by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D
Let’s start with a quick story, shall we?
This past year I transitioned from an assistant principal at a large metropolitan high school to the executive principal of a small, rural high school. Like any leader, I packed up my bag of tricks, curated over a decade and sharpened in one of the more intense public schools in the state of Tennessee, and set my sights on changing the future of education. I had already fallen in love with STEAM education several years before I set foot in my new school, witnessing its transformational powers. However, it’d be my new school where I’d truly test the impact and paradigm-shift qualities of STEAM as a holistic learning model, where students are taught to think as creators not merely consumers. Not a month into the 2016-2017 school year magic began to happen. See, STEAM is as much a mindset as it is a curriculum – and that’s where we started. Our #Courage2Create vision hinged upon healing a fractured culture, paralyzed by stigma and wrought with a covert inferiority complex. But, things were changing – fast. Students responded first, gravitating towards optimism and the possibility of learning through different modes and pedagogies. Next came the parents, then the community – then we went even bigger…
But let’s back-up, briefly:
Two years ago, I wrote a piece titled Rise of the Visionary Leader (Read it here). At that time I was vision-casting a new era of school leaders needed to usurp a century-long, archaic education paradigm, using fearless innovation, radical ideas and, above all, an unbridled passion to lead change. I had served in public education for almost a decade and watched first-hand how the effects of our industrial-age school model was stomping out any remnants of joy in what we were currently calling school. Teaching within this innovation-less model is what drove me to be a school principal, where I could both champion and implement change. There was no greater factor.
Flash-forward two years: I have just completed my first year as the Executive Lead Principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, America’s first Pre-k through 12 STEAM campus. When I said we went BIG earlier, that was no hyperbole. After a month of implementing a STEAM mindset and vision into the high school, the ripple effect took hold. Given the go-ahead by a visionary superintendent, we quite literally took our STEAM model and expanded it – stretching it across ALL grade-levels, with the vision and understanding that this experiential-based learning juggernaut was imperative for all students, especially our youngest ones.
Like any good reflective practitioner, I couldn’t help but wonder if my own leadership efforts lived up to the musings and expectations of a younger me?
So, as I sit here and reflect on the past school year and our outcomes, I wrestle with the only question that seems to matter: Were we bold enough? For the sake of clarity, I’m not just talking about being different. We’ve seen different. Paideia, STEM, Academies, Charters, Parochial, they were all different. I wanted 2nd order change – a complete break from the past. This kind of change hinges on a catalyst, a legitimate change-agent that’s willing to embrace the Stockdale Paradox while broadcasting his or her risk-taking efforts for the entire world to see.
Bold. Not just different.
For instance, our students researched, designed and constructed thematic Escape Rooms. The transdisciplinary PBL, aptly titled #EscapeTheMount, included over seven content areas with nearly 100 students contributing. See for yourself here. We were forgoing theory and actually applying the Arts into almost everything. The impact was irrefutable: Discipline dropped (drastically), ACT scores rose (dramatically), and our enrollment, in conjunction with the revitalization efforts of the city itself we serve is spiking!
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Our school is different, Dr. J. We’ve got intense poverty; Nearly unmanageable discipline; Almost zero parental involvement; Our central office doesn’t support us!” Of course, if this were an action-research dissertation, there’d have to be a limitations section, right? What were our constraints? What innate barriers stood seemingly insurmountable? So, let’s address the biggest elephant, a limitation that stands both connotatively and practically: Being a visionary leader in a public school.
A legitimate concern with public schools is how do you truly innovate within an overtly bureaucratic system, while earning enough early wins to not find yourself on the leadership chopping block come May? Furthermore, as author Diana Laufenberg famously noted, “you can’t have innovation with standardization.” Even beloved education advocate Sir Kenneth Robinson stated, “We have to personalize education, not standardize it.” Herein lies yet another innate public school quagmire. Just like the business sector, where start-up companies strive to take their small businesses public, going to scale while trying to maintain a culture of creative innovation is practically an oxymoron. Thus, our public education system, mirroring the high-volume factory output of the industrial age, is designed to standardize both curriculum and procedures in order to service the sheer volume of students while maintaining some semblance of quality control. Admittedly, there are many more elephants concerning public education, so at the risk of fully opening Pandora’s Box, let’s suffice to say that our public education system is, at the very least, curious to navigate. This realization and acceptance makes the next-step ever so critical:
Cutting through the noise
When we reference cutting through the noise, we begin our lap back to visionary leadership. The visionary leader operates amongst the static – surrounded by noise – yet somehow, almost supernaturally, can both see and get messages through. Let’s also be careful of confusing visionary leaders with mythical superheroes. We’re not letting school leaders off the hook that easy! It’s my firm belief that visionary leaders are more principle-centered than superhuman. Furthermore, it’s also my firm belief that visionary leaders are simply more in-tune with their WHY, which serves as something analogous to Tony Starks’ Arc Reactor, with a clear WHY perpetually generating passion into its leader. When we know our WHY, cultivated through countless hours of reflection, a growth mindset develops, serving as a scaffold amidst unchartered terrain.
Added up, our WHY and a growth mindset form a sharp synergy. This synergy operates like a surgeon’s scalpel cutting through the aforementioned noise. It’s here, in this space, the visionary leader truly manifests, for now a new horizon begins to crystalize far beyond the distractions and disturbances of the public education paradigm. With a principle-centered compass coupled with an unrelenting, WHY-inspired passion, the visionary leader now begins to take on attributes and abilities lost to him or her before – call it third-eye-vision, gut-instinct, magic – no matter what name we give it, the visionary leader transcends the boundaries hindering the majority. This ascension towards something greater, outside the lines of mediocrity, complacency and normalcy, is where boldness happens – and fortune favors the bold. Fortune in this case is literally changing the lives of students and the community we serve, repositioning public education as debt-free catalyst towards future success.
Lastly, the correlation between visionary leaders and situational leadership should be noted. Visionary leaders must always ask the question, “What about the sand?” This question stems from concerns surrounding Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visionary leadership leading up to the Normandy invasion and whether or not the general had given sincere thought to the weight of the US’s massive tanks on soft beach sand. History lessons aside, the example is spot-on as visionary leaders must be able to toggle at-will between the micro and macro of leadership…faster than a speeding bullet!
See for yourself if we were bold enough by following me on Twitter @RyanBJackson1 and search our hashtag #TheMount.