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And now for something completely different

August 15, 2014
Back to school time (photo by the author)

Back to school time (photo by the author)

I went to the annual opening-of-school event for my district again this year – my 13th time. It’s a small enough district that we can bring together all 1,600 staff members to celebrate the start of a new year, hear from some of our district’s leaders, and acknowledge our new staff and those returning for their 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 30th, or 35th year. There are some people who skip it every year and consider it a waste of time, and if we measure the quality of time strictly in terms of getting stuff done then I suppose that’s true.

Not for me though – I look forward to this event each year as an opportunity to connect with colleagues across the district, and to take in some of the best of our district’s organizational culture. There’s food, music, humor, and genuine appreciation for the work of every staff member. Veteran teachers will tell you that the people who really keep our schools running, by the way, are the custodial and clerical staff. They know everyone and everything and they’re the ones we turn to for getting stuff done. I also heard today that our district staff, overall, includes roughly 50% teachers, 44% classified staff, and 6% administration.

I must really like this event, because this year, I’m on a leave of absence from teaching – and I went anyways. (More about that to follow. Something completely different. Please read on!)

I like clapping for my colleagues as their names are announced in honor of their years of service. I marvel at the longevity and commitment, and appreciate the depth of their experience. I chat with people sitting near me and as familiar names go by, we share what we know about these friends, neighbors, peers, the teachers of our own children in some cases. I enjoy even more applauding our new staff members. I remember feeling a bit surprised at that welcome myself, and now take note of those whose smiles or laughs reveal a similar feeling; I hope their work experience in our district is similarly positive, and includes more pleasant surprises.

This year we welcomed a new superintendent as well. My colleagues who missed the event will have to trust the rest of us to convey something of his message, his outlook, his personality. I think it’s important to know how our district leaders think and what they say they value. Their remarks at these events provide a useful insight into their way of thinking, their frame of reference. When the time comes to work together more substantively, it helps to have a feeling for the people leading the system. If we’re really doing our jobs, there will be times ahead that are challenging, even uncomfortable, and moving through those moments successfully seems more likely when we have a well-rounded view of our partners in this work.

Well-rounded is actually an apt description for our new superintendent. Without reciting his bio and resume for us, he managed to let us know about his experiences as a teacher, administrator, and scholar, his experiences working in schools with students of varied ages, in varied subjects, in rural and urban settings. He used his own children and former students as examples urging us to take the long view of students’ lives and their needs. He focused on relationships and potential and reasons for learning, without edu-jargon, without a single reference to standards generally or the Common Core specifically, without flattering us about our district’s test scores, rankings, or college placement successes, without using the word “data” even once. Of course there will be a time to discuss all of those matters in those terms – but I was grateful that he recognized this opportunity to engage people as people first, and to talk about students as people first as well.

He also challenged us, putting the district mission statement on the screen without identifying it, then asking who recognized it. I inferred pretty quickly what he was doing, but had I been presented a multiple choice question, I couldn’t have confidently picked our district mission statement from among three others. I have a feeling I was in the majority. He promised us we’ll be revisiting that mission statement in the future. And yet, that particular move didn’t feel like a scolding, delivered the way it was, and following his confession about arriving for the event having forgotten to put on a belt while dressing this morning.

It’s so easy to assume things about people, and so easy to be wrong. Our superintendent advised us that his approach is “seek first to understand” – and that’s part of why I go to these kickoff events every year, seeking to understand the people I work with and the place where I work, where my children are going through school. I think that approach serves us all well – as teachers, parents, school leaders, and policy makers. Not only to understand, but to facilitate understanding in others by speaking plainly and focusing on what matters most in the moment. (And for a quick example of how action unsupported by understanding can fail an individual or organization, check out the criticisms of Michelle Rhee/Johnson in this article on the occasion of her decision to step down from leading Students First [sic]).

And now, for something completely different.

IMG_2144This post is about the beginning of a school year, but the year ahead has many differences and beginnings in store for me. In a way, “seeking first to understand” is an idea that is leading me out of the classroom for a while – or rather, seeking to understand more, and better. I’ve taken a leave of absence from teaching for 2014-15, and plan to visit and write about dozens of schools and teachers all around California. My work in various settings and organizations has created an opportunity to learn more about great teaching and schools by actually visiting, and after a few years of thinking and imagining, I’ve decided to act on my ideas and take my chances. I’ll be creating a new website, starting a new blog, and writing a book about the experience. Details coming in the next couple weeks – stay tuned!

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