From the conference room in our elementary school, you can see two things clearly: a poster of our mission and children on the playground. These two things remind us of our purpose—we are here for our children. We are here to nurture lifelong learners and responsible, compassionate, and confident members of society. As the school leader, it’s my job to ensure that this mission is lived out on a daily basis. Though there are many things we need to do to be successful, there are a few key building blocks that lay the foundation for mission-driven learning communities.
1. Create a Community of Learners, Starting With Yourself
No matter what your school model or where your school is located, school is about learning. Because you are its leader, being a learner needs to be a natural part of your life. What does this mean? The same thing it means for students:
- Ask questions and model curiosity.
- Investigate new ideas and discuss them with students and colleagues.
- Use data to push your thinking in new directions.
- Take risks, make (and admit!) mistakes, and revise your plan.
- Read a book, watch a video lecture, or listen to a podcast.
- Talk with an expert.
- Try new things and share your experiences.
Being a learner helps you remember what’s most important in our classrooms, and it reminds staff members that as educators, we value—and embody—learning.
As our school was planning to expand, I challenged myself to participate in a massive open online course (MOOC)—a free online course provided by universities—to expose myself to a new pathway for learning, and also to learn new content. The assignments I did as part of the course, Scaling Up Your Venture Without Screwing Up, were so powerful that I had my leadership team and school board do them as well, amplifying the impact of that learning. If we want to create schools that develop lifelong learners, we have to be them ourselves.
2. Connect People With the Mission
At some point during the year, everyone gets bogged down. Whether it’s an unhappy parent, the pressure of standardized tests, students with behavior challenges, or something personal, staff members go through difficult patches. During these times, it’s your job to help people connect with the mission. Remind them why they are working hard. Get out in the classrooms and amplify good news. Talk about a former student who struggled but is now experiencing success. Ask a teacher to share the story of a student’s recent aha moment. Remind your staff what so many students experience at school and why what you provide is different. People can’t work without inspiration, and there are times when we all feel low on it. When I’m in that spot, I go sit in a classroom. All I need is a few minutes to be reminded of the importance of our work and my passion for it. When the going gets tough, remind folks of their purpose.
3. Share the "Why"
One of our core beliefs at Two Rivers Public Charter School is that everyone deserves access to the reasoning behind decisions. This gives our team an opportunity to engage and give input, and almost always creates genuine commitment. This is most important when we launch our professional development for the year. We spend an entire day helping our staff see why we’ve made the decision to focus on a specific area by doing the following:
- We share the data that led our leadership team to the decision. This could include test scores, student work, teacher observations, and teacher and student surveys.
- We provide research, articles, and supporting materials.
- We use our PD to help staff experience firsthand what their students will do and why it will be powerful. (The year we worked on problem-based tasks in math, we participated as students in the challenge Maths in the City. Through a scavenger hunt, we explored the city in teams to discover mathematical concepts in action and built web pages to share our learning. This gave us an opportunity to develop deep understanding of a math concept and experience a problem-based task firsthand.)
Related Article: Solving Real World Issues Through Problem-Based Learning
Sharing the why behind your decisions and plans doesn’t have to start with a daylong PD session. You can start by sharing the reasoning behind everyday, small decisions, like why tutoring groups have been created in a specific way, how you’ve established budget numbers, or why you’ve written a grant proposal for iPads instead of laptops. Providing access to reasoning gives staff members an opportunity to understand decisions that impact their lives.
4. Prioritize and Clear Obstacles
If you can’t remember your priorities by heart, you have too many. I learned that the hard way when I listed 14 goals for one year and achieved very few. As school leaders, we have to do the difficult work of weighing student data, staff input, and external pressures, and selecting what is most important to help us reach our mission.
Once you prioritize a new initiative or select a focus for professional development, part of your job is to clear the obstacles that stand in the way of your staff achieving it. Each year, our school selects one instructional focus that we all work on together. This year, we are focusing on checks for understanding during lessons. Staff members are planning in-the-moment teacher moves to ensure access for all learners. This planning shift means that teachers have less time to do unit planning. So this summer, we paid a team of teachers to plan units in advance. Allowing teachers to take that off their plate during the year ensured that they were able to focus on the lever we thought was most important for students. Ask your teachers, "What's in your way?" And then help clear the path.
5. Model a Healthy Work-Life Balance
People look to you as the school leader to figure out how they are supposed to engage. Are you sending emails at midnight? Are you conducting conference calls on vacation? Though you may be trying to communicate your dedication, what you are communicating is that it isn’t OK to take a break. We all work better when we take a moment to breathe and experience other things. Find ways to express your dedication without conveying to your staff that they should be working all the time.
I leave work each day at 5:30 p.m. so that I can have dinner with my family and spend time with my kids before bed. My staff know that if they need me, I’ll be available after that, but that time is sacred for me. Staff members who feel that they can experience other parts of their lives guilt-free will arrive at work with more joy, passion, and dedication than those who never stop working.
In our fast-paced, high-stakes world, it can be difficult to commit to the moves that lead to a successful, mission-driven learning community. These five strategies might not be on a district or authorizer checklist, but they will form the foundation necessary for a successful school. No matter what your circumstances or model, creating a community of learners, connecting people with the mission, sharing the why, and prioritizing and clearing obstacles will set you on a path to long-term and long-lived success.