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From Idea to Initiative: It’s About Looking Hard, Not Just Looking Good

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It’s been way too long since I last posted. A year has ended, my last kid has graduated from our school, and I have finished up an exciting project that NAIS should be rolling out at some point soon. Better still from my point of view, I am on an air-conditioned train en route home from one of the more energizing professional experiences of my recent life. More on this soon, but not today.

 Last time out I left you, Gentle Reader, a more-or-less promise to take up the question of when a program–in particular an innovative program–is truly a SCHOOL’s program, rather than a thing that someone at a school is doing. This question turned out to be crucial to my recent project, and it led me to a few conclusions and general principles that are worth keeping in mind if a school truly wants to leverage a good idea into an institutional “center of excellence.”

These days plenty of schools are working hard to trade on unique, novel, or indeed truly innovative programs hatched by creative teachers and nurtured into life by persistent, patient leadership and vision. Some of these are in full alignment with a school’s strategic directions and undertaken with the full might and resources of the school behind them.

Others, however, are the brainchild of a single teacher, department, or other small group, sometimes working in traditional independent school isolation and carried forward by sheer blood and sweat. Many of these are truly brilliant, and some represent serious deviation from the norms of the school.

Nevertheless, and no doubt to the benefit of their creators in time, schools suddenly awakening to the clarion call in the larger independent school community to innovate, to advance, to feed the entrepreneurial spirit of teachers, are often willing to lay claim to these bright ideas, discovering their marketplace utility and ballyhooing them as if they had been the “school’s idea” all along. No doubt the entrepreneurs behind these programs cheerfully roll their eyes and go along. Their moment has come at last.

But are these truly school programs? Does the spirit and purpose behind them pervade the whole school? Is there a clear link to other work or values that characaterize the whole school?

Some observations:

1) I came up with the “two click” test for myself: How many layers of a school’s website does the curious surfer have to penetrate to find some substantial information on the initiative? Does it have its own web page, its own links to further resources or information? Two clicks makes the program truly institutional; more than four, strictly a very local project.

2) There ought to be a simple test for this one: I have written before that the head at my own school has sent us into each of the last couple of years with an exhortation to “make excellent mistakes!”–invoking the spirit of Daniel Pink’s Johnny Bunko to try new things, even if they don’t work quite the way they should the first time out. Any initiative that originates with full school permission to “make excellent mistakes” gets my vote as an institutional program.

3) A program that explicitly enacts specific concepts laid out in a school’s mission or core values statement–a global education program in a school that wants to create “citizens of the world,” for example–truly represents the school. (My jury is still out but likely to judge harshly on limited or occasional–and expensive and thus offering potentially limited access–travel programs; one trip to Senegal that some kids can’t take because it’s too expensive does not a global service-learning program make.)

One of my recent correspondents was adamant that truly exemplary, diffused-throughout-a-school programming absolutely requires not just acquiescence or passive enthusiasm but active leadership from the top levels of a school’s management. Certainly a head and a board can direct the resources required to make something new and wonderful work well, but more importantly their active curiosity, enthusiasm, and moral support is what will really make a good thing into A Good Thing for the school.

If you’ve got people quietly doing something new and wonderful at your school, don’t just send the photographer and the newsletter writer down to check it out. Check it out yourself, and, if it’s really exciting, figure out how to make the idea go viral all over your campus. Give the creators all the credit, of course, and then give them the chance to show others how to make it real for the whole school.

We are trying to change our schools in time to change the world (before the Crack of Doom, maybe), and to succeed in this we not only have to think and act strategically as institutions but also to update the ways we look at some of our faculty outliers–those brilliant, sometimes eccentric, and totally passionate teachers schools are sometimes content to let “do their own thing,” to be different because they’re good, even if we don’t understand (and often don’t appreciate) them. If they have something really great going on–and sometimes we just have to pay attention–then perhaps it’s time to shift them from being outliers into teacher-leaders.

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4 Comments
  1. It sounds as though you are taking exactly the steps necessary to expand the institutional reach of what sounds like a great trip program into a true school-wide venture into meaningful global education. I have no doubt that your visible leadership in this work will me transformative.

    Well done! (Plus, I’m envious of your having been to Machu Picchu)–PG

  2. Peter, I found your excellent post in my inbox upon my return from one of those expensive trips, in this case two weeks in Peru with 16 students. We were in homestays, worked on a school construction project, did an overnight trek in the Andes, Machu Picchu, a number of other cultural activities, and engaged in a variety of leadership development activities. The program was of my own initiative (though conducted in partnership with the World Leadership School), and so in its inaugural year I thought it best that I lead the trip, along with two faculty members. It aligns perfectly with our mission, though the potentially exclusive nature of it is indeed problematic. I chose this venture in part based on the feedback from a recent survey of about 105 independent schools that proclaim a global focus in their mission and programs. When asked which type of experience was the most transformative, the lead answer was international programs with homestays. I was able to solicit funding from an alumnus to provide assistance, and five of the 16 kids were thus heavily subsidized. I found the program exceeded my expectations and was an enormously powerful educational experience. The challenge now is how to make it pervade the school. We will send student participants into Spanish classes, art classes, and Upper School meetings to share their learning and will seek to maintain a partnership with the two communities we worked with in Peru. Ultimately, though, we have to figure out how we can make these experiences, even perhaps less grand versions of them, available to the widest segment of our school possible. This is, of course, not the only piece of our program that fits in the “global bucket”.

    I was informed by our WLS partners that it is very rare to have a Head of School leading the trip, but I recommend it to all. Beyond modeling a commitment to global education, I had the opportunity to connect at a deep level with all of these students and their families, in ways not ordinarily available to the Head. I’ve meandered a bit in this comment, but in a nutshell I have become a believer in the power of such trips to push students to adapt in circumstances beyond their comfort zones; students will cherish these experiences for a lifetime. I believe it is worth the effort to expand accessibility and extend the horizons for as many of our students as possible (and for the teachers who lead this trips).

    Andrew Webster
    Head of School
    The Wardlaw-Hartridge School

  3. Peter, welcome back. You were missed. Your post is an interesting analysis of organizational nuances in independent schools. We can’t simply say that innovation is a good thing; we must align that innovation with the school’s strategic plan. I think that is the stuff of textbooks, and while it is something that we might strive to do, I’m not convinced that the outlier faculty member does not serve an important role in the breadth and diversity of our communities. As long as the innovation is not counterproductive to our mission, why would we try to “mainstream” an outlier? In some cases, those faculty members, at least at my school, thrive because they are different and think differently. When they innovate, they bring energy to the community, even if it is not aligned with our strategic plan. Yes, we can take steps to make them more recognized and mainstream, but sometimes, those are exactly the steps that will stifle their creativity. We are famous for accepting lots of different personalities. It is one of the characteristics of being “independent.”

    • You’re onto something important, and letting the most brilliant and creative in our midst be themselves can liberate critical engines of change.

      But one point I want to emphasize here is that schools need to be clear on what they are presenting themselves as, not claiming to be something that is only a small or “local” part of the overall experience.

      I worry that lots of great ideas in schools, ideas that may originate in the “outliers,” are ignored or marginalized, perhaps depriving many other students of valuable learning opportunities. I am hoping here to encourage schools to engage institutionally with the best ideas in their communities–not just to give lip service to great work but to DO it.

      If outliers wish or even need to remain outliers, well, that’s why we have the term.

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