The Most Inspiring Education Leaders & Schools are not Content with Tweaks & Small Improvements

Things are going okay, but something doesn’t feel quite right. You love education, learners, or both. That is why you became a teacher, educational leader, or stepped into some other role within a school. You see pockets of promise all around you, but it never quite reaches the level of what you dreamt was possible for a school or classroom. While striving to be and stay positive, a persistent and unrelenting discontent haunts you. You know that something better is possible, and you want to be part of it.

Or, maybe you are one of those people who doesn’t work in education, but you are looking at it from the perspective of a learner, parent, or community member. You see what is happening. Maybe you experience it. Like the others, you recognize the moments of goodness, even greatness; but you know that these moments can and should be the norm.

It is as if you are looking at a night sky filled with stars. Only that darkness is a blanket and the stars are pin holes, giving you a glimpse of what is behind the blanket. It is beautiful and conjures a feeling of wonder. Yet, these are just the pin holes. What would happen if you could tear that blanket out of the sky and behold the grandeur of the light behind it?

That is how you feel about your classroom or school. Why settle for the pin holes when you could tear off the blanket and have a beautiful, awe-inspiring, wonder-filled learning community?

Most schools and classrooms have pin holes, some more than others. These are glimpses of grandeur, reminders of what is possible. Very few ever figure out how to tear off the blanket, creating a classroom or school that shines with your most deeply held values and mission. You have glimpses, but there is still so much darkness.

I’ve studied, interviewed, or visiting over a thousand educators, leaders, and schools around the country and world. I’ve see some places that are almost all blanket, with a few pin holes. I’ve seen others where there are more pinholes than you could count. Every so often I’ve walked into a classroom or school that left me stunned. The blanket was gone and it was glimmering, shining with the core mission and values.

These rare schools and classrooms are the ones where people like you discovered an incredible secret. They relentlessly examined and re-examined every single aspect of the school, sifting it through a core vision, mission, and/or set of values. They didn’t just recreate their image of a school or what they experienced as young people. They started with mission and values and they ended with them too. They dared to dream of what could be instead of being content striving to poke a few more holes in the blanket.

And doing this led them on an incredible journey of what I call mission-minded innovation. Everything from dress code to assessment, the role of learner to role of teacher, the learning environment to the school policies and rules. Everything was on the table for consideration and reconsideration. The end result was a truly transformational learning community.Anyone can do this, but it takes a clear sense of mission, vision and values; unswerving resolve; and the courage to make everything (and I mean everything) conform to the mission, vision, and values. No more compliance-based practices. No more doing it just because that is how others do it. No more reliving and recreating your own school experiences. This takes courage and conviction, wisdom and imagination, and a willingly to follow your wild and unleashed mission and values wherever they may lead.

Years ago I was invited to speak to a group of school principals about educational innovation. They didn’t want me to come with an agenda, but to instead facilitate a 90-minute question and answer session about how they can move their schools into a 21st century vision and model. I accepted the offer, but when I arrived, I explained that I wanted to know how far they were willing to go. So, I asked them this question. Keeping your mission as central, what in your school is non-negotiable. In other words, what are the polices, practices, procedures, activities, systems, and ways of thinking that you are unwilling or unlikely to consider revisiting or changing?

At first, they said that they were open to changing just about anything. Then I asked them a few questions.

If letter grades were interfering with your mission and core values, how many of you would be willing to get rid of them or significantly change your use of them? One hand in a room of forty went up. Then I asked about their course-based model and school day. Two hands. What about . drastically revisiting the role of the teacher? No hands. I went on like this for about five minutes. By the end, I had a clear sense of the group. They were willing to poke a few holes through the blanket, but none of them were willing to do what it takes to tear off the blanket.

This might be the greatest problem in our modern day education ecosystem. Very few people are so devoted to the education mission and values enough to move beyond poking holes. They want to tweak the system, but not re-imagine it in a way that allows their little part of the ecosystem to reach its truest and full potential. This holds back everyone in the community, including you. It leaves so many believing that it could be more, but instead spending all of their time and energy trying to find ways to be happy with some version of the status quo.