Education Opinion

How Miners Survive (And Why That Matters for Educators)

By Contributing Blogger — May 12, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This post is by Kathleen Cushman, a journalist and educator who for more than 25 years has documented deeper learning in articles, books, and mixed media. Her book with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools, will be published in September by Harvard Education Press.


For a new idea to take root in a school -- whether it’s common standards or a homework policy, project-based curriculum or behavior in the hallways -- depends on buy-in and consistency.

  • First, enough people involved have to agree the damn idea is worth a try.
  • Then, they’ve got to work out its inevitable kinks together.
  • Finally, with time and attention, it becomes “how we do it here.”

None of those steps presents an easy hurdle to clear. In Massachusetts last week, I stopped by the Springfield Renaissance School, as 65 educators converged to analyze them in action at this Expeditionary Learning (EL) middle and high school.

I watched as a gaggle of “student ambassadors” guided their guests through two days of classes, advisory groups, student-led parent conferences, portfolio presentations, teacher team meetings, and more. Visitors who saw twelfth graders give their “senior talks” to small audiences of peers and close-in adults came away greatly stirred by the power of that reflective tradition.

Over 22 years, EL has meticulously documented deeper learning structures and practices like these via widely available protocols, curriculum, exemplars, and videos.

Support like that gave Principal Stephen Mahoney and his staff a big advantage as they worked toward creating a school-wide system of working parts.

Educators are like miners

Documentation will only go so far in that effort, however. It seems to me that a system of working parts runs on fuel from other strata, far below the surface. It’s a vaporous, unstable fuel -- and powerful beyond measure. We call it trust.

Schools like this one dig for that fuel like miners. And because mining is a risky business, their people link up and dig together. Everyone agrees to the procedures that promise to keep them alive and well. Everyone’s wellbeing depends on building relationships of support.

“For a lot of people, relationship comes from working -- not from just sitting together and sharing life stories,” Mahoney told his visitors. “You’ve got to have some kind of shared experience before you can develop that trust.”

Creating those shared experiences in the service of learning seems to be the secret sauce of his school leadership. Here’s where it has brought Springfield Renaissance’s “trust miners” over the last ten years:

  • All classroom teachers assess both academic and character habits.
  • All staff attend to minor behaviors that have an outsize effect on the learning environment.
  • Every administrator joins a teacher team to facilitate administrative supports.
  • All students take part in setting and reviewing school norms and commitments.
  • All families play a role in student self-assessment, goal-setting, and performance review.

In my next post, I’ll describe the details of these commonalities in action. (Hint: Mahoney swears by Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto.) We’ll see how both buy-in and consistency develop from--and contribute to--a school-wide culture of transparency and trust.

And we’ll see examples of how the energy released by these Springfield miners flows through networks of learning pathways, connecting adults and youth and families and community.

UPDATED: Audio link added

Photo: Principal Stephen Mahoney (back to camera) consults with a team of Springfield Renaissance teachers. Listen here to his thoughts on building trust through the cohort model. (Photo by Nick Whalen)

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.