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How to Get to Big Hairy Audacious Goals

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    Katie Park

This post, originally published on Education Week's Learning Deeply Blog, is by Stephen Mahoney, former principal of the Springfield Renaissance School and now Associate Director of the Harvard Teacher Fellows.   Mahoney has been in schools teaching, coaching, dorm parenting, and leading since 1987.  

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It’s summertime and things have finally slowed down.  Yes, we are hosting summer school, and yes there are some hires still to be made.  But this is the best time of the year for leaders to take a look at the year that was and get ready for the year that’s coming. Having sat in the principal’s chair for 17 years, I learned a few things about how to think about and prepare for the work of the coming year.  Two touchstones enabled us to welcome teachers and students and families back to a new year that had purpose and meaning, structure and strategy, and checkpoints along the way to Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs).  Here they are:

Keep Good Company  

No good idea ever came from just me.   In every decision I made about the schools I led—be it professional development, program development, school culture, instructional focus and feedback systems, or curriculum design—any idea or insight I had was always sharpened and strengthened by including my colleagues in the conversation.   True, at the end of the day “the decision” may have ended up being mine, but if I did it right, then that decision was in some way shaped by others (“It’s missing this . . . ”  “It needs to be more clearly connected to what we’ve done before . . . ”   “These things need to happen before this can launch . . . .”)  And (this is important) when the decision is shaped by others, then it is also OWNED by others. The direction you are turning your school towards is a direction that is understood and supported by others; it is a direction that is supported by the official and the unofficial narrative—in assemblies and meetings, and in hallways and parking lots.

I made lots of mistakes as a principal, but I was 100% committed to making and learning from those mistakes in public and in relationship with others. That commitment was critical to building and supporting a professional and student culture that centered on deeper learning. One great example of this was hosting a visit from a Harvard team interested in understanding and supporting schools that were trying to accomplish “Deeper Learning.”  They spent a few days at Renaissance, and when they were leaving I asked for an honest appraisal of where we were.  Jal Meta’s insights were spot on, but for a celebrated school they were far more skeptical than we were used to.  We made the decision almost immediately to share his analysis not only with the entire school community, but with the wider network of EL Education schools, framing it as an opportunity to both celebrate the work done so far and to lift up the work left to do.  As a school leader you have to remember that what you actually do speaks far more loudly than what you say.

Stay Constant in Goals, But Smart and Honest on Means

The erratic nature of professional development and school improvement is all too real, and I knew that if I wanted to get the most out of our staff and professional development, it needed to have a through line that mapped onto what it takes for an organization to learn—not some artificial period of time like a semester or an academic year.  What Renaissance worked on in 2010 was linked to its work on 2009 and looked forward to its work in 2011.

Two examples stand out here, one instructional and one cultural.   Struggling to establish a coherent and consistent model of quality teaching at Renaissance, I read The Checklist Manifesto one winter break and began pushing for an instructional checklist that captured the best of student centered/workshop model teaching.  Over the next three years our Instructional checklist went through multiple iterations—everything from format for feedback to scatter plot graphs to track schoolwide implementation to winnowing down our rubric from 4 categories of performance to 1.  At pretty much the same time we were trying to find the right balance between a school culture that valued freedom and choice and a behavioral management approach that held students accountable for their academic and social behavior. It took 3 years to craft a system that incorporated Habits of Work and Sweating the Small Stuff and enabled teachers and students to hold on to the best of expeditionary learning, growth mindset, and no excuses schools.

Throughout both endeavors we engaged in a recursive rhythm of design, implement, review, reflect and revise, using student and family focus groups, faculty and staff teams, and whole school launch and “so far” assemblies.  The point is that we saw a need, knew there was no “quick fix,” and settled in to growing a solution.  In many respects, this approach to building a school is one of Renaissance’s most powerful models of deeper learning, and is absolutely the reason why it continues to earn accolades and student results that beat the odds.

At the end of the day these two touchstones stay with me more than anything else.  If you are trying to build a professional culture that embraces deeper learning, and trying to reach those BHAGs, you have to walk the talk. Leaders and teachers have to see learning as a sustained conversation, one that has multiple participants and ebbs and flows between design, implementation, and revision.  Aren’t these key components to deeper learning, in schools and out, in groups and by individuals?