid-19. We taught from home for a week, then had a 2-week spring break during which the governor of Indiana announced that schools would not reopen.

After spring break, we transitioned to what I would call emergency remote learning. It was nothing close to the ideal learning environment for our students. Initially, when this transition happened, I had big plans. I thought we could still do our work on the Vision of Learning for FES virtually. But what I quickly found is that we weren’t ready for that. Most of us were barely able to tread water to meet the learning needs of our students. In January, my goal was to have a well-defined vision for learning before the start of this school year. By April, it was clear we needed to hit the pause button on that work.

So now, I sit here at the start of September. Students start in our building tomorrow. So much of our mental energy has been devoted to the logistics of opening a school in the middle of a global pandemic. But, my assistant principal, our teacher development specialist, and I are once again reading Thrive. In talking through the first section, we all feel like we’re currently at the point where we need to identify our value proposition – what is the thing that makes us valuable to our community? In the coming couple of weeks, I will be working on writing this up for our school community. I’ll share with our teachers, I’ll share with our PTO, and I’ll share it here, to seek feedback on our value at Fishers Elementary School. That will move us one step closer on the path of a clear Vision for Learning.

Time

Today I was sitting in a meeting with colleagues. During the meeting, we had a conversation around the idea of whether we were a person who led through checklists, or if we were one who led through the rally cry mentality. I know that for me, definitely trend towards the rally cry side of things. I like to think about big ideas, about making change happen, about causing good trouble, about being a ruckus maker for the benefit of all the learners in my school (notice the intent of learners – that’s not just students). But the tradition in educational leadership has trended more towards the checklist mentality.

I think that this checklist leadership has led to an education system that relies on their checklists. I think that those checklists are what cause us to pull out the same activities from year to year, not being responsive to our students, not being responsive to the environment around us. It’s why in January we write stories about snow even when there isn’t any snow on the ground, or why we might spend a lesson in science on what a full moon is even though if we were to look at the night sky we might notice that the moon is currently in the new moon phase.

If we operate on checklists, our system is going to stay the way that it is. And here’s the thing… The system as it is can be hard to argue with for some. If you teach in a school that “does well” on the standardized assessment, even though you operate from that checklist mindset, it’s going to be hard to convince you, or your families, or maybe even your students, that there might be a better way to make learning happen.

But I believe there is a better way, because our checklist mindsets create kids who think in checklist ways. But our world doesn’t need checklist thinkers. In a recent article from Forbes (The 10+ Most Important Job Skills Every Company Will Be Looking For In 2020), the following list was shared:

  1. Data Literacy
  1. Critical Thinking
  1. Tech Savviness
  1. Adaptability and Flexibility
  1. Creativity
  1. Emotional Intelligence
  1. Cultural Intelligence and Diversity
  1. Leadership Skills
  1. Judgment and Complex Decision Making
  1. Collaboration

Or you could take a look at the list of Key Attributes that Employers Want to See on Students’ Resumes (click here). This survey, put out every year by National Association of Colleges and Employers, doesn’t list skills that could be achieved by checklist thinking anywhere near the top of their list.

Excitement and CuriositySo, my mindset is that education needs a little bit of a jolt. A swift kick in the behind. Because the system as we know it doesn’t help create students who are prepared for these skills listed above. Not to mention, I’m very fearful of any system where its users enter with excitement and curiosity, and exit feeling bored and disconnected. Visit a kindergarten classroom… After you get past all the hugs and stories, you’ll see learners who are excited to tell you about the littlest details of their curiosity. But somehow, by the time they reach late elementary or middle school, that excitement is mostly gone.

These fears drive me to a lot of conversations with other educators about what schools could be. About what we need to do to create a system that our users exit just as excited as when they enter, but with all the skills listed in the lists above. What’s hard about those conversations – so many of the educators I have those conversations with are checklist thinkers. They have the thing that they do every year because it’s the first month of school, or because it’s almost winter break, or because it’s the middle of winter and no matter what it looks and feels like outside we’re writing our snow stories.

And here’s the thing that drives me crazy. As soon as I start talking about my admittedly crazy ideas, as soon as I share a little bit about what it might mean for us to truly adjust what we do to be more responsive to the day to day needs of our students, and be responsive to the future needs of our society, I almost immediately get one word thrown back at me…

TIME

And I get that, I really do. When we live in a checklist mindset, our most important factor of those checklists is being able to check off the things on the list. And that means we have to do it at the time that we plan on checking it off.

But when I’m talking about change, that means we need to go into design thinking mode. When I say the word innovator, who do you think of? Maybe Einstein, or Edison, Tesla, Jobs, Musk, Wozniak, Gates… Those are the people that we think of as innovators. As we get into a problem-solving mindset for education, I want to remind you of a quote from Einstein that I love:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.”

You see, Einstein got that our ability to solve a problem doesn’t lie in the solution itself. Rather it lies in the ability to appropriately identify the problem. And if you were able to talk to Einstein, or any of the other innovators that I listed above, you’d learn that one of the last things you do in an innovative design process is start to allocate resources.

Time is a resource.

Let me say that again a little louder for the people in the back:

Time is a resource.

And as a resource, it’s not part of our innovative discussions. As educators, there are definitely some resources that we can’t solve. We probably don’t get to pick the location of our school. We typically don’t get to make many changes to the physical building itself. We can’t ignore our state standards of learning. But what happens within the walls, the pedagogical decisions, the allocation of staff, the assignment of students, those are all things that can be adapted. There are schools who have found ways to build regular collaboration time into the school day for teachers. There are schools who have removed a grade-based system, and instead meet each kid right where they are in terms of the instructional decisions that need to be made. Other people have figured out ways to make these innovative things happen. And they didn’t let that pesky issue of time get in the way.

Unless I’m missing something, that 24 hours a day thing is kind of consistent everywhere. Others who have made massive changes to the way they do education don’t have any more time than we do. They’ve just chosen to allocate that resource in a different way. They’ve chosen to change their dispositions, to change their mindsets.

So here’s where I am right now. I’m ready to throw the whole system out on the table. From soup to nuts, what’s not working? What might work better? Let’s try things. Let’s ideate as a staff. What do our kids need in order to be able to leave our building just as curious as the first time they set foot in it. Let’s put it all out there. There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Then, let’s start testing. Just like how SpaceX must test each and every part in order to build a rocket that can do this:

We must be willing to ideate, innovate, test, reiterate, and test again. Eventually we can land our own system that creates students who are ready to leave us with the skills that employers need.

This IS GOING TO BE A MINDSET SHIFT for us all! But I’m on board. I’m ready to start testing, start trying, start building. These kids are too important to not.

Start with why

Why? It’s a question I’m pretty sure I have heard a million times from my son. He’s a super curious kid. Any of you who have kids or have worked around young kids know that why is one of the most important questions in the eyes of a child.

That question of why is the reason that prior to the first opportunity I had to meet with my new staff at Fishers Elementary, I shared Simon Sinek’s TED Talk – How great leaders inspire action. (If you haven’t seen it, you can get to it here)

golden-circleIn this talk, Sinek refers to the Golden Circle. As he describes it, a lot of companies can define what they do, some can even define how they do it, but only a select few can define why. In companies with great leadership, they start with the why.

Think about a corporation like Apple. Ultimately, they are a technology company. But when we think about what made Apple the brand that it is today, it was the complete focus on the fact that they were making beautiful products that fulfilled their customer’s digital needs. They worked the golden circle from the inside out.

So, what’s the reason that so many of the companies that start with defining their why in the first place end up being so successful? I think a lot of it comes from that childhood sense of wonder we all have. Intrinsically I think all humans are wired to be curious beings. We all want to understand the why. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that is what we need. I can’t remember who said it, but they told me if you really want to understand a person’s thinking, keep asking the question why. When you get to the 7th why, you probably have a pretty good grasp on where the person is coming from.

So, Sinek’s TED Talk now has me thinking. In the notes app on my phone I now have a note titled My Why. Currently there are 13 bullet points in this list. I hope to work on it and refine it some, because I plan to share my why with my staff at the next staff meeting. Then, we’re going to work together on first identifying our own personal why for what we do, and then work together to build a shared why. The purpose behind this activity will be to build a vision for what Fishers Elementary stands for moving forward.

I’m excited about the work that this will entail. And I’m ready to take my time. We are not going to walk out of our next staff meeting with our mission and vision, rather we are going to be working on this throughout the next semester. It is my hope that by the end of the school year, we have gathered input from our teachers and staff, from our students, from our families, and from our community.

It’s an exciting time to be a Tiger! I’ll be sure to keep you all updated on the process!