Sunday, July 24, 2016

Strong Schools: Essential Ingredients

As I think about ESSA and the greater inclusion of educator voice and choice the new law embodies, I am wondering about the essential ingredients that underly strong schools and learning communities.

What is it that we create together that supports everyone in a teaching/learning community? What makes the difference between good and great as we work to teach every child well?

I'm sure that there's been much written about this over the years, but as I think ahead to my own work as an educator and advocate, I identify the following areas:

Collective Vision and Mission
I believe the strongest education organizations institute a collective vision and mission making process. Rather than vision and mission set by one or a few, organizations like this crowdsource the effort and include the voices of all in a strategic, streamlined, and logical way.

Optimal Work Conditions
Optimal organizations take seriously the work conditions that all employees face. They care about the quality of the environment and pay attention to factors such as health, cleanliness, inspiring, safe, and conducive to best possible work. They institute processes of inclusive growth, change, and betterment in this regard so that employees have a say in what their environments look like with regard to meeting their best potential to do their work.

Fair Salaries
Good organizations take the time to look carefully at salaries to ensure that all employees earn a fair rate in return for their efforts--a rate that first and foremost allows employees to focus on their work rather than a multitude of extra jobs and a rate that allows employees to live a good life. Salary decisions are made explicit so that people know what they can do to earn more if desired.

Transparent, Inclusive Communication
I've noted so many times how the my husband's former boss and the now Governor of Massachusetts was an exceptional communicator, and that his communication was one reason why my husband's workplace was marked by such commitment and success. People felt like they were part of the team. Similarly our Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts writes a weekly newsletter and this helps all educators in Massachusetts know what's going on and to meet the expectations in a timely manner as well as take advantage of the opportunities that exist.

It's imperative that organizations embed open, transparent, inclusive systems of idea share and communication. When communication channels are closed leaving some in the know and others not, an impasse to good work is created and the potential that exists for dynamic teams and good work diminishes. Secrets typically don't serve organizations or individuals well.

Fair, Transparent Policies
Similar to transparent, inclusive communication, fair, transparent policies are also advantageous. When policies are muddy and unclear, conjecture reigns, and conjecture does not serve organizations well. It's imperative that policies are dated, and that when policies are updated all in the organization are readily involved. Policies should be easy to access, read, and understand as well. Consistent format and updating practices are advantageous in this regard.

Fair Hiring Practices
When hiring practices take an unfair route, often times people who are not qualified for positions get hired. To hire an unqualified individual is not advantageous for an organization or for the individual. It's best to outline the qualifications for a position with care and then stick to those qualifications since they were identified and put together for a reason. Our State ethics carefully outline fair hiring policies that help in this regard, and I would also advocate for taking the time to think carefully about the qualifications and process that identify the best possible candidates before the hiring process begins. When an individual without the appropriate qualification is hired, it's more work for everyone in the organization. On the other hand, when an exceptional candidate is hired, everyone in the organization benefits. In the organization I work for, new jobs are readily listed. This was not always true, and now that it does happen, it is very positive because it provides everyone with an opportunity to go for the job if they are interested.

Careful Attention to Time and Appropriate Lead Time for Efforts
Time can be used to empower or disempower individuals. I often say that a good way to audit educational systems is to ask, "Who has the time and what do they do with that time?" It's important that time is carefully considered with regard to all decisions and expectations. For example, when lead time for initiatives, opportunities, information, and effort does not exist, many are immediately left out simply because they didn't have the time to read the request, respond, or ask questions. When initiatives are advertised at the last minute, it may be to limit access simply because there is not time for most people to get involved. In the best organizations, the time line for the year, events, goal setting, and other initiatives is thoughtful so that everyone can be involved and considered for most efforts.

Accurate, Accessible Reporting
Recently I read an organization's report. It was amazing. There was so much good detail. The way we report and make available the reports is important to any organization. It's vital that reports are dated, signed, and made available for all to consider and read. The report I read was well written with many, many details. When transparency like that exists there is little need for everyone to go hunting for the details, and instead they can quickly access the information, use as needed, and return to the important work at hand.

Transparent Research and Development Plans and Opportunities
Good organizations always have their eye on today and tomorrow at the same time. While these organizations maintain good effort daily, they also seek to develop and better the work they do. In the best of circumstances the dollars spent and related actions are visibly matched to the organization's overall goals, tracked, communicated, and synthesized to promote best possible growth and development. For example if efforts are being made in one area at one level and similar efforts are made at another level, those efforts are reported, shared, and synthesized to maximize the effect of the dollars and time spent. Further to track efforts means that efforts typically go full circle rather than just start and go nowhere. Good research and development generally follows a plan and leaves room for relevance, serendipity, and surprise too. As I've learned, these efforts generally employ optimal idea exchange systems that value ideas from all corners of an organization as it's often the people who are working on the front lines who come up with the best ideas for change and growth.

All of the elements above help to streamline and make more efficient an organization's detailed work. When organizations run in smooth, open, and transparent ways, then lots of time opens up for everyone to do the important work of the organization. It's the same with family life too. The better we can openly and care-fully manage and execute the necessary details of our work, the more time we have for the rich, rewarding aspects of living and working.

This fall I'm working with my local union to analyze our contract carefully. If you read our old contract, in many ways, it reads like an old-time school document, not a modern day learning organization document. I'd like to see the contract focus in more on the aspects of organizational effort that truly empower educators to do their work well. Some of that exists now, but other vital details of running good schools, don't exist.

It will be interesting to see how this effort moves forward. I play a role as one of many who will look carefully at the details and discuss them with other members of my union. Others in my organization play bigger roles in this regard.

Underlying all of this is the desire to create dynamic, forward moving organizations--the kind of organizations that empower educators, students, families, and community members to develop strong schools and well educated students--the kind of students who are confident, optimistic, creative, energetic, communicative, and committed about their own future and the future of vital, prosperous, and happy communities.

I see so much potential for what's possible. I don't want to see systems of learning bogged down by elements that slow down the good work possible. Instead I'm an advocate for streamlined, inclusive, forward thinking, and kind organizations that work to support the positive development of all.