Tag Archives: change

Opening Day Remarks

Thank you. Thank you for making me feel welcome. I would like to thank Judy for her friendship over the years. I admire her abilities. It is truly a privilege to have the opportunity to work with you. Before I begin, I would also like to acknowledge Celeste Keel. Celeste organized today’s event. Thank you Celeste for all of your hard work.

I thought I would start out by introducing myself so you can better understand where I am coming from. A change in superintendent is a significant change for any school district, let alone for one that has had such stable and consistent leadership for more than 20 years. I was a high school social studies teacher for five years but I have been married to an elementary teacher for 18 years – I’ll let you decide which one these has had more influence on my thinking. For seven years I was the principal of Canaan Schools, a preK-12, 300 -student school, which provided me with many opportunities for professional growth. Among other things, I learned a great deal about hot lunch programs, boiler maintenance, computer networks, repairing roofs and a variety of other essential administrative functions. Teaching and learning were in there somewhere as well.

For the last three years I have been the superintendent for the Essex North Supervisory Union in Canaan. Essex North used to have two schools, but we closed the Norton Village School a few years ago when its enrollment dropped to 6 students. With having only one remaining school, you would think the governance structure of the supervisory union would be rather simple, but in typical Vermont fashion Essex North has five town school districts with 5 school boards and an SU board – many of the districts tuition their students to New Hampshire schools. Essex North also includes several unincorporated towns and gores and serves a very large geographic region in arguably some of the most beautiful yet remote area of the state. Needless to say, this summer has been a time of significant cultural adjustment for me and my family.

From a professional standpoint, it is important for you to note that my chief area of interest is in organizational leadership. Beginning with my experience in the Snelling Center’s Vermont School Leadership Project, I have become increasingly interested in educational leadership, how we as educators organize ourselves to carry out our work, and how school boards operate to govern school districts. In there somewhere is the topic of my doctoral dissertation – I am a doctoral student at UVM – something I hope to complete next summer in between my many BRSU board meetings.

I say my interest in organizational leadership is important for you to note because it gives you an idea of the focus of my work. It also might give you some insight into why I was attracted to coming to BRSU. My perception of the pubic education system is that we do not suffer from too few innovations – to paraphrase Scheurich and Skrla, “we know more than enough to educate most students well; it is more a question of whether or not we have the will to do so.” For me it is obvious that one of the biggest challenges to our public education system in Vermont is organizational – we are well intentioned, well trained, but we struggle from an organizational perspective. Part of this we can attribute to the laws and public policies that describe how we must work, but many of our problems are self-inflicted. Sometimes I think there is something in Vermont water that requires us to create the most complex and burdensome processes for our educational system. I could you give you many examples but Judy was clear that my speech today should be inspirational.

As much as you are being presented with a significant change in leadership with a new superintendent, you are also going to be working in a era of important change to Vermont’s schools. There is a Chinese curse that goes something like, “may you live in interesting times,” and I believe the next couple of years will be very interesting for all of us. These interesting changes include governance reform, a major revision of our education finance system, consolidation of business services at the supervisory union level, the re-authorization of the NCLBA, declining enrollment, rising fixed costs, mandated supervisory union level collective bargaining, and a state-wide school calendar. I might point out that all of these changes are due this year if not in the next 8 months. These challenges are largely political and as such should not limit our future work, but we need to be aware that there is a significant political debate going on about the future structure of Vermont’s public education system. That debate is reaching a critical phase, and in my opinion, we, as Vermont’s public school educators, need to do a better job about participating in that debate.

In spite of this difficult political context, perhaps our more important challenges are societal – most historians recognize that we are now in transition to a new post-modern era that is characterized by increased individualism and a newfound interconnectedness. I believe these societal changes have important implications for how we will need to organize our school systems.

Many of these changes have been caused by technology and specifically the Internet. I don’t know if you have read Thomas Friedman’s book – how many of you have read The World if Flat? Well, the world is flat. In this book Friedman also describes people who live in a half-flat world – these are the ones who know things have changed but they see themselves as outside of these changes, not being a part of them. I believe our current public education system in Vermont is such a half-flat world. I can tell you based on my two months of experience working in BRSU that BRSU and its member districts are half flat. At some point we will need to make the jump and join the rest of the world. The public school system can not afford to sit on the sidelines as a passive observer to the changes that are sweeping through industry and the developing world. I also believe we will need to make this jump to the flat world ourselves – there is no collective wisdom in Washington, Montpelier or in our professional associations that will make the transition for us. Such is the nature of a flat world. Of course part of the problem is that most of our students are already in the flat world and are waiting for us to join them. As Willard Daggett likes to say, “schools are museums, and we are the curators.”

In order to navigate these changes we must have our organizational house in order. This includes the vertical and horizontal articulation of curriculum, a more intentional use of our resources – time, people, and money, – and democratic governance systems that clearly describe our purpose and create policy that inspires the larger organization to do its work. Also important is a need to have organizational trust and the ability to work together. Our schools, the districts and the supervisory union must be clear about our common, transcendent purpose so that the work we undertake in our classrooms and in our communities can be leveraged in the interest of the larger public good and social justice – in a era of increased individualism and growing disparity in wealth, public schools need to live and embody the principles of democratic action in order to secure equal educational opportunity for all students.

The work you have begun in establishing professional learning communities is foundational to giving us the necessary future orientation and disposition to embrace change. Equally important from a governance perspective, is the requirement to have clarity in our respective roles and responsibilities – as many of you have already heard me say, collective responsibility and decision making are not substitutes for individual accountability. For our democratic governance systems to work well and to be responsive to our communities we need to have a clear understanding of the law and our responsibilities under the law. The law should not be seen as something that ties our hands. The law is enabling and is congruent with our mission of obtaining social justice.

You have a right to expect that the leadership in this district and from the superintendent is dedicated to this important purpose. I will work hard to meet your expectations in this area, and I will endeavor to live up to the high standards of professional conduct and practice that you have mutually established for each other. I will also work hard to collectively articulate our common purpose and to push our system into the flat world. Historians often use a paradigm of continuity vs. change. They examine historical events to see if they were continuous with previous developments or to see if they were something new. As a historian and an educator, I intend to provide leadership so that we can carry forward the best aspects of our public education system into the future – any changes we implement will need to be continuous with our historic purposes. At the same time, we will need to think deeply about the future and be ready to abandon those systems and practices that do not support the success of our students in this new interconnected and global era in which they live. This is exciting work, and I am looking forward to working with all of you in the coming months to better understand how these changes will guide the future of our organization. I am confident we will be successful because we have the necessary talent, dedication, and good will to create an exemplary school system for all students. Thank you.

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Learning communities and change

Public schools as institutions with a strong historical and institutional memory are by nature resistant to change. Public schools are also by definition humanistic enterprises – the business of teaching and learning is highly contextual and based on the interpersonal relationships among teachers and students, teachers and other school personnel, and teachers and the larger community. Leaders who attempt to change public schools need to be sensitive to the historical traditions that have given public schools their essential purpose in our society, but they also need to acknowledge that this essential purpose has been defined and redefined over the years in an emotional context where staff, students, and community members have struggled together to make common meaning and purpose.

We have come to understand that real school reform relies on having a school community make meaning for itself. This requires all school staff to become knowledgeable of research-based approaches so they can better articulate how these approaches will allow the school to meet the challenges of the future while at the same time preserving the learning community’s unique identity and purpose. Any reform, research-based or not, that does not give staff the room to make meaning for themselves is not likely to succeed because no organization, let alone a humanistic one such as a public school, will abandon or question its identity, purpose and meaning in order to implement an uncertain approach they do not own themselves.

The history of a school is a history of fundamental relationships that are built each day between teachers, students, and parents to spark learning and to foster a safe environment where students can grow. Schools belong to larger societal systems of education but these external systems are often viewed by school staff as not supporting these fundamental learning relationships. This sense of isolation and independence makes school staff very protective of these learning relationships – many teachers view them as sacred. Any change that might disrupt these relationships or that is not respectful of them is unlikely to succeed because it is precisely this relationship-building work that educators view as their true purpose or calling.

Evans points to the importance of understanding the context in which an organization makes meaning:

Our structure of meaning is rooted in feelings and experiences that have great emotional significance. Hence, our perceptions and purposes can rarely be altered by rational explanation alone; our investment in them is too personal (Evans, 1996).

Evans focuses our attention on the fact that any change is loss. A challenge for school leaders seeking to improve a school is to discover a way to assimilate all that we have learned about the science of teaching and learning into the core values of our school system so that these values are not lost. This is difficult work, but it is precisely this work that inspires people to become teachers and ultimately educational leaders.

Resources

Evans, R. (1996). The human side of change: reform resistance, and the real-life problems of innovation. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

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