Bidding Adieu to Educational Isolationism 


“From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school–its isolation from life. When the child gets into the schoolroom he has to put out of his mind a large part of the ideas, interests and activities that predominate in his home and neighborhood.” John Dewey, 1956


Before I was a site administrator I was a high school Spanish teacher. One would seemingly have nothing to do with the other; it’s fair to say that we don’t often correlate the skill set required to master a language (Spanish is a second language for me) and teach it to children with the habits, traits and competencies of an effective school leader. But at this inflection point in my career - at 22 years in education I am right around my working half-life - I’ve started to spend more time thinking about what brought me into education, what has kept me here, and what forces (internal, external) pushed me to seek out (and stick with) leadership roles. Beyond the technical and operational aspects of school management (all vital and important), what resonates most about this work is the opportunity to help build, and belong to, a true community of practice.

 What I’ve determined is that (please allow me a bit of a chest thump) the work of the language teacher is the perfect preparation for an effective school leader. Language teachers help us learn how to execute the most fundamental aspect of being a human being: communicating with fellow humans whose system of verbal and written expression is different from our own. Language teachers (at their best) encourage learning through experimentation and mistake-making since they understand the arc of how humans master their native tongue. Language teachers clarify the structures and rules (a verb, after all, is conjugated in specific ways to ensure understanding of who is doing what, when) while also helping students peek behind the curtain into the infinity of possibilities that language offers - how we can make ourselves understood to other people while also expressing our unique selves through those structures. 

Dewey’s meditation on the disconnect between the realities of schooling and those of “real life” have never been more pertinent, as our institution continues to follow certain traditions begun two centuries ago, including the A-F grading system and our agrarian-based calendar. But rather than despair over all the factors outside of our control, educators and communities have every reason to be optimistic about the possibilities for making the experience of school to not only reflect the dynamic realities of our contemporary world, but also to serve as an incubator for ideas to bring about needed change and innovation. Children are hungry to make a difference - to see an idea have a concrete impact on the world. Adults are too; but as long as schools are islands unto themselves - and every classroom/office an island within an island - the isolationism that Dewey warned us about when my own parents were in elementary school will continue to be education’s dominant reality - and legacy. 

 So are we educators - in our classrooms and offices, on our separate campuses and districts, underneath the architecture of 50 different state Departments of Education - ready and willing to confront isolationism as antithetical to a powerful and relevant education for all children based on our contemporary global context (not the one in existence when our formal educational structures came into being)? Researcher John Hattie talked about the critical purpose of formal education on a recent episode of the terrific Bedley Brothers podcast: schools exist to give children experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have. 

Shared language is the backbone of the human experience

“Consider Malcolm Gladwell's examination of what makes successful teachers. He identifies one quality as the most significant: "withitness" or regard for student perspective. This means that in the classroom, there is a high-quality feedback loop between teacher and student. Teachers communicate both verbally and nonverbally to their students in a back-and-forth exchange to get a deeper understanding.” Margaret Regan

 Let’s admit it - every teacher is, at the root of what they do, a language teacher. The “disciplines” into which we’ve been divided (a construct we should all question) have unique vocabularies and modes of argument (or, better put, how to get your point across). This extends to the work of all those in leadership roles as well. What ultimately defines an effective educator is their capacity to make themselves understood, all the while understanding and empathizing with others; an educator who asks others how they can better communicate themselves, while also helping others express themselves more clearly and deeply; one who uses language (verbal, non-verbal) to weave connections with others and amongst others in our charge. Language is the root of all community.

The even deeper truth about teaching a second language is that the rules aren’t always followed in every place in the same way. Verbs can have different connotations in different regions/countries; verbs can be conjugated differently by region/country; pronunciation is a prismatic kaleidoscope of regional entropy; idioms (and epithets!) a bottomless well. But all these bifurcating roads lead back to one system of expression - an agreed upon touchstone for social cohesion. This gets me back to why I chose school leadership: schools that do not have clearly established systems of thinking and communicating incubate cultures of idiosyncrasy, isolation and haphazard learning outcomes for students. 

Accepting A-F as the unquestioned standard for feedback is just a symptom of a larger set of issues in American education. A system that was designed to rank and separate children into white and blue collar pathways - as well as maintain and reinforce white privilege - is now asked by society to prepare every child to be able to compete in a dynamic and ever-changing global economy. The challenge is that undoing centuries of oppressive practices that are fueled by racism, classism, ableism, etc. doesn’t happen overnight, especially when education is continually under assault by the forces of privatization (see our current Secretary of Education) and systematically underfunded in a way that reinforces wealth/poverty by zip code. Despite all those hurdles, educators continue to occupy the vanguard of those that would see our society realize its tremendous potential - a place where one’s origins do not determine their access to a powerful education which, in turn, will help them live a healthier, more informed, more forward-thinking life.

If public education is going to truly meet its mandate to be a vehicle for social equity and unity - something our society and planet need now more than ever - we must first be grounded in common agreements and practices about what matters most. School leaders play an essential role in this endeavor, as they are the ones who: 

  • Set the tone on campus (celebration, curiosity, panic, misery?)

  • Get people connected (doors, hearts and minds are open, or they are closed)

  • Set course for where we are going while also staying agile and adjusting course (as opposed to a commitment to staying still)

  • Hold up a mirror to our current reality (in all its nuance)

  • Keep the glass half full while acknowledging, and confronting, challenges

  • Give permission for people (students, teachers, parents…) to try out new ideas and disrupt what needs disrupting 

So what are some tangible leadership moves than can help shatter isolation and infuse the organization with a feeling of connectedness and mutual purpose? 

Create and display shared values and agreements

“Most organizations do not foster agreements, they impose rules. Without public agreements, the only place people have to look is to the preexisting nature of their own principles and expressions of their individual, private integrity.” -Robert Kegan

One of the first exercises any teacher does in their classroom is to lay out the rules/expectations. The least effective examples might include handing out a sheet of paper on day one listing the do’s and don’ts; the best examples involve students in co-creating those share expectations. One teacher at my school created posters with his classes where they listed their expectations for themselves and for him as their teacher. He then shared those with parents at Back to School Night. Rather than rule from a throne, he showed that his students’ voices and perspectives mattered to him; in fact, the rules they wrote for themselves were tougher than the ones he would have drafted on his own! 

School leaders need to begin by establishing shared agreements for the professional and interpersonal space. While a process-oriented approach like this might exasperate some staff members as a waste of time (“We’re all professionals here!”), we know there are plenty of examples of professional cultures defined by everything from quiet grudges to outright bullying. Shared agreements for how we come together becomes a touchstone for a diverse range of adults, each of whom has their own set of beliefs and values. Rather than see these as “rules to not break,” these agreements can be the behaviors and mindsets we collectively aspire to in our shared space. Before a meeting, a faculty can spend 30 seconds thinking about they will focus on those norms; afterwards there can be a written reflection on how the group performed in relation to those agreements. These can change and evolve over time; they should also be in place for the smaller teams that exist throughout campus, from departments to grade levels. At my school, our current agreements read:

  • Be on time.

  • Be present (focus on our work).

  • Equity of voice.

  • Work towards solutions.

  • Assume positive intentions.

Ask for feedback and share the results

“Being nice to each other is generally a good idea, but it can inhibit the practice of providing feedback in the form of criticism or even an alternative viewpoint.” -Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker

Part of what inspired me to become a school leader was my interest in participating in the overall life of the school - culturally and operationally. While I always cherished the community I built with my five classes of students each year, I began to feel more curiosity (and urgency) to experience and contribute to the bigger community beyond my little realm. Equally as compelling to my decision to “leave the classroom” (a refrain pregnant with sadness and loss - our choice of words indicative of a broader cynicism about leadership, perhaps?) were the examples of poor leadership I had witnessed in my 10-plus years as a teacher. Leaders who seemed emotionally absent; leaders who never seemed to find creative ways to bring a big group of adults together in the spirit of team and family; leaders who struggled to follow-through on needed operational tasks; leaders who never held up the mirror for us to examine our practices and culture, and who, by extension, never offered any reflection on their own performance. 

Setting the tone on campus begins with two leaderships actions: asking for feedback (being vulnerable) and leading with vulnerability and openness about our own performance. Most leaders would say they want their teachers to give each other feedback, perform peer-to-peer observations, provide lesson critiques, etc. - but often fail to ask their organizations for input on their own performance. In the spring of 2015 our administrative team conducted a comprehensive climate, morale and school culture survey with faculty and published the results. In the years since, we see more and more teachers asking their students for feedback throughout the year and more examples of teachers observing colleagues in formal and informal ways to connect and learn as a team.

Meet, Eat, Play

“Living systems contain their own solutions. Somewhere in the system are people already practicing a solution that others think is impossible. Or they possess information that could help many others. Or, they defy stereotypes and have the very capabilities we need. To find these solutions, the system needs to connect to more of itself.” -Margaret Wheatley

Community is not about everyone being friends; harmony on campus is not about all being in agreement. In fact, the strongest school cultures recognize that disagreement and dissent are healthy aspects to any human framework - that zone where we are doing our best thinking and creating. But how do we create the conditions for this dynamic balance? Meet, Eat, Play. 

It’s hard to feel connected with our colleagues when we rarely see them, or when our interactions are only around work-related tasks. School leaders have immense authority in terms of the time allotted for staff to be together; they can often feel pressure to have all meetings be “productive,” results-driven experiences, which deprives the people they lead the opportunity to interact in different ways. The Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC) created a “Dimensions of Success” framework aimed at balancing results, process and relationship to create “sustainable organizational change with greater participant satisfaction.” School leaders must take into account all of those dimensions to design meetings (and more informal gatherings) that generate energy, interaction and exploration. 

And is there a rule that all meetings have to take place indoors? We often begin our meetings with a “Walk and Talk” - pairs walk together for 10-15 minutes discussing certain prompts while also having the chance to simply connect, gossip, and disrupt the daily routine that has educators inside most of the day. In March of 2015 our staff debriefed the culture, climate and staff morale survey I shared above. We charted ideas for changes we all needed to make to move from “we work at the same school” to “we’re a family:”

  • Staff lunches: potluck, salad/soup days.

  • More bonding/fun stuff together. Be a place that trusts each other.

  • Day at the beach/hike.

  • Come at our problems straight on: “What do we suck at most?” Then go do it.

In response to this feedback, here’s how we designed our two days of staff development to start the 2017/18 school year (we returned to the same ropes course in October of 2018 as well). But one day a year to experience adventure and play together isn’t enough; in 2015 we joined in on the inaugural Global School Play Day (I am a co-founder). While the day’s purpose is to give children the time and space for unstructured play, we see adults participating as well - connecting with their students and with each other in new and surprising ways. Lastly, we have seen an increase in staff lunch potlucks; rather than eat-while-working-alone, people disrupt isolation and weave connections through a shared meal.

Striving for a happier society - one school at a time

Studies show that around half of all educators leave the profession within five years. Part of this could be due to low pay for a demanding job that goes well beyond 40 hours a week. But I think there is another dynamic at play that contributes to quick burnout: insularity and isolation. School campuses become their own microverses over time, and individual classrooms and offices can morph into autonomous regions within those microverses. Rather than having a team experience, many educators feel alone - and who wants to give heart and soul to a profession that robs us of feeling a sense of community and belonging? One could argue those are the two most essential components of education - and of being human. 

There is growing awareness about how teachers are undersupported; Time magazine wrote a powerful piece in September of last year on paltry teacher salaries around the nation. But it’s not only teachers who need more support: school leaders do as well. Yes, administrators make more money, but that is not an incentive to have the best teachers seek out roles in organizational leadership. People are averse to a role that would have them “deal with” adults - difficult parents and, yes, difficult colleagues. But weak, uninspiring, conflict-averse, “keep things quiet” administrators are the last thing a school wants. We need to cultivate the next generation of teachers and school leaders if we want to see positive change and growth at scale. Part of this means investing capital in education and educators (yes, pay them more!) but also in leadership training and coaching models centered on empathy, inclusion, cultural awareness and sensitivity, conflict-resolution and developing shared vision - not just on management protocols. 

The 2019 World Happiness Report shows our country losing ground: 19th this year, dropping five spots since 2017. It cites addiction as a central cause for this shift, along with this sobering assessment: “Social connections are weakening in the US as social media usage is raising anxiety, especially among adolescents” (emphasis mine). The answer isn’t to throw away all cell phones, but rather find a more holistic balance between our virtual and physical communities. Education’s most important task - one that opens the door to higher morale, greater collaboration and more equitable learning outcomes for children - is to build stronger connections between all our members. That work needs to come first before we can address archaic, out-of-touch practices that reinforce societal inequities and cultures of isolation.