Adieu to Educational Isolationism (Part 1 – Shared Language)

We are all tethered together; but are those threads that bind us (in)visible and in (dis)harmony?

“From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school–its isolation from life. When the child gets into the schoolroom he has to put out of his mind a large part of the ideas, interests and activities that predominate in his home and neighbourhood.” John Dewey, 1956

Before I was a site administrator I was a high school Spanish teacher. One would seemingly have nothing to do with the other; it’s fair to say that we don’t often correlate the skill set required to master a language (Spanish is a second language for me) and teach it to children with the habits, traits and competencies of an effective school leader. But at this inflection point in my career – at 24 years in education I am most likely past my working half-life – I’ve started to spend more time thinking about what brought me into education, what has kept me here, and what forces (internal, external) pushed me to seek out (and stick with) leadership roles. Beyond the technical and operational aspects of school management (all vital and important), what resonates most about this work is the opportunity to help build, and belong to, a true community of practice.

What I’ve determined is that (please allow me a bit of a chest thump) the work of the language teacher is the perfect preparation for an effective school leader. Language teachers help us learn how to execute one of the most fundamental aspects of being a human being: communicating with fellow humans whose system of verbal and written expression is different from our own. Language teachers (at their best) encourage learning through experimentation and mistake-making since they understand the arc of how humans master their native tongue. Language teachers clarify the structures and rules (a verb, after all, is conjugated in specific ways to ensure understanding of who is doing what, when) while also helping students peek behind the curtain into the infinity of possibilities that language offers – how we can make ourselves understood to other people while also expressing our unique selves through those structures. 

Dewey’s meditation on the disconnect between the realities of schooling and those of “real life” have never been more pertinent, as our institution continues to follow certain traditions begun two centuries ago, including the A-F grading system and our agrarian-based calendar. But rather than despair over all the factors outside of our control, educators and communities have every reason to be optimistic about the possibilities for making the experience of school to not only reflect the dynamic realities of our contemporary world, but also to serve as an incubator for ideas to bring about needed change and innovation. Children are hungry to make a difference – to see an idea have a concrete impact on the world. Adults are too; but as long as schools are islands unto themselves – and every classroom/office an island within an island – the isolationism that Dewey warned us about when my own parents were in elementary school will continue to be education’s dominant reality – and legacy. 

So are we educators – in our classrooms and offices, on our separate campuses and districts, underneath the architecture of 50 different state Departments of Education – ready and willing to confront isolationism as antithetical to a powerful and relevant education for all children based on our contemporary global context (not the one in existence when our formal educational structures came into being)? Researcher John Hattie talked about the critical purpose of formal education on a recent episode of the terrific Bedley Brothers podcast: schools exist to give children experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Shared language is the backbone of the human experience

Coordination is a form of vulnerability…on dry land or tiptoeing on a tightrope 30′ up.

“Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s examination of what makes successful teachers. He identifies one quality as the most significant: “withitness” or regard for student perspective. This means that in the classroom, there is a high-quality feedback loop between teacher and student. Teachers communicate both verbally and nonverbally to their students in a back-and-forth exchange to get a deeper understanding.” Margaret Regan

Let’s admit it – every teacher is, at the root of what they do, a language teacher. The “disciplines” into which we’ve been divided (a construct we should all question) have unique vocabularies and modes of argument (or, better put, how to get your point across). This extends to the work of all those in leadership roles as well. What ultimately defines an effective educator is their capacity to make themselves understood, all the while understanding and empathizing with others; an educator who asks others how they can better communicate themselves, while also helping others express themselves more clearly and deeply; one who uses language (verbal, non-verbal) to weave connections with others and amongst others in our charge. Language is the root of all community.

The even deeper truth about teaching a second language is that the rules aren’t always followed in every place in the same way. Verbs can have different connotations in different regions/countries; verbs can be conjugated differently by region/country; pronunciation is a prismatic kaleidoscope of regional entropy; idioms (and epithets!) a bottomless well. But all these bifurcating roads lead back to one system of expression – an agreed upon touchstone for social cohesion. This gets me back to why I chose school leadership: schools that do not have clearly established systems of thinking and communicating incubate cultures of idiosyncrasy, isolation and haphazard (inequitable) learning outcomes for students. 

If public education is going to truly meet its mandate to be a vehicle for social equity and unity – something our society and planet need now more than ever – we must first be grounded in common agreements and practices about what matters most. School leaders play an essential role in this endeavor, as they are the ones who: 

  • Set the tone on campus (celebration, curiosity, panic, misery?)
  • Get people connected (doors, hearts and minds are open, or they are closed)
  • Set course for where we are going while also staying agile and adjusting course (as opposed to a commitment to staying still)
  • Hold up a mirror to our current reality (in all its nuance)
  • Keep the glass half full while acknowledging, and confronting, challenges
  • Give permission for people (students, teachers, parents…) to try out new ideas and disrupt what needs disrupting 

So what are some tangible leadership moves that can help shatter isolation and infuse the organization with a feeling of connectedness and mutual purpose?

Images courtesy of Eliott Rodgers of Hall Middle School during a staff retreat facilitated by the Pacific Leadership Institute at the Fort Miley Ropes Course in San Francisco, CA.

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