School & District Management Opinion

Solutions That Come ‘From Away’

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 13, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Policymakers and leaders have determined what’s wrong with our educational system and how to fix it. Either part of that equation could be fraught with errors. What is wrong with our schools? How do we improve them? We guess the underlying question is: can schools be improved by those in the system or does pressure and mandate need to come from outside?

There is growing field support for the Common Core standards as a reform movement, less so, for the assessments associated with them. At last, recognition has come that a connection exists between teacher and leader performance and that of students. Can student achievement be improved by better teacher and leader performance? There is much debate on the ground about how to do this and how it is going.

We have lower than desirable standing in the global market. It is probably true that our students are not graduating college and career ready. Too many of our students cannot compete in the math, science, and technology fields; they cannot read, write, create, or solve problems as well as they should. It has been determined by concerned policymakers that this is a result of our failure to teach the right things in the right way under the leadership of properly skilled leaders. There is some truth for us to own.

We haven’t been proactive in assessing and responding to the shifts in knowledge and skills our students need. We haven’t made major changes to our pre-service programs in colleges. We haven’t retrained the teachers already in the field in any way that becomes successful or systemic. While we celebrated our many successes, we have allowed some to fall behind and some to fail. We have created such an insular and circular mode of thinking, that we, ourselves, cannot see the way to improve our systems. This myopia allowed the forces “from away” to take over. How much energy have we wasted in pushing back? Perhaps our greatest challenge now is to decide how much time goes to resistance and how much to moving forward, albeit following someone else’s plan? We often create our own Catch-22’s.

No matter the potential within the reform initiatives, they will fail to improve student achievement and teacher and leader performance unless we own them. Why? Because the solutions are “from away.” The term ‘from away’, as it is used in Maine and parts of Canada, refers to a person who was not born there. The inference is, if you weren’t born there and haven’t remained there, “You can’t understand why we do what we do. You cannot know who we are and how we live our lives, our mores, and our culture. Simply, you can’t know us.” Guided by this “Down East” wisdom, we must take hold of the mandates “from away” and make them meaningful in every one of our schools. So we propose three actions we must implement to regain control of our profession and lead.

  • It is imperative that we acknowledge the impositions “from away” and embrace the opportunity we find in those solutions that are of value in our schools. We must send both these messages. Acknowledging the difficulty we face in managing all these mandates is important. Otherwise, we appear insincere or aloof from the reality of the teachers’ world and that of students. Such behaviors nurture a culture of mistrust and malcontent. Yet, we cannot allow ourselves or our leader colleagues to stop there. Leadership requires the next step...that of making latent opportunities visible in such a way that others see them and own them.
  • Now, more than ever, we are called to explain our business to our public. Our parents and communities are being inundated by stories from others, in the print media, in television news, in stories brought home by children and from other workplaces. This is both a challenge and a blessing. There is more conversation about our work than ever before. There may not be more understanding of it. The practical challenge is in finding the time to communicate with intention. The value of social media increases. Our websites must become a community resource, not just to pass information to parents and students.

    Nothing trumps personal relationships when trying to communicate complex issues. It isn’t just about getting our message out that is important. It is also about opening up, listening well, and inviting questions. Building those relationships is essential, time aside. All of us benefit from an informed public unless we have something to hide. We don’t.

  • We must take hold of the tail of the tiger. It is all we have but it is ours. We simply cannot sustain ourselves while constantly reacting to the people ‘from away’ who are shaping our daily lives in schools. While being whipped about, we must figure out how to look at ourselves and design the changes we need. Even if we think we are doing a stellar job, our schools are happy places in which children graduate and go to good colleges and live productive lives, are we talking about every child or just the ones we wish to think about? Even if we think our students are college and career ready, can any of us honestly say we know that the courses we teach, K-12 are preparing them for an ever changing and indescribable world?
  • It is essential that our mental models change and that those of our communities do also. No longer can we be complicit in perpetuating the message “It was good enough for me and I turned out ok.” The world is changing faster than it ever did, accelerated by the use of technology. There is no turning back.

    Stay engaged with Ann and Jill on Twitter.

    Related Tags:

    The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.