Friday, April 18, 2008

Musing on schools

Watching my completely dysfunctional school district at work, I have come to the following conclusion: You need 4 things to have a good school and these four ingredients are probably necessary for any good organization.

First, you need a vision of the good school you want. This vision has to be perfect in your mind and you should be able to taste, smell and hear it in your minds eye. You must create it first in your head. Now, you might be a school board member, the superintendent, a teacher, a parent—any stakeholder, in the end, each of you needs this crystal clear vision for the enterprise to work—and for it to be great, everyone’s vision will need to be congruent with everyone else’s vision. And so you need the second thing.

The second thing you need is a supportive community. Here is the tricky thing—most of the time you don’t get that at first. If you are beginning from scratch, your organization is being created to solve a problem, so the community might be fractured or fractious, might be dysfunctional, disengaged. In any event, you’ll have to suss out the problem and then get the vision and only then begin the community and get them all to buy into the vision. In the school business, everyone is always working on the curriculum the curriculum the curriculum. But until you have a community, a curriculum is only a lot of pretty words on a paper. A vision does not come into the world without the hard work of the people, and the people are your community. And if you are coming into an existing school/organization it means someone left, or a vacancy was created so that a big problem can get solved. So you better be sure in that case that everyone agrees on that vision as you begin to build the community.

The community is the food of the school. Everything falls apart without it. Before you fix the curriculum you MUST fix the community and bring the people together. Dictators never figure this out, and this is why they ultimately fall.

The third ingredient of a successful school is passionate teachers. You can actually go pretty far without the first two if you have a bucket load of this third ingredient. But you will not be able to sustain it. And you can’t attract new batches this essential ingredient if you don’t have the first two. Money might help, but it won’t give you anything long term, since good teaching is too hard if you don’t love what you do.

Finally, the last ingredient, the whipped cream on the top, is lovely raw materials. Don’t have any money—who says they have to cost? Imagination can be got for free. Some of the best art projects I have ever taught we done with objects plucked from judicially selected trash heaps (I only dumpster dive the best neighborhoods). Great literature, fresh pencils—these are not costly, but they are rich. You can’t grow a mind in barren soil, and raw materials fertilize the intellect.

So simple, four ingredients, and in the end so hard. When I look at my own community, I see no clear vision—goals yes, mission yes, but no VISION. The community is more like warring camps. We have a number of passionate teachers but many of them will retire in the next 5 years. And some schools have great raw materials. It breaks my heart, because in the end, my child will have all of these things because I build them into her life outside of school. But no matter how many of my tax dollars go to the school, it will not give them any of the four essential ingredients.

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