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By: Don Bavis on November 30th, 2016

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Don't Throw the Bucket Overboard

Personalized Learning  |  School Districts  |  Innovative Leadership

As a child growing up, my family didn’t take the traditional summer vacations. Instead, we had a boat named “Sadie”, which we sailed to different locations on Lake Ontario. During these sailing adventures, we experienced many unforgettable moments.

I remember one such occasion during a cross-lake trip to Canada. We were roughly halfway across the lake. There had been no sight of land in any direction for hours, and it would be a few more hours before we would see land again. The winds and sea were fair, and we were cruising along at a relaxing pace. At some point, my sister decided to go below to grab a book she’d been reading. I can still remember the splashing sound it made when her feet hit the carpet in the cabin below. Sadie was taking on water. 

My father tried to assure us that Sadie would not sink. Something about some flotation material within the hull that wouldn’t allow that to happen. But, by the look on his face, I’m not so sure he actually believed or knew what he was talking about. My concern level went up a few more notches when he started cursing at the bilge pump for its inability to keep up with the incoming water. He and my mother huddled together for a quiet problem solving discussion, and apparently decided to form some kind of “fireman’s bucket brigade line” using a garbage can and a bucket we had on board. Unfortunately, they didn’t really communicate aloud this plan or process very well, especially to this seven-year-old boy who had no concept of a bucket brigade line. So when my father handed my sister a garbage can full of water, and she handed it to my other sister, who handed it to my mother, who handed it to me, I really had no idea what was going on. With a heavy garbage can full of water in my hands, I asked my mother what was I supposed to do with it. In an exasperated and stressed voice she told me to throw it overboard. So I did...garbage can and all.

You can probably imagine the look on my mother’s face, as she turned back to me to retrieve the emptied garbage can, and hand me the full bucket that had just come up the line. We laugh about it now, but I would say the communication directed at me back then was a little disrespectful and included some non-school words.

Poor, overly emotional or inadequate communication can sink any ship...no matter how well it seems to be cruising along. And just like the buckets in a bucket brigade line, the communication has to go up and down the line...not be tossed overboard. I believe communication is vital to a successful, trusting and respectful learning community. It will also be a prerequisite for our success, as we continue down our path toward personalization.

When most of us think of communication, our minds generally go to the standard methodologies. Hard copy and electronic newsletters, faculty presentations, water cooler conversations, professional development workshops, social media messages, website postings, newspaper articles and parent information nights. A good balanced attack to get our message out there.

That said, I wonder if we are always as vigilant in our strategies to get the communication coming back up the line? How deliberate, frequent and passionate are we in gathering feedback and uncovering the good, the bad and the ugly from our different stakeholder groups? In my opinion, no news is NOT good news. More likely, it suggests your new initiative is failing and you probably don’t even know you’re sinking yet.

As the Marion Central School District moves forward in our personalized learning initiative, we will certainly continue to use a variety of communication strategies to inform our different stakeholder groups. But, we won’t stop there. In our commitment to complete the loop of two-way communication, our PL council will leave no stone unturned or strategy untested. We won’t sit back and wait for the communication to come find us. We will go out and find it, so we can celebrate our successes. We need to go out and find it, so we can remedy the obstacles impeding our success. Good news or bad news, no buckets can be tossed overboard.

Like a fireman’s bucket brigade line, a perpetual chain of communication and feedback going up and down the line will keep our PL momentum afloat. Our communication will reflect the urgency of our movement toward personalization, but we will be ever-mindful of the tone with which we share our message.

We will work closely with our partners at Education Elements to strategize the best ways to maintain this two-way communication. That said, it will be my mission as the superintendent of schools, to get out of my office and talk first-hand to as many people as I can about personalized learning. Sure, I’d love to hear from teachers, students, administrators and parents about all the positive impacts of personalization. But perhaps more importantly, I need to find out what the barriers are. Who else is in a better position to remove them than I? Hopefully, they will use mostly school words when they share. If they don’t it’s OK. I’d love the opportunity to take the passion behind those “other” words and turn it down the path of personalized learning. You don’t become a strong captain until you’ve sailed in some rough water.


Don Bavis is the Superintendent of Marion Central School District in Marion, New York. He is a systems thinker with passion for building culture and relationships, dedicated to supporting student growth through shared leadership and innovation.


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About Don Bavis

Don Bavis is the Superintendent of Marion Central School District in Marion, New York. He is a systems thinker with passion for building culture and relationships, dedicated to supporting student growth through shared leadership and innovation.

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