Engineering School Reform

Courtesy of Dave Goldberg @deg511
Courtesy of Dave Goldberg @deg511

Twitter is an amazing thing. At 6 AM this morning I pop open Twitter and the first post I see is this one from Dave Goldberg. Maybe it has more to do with serendipity than being a Twitter-junkie but, nonetheless, I found myself intrigued by the title so I read on.

In my retweet of Goldberg’s post, I refer to their article as “brilliant” The brilliance lies in its simplicity. Trust-Courage-Connection-Joy. None of these suggest we rely on external tools to reform our schools. Actually, WE ARE THE TOOL. And in this instance it’s OK to “be a tool”!

Currently I serve as the principal in a relatively small rural middle school here in Iowa. Like many schools, money is tight and resources somewhat limited but the one most important resource we have is our people. My staff is filled with truly student-centered Big People who consistently live and breath the mantra, “Whatever is best for kids let’s do it.” Why do they choose this mindset? What drives them to focus on student needs and not their own? I firmly believe it starts with Pillar #4: JOY.

Pillar #4: JOY

If you’ve read the FISH! philosophy or understand Control/Choice Theory, both speak to the ability each and everyone of us has in determining our attitude. JOY is an attitude. Each of us finds it in places and experiences meaningful to us. It’s not something someone can give you. You have to find. Our teachers find joy in their students, their work and one another. Dang I’m lucky!


While individual success matters, teachers can no longer be islands of excellence. “It’s totally unacceptable” as my good friend Bridgette Wagoner (@B_Wagoner) would say. Not only must we strive to help students connect their learning to the broader context of life, we all must work to connect the system dots in designing a comprehensive delivery model suited to today’s learner. This is their world not ours. Let’s invite their voice to the table.

Pillar #2: COURAGE

We are embarking on a totally new way of looking at the single biggest obstacle to engineering school reform. The MASTER SCHEDULE. No two words strike more fear in theĀ  hearts of educators than the blasphemy associated with changing the master schedule. Yet, that is exactly what we’ve been engaged in over the past four months. Our teachers want access to ALL kids and they want to help ALL kids. Therefore, they’ve chosen to rethink everything.

Taking risks intelligently is part of any successful endeavor. I’ve been in public education for 28 years and to be honest folks. We need to get over ourselves. We’ve all been through the cycle or fads in education. Some resurface. Others fade away. The moral of the story is that regardless of what sticks and what doesn’t, students have survived in spite of our best intentions. Why? The people associated with these trendy little efforts tend to be people who find JOY in their students and their work, strive to CONNECT themselves to their students and their students to the world and have the COURAGE to do so despite the slings and arrows of their peers. So where does this leave us?

Pillar #1: TRUST

Nobody with half a brain, in any leadership capacity, thinks about reform or change in this way. “Ok gang, let’s jump on this new thingy for oh, say, three to four years. Then let’s stop and do a 180. Doesn’t that sound fun?!”

Whichever term you choose to use, change is about trust. It’s not about trusting external tools to do the job. Rather it’s about trusting one’s self (a.k.a The Tool). Trust in your own unique skills. Trust in your peers during the good times and the challenging ones. Trust in the collective skill set each of us possesses. And trust in your students that they can and will thrive during this state of flux.

“Research tells us in order for people to be creative and to be passionately engaged in their work, they need to feel like they have the freedom to make choices and do things on their own.” If we want students to be passionate about their learning and creative in their approach to solving complex problems, then let’s begin to trust our students. TRUST is where we must start if we truly want to engineer reform in our schools.


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