Nail the Vision Speech

Vision SpeechPractically ubiquitous with the start of the school year is the vision speech.  It’s that moment when everyone is officially back together after summer vacation.  There is a palpable excitement in the room – and some anxiety – considering that the first day of school is right around the corner.  The superintendent or principal or organization figure-head has the mic and the floor and the mandate to inspire and set direction for the coming school year.

Arguably, we all put too much emphasis or faith in the content and delivery of that speech.  Certainly we know that the success of an organization depends on many factors and variables that go deeper and further than speeches and storytelling.  Yet, the vision speech persists as an essential component in the toolkit of leadership skills.

But why so much emphasis on one declaration of purpose and direction?

Perhaps it is because education is such a deeply human endeavor.  After all, learning brings with it a range of new relationships, conflicts, experiences, and struggles.  It is deeply social in nature.  From academic discourse to high expectations, our learning trajectory is plotted amongst the relationships and interactions we have with other human beings.  Not surprisingly, education is deeply emotional work.  We wade through triumphs and tragedies because the outcomes we seek are not physical products.  We seek learning, transformation, and strengthening of the human lives around us.

In my current district, the superintendent’s vision speech typically comes on the morning of the annual leadership symposium.  That was just over a week ago, and our superintendent did not disappoint in her acknowledgement that this would be a key moment in defining her leadership.  She launched with a short film tailor-made for our community, referring to the stark contrast of poverty that most of the families in our district experience with the incredible wealth of surrounding neighborhoods and communities.  Indeed, Orange County California is well-known for it’s wealth, sunshine, and beaches.  It should probably be as well-known for it’s degree of economic and racial/ethnic segregation.   Our superintendent captured the sentiment with reference to A Tale of Two Cities.  Like Dicken’s novel, or John Edward’s stump speech of the Two America’s, the message was designed to reinforce our urgency to accelerate student learning and break down barriers to access and opportunity.

The moment got me thinking about some of the elements that make for a powerful vision speech.

Authenticity is key

It doesn’t matter what you say or how convincingly you say it, you have to convince your audience that what you are saying represents the real you.  That can be tricky, since those you lead have plenty of data points from months if not years of interaction that either corroborate your vision or stand in contrast to it.  Even more than your speech, you are your vision.

As leaders, we all have strengths and weaknesses.  When it comes to the vision speech, you can put your foot on the accelerator when talking about what you know you do well and what there is ample evidence to support.  On the flip side, a powerful vision speech will take time to honestly acknowledge and reflect on those areas where there is either real or perceived weakness.  Glossing over your deficiencies is a dangerous practice and only fuels the fire of your biggest critics.  Of course you don’t want to perseverate on your weaknesses, and nobody wants to hear a downer speech of confessions and second-guessing.  But you have to walk that fine line between confidence and arrogance, and much of that happens in the space where you share some of your more authentic reflections.

In our superintendent’s speech to launch the school year, for example, there was ample time dedicated to highlighting accomplishments and improvements over the past year.  The speech was celebratory.  Yet, for me at least, the most powerful moment came as the message shifted into a reflective tone.  We just experienced a layoff and budget reduction process that was painful.  There were times when leaders within the system felt frustrated and angry.  Our superintendent acknowledged how she had not always attended to the human element of leadership, and recommitted to engage in both listening and attending to human needs within the system.  It resonated strongly and opened up ears to other elements of the speech that came later.

It’s Never Enough

In any relationship, if we only hear about what is wrong with us or what we need to do better, then it won’t be long before we check out.  We can only handle so much critical feedback before we get defensive.  In fact, most adults struggle with any negative feedback at all.

So start with the sweet stuff.  Acknowledge improvements and gains.  Call out exemplary effort and intention.  Publicly reinforce the behaviors, attitudes, and actions that match what you are looking for in your organization.  It’s not a gimmick.  It represents a recognition of the good work that is happening in the organization – wherever that may be.

But you can’t stay celebratory too long.  You don’t want to neutralize the even more important message of urgency around equity of student learning.  We’re not there yet.  Far from it.  Especially for our most marginalized students and communities, we have to be willing to sit with the discomfort of knowing that we are falling short – that our instruction can and must be better.  The vision speech has to push hard on any sense of complacency.

Symbolic Leadership

If there ever were a time for a heavy dose of Symbolic Leadership, this is it.  Yes, leading an organization requires the creation of purposeful structures, strategic management of human capital, and insightful political maneuvering.  But the vision speech gets at human emotions and motivation – this is the time to inspire.  As Bolman and Deal describe it, Symbolic Leadership is the acknowledgment that organizations are messy and often ambiguous, and that creating shared meaning and purpose are essential to the practice of leadership.

So, remind us why we do the work we do.  Tell us what is at stake.  Convince us we’re the right people for the task.  Paint the image of new possibilities and show us the way we are going to get there.

Leadership vision can be inherently dangerous in that it explicitly calls out what you think the organization lacks.  It’s a public statement that important things are currently missing.  There is a gap, if not a gulf, between the current practices and outcomes and what you envision as possible. Mustering the energy and faith necessary to successfully bridge the uncertain space between current conditions and your version of the future is the central purpose and challenge of leadership.  You must convince your organization that what is on the other side is worth the risks and losses that the change process inevitably will bring.

Clarity & Delivery

Good delivery takes practice.  Sometimes it requires a lot of practice, and everybody knows when you are reading a script.  Really, this is one of the most important speeches you give in your professional life, so take the time to practice.  Memorize it if that is what it takes.  It should come across as natural – part of who you are.

And if you are going to make this a multi-sensory, multi-media experience, then make it look good.  Get the graphics right.  Make it visually appealing.  In our superintendent’s most recent vision speech, it was clear that the accompanying slide deck had been given a lot of attention.  The color schemes were consistent.  It was error free. The videos she showed had been thoughtfully curated, and they generated the desired effects – laughter & emotion and a sense of deeper human connection.

Hire someone to help if you need it – you are putting your vision out there, and these are the things that will stay with people over time.  In the case of our superintendent’s vision speech, there are countless Twitter and Facebook images out there sharing elements of the vision beyond the immediate administrative and managerial staff.  I imagine that many of the graphics and images will be recycled and reused throughout the year to reinforce the vision and remind people of our priorities.  It’s an investment worth making.

In some ways, I can catalogue my leadership experiences and (hopefully) impact through the vision speeches I’ve given throughout the years.  And while I know they are important, even I get surprised when someone comes back a few days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years later, and reminds me of something that I shared that has stuck with them in a meaningful way.


Our Journey to the XQ – Key Design Elements of Círculos

Circulos Images.003

I have at least a few blog posts to write now that our Círculos concept has officially been granted super school status by the XQ Institute.  We’ve actually known for a few months that this was coming, so you can imagine how hard it has been not to share.  Obviously, there are some good stories to tell about how we got here, and about the amazing team members and collaborators who have made it possible.  But I thought it would be nice to start with an overview of some of the key design elements of the program.

Community Values

It would have been easy to respond to the invitation to “Rethink High School” with a Jetson’s-like school of the future.  Instead, we wanted a school that could blend state of the art instructional practices with an authentic connection to the values and identity of our community.  From using a Spanish name to integrating community partners to incorporating circle discussion practices and protocols, Círculos is a school that reflects the tremendous assets of our Santa Ana community.

Our Manera de Ser, or “way of being,” outlines the habits of mind and cognitive skills that we envision for all of our graduates.  These ways of being are defined by the 6 C’s – Courageous, Critical, Capable, Creative, Curious, and Communicative.  We aspire to develop students who go on to the college and life with a broad set of skills and a growth oriented mindset that will allow them to pursue their goals, learn from their mistakes, and persevere en route to success.  These are the types of skills that help define what it means to be a santanero.  We want students who are deeply proud of their identity and heritage – and that sense of belonging and inherent

Our Signature Pedagogy

The name of our school captures the spirit of our endeavor – the circle.  We take our inspiration for the circle discussion from a variety of sources, from the well-known classroom practice of Socratic Seminars, to the emerging role of circles in establishing Restorative Practices on school campuses, to the discussion protocols of some of the most prestigious private schools in our country.  We want academic discourse, and we want a lot of it.  We want authentic connection between teachers and students and community members every single day.

Every morning, the day begins with a circle check-in.  This practice, common in some schools that practice daily advisory classes, allows students the opportunity to check-in physically and emotionally for the learning of the day.  Students and adults alike share their triumphs and challenges, and offer support and solidarity.  The morning circle is also the time to make public commitments to learning goals for the day, giving students a chance to articulate what it is that they will be focusing on.

Every afternoon following lunch, students gather for another circle, this time to break down a shared text.  This daily commitment to textual analysis and academic discourse will deeply root students in literacy practices that will prepare them for the rigors of college coursework – a heavily text-dependent learning environment.  In essence, our students engage in a socratic seminar every single day.  You can imagine their level of comfort engaging in sustained academic discourse after four years of daily practice.

Ambitious Place-Based Learning

Círculos will have no central campus.  This is the statement that brings the ambition and unorthodox nature of the school into sharpest focus.  School no longer occurs primarily within a building we call a school.  We take the community and world around us as our canvas for learning.  Círculos aspires to offer one of the most ambitious place-based learning environments in the country.

Imagine the first day of the semester, coming together to hear Mentor Teachers pitch the project they are planning for the coming semester.  One mentor intends to investigate the factors that drive homelessness in Orange County.  Another mentor is interested in understanding the development of urban farming and sustainable food production practices.  A third mentor indicates her intention to learn more about community health and the systems that potentially lead to improved outcomes for the community.  Students listen intently, because after hearing all the overviews, they then have to rank-choice vote for their top selections.  And the project they choose will dictate the physical location of “school” for the next semester.

Each project will be the home for a circle of 25 students.  Students studying the factors and impact of homelessness might take up residence in a City of Santa Ana office.  Those interested in understanding sustainable food production might spend their semester studying at the urban farm plot at the Orange County Heritage Museum.  The group looking at systems to improve community health may spend most days at Latino Health Access downtown.

A-G Aligned Curriculum & Robust Intervention Support

Academic rigor is at the heart of our Círculos design.  Our students will continue to work to meet the requirements of an A-G aligned curriculum through a flexible learning program that integrates blended learning into whichever physical space our students find themselves.  In other words, technology allows us to turn any physical space big enough to accommodate a circle of students into a classroom.  A portion of every day will be dedicated to supporting students as they progress through their A-G aligned coursework, supported on a digital platform.

To ensure students receive the targeted content learning support they need, we’ve developed what we refer to as “intensive” days.  Intensive days refer to the targeted support and tutoring that comes as students leave their normal project homes to meet up with mentor teachers who can work with them specifically within areas of struggle.  For example, a student struggling to make adequate progress within an Algebra class, could spend one or two entire mornings during the week working closely with other students and a mentor teacher who focuses on developing their algebra content knowledge and skills.  In this way, students experience a deeply personalized approach to helping them pace through their A-G coursework.

Professionalism at its Best

Sometimes people equate blended learning or place-based learning with veiled attempts to undermine the role and importance of certificated teachers in classrooms.  Círculos assumes exactly the opposite.  At the heart of any genuine shift towards personalization is the need for powerful, caring relationships between teachers and students.  We even add the word “mentor” in front of teachers to reinforce the sense that teachers are more than content delivery agents – they are a critical component in the development of young people.

In fact, anyone familiar with the design and management of a flexible learning space will likely tell you that the complexity of the work calls for increasingly skilled teachers.  So much so, that a major element of our Círculos design calls for the creation of a comprehensive training and professional learning component for our staff of mentor teachers.  Imagine the degree of competency required to support students as they move through both an A-G aligned curriculum plus engage in such ambitious project and place based learning.  To that end, we are developing what we call the Codex – an interactive learning space for teachers that reinforces our professional values, builds instructional capacity within our signature pedagogy and other key strategies, and highlights the skills and mindsets embedded within our Manera de Ser.  It’s an ambitious professional learning agenda, and it absolutely relies on highly skilled and motivated teachers.

An Unflinching Commitment to Equity

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Last week, I sat in a room with Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City.  It wasn’t the first time I had enjoyed the privilege of listening to Canada’s message and experiences.  He is a major figure amongst education reformers.  He was early to the most recent wave of reform, and is perhaps most easily associated with his no-excuses vision for what is possible in the lives of our most marginalized young people.  He is also a man of tangible grace, class, and notably, humor.

But Canada’s vision for kids is deadly serious: All kids go to college.

He is resolute in this vision.  It doesn’t matter how poor, how disabled, or how challenged the young person – Canada is adamant that college is the pathway out of poverty and struggle.  He’s been at it in Harlem for 30 years now, and much of his success is also surely due to his longevity in one place.  He describes the power and impact when graduates come back to the community and mentor and teach the rising generation – fueled by a deep belief that college is possible for EVERY SINGLE STUDENT. They know it is possible because it is the story of their lives.  They’ve already lived it.

That deep belief in what kids are capable of really is at the heart of the struggle for leadership in our schools.  For Canada, he knows what is possible because he has lived it. He opened his discussion referring to the fact that all but two of his childhood friends have already passed on.  At the age of 65, most of us from a middle class upbringing wouldn’t expect that high a mortality rate amongst our childhood friends.  For Canada, the impact of poverty is stark – how is it that something as seemingly simple as learning to read and write and gaining access to post-secondary options could have such an outsize impact on something as fundamental as life expectancy?

I love watching the room when Canada speaks.  His stance is not an uncontroversial one. “But what about (insert student name) who has (insert list of challenges)?  Surely we can’t expect him to go to college.”  Yes we can, and we must.  He told story after story about kids who should have been the college-going exception, who somehow made it.  For some of them, the struggle was daily.  Canada’s recommendation?  Do what it takes to move that student forward for that day, and be grateful for it.  Days string together into weeks, and months, and then years.

I was particularly interested in the way the topic of race was discussed.  Again with the wisdom and grace of someone who has been doing this work for an entire generation, Canada had a very compelling perspective.  “We’ve found that race is not a predictor for who will be our top performers in the classroom.  Our country currently needs and will continue to need white teachers who teach students of color.  But they have to ‘get it.’ They have to hold deeply the belief that the kids are capable of college.”

Canada doesn’t discount the struggle.  For leaders, you have to work consistently to get everyone in the organization to believe that it is possible – all our kids go to college.  You have to work consistently to help families catch the same vision.  And if the leader doesn’t belief it, then nobody else has to.  You have to imbue the organization with your expectations.

Has every graduate of the Harlem Children’s Zone made his or her way to a college degree?  No.  But those exceptions are just that, unexpected exceptions – and the system isn’t afraid to own the failure.  They hold themselves accountable for the outcomes – even when doing so might seem unreasonable or unfair to your run-of-the-mill observer.

Can you expect a school system to ensure that every single student makes it to college?  Canada’s response is constant – we can and we must.  He knows the questions that follow, the furrowed brows and insistence on defensible exceptions.  Despite his touch of humor and warm smile, Canada doesn’t seem terribly interested in salving the disappointment of adult educators in the room who may want to rationalize the inability of their students to get to college on poor student choices or insurmountable life challenges.  It’s an unflinching commitment to outcomes that immediately exposes what we truly believe is possible for our students.

The Triumph of Leadership

Triumph of Leadership

Last summer, I was part of a team that put on a professional learning workshop for school leaders who were interested in rethinking the way they use space to reinforce their vision for instruction and learning.  We called it Curation by Design.  By the end of the 2-day institute, participants had mapped out their plans for improving and re-designing their learning environments.  We brought in members of different departments at the district level – budget, construction, educational services – all with the hope that our school leaders would have the information and determination to see their projects through to completion.  These projects ranged from designing more welcoming front office spaces and procedures, to large re-design projects for entire school layouts.

I distinctly remember one of the principals raising his hand towards the end of our time together.  When I called on him, he responded firmly and honestly.  “We appreciate this learning opportunity.  It’s been inspiring and informative.  But why would you get us excited about leading these types of projects when the district always makes it so hard to actually do them?”  The principal spoke from a place of genuine frustration – why can’t you make this easy?

I’m the first to decry the rigid nature of bureaucracy.  We’re not as flexible and nimble as we could and should be.  I know from firsthand experience how challenging it can be for a principal who is simultaneously trying to run an effective school while mapping out a vision for the future with a robust strategic plan to make it a reality.  We often do make things harder for ourselves than they need to be.

But that’s not the entire story.

Perhaps we can blame some of the feet dragging to the realities of representational democracy – speed in decision-making is compromised when you make it a matter of public record and public voting.  That’s the beauty and burden of democracy.  Compromise takes time.  As a public school district, we navigate a complex web of legal codes that often deliberately slow down timelines for decision-making.  So yes, sometimes we make it very hard.  We have to get state approval to ensure our facilities meet higher standards for safety.  We have to go through public bids for services.  We have to honor due process.  We have to navigate the bureaucracy.

That’s why leadership and vision are so critical.  That’s why it is so satisfying to see teachers, administrators, and school teams who break through the roadblocks to deliver new possibilities and increased outcomes.

I had one of those moments this afternoon as I stood in the recently unveiled makerspace at Jefferson Elementary.  What was once a uniformly drab space is now alive with color and learning possibilities.  The entire design, from the selection of furniture to the games and learning tools available in the space, has had an explicit focus on building student agency and ownership of their learning.  It’s a place where students can gather, play, and learn together.

The principal, Dr. Fernando Duran, took an inclusive approach to his design process.  He brought parents and staff to visit other school sites that had recently reimagined some of their learning spaces.  He made detailed observations of student routines and habits to better understand their preferences and needs and how they might better utilize space to accommodate those needs.  Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Duran was persistent. At times, it may have seemed that the district actually didn’t want him to transform the space – continually bombarding Dr. Duran with questions about funding accounts, vendor contracts, and delivery timelines.  Even at the very last minute, with volunteers in the queue to paint and arrange the space, there was a very real threat that the project would be delayed or worse.

Your takeaway from this story might be that districts are inefficient.  You won’t get much of an argument from me.  Yet please keep in mind, as stewards of public funds, we have a different level of responsibility to ensure that purchasing guidelines, contracts, and procurement rules are observed – and many of the hard questions stem from these public accountabilities.  My wife worked for a luxury hotel design firm and enjoyed regular meals at the swankiest nearby restaurants.  I get called on the carpet if I eat a Subway sandwich on the district dime.

As I walked through the newly designed space at Jefferson, I noticed some student writing scrawled on masking tape, clearly identifying ownership of the board games in the room.  “Student lounge.”  The irony and beauty of elementary school students declaring ownership of their student lounge did not escape me.  My takeaway is to celebrate the triumph of leadership.  In this case, a determined principal and a team of dedicated staff and community members who came together to bring a vision to reality and deliver newfound possibilities for students.

“Hagdog” – Lessons from a Mentor

HagdogThis is the last week of school in Santa Ana.  Along with graduation and the end of a school year come transitions.  We experience the end of something old and the beginning of something new.  Often, impending transitions bring a certain sense of uncertainty – and yet at the same time we experience the rush of new possibilities and adventures.

That’s how I’m feeling about the departure of Dr. David Haglund, who is leaving his post as the Deputy Superintendent here in Santa Ana to take on a new challenge as Superintendent of Pleasanton Unified up in the Bay Area.  Beyond some Bay Area jealousy, I’m feeling sadness to be losing a friend and mentor.  David will always be the one who took a chance on me – hiring me straight from a charter school system and empowering me to bring a fresh perspective to our shared work.  On paper, he called my position “school renewal.”  In practice, my hiring was a call to challenge the status quo and agitate for a system that could more authentically and effectively prepare students for the very uncertain world in which we all find ourselves.

While I learned a lot from Dr. Haglund – “Hagdog” as some like to call him – there are a few lessons that he seems uniquely qualified to share.  They are concepts that have deeply shaped my own leadership perspective and practice.

The Skunkworks

David is one of the most gifted strategic thinkers I’ve ever worked with.  His mind kneads situations in different ways and directions until possibilities arise.  And he’s patient.  He knows the danger of unnecessarily pressing an issue when it isn’t “ripe.”  He waits for that moment – the opening – when things come together like pulling a common thread all the way from beginning to end.  It seems effortless when it finally comes together.

All the while David worked the backchannels.  Sometimes, the backchannel was a concrete feature, like during a leadership meeting when he encouraged people in the room to text their “in the moment” thoughts and responses to what they were hearing up on a big projector screen.  Sometimes the backchannel took the form of informal conversations – in parking lots, on the sidelines of football games, and during impromptu encounters in the hallway.  He was constantly priming stakeholders.  He was always planting seeds, with the faith that the moment for germination and growth would come – even if it took a little time.

My approach is often the opposite – to burst through the front door with new and well-funded initiatives and programs in hand.  Sometimes I would get frustrated when David would kindly but firmly redirect my thinking.  He constantly talked about the need to encourage distributed ownership.  He was always afraid that if we didn’t allow people to figure things out for themselves – to grind a little – that initiatives and programs would disappear when the money dried up (which, in public schools, it often does).  He wanted to get the work into the marrow of the organization, and not settle for pretty adornments.  He always took the long view.

Access & Pathways

David’s path to educational leadership hasn’t always been strait forward.  He likes to tell students about his own circuitous path in life, including dropping out of high school for a time.  Honestly, it makes me cringe a bit each time I hear it.  But it is genuine.  It is the story he tells because it is the story of his life.  David’s story  fuels his passion for opening doors and pathways for students – even when it comes in unconventional ways.

David has been a champion of our educational options schools – alternative schools filled with students whose own pathways simply don’t conform to the traditional educational experience.  Under his direction, our district has added a night program for students who would rather work during the day.  He revamped our community day school, recruiting talented site leadership who brought a new vision to the learning opportunities for our most troubled and challenged students.  Two years later, what was once a school only spoken about in hushed tones is now rebranded as REACH Academy, and will be moving into a new campus as possibly the first and only WASC accredited community day school in the state of California.  There is no doubt in my mind that Santa Ana’s success raising graduation rates well-above state and county averages has come, in part, due to David’s focus on the pathways for students who just a few years ago would have opted to drop out.

One of David’s largest achievements has been giving the students of Santa Ana access to the digital world that defines our economy and modern society.  Prior to his arrival, the district had about 8,000 electronic devices serving a student population of over 50,000.  David quickly set to reverse this trend, introducing an Access for All campaign that has put “learning devices” and digital access in the hands of every student.  Now the district has more devices than students, along with a robust wireless backbone that permeates the district.  This system-wide commitment was not borne out of a belief that a Chromebook and internet connection would magically transform the learning experience in classrooms.  Rather, it stemmed from a belief that we cannot even predict all of the ways that young people will access learning when they have the right tools.  Yes, there was a pedagogical purpose behind integrating technology into instruction, but the real motivation was much more about the simple belief that our students should have access to the same tools and opportunities as others.

Connecting with Kids

Ask anyone what is unique about David’s leadership and they will likely answer that it is the way he connects directly with students.  It’s not something he does as a leadership strategy.  For David, it comes from a much more personaI desire to interact with and offer individual mentorship to students.  It’s something that David feels he must do.

And that makes sense.  While the rest of us are running around talking about student-centered schools and personalization, David embodies both in his day to day practice.  He doesn’t make the assumption, as many education leaders do, that improving the systemic outcomes is sufficient.  Yes, David is committed to the improvement of quantitative outcomes in a broad sense.  He has pushed for higher graduation rates and levels of English Learner reclassification.  He brought us MAP testing and growth percentiles.  But incremental gains aren’t enough for David.  He recognizes that he has been blessed with a tremendous amount of privilege and power, and that it is incumbent on him to share his social capital with the students and community around him.

That means picking up the phone and calling a university that isn’t sure about admitting a student.  That means buying an instrument for a student who can’t afford a replacement.  That means hosting dinners with alumni in any city he finds himself just to check-in and make sure students know they have support.  He’s the fan base for many individual students who are engaged in the heroic and exhausting struggle of overcoming intergenerational poverty.  He knows he alone can’t get to everyone.  But he tries to model what it can look like and set an example for the other leaders and adults in the system.  He envisions a school district where every employee takes a personal interest and makes a personal investment in individual students outside of what they are “paid” to do.

The “Skip” – Lessons from a Mentor

Skip - Lessons from a Mentor

“Love ya, Skip” – those were President Obama’s words for referring to Headmaster Mary Skipper when he came to visit Tech Boston Academy (TBA) during the 2010-11 school year, the same year that I was working there as a resident principal.  TechBoston was an experiment, part of a network of pilot schools within Boston Public Schools, whose purpose and goal was to dramatically improve learning outcomes for students.  The school’s secret weapon was a team of dedicated, talented teachers who were passionate – no, obsessed – about creating a school environment where the unique strengths and gifts of each student could be recognized, developed, and celebrated.  That collective commitment, combined with Mary’s leadership, resulted in some truly astonishing outcomes for kids. The school had some of the highest growth scores in Math and Science in the country, and was certainly one of the first to go one-to-one with laptops – long before chrome books or iPads made it a thing.

I was recently looking through my school leadership process journal – my illuminated manuscript for leadership lessons during my year of master’s study in Boston – and was reminded about the formative influence of Skip on my development as a school and systems leader.  While the list of lessons learned while part of the TechBoston team is extensive, there were a few key takeaways that continue to influence me in my work leading schools.

Build A Farm System

Talent and commitment are the foundation of any outstanding school, and Mary was an absolute master in both cultivating and developing her team.  She was unrelenting in her pursuit of interns and student teachers.  TechBoston was crawling with volunteer staff.  I was one of three resident principals the year I was at TBA.  Mary had recruited multiple intern psychologists, and over a half-dozen student teachers.  She packed the school with caring adults who were eager to learn and prove their worth to the team.  When it came time to fill openings at the school, Skip already had a spread of potential hires.  She didn’t need to use demo lessons or intricate interview protocols – she had already seen potential hires in action for months.

Of course talent development wasn’t just about new staff.  Mary carefully planned to ensure that she could hold on to her most talented staff.  Virtually all of her staff held dual credentials in general and special education, which not only supported the inclusive instructional model at the school, but ensured that Mary could hold on to her staff when seniority rules kicked in during staffing displacements or transfers.  Of course this required the careful development of official job descriptions that outlined the need for dual-credentialed teachers.

Mary was genuinely interested in the long-term development of her staff. I distinctly remember the email she sent out inviting every staff member to meet with her to share their individual 5-year plans. She openly counseled staff about professional and academic opportunities, and actively sought out promotional opportunities for her staff, even if it meant she might lose someone to other schools or departments in the district. She seemed to trust that talented and committed staff would flock to a school where it was well-known that the principal was pushing her people to ever-increasing opportunities for growth and development.

Strength in a Diverse Leadership Team

Skip’s genius was her ability to build a leadership team – including teacher leaders – that she trusted to unite behind a common vision.  Often, my opportunities to lead and learn were facilitated by other members of Mary’s leadership team..  Part of this was just a physical necessity.  At the time, TBA spanned across two different school sites just over a mile apart from one another, and Mary simply couldn’t be in two places at once.  I spent the bulk of my time at the Lower School, a traditional 6-8 middle school that had been turned over to the management of TBA, where the day to day leadership of the school often fell to two exceptionally capable assistant principals, Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza.

In some respects, Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza could not have been more different.  Perhaps that was the secret of their success.  Mr. Love was a towering African American man, whose rapport with students and parents and whose insistence for a respectful and professional learning environment were unparalleled.  He always called me by a nickname – “Number 6” (in honor of his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers defeating my home team Arizona Cardinals to win their sixth Super Bowl ring), yet always made a point to ask my opinion and perspective on important decisions.  Despite my “intern” status, Mr. Love made me feel like a real member of the team, and wasn’t afraid to give me meaningful, significant tasks that would stretch the limits of my capacity.  Ms. Vernazza, though a small-framed white Bostonian, was no less imposing.  A true instructional genius, Ms. Vernazza wore her urgency for student learning on her sleeve. My assigned office was a desk and chair in the corner of Ms. Vernazza’s office.  She was constantly in think-aloud mode, verbally talking through her tasks at the same time that she rifled through paperwork or shot off emails to staff.  If Mr. Love was the heart of the school, Ms. Vernazza was its brain.

Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza were both strong, opinionated leaders.  They often disagreed, sometimes vehemently.  They weren’t afraid to express their concerns and perspectives with one another and with Mary.  Yet once a decision was made, they were loyal to one another.  This loyalty, I think, flowed from a shared recognition that their strengths and weaknesses were complementary.  They carried a deep respect for the work of the other, and often acknowledged their interdependence.  Skip, for her part, encouraged these honest deliberations, drawing on the shared expertise of her team members to successfully move the school towards improvement.  Skip recognized that strong schools are led by teams, whose members contribute unique and diverse gifts and talents.

Authentic Student-Centeredness

The Skip knew her kids.  Usually by name.  She knew their stories, their families, their struggles, and their triumphs.  Her authentic connection to her students not only gave her credibility with staff and students, but informed her decisions in powerful ways.  Perhaps to the dismay of staff at times, Mary always had time to talk to kids.  It was impossible for her not to light up with a smile when interacting with her students.

Skip lived in Dorchester, the urban core of Boston where TBA was located.  She didn’t just work at the service of the community, but was part of the community.  Her student-centered leadership brought her a tremendous sense of credibility and authenticity for students, parents, and staff alike.  It wasn’t just her voice that carried a thick Bostonian accent.

At the end of the day, I believe the secret of TBA’s success was a collective insistence that every student mattered, that the future of every student was worthy of discussion and deliberation.  Even when the leadership team came to the conclusion that the needs of a student outstripped the ability of the school to provide support, the process for making outside referrals was thoughtful and self-skeptical.  The team continually asked itself what it had missed or which supports it had potentially failed to provide.  This deeply student-centered spirit was embodied by the Skip, and flowed throughout the entire staff.

In Pursuit of Scale


You might have seen the editorial in the LA Times calling out the Gates Foundation for their history of involvement in setting the policy agenda for education in the United States.  It’s worth a read.  While I agree that no single interest group or foundation should be attempting to monopolize the discussion around priorities for public education, I don’t take issue with their attempts to spark improvement or encourage a reform-oriented research and policy agenda.

What is interesting about the article is just how difficult it is to pinpoint what works in education when it comes to reform.  Improving our education systems, at scale, is one of the most pressing and complex challenges we face as a country.  Everybody thinks they have the answer.  The Gates Foundation certainly did – and they learned the hard way how difficult it is to get systemic changes.  Zuckerberg certainly did in Newark – and he learned how inadequate 100 million can be in reforming a school system.

Some reformers use these failures as evidence that the education system simply needs to be dismantled.  That’s the message behind efforts to privatize schools using vouchers or dramatically increase charter school enrollments across the country.  I have to admit that I’m not opposed to thoughtful, controlled experiments in school governance and structure in hopes of identifying new ways to develop and sustain high performing schools for our kids.  And while I believe we have important lessons to learn from both charter schools and vouchers systems, in many cases, charter and voucher laws simply reflect an ideological hope that is not grounded in any real evidence.

But there is a more fundamental question at play, can you scale school reform?  Today, I found myself in an argument with a close colleague, Wes Kriesel, who leads the 21st Century Learning department in our district.  The conversation was sparked by Wes’ declaration that nothing is scalable in education – that it is such a relationship-driven endeavor that it can only improve classroom by classroom and school by school.  There are countless examples of reform initiatives that are carefully developed and piloted on a small scale by founders and designers that experience tremendous success, only to lose their potency when the initiative goes to scale. In essence, Wes and I agree.

Yet I can’t entirely agree that quality education can’t be scaled.  To admit as much seriously questions my decision to leave the classroom to become an administrator (my teacher readers are screaming – “yes!!!”) But perhaps my theory about what needs to be scaled is different.  We need to find ways to scale caring relationships that are filled with love and high expectations for what our students are capable of accomplishing.  We need to scale a diverse teaching force whose life experiences and values reflect the students and communities they serve. I think that is core to my work as a systems leader.

There’s no silver bullet.  We aren’t going to happen upon the Uber of education any more than we can reduce parenting to an app on a phone.  Technology can enhance the tools we have to work with and the horizon of what is possible – but relationships are still at the center of the work we do.  We are still social animals, and relationships are notoriously hard to scale.