Hold Fast to Dreams

I was listening to Roland Barth, founder of the Principal’s Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Ed., Allison Gaines Pell, founding principal of The Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters, and Irvin Scott, deputy director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who were on a panel discussing the role of the principal today. While they all approached questions from different perspectives, there were many things they all felt strongly about.

Barth began with this quote from E. B. White: “A man must have something to cling to. Without that he is a pea vine sprawling in search of a trellis.”

That trellis, according to Bart is learning. A principal shouldn’t be one who is learned, but one who learns. One who takes risks in order to find out better ways to do things. In order to find out how to better instruct, principals must also keep engaged in instruction. “Teaching is at the center of a principal’s role,” said Barth. “Effective teachers need to be supported by effective principals.”

On knowing, Pell stated that every principal needed to know the new common core standards. She herself admitted to be very “anti-standards”, but she said they were good, because they were simple (in terms of knowing them) and, for the first time standards in Washington would be the same as standards in New York.

When asked what was hurting education, Barth replied, accountability. Both he and Scott believe accountability was a good thing, but the way it is currently framed in education is “corrosive.” Basically the message from all the policy makers is “Learn or we will hurt you.” This doesn’t matter if you are a student or a superintendent, the message is the same. It is pernicious and extinguishes life long learning. It is pervasive throughout our profession. Instead, accountability should be framed as, “Learn or you will hurt yourself.”

On Saturday, I sat through a two-and-a-half hour lecture by Richard Felmore who basically said that teaching in the US is NOT a profession. He gave various reasons including how we compensate our teachers, fail to actively recruit bright young minds into the field, and many others. One thing teachers need to do is to start engaging in what he calls, “Instructional Rounds.” Like in the medical field, teachers observe each other instruct, give feedback by describing to each other what they see, and look for ways to improve their instruction. It’s not punitive and the only reward is improving your craft. What is needed, however, is a) the culture to change so that being observed isn’t always equated with being evaluated, and b) the structures and time for this to occur.

I just finished reading Elmore’s book Instructional Rounds in Education and believe there are a few ways I can engage in this even though the culture, time, and structures don’t yet exist at my school. I just have to find those already willing to change the culture, be creative with the time, and figure out my own structure for doing this. It is not the easiest read, but if you’re interested in the concept it’s not unlike coaching. In fact, a great article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande appeared a few weeks ago and addresses this idea really well. I highly recommend reading it.

Irvin Scott closed the panel discussion saying that people enter education for a reason. A good one. And he ended the evening by ¬†quoting Lanston Hughes’ poem Dreams:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

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