When did education become so complex? When did words such as standards, report cards, grades, discipline, and testing start to supersede experience, fun, laughter, passion, creativity, and caring? I served as a building principal at the elementary and middle school levels for eight years. During my early years as a principal, I became so caught up in the data-driven, product making, and the game of school, that I lost sight of all the words that matter most. In my new role as an Assistant Superintendent, I can see things now that weren't so clear during my time as a principal.
A mentor, and now friend, once told me, "The sign of a great leader is someone who takes people to a place they never thought they could go and when they get there, they believe they are the reason why." I now realize that I was blessed to experience this first hand under his leadership. Leaders come in all different shapes and sizes. They have vision, passion, kindness, and fun. Leading is hard work. It requires a thick skin, active listening, difficult conversations, and empathy. Complexities create stress, and a leader needs to understand that. A leader needs to be able to provide perspective when the complexities blur the vision of what is important. After twenty plus years in education, I still have more questions than I do answers. However, it is the answers I have come to embrace and pass onto other educators as often as possible. I know this. School is supposed to be a safe place for students, staff, and the community. School is supposed to be a place where students experience learning, success, failure, and joy. School is supposed to be a place where students WANT to go each day. School is supposed to be memorable in a way you don't ever want to forget. How do we get back to what school is supposed to be?
There are a few things that come to mind in creating an environment reflective of what school is supposed to be. These suggestions always start with the leader modeling and expecting, without demanding, what they want to see teachers do with their students in the classroom.
Ask the students how your lesson went. The question is simple and the answers are free. Too often we forget that teaching is a service profession. We are serving our students. As a leader, it is also important for you to model this approach. Ask how you are doing as a leader? Be specific in your quest and make adjustments that allow you to carry out the shared vision in a more engaging way. Suggestion... start with your staff meetings. How engaging are those?
Create opportunities for choice.
Do you allow staff members to make and modify choices or is it more of a this or that choice? This question can range from situations such as field trips, implementation of programs, shaping of building culture, and professional development to name a few. What choices can students have in shaping the classroom/building culture, designing lessons, and increasing their involvement in the learning experience?
Create a safe environment.
How can you celebrate everything in a meaningful way? What if we celebrated successes AND failures? What if failure was celebrated because we now have more information than before? How can we recognize each other in a meaningful way? If you create an environment that allows for learning without judgement then you are instantly promoting curiosity and thoughtful experimentation. If you are having trouble in figuring out how to jumpstart this process... see tip #1.
There are a million tips that can help steer a school community in the right direction. Taking on too much at one time is a sound recipe for none of them taking hold. I like to keep things simple and open enough for others to help make better. So, in the end, the question for you as a leader is simple. What are you doing today to help keep school as it’s supposed to be?
Tom Dreiling is currently serving as Assistant Superintendent of Independence Local Schools in Ohio. He has been fortunate to work in the education field for over 20 years serving as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal, and as a district-level employee. Empowering students to show off his or her “greatness” along with helping educators become facilitators of learning are two areas most important to him as a leader. “Education doesn’t need to be a thing we do while growing up. It should be the opportunity we look forward to each day”.