More than merely a printed statement that is posted on the district website or in the hallways of a building, vision is a compass that should guide schools toward excellence. The old adage “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” mirrors the schools without a clear vision directing their journey. Vision is what sets the course for the schools. As penned by Ella Wheller Wilcox in her poem, “The Winds of Fate”:
One ship sails East,
and another sails West,
With the self-same winds that blow;
Tis the set of the sails, and not the gales,
Which tells us the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate,
As we voyage along through life;
Tis the set of the soul that decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.
When it comes to vision, Ric Seager, Director of School Improvement and Assessment for Kalamazoo Schools, is clear about setting the sails for school improvement. Seager states, “In the big picture, school reform (improvement) is really about what’s happening in the classroom. It is not about the principal’s office, the department of education, or what is happening in the union hall. The degree to which we improve the skills and abilities and practices of people working with kids, is the degree to which we will be successful.”
The vision of focusing on supporting teaching and learning at the classroom level often gets lost in school improvement and Ric Seager believes this is especially true of urban schools. “One of the ironies of urban school reform is that in terms of the literature, the bigger the problem, the more we try to solve the problem through the directedness of others. We pounce on the school; we give them a program . . . if we just implement this; things will be great . . .and it doesn’t work. Teachers get beat down. For administrators it’s a revolving door; everyone is coming in with the next new idea . . . and nothing ever seems to get fixed.”
Mandates that change almost daily, continually shift the course of schools like a boat that bobs around without a set to its sails. School reform, to be effective, must have a vision of excellence in every classroom. Seager believes that teaching is a highly nuanced task that is extremely complex and schools must support all teachers in continuously improving their craft. Successful schools help teachers and administrators successfully navigate the pool they are swimming in . . . rather than beating up professionals or mandating a specific program or policy.
For many schools with a vision of excellence for all students, supporting educators means using Cognitive Coaching. This style of Coaching – mediating another person’s thoughts and feelings – honors the individual. Cognitive Coaching helps him/her analyze the situation they are in and make good decisions around teaching and learning. Seager says, “The kind of Coaching we’re talking about helps the individual analyze his/her own situation and become completely self-directed . . . not relying on somebody to beat me into submission, but helping me to figure out what’s best for me.”
A vision for supporting teachers to become self-directed learners, who in turn help their students become self-directed learners, helps schools decide on a course of action to follow rather than shifting with each new “new thing” that comes out of Washington or Lansing. A vision should help an organization stay the course.
If you want to learn more about Cognitive Coaching and using it to guide your school improvement, please contact us at www.excellenceined.org