Reflections on Leaving

I have spent the last 11 years working for a school district in Montana. During that time, my family was in Colorado. My wife was serving on the executive boards of both her state and national associations, so she was not able to join me in Montana. For whatever reasons, which may become more obvious if you read what follows, I was not able to find a school district position in Colorado. Although not living in the same house, we got together every month to 6 weeks during the school year, and I was able to spend my summer breaks in Colorado. We made it work. During my tenure with the Department of Defense schools, we lived in the same house, but I was usually there only on Saturdays. We also made that work.

After 11 years in Montana, I decided to resign from my district and move to Colorado. I had vested in the retirement system and had reached retirement age. I had missed too many family events, it was time to go home.

Not that the district in Montana will miss my contributions, they won’t. I believed that I had a lot to contribute. From 1988-2006, I worked in state, national, and international model schools in two different states and internationally. I helped craft legislation that has impacted the profession at both the state and national levels, including the Carl Perkins Act and ESSA. As Superintendent in the mid 1990’s, my district was a founding member of the Virtual High School Global Consortium. We helped create the model of virtual school now used in most every state and district virtual school programs. We had to invent and create a lot of things we take for granted today. The conversations among the founders were fascinating. And we changed the rules of the game for everyone. I was Principal of one of Willard Dagget’s National Model Schools. 60 Minutes profiled the district where I was working in senior leadership in 2001. We were elite schools, but more importantly, we knew why we were elite schools. I have been invited, and have presented at numerous state and national conferences. My PLC became twitter, and includes an amazing group of educators talking about things we weren’t doing in my district in Montana. The conversations have become reminiscent of the discussions we used to have with the VHS founders. My colleagues had not heard of very many of these people, nor were any of them on twitter.

I used to be smart.

And despite the names I could drop, publications and awards I could list as part of my “legacy,” I believe my “legacy” is that I made a difference in the lives of a few kids and teachers. I can live with that.

I looked back at notes from the District Leadership Team meetings I attended last year. We talked about things like what times cooks and custodians clocked in/clocked out; procedures for out of state student trips; student led recycling programs; and the excessive number of copies running through our district copy center, I’m sure that adopting the Engage NY math series had something to do with that one. A district-wide presentation before school started was called “Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites.” Most of us caught the irony of that. It wasn’t the most productive inservice day in district history. My favorite instructional conversation quote came from our district curriculum director during a discussion about our District Improvement Plan, “Whatever the minimum we have to do with ESSA is our goal.” Very inspiring and uplifting.

In Montana, I “was not a good fit.”

Like most districts in America, it was a good district. Not great. Just good. Using the trailing edge indicators of test scores, the district could point to improvement. When the scores were broken out, however, the already high achieving students made significant gains. The lowest achieving students did not. When I would ask how many students regressed a level between spring and fall progress monitoring assessments, I was ignored. When I would ask how many of our students were at the lowest performance level for multiple years, and what we planned to do with the individual students who had been at the lowest performing level for several years, I was no longer invited to instructional meetings.

I “was not a good fit.”

I made a career of anticipating the world our students would live in when they were our age, not making incremental improvements in what school was like when we were their age. John Dewey was on target in 1915 when he said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

I was not satisfied with working in a good school. I was bringing a background of working in elite schools. And an understanding of what it took to become, and remain, an elite school.

The first thing we understood was that merely tweaking past practice might move us from good to great, but it would never make us elite. Old ways will never open new doors.

We recognized that the definition of “school” has fundamentally changed. Simply looking for the latest apps to load on the newest tablets and selling our souls to Google will not fundamentally change anything when using the future needs of current students as the determining filters.

Students lives changed dramatically during my tenure. I was Principal of an elementary school in South Central Colorado in the late 1980’s when we became a pilot school for state funded pre-school. Working with pre-schoolers was not part of the curriculum in my preparation classes. But it became part of my reality.

In my last district, between 1/3 and 1/2 of our K-8 students ate both breakfast and lunch at school, according to our food service reports. I am not pointing fingers at anyone who chooses to send their children to school for both breakfast and lunch. I am just acknowledging that it is the reality for many of our kids. I visited with a lot of the kids in my school, they told me that dinner on most nights was a drive thru from someplace. Activities like ball practices, dance classes, 4-H, etc made sitting down to dinner with the family a bit difficult. A lot of conversations about life and growing up tend to take place at mealtimes. For too many kids, those conversations are now with peers rather than with parents. Or other adults. Again, not pointing fingers, just accepting reality, through the eyes of the kids. And accepting that we are now raising the kids as much as teaching them.

I asked what we could do as a district to address this issue. Did we adjust to meet the new reality?

No.

I “was not a good fit.”

Our role was seen as increasing test scores. I believed the only test we needed to prepare our kids for was the test of time. Their time, not ours. In the elite schools, we  never focused on test scores as goals. We focused on meeting the changing needs of our kids. We had to take care of the Maslow stuff before we could worry about the Blooms stuff. When we took care of our kids, the test scores took care of themselves.

I “was not a good fit.”

While meeting minimal expectations was our desired goal, we also had conversations about becoming “innovative.” Which meant more “technology” and new programs layered on top of existing programs. Laudable, but experiences taught me that innovation starts with a dream, not with a goal statement in the Holy Strategic Plan. In 1993, my district initiated our Student Centered School Project. From the proposal document, “We will create learner centered curriculum using technology, students as producers and teachers, and the concept of Just-In-Time Learning. The whole system is based on students’ acquiring and demonstrating the achievement of world class content skills at or beyond proposed state and national standards.” We kind of pre-dated the current conversations on personalized, blended and competency-based learning. And we pulled it off over the next few years.

As with most innovators we studied at the time, we started with identifying problems that needed solved. And the problems we identified did not include  performances on standardized tests. I know, this all happened before NCLB was a gleam in the eyes of Senator Kennedy and Soon To Become President Bush, and made too many of us focus on the scores rather than the needs of the kids. But we still tested them in 1993.

Our solutions required us to imagine the Paradigm of the Possible, not the Paradigm of the Present. Imagination comes from dreams, and in that district, we believed that we had Dreams for Sale. Every student and every teacher had a dream. Our role was to empower everyone to make their dreams become their reality. To become the Architects of Their Futures rather than the Victims of Fate. Given that 95% of our students qualified for free/reduced meals, this was a rather tall order, and few people took us seriously while we were building it.

We learned that reform is about individual people, not programs. Programs don’t teach kids, teachers do. The metrics of successful reform are not increases in one dimensional test scores, but are the growth of individuals. How do we measure talent? How do we measure the ability to continue to learn? Can all the qualities that define a successful student be reduced to a single score? The same algorithms that purport to measure student learning/growth are also used to predict the weather…

The traditional schools I worked in would aggregate, then analyze. The elite schools would analyze, then aggregate. They would find patterns within the individual rather than patterns within the group.

The forced ranking, stacked ranking, rank and yank, call it what you will, didn’t work in industry. The most successful businesses quickly moved away from it, and certainly stopped using the process to evaluate employee performance. In too many schools, we call it RTI. For the sake of my grandchildren, I hope their schools will follow the lead of the successful businesses.

Elite schools were not run by polls or consensus. They only perpetuate present practice and lead to mediocrity. Apple did not use focus groups. Apple didn’t break rules so much as they invented new ones. Focus groups could not guide them down the paths they had chosen. Staff were empowered rather than managed or controlled. My favorite Steve Jobs quote, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” In most schools, we trust our teachers with other peoples’ kids, then do things like make them turn in lesson plans for the following week, instead of freeing them up to adjust today’s activities to reflect what happened yesterday. That places the focus on the teacher’s input, not the student’s output. It sends a loud message that we do not assume good intentions from professionals, we have to check up on them. All in the name of “standardization of curriculum implementation.” I’ve seen standardized curriculum, standardized tests, in many schools, standardized dress. I have yet to see standardized students. Apple was one of the innovators we studied in 1992-1993. I tried to walk Steve Jobs talk. We intentionally moved people out of their comfort zones. Great things never happen there. And they amazed us with their creativity.

Did it work? I make no apologies for my resume. During my career, people have called me “jaded,” “arrogant,” “frustrated,” “angry,” a “disgruntled former employee,” a “visionary,” a “dreamer,” a “Level 5 leader,” and a “true servant leader.” All of them were correct. People tend to find exactly what they are looking for.

This is what I took to Montana.

I “was not a good fit.”

The best days of my life haven’t happened yet, and I don’t intend to spend them getting old.

As for Montana, I am done. Not mad, not sad, not envious, not in remorse, not spiteful. Just done.

I was brought up in a home with the freedom to question and discuss, accept little on face value. This was a time when society was going through some monumental upheavals with the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King had a dream, not a Strategic Plan; the Viet Nam protests, my number did not come up, and the impending impeachment and resignation of President Nixon.

The quote I selected for my senior yearbook was from George Bernard Shaw, “Some men see things as they are and ask why, I dream things that never were and ask why not.”

During one of the sleepless nights I created for myself during the mid-1990’s, I watched “The Man of LaMancha.” I paraphrased the Life As It Is speech:

“I’ve worked in education for nearly 40 years, and I’ve seen Life As It Is. Pain, misery, cruelty beyond belief. I’ve heard the voices of God’s noblest creatures, His children. I’ve been a student, teacher, and administrator. I’ve seen my colleagues at each level drop out, walk away, or die more slowly by putting in their time. I’ve held them as they’ve left. These were people who saw Life As It Is. They left despairingly, no commencement speeches, no retirement farewells. Only their eyes filled with confusion. Questioning why. I do not think they were questioning why they were leaving. But why they had come in the first place. What we do at times seems lunatic. But who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To seek treasure where there has only been poverty may be madness. To nurture hope where there has only been despair and resignation may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness. But maddest of all is to accept life as it is and not as it should be!”

Maybe, someplace, I will again be “a good fit.”

And so it goes…

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Leaving

  1. This is a good read Gary. I understand your frustration. I’m the one left wondering why I’m still here. You were “a good fit”. It is the powers that be that are not “a good fit”. You are greatly missed if even by a select few. Thank you for your many years of sacrifices and hard work. You are missed.

    Going back Monday with trepidation.

    Like

  2. I certainly agree with the two previous comments, Gary, and will miss your presence tremendously more than I think you might have thought. While our interviews and reviews sometimes had this dumb shop teacher’s brain reeling a bit at the end of a taxing day (I’m sure you suspected), I always truly enjoyed those conversations and wish we had taken some time out of school for a more relaxed acquaintance. I’d like to visit with you more about the eerie coincidences between us. Like my school principal-school superintendent-best friend-of 37 years, who passed last December, and I’m now convinced you must have met somewhere along…….plus we graduated from different high schools together!
    I’d really like to stay in touch

    Like

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