2. Common Language Matters
In some ways this is an extension of a clear mission and vision statement, but extended down to the level of the words used by educators in the building. Every teacher at SLA has the same understanding of what constitutes a project and how inquiry works. When education catchphrases like “personalized learning” are thrown into mission statements, make sure everyone in the building and the wider community of parents know what that means.
But Lehmann would argue the mission statement shouldn’t have a lot of jargon in it because those terms obscure the meat of teaching and learning. And because change work is hard, every teacher and student needs to know what values guide the work. “If your ideas don’t add up, if you’ve got beautiful flowery language, but it doesn’t serve anything,” then you’re doing nothing, Lehmann said. And worse, students usually see through inconsistencies like those and choose not to buy in.
3. Operations Matter
The values set out by teachers and leaders should be infused into everything the school does, whether it’s academics, discipline or school safety. As a public school in Philadelphia, SLA has a security guard, but she understands the core values as well as classroom teachers and practices a culture of care with students, too.
The values also extend to the adults in the building -- inquiry, research, projects, collaboration, reflection and a culture of care don’t exist only for students. They are part of how teachers interact with one another and how they go about their work, and they are central to how leadership treats teachers.
“You’ve got to love your teachers as much as you want your teachers to love your kids,” Lehmann said. He acknowledged that much of what happens in school is a negotiation between the needs of students and the needs of teachers, and that’s fine. But he doesn’t think schools should hide that fact, and they should be transparent about how tricky that balance can be.
4. Culture, Talent and Instruction Must Align
Any great school has a strong school culture, talented teachers and a powerful instructional program that all overlap to create a sweet spot for learning. If a school has a strong culture and talented staff but no instructional consistency, then school is a place kids like to be, but they may not be learning much. If there’s a strong culture and great instructional design, but the teachers aren’t supported to do their best work, then the implementation can go awry. And if talented teachers are working with a great instructional program, but there’s not a strong school culture, then students won’t feel safe taking risks. Cultivating all three of these areas in tandem has been crucial to successful transformations in the Innovative Schools Network.
5. Startup Is Hard, But So Is Sustainability
Anyone who has started a new school or tried to transform an existing one knows that the work can take over life. Sometimes the all-encompassing nature of the work is OK because passionate people are excited at its potential and know it will end at some point. But Lehmann said the schools that have been successful in their transitions intentionally plan for the moment when the hectic startup mode turns to sustainability mode. That roadmap helps ensure staff doesn’t burn out, but maintains the urgency necessary to sustain what was started.
“What I’ve learned the most is we need time to do the work,” said Alexa Dunn, who heads up professional learning for the Innovation Network. “If we want to make strides, and we want to improve the model, and we want to make teaching and learning meaningful for teachers and students, we need time.”
All the schools in the Innovative Schools Network have staff meetings once a week and find ways to bank time to comply with union work rules. Teachers need that collaborative time to figure out how to teach in ways that can feel uncomfortable and to reflect on how their everyday practice sustains the mission and vision statements. “When adults in the building feel supported they want to take more risks,” Dunn said.
Visiting SLA and talking to teachers there, it is clear that even though they open their doors to visitors from all over the country and share their approach at this annual conference, they don’t feel finished or all-knowing. Teachers here are constantly pushing to improve, try new things, and balance the demands of school with a fulfilling personal life.