…”the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.” – Carol Dweck
Being a father of three, there are few things more important to me than assuring my own children that I believe they can achieve excellence. No matter the goal or standard, set by them or me, they must know that I believe in them and that in time they will learn to believe in themselves. As an educator, my approach is no different. Excellence is the standard, and it is accessible to all. Whether student or adult, personal or professional, I truly believe all are capable of excellence. The challenge is getting others to believe in themselves. Just as I would expect no less than the best of my own actions and for my own children, I would be a hypocrite as a principal to not expect the same of my teachers and for my students. Excellence is the standard, and it is accessible to all.
With that said, it begins with the adults, their commitment to the belief that excellence is indeed accessible to all, and their actions that follow. In the architectural realm, the principle 'form follows function' comes to mind. If excellence for all is the purpose, all (inter)actions thereafter should be to bring all to excellence. In order for this to happen there needs to be an acceptance of our inherently social nature to share and democratize learning rather than horde and privatize it. In a school community, that means the adults (teachers, administrators, support staff, parents) must have opportunities to listen to each other, learn from each other, and most importantly, share with each other, regardless of titles or self-interests. As the principal, I must support these endeavors by prioritizing and protecting time for collaboration while maintaining a safe environment for open dialog and risk-taking. By focusing on building capacity and trust so colleagues commit to each other, excellence becomes systemic and embedded into the culture of the school. Likewise, the administrators need to collaborate, learn, and share. That means frequently visiting classrooms, celebrating best practices, providing actionable and timely feedback, leveraging technology as a learning amplifier, and most importantly, maintaining transparency, even in failure. When the adults believe that they themselves are capable of transformation and exemplify excellence in the form of inclusivity, creativity, and continuous learning, the students as active members of the intelligent community will follow suit. As James Baldwin wrote, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."
Not so easy, however, is it to imitate or elicit the character traits necessary to exemplify excellence. Integral qualities such as the ability to inhibit impulsiveness, to persevere through seemingly impossible odds, to be empathetic of others and to maintain integrity, especially when faced with adversity, need to be developed in each and every child. As Paul Tough puts it, "What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities. Economists refer to these as non-cognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character." In any case, skill sets beyond academics are paramount and need to be integrated purposefully into curricula and lessons.
This is not to say that academia is secondary but that there is a clear skills gap that is the result of focusing on the end product (finite) rather than the process (continuous). Today's educational programs do excellent work preparing teachers to address academic standards. Consequently, teachers are well adept at creating diverse end-of-term assessments that are aligned to state standards and ultimately state tests. Less prepared are they to assess in real-time what leads up to the product, the process, which is where the standards of character and entrepreneurial skills frequently manifest. By pivoting to the process rather than the product, the emphasis becomes character and skill, resulting in the development of a better learner. - A better learner that is able to ask the right questions, critically analyze information from many sources, make connections between disparate ideas, respectfully challenge opposition, and work collaboratively and strategically towards a goal.
Imagine lessons designed intentionally to build students’ character and emotional intelligence in addition to literacy or numeracy ability. Imagine teachers creating frustrating and difficult situations with the purpose of assessing and also improving a student's ability to remain positive, cope, and be resourceful. Imagine teachers having the trust to release control of the class to the students to celebrate the bravery and confidence it takes to stand in front of peers and to have a voice or be different. Imagine teachers focusing on the experiences that bring out the non-academic qualities as much as the academic qualities in our children. When we move past traditional practices that focus solely on academia to also include emotional intelligence and collaborative skills, we better prepare our students for today's globally networked world.
As a principal, I recognize how difficult this is for teachers. Excellence for all requires personalization, and in the face of all this is practicality. Individualizing student pathways based on learning styles, emotional intelligences, and interests as well as utilizing the appropriate instructional strategies (differentiating) to assure success is no easy task. This requires each educator to be data driven, extremely collaborative, and forward-thinking. Bottom line, a willingness to attempt new endeavors must be present, especially with the rapidly changing landscape of education due to technology. The accessibility of the Internet through mobile devices has blurred the lines between teacher and student, and producer and consumer. Professional development opportunities streamlined by a hashtag are accessed as effortlessly as a student creating a YouTube video teaching projectile motion. As the exemplars of excellence, we cannot be bystanders. Our reach of excellence must go beyond the digital divide. We have a responsibility to shape our own digital footprints but also to let go and allow students the opportunity to shape their own. Whether it is blogging, tweeting, music production or, more recently the maker movement, the interaction between technology and creative expression must occur at both the adult and student levels.
In the end, the ultimate metric of excellence for me is whether or not the school is good enough for my own children. In my experience, the answer to that question has everything to do with the combined beliefs of the adults in the school. Beliefs dictate thoughts, thoughts become words, words become actions, and the sum of one’s actions becomes their character. As Aristotle so eloquently stated, “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” In a school setting, it is the adults and their habits that impact children directly. It takes only one momentary kindness or dismissal to change the trajectory of a child's life. Will my child be loved and seen for his gifts and therefore be liberated, or will he be treated as an inconvenience and trapped indefinitely? Some might say that has to do with luck of the sequence of his teachers. I on the other hand, believe it has to do with clear expectations and accountability, particularly the expectation of excellence being accessible to all and that accountability, for both adults and students, must be focused on the process.