A Year on the Road: 3 Factors for Successful Educational Change
“What’s it like in other schools? In other districts? In other states?” After eight years in the classroom as a math teacher and another seven as a school leader, I transitioned into a role at Education Elements just over a year ago in part because I wanted answers to those questions. The field of education has that head-down, just-keep-digging quality to it, where we’re so far down in our trenches that it often feels impossible to pause, lift one’s head, and get a sense of the landscape. I wanted to see what factors were supporting successful innovation, reform, outside-the-box thinking, and school change around the country, even if doing so meant leaving a school I loved and had helped build. A year in, I’ve worked directly with teams from close to a hundred schools and visited dozens of their campuses. In just 12 months I’ve collaborated with ten districts in six states. I certainly can’t pretend to have anywhere near a complete picture or complete answer, but as I think about what drives successful future-focused education, some factors are abundantly clear. The districts and teams I’ve seen doing it well seem to have certain approaches in common.
Treat teachers as an asset, not a liability
By and large, our nation’s schools are underfunded and our teachers are underpaid. But in every district I’ve worked with, I’ve seen bright, hard-working teachers delivering exceptional teaching regardless of conditions. While there are certainly exceptions, I can say that I am many times more likely – upon visiting a school, working with a teacher, or interacting with students – to be brought near to tears by the beauty of what is going on in that classroom than to be frustrated or disappointed. I have copious evidence to confirm that our nation’s teachers are exceptional, noble, and capable people. Most teachers return faith in them and investment in their work with creativity, ingenuity, tireless effort, and unflagging optimism. I have found that the best results and most transformative changes come in districts and programs that take a strengths-based approach to teachers, seeing the job of leaders as building approaches that energize and engage teachers in the work and support teachers through the challenging work of innovative teaching.
Adopt a personalizing mindset, not buzzwords and banners
There are many in the media, the tech world, and in the pundits’ circle who would have us spend our time battling over the term “personalized learning,” what it means, and whether it’s going to save our kids or doom them all. A year into helping districts with all sorts of projects labeled personalized, blended, student-centered, and so on, I’m disappointed that the media seems to be missing the forest for the trees. Whatever you call it, good learning is not about plopping a student in front of a computer and never has been. It’s about understanding who a student is as a person and in this moment, in all of their dimensions, and using every tool in a teacher’s toolbox to help that student get where they need to be. This is not a new idea, and yet people like me have jobs because classrooms that truly achieve this kind of education remain woefully few and far between. The effective initiatives I’ve seen are the ones that push beyond the buzzwords, the press, the misinformation, the software, and the hype to deliver what’s right for kids in their local context.
Understand that culture, leadership, and teacher support all eat deployment plans for breakfast
Those who think that simply rolling out devices and software will somehow revolutionize what’s happening in their classrooms are in for a disappointment. In my experience, a culture of innovation, strong school-level leadership, and a commitment to teacher support are necessary and sufficient conditions for meaningful change. Schools that have these components in place will create powerful learning experiences, and those that do not will struggle regardless of what other resources are poured in. The frustrating part, of course, is that culture, leadership, and a climate of support aren’t something you can buy off the shelf. They require time, intentionality, integrity, courage, and lots of new competencies and new habits. For districts willing to invest in and commit to development in these areas, meaningful change is most definitely possible.
Of course, there’s a lot more to creating an environment where educational change is meaningful, intentional, and lasting. I love my job because the challenges, conditions, and approaches are different in every district, and every partnership brings new opportunities to learn, create, and solve. Want to talk about creating a climate of meaningful change in your school or district? Drop me or the rest of the Education Elements team a line!
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About Andy Shaw
Andy Shaw is a Senior Design Principal on the Design & Implementation team, working with district and school teams to improve student outcomes through inclusive and intentional change processes. Andy has worked in education since 2002, first as a high school mathematics teacher and then for seven years as a high school administrator. Most recently, he served as the Dean of Curriculum and Innovation at The Bay School, a progressive high school in San Francisco, where he led a future-focused redesign of the school's curriculum, calendar, and bell schedule. Andy's passion is for process: keeping students, teachers and staff, school values, and culture at the heart of major initiatives. He holds a B.A in Mathematics from Bowdoin College and a Master's of Arts in Education Leadership from Teachers College at Columbia University. Andy is originally from Maryland and currently lives in Berkeley, CA.