Leading for a new student experience in schools

on Jun 10, 2019
Boy in classroom

In this latest installment of The Throughline, Max Silverman reflects on a year of conversations with leaders who are pushing for a new school experience for students.

As a leader, you are continually pushing for a new set of outcomes for students, new experiences for leaders in classrooms and schools, and ultimately, new paradigms for schooling.

Over the past seven months of interviews in The Throughline, you have joined me in hearing the best ideas for improving the student experience put forward by education leaders from across the country. These are leaders whom I admire and who have influenced our work at the Center for Educational Leadership — people who illustrate what a new vision of schooling can be about. Each one of these leaders is transforming schools and school systems from a vision that is based on their deep beliefs in the intellect, curiosity and ability of each of their students.

 These leaders are working toward a schooling experience that is based in their conviction that students’ experiences should be rooted in liberation, agency and community building. For this to be the case, just imagine how different the school experience needs to be for students, teachers, principals and the community at large.

Interviewing Ellen DorrGia TruongElliot WashorJennifer Cheatham, and Joseph Davis left me and our whole organization inspired by their vision of a different type of leadership. A leadership rooted in hopes for students and communities beyond what our accountability systems currently measure. A leadership invested with a deep belief in the potential of students, teachers, principals and educators. A leadership driven in figuring out the day-to-day experience of students, teachers and principals that will meet their high aspirations.

“These leaders developed very clear visions of the student and classroom experience they believed would help student success. In essence, these leaders do not stick with rhetorical platitudes, they work toward creating classrooms and schools that are transformed in service of their vision.”

Two striking features came out in each interview. First, these leaders developed very clear visions of the student and classroom experience they believed would help student success. In essence, these leaders do not stick with rhetorical platitudes, they work toward creating classrooms and schools that are transformed in service of their vision. Remarkably, these leaders easily moved beyond their big picture vision of what they want for students, to speak specifically about what should be happening in classrooms.

A second part of the different type of leadership that I hope you heard from these interviews was a true focus on what adults need in order to create a transformed experience for students. Each leader spoke with passion about their belief in the professionalism of teachers and principals. Each leader spoke of the trust, respect and care they have for teachers and principals. While also speaking of accountability and results, these leaders clear a two-way path forward fueled by collaboration and support rather than one-way accountability systems.

If, as Joe Davis suggests, education needs to be liberating, then the next lift for leaders is going to be pivotal. No doubt, we will need a different type of leadership. A courageous leadership based on a willingness to engage differently, a willingness to learn new things, and ultimately, a willingness to want and expect more from students, teachers and principals.

This post is more than just a way to thank Ellen, Gia, Elliot, Jennifer and Joseph for their time and wisdom. It is a way for us to use their words to inspire and motivate you.

As the school year comes to an end, take time to pause and reflect with your fellow educators on the following leadership questions, find your inspiration, and fuel your courage to push forward.

What do we want for students?

When you’re educated well, it’s liberating. And every person deserves that. … The more educated our children are, the better our communities become. Education is the best form of economic development.

— Joseph Davis, Superintendent, Ferguson-Florissant School District

What do we want for our students’ classroom experience?

I want to see evidence that the classroom functions as a community of learners. I love the community of practice concept. By definition, a community of practice is not only a group that is seeking to solve a problem or explore a passion, but they do so by interacting with one another in a meaningful way. For students, that means they need to understand more than what the objective is for a single content-standard-aligned lesson, but what their collective “why” is — what they’re striving to understand through their collective effort. …

The classroom should be a humanizing space.

— Jennifer Cheatham, Superintendent, Madison Metropolitan School District

What can teaching and learning look like?

But if you’re talking about complexity, we want tons of variability. Students want to work on and potentially solve those kinds of problems and often one problem leads to another problem. That’s where teaching needs to go — not to teacher-directed, project-based learning that is linear and following a specific way of ideating, but to working on and trying to solve complex problems. If students want to work on a problem, and you have students who have interest and motivation around that kind of mattering, mingling, and muddling, all of a sudden, you’re going to get different kinds of learning. It’s going to where they own it.

— Elliot Washor, Co-founder, Big Picture Learning

What can leadership be?

My thinking has really evolved about what it means to be an instructional leader or a principal supporting teachers. In the past, it was organized around providing professional development and coaching. Those things are still relevant, but teachers also need to experience what they want kids to experience, and a lot of teachers haven’t experienced that kind of deeper learning in their own education. … The instructional leader’s job is to make sure that that commitment is enduring, because it’s so easy to try something, it fails, and then go back to your default and your comfort zone. We need to make sure that teachers get the coaching they need, the professional learning communities with their peers, to really help each other and normalize the struggle of doing something potentially different with their students.

— Gia Truong, Chief Executive Officer, Envision Education

I expect you, like these leaders, will paint a picture of a different type of leadership incorporating new and more powerful ideas of equity. An equity based on more than test scores and graduation rates. An equity that goes beyond simply meeting standards and includes deep thinking, problem solving, curiosity and agency. A vision that includes such outcomes will require creating a different learning experience in the classroom. Whether it is Jennifer Cheatham’s vision of a classroom community or Elliot Washor’s “3 Ms” of mattering to, mingling with, and muddling through, these leaders are calling for a very different equity focus that requires a different classroom experience.

After all, can we follow Ellen Dorr’s inspiration and not change what school looks like?

The bigger vision is that we want students to have agency, we want people to feel empowered, and we want everyone to see value in what they’re doing. The vision piece has to always be there. Sometimes people get a little overly focused on content. Step back a little bit. What are you really trying to get at by having a student master chemistry? It isn’t just to know chemistry, it’s bigger than that. Taking a little step back feels hard when we have the urgency of what happens in school. But taking that step back to ask, what are we really trying to do for kids, shows that it’s not to make them more compliant and to fit in a box, it’s actually to have them be bigger than that.

— Ellen Dorr, Chief Technology Officer, Renton School District

All of us here at the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership are excited to be joining forces with you in pushing for a different type of school experience for students.

About the author

Max Silverman is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) where he provides leadership for improving school systems focused on equitable outcomes for students.
Share This