Frequently, when you apply for a school superintendency, you will be asked in the interview about your philosophy of leadership or education in general. In truth, I have several, though they emanate from larger philosophies, encompassing more than these more specific fields. But this isn’t really what the questioner is after anyway. What they want to know is how you act as a leader or educator. What they want to know are your “rules of thumb,” guiding principles you go to when faced with a decision or challenge.
I have any number of these. One of those most important is the Japanese principle of kaizen. Kaizen is simply a focus on “constant, continuous improvement.” In other words, don’t worry too much about where you are or where you started from. Worry instead about how to make things a little better all the time. Stop worry about being good. Start worrying about being better.
I thought a lot about this principle when we all closed schools last March and moved to eLearning. While eLearning was a poor substitute for having children physically in school with their teachers, I was proud of the fact that Mitchell teachers began offering lessons the very first day after closure. They never missed a beat. They didn’t because they had the necessary technology, the experience and expertise required to use it, and the absolute commitment to do the very best by their students in a novel, even crazy, situation. Mitchell teachers, by and large, did everything possible to ensure the learning of their students continued uninterrupted.
Which is not to say the experience was anywhere near the quality the students would have enjoyed had school been in session with children and educators in classrooms. Was it even half the quality of in-school learning? I really have no idea. Since all assessments ended at that point, I don’t even know how I could measure that. From a research perspective, that is a real shame.
As a school superintendent and as the school superintendent in Mitchell, I’m not sure I care.
But here’s what I do care about. I want to make sure, first of all, that we get back to school physically with children in classrooms. I also want to make sure that if some children or some classrooms or some whole schools are forced back into eLearning at any point this year that the eLearning program we offer is better, hopefully much better than the one we offered during fourth quarter of last year.
Here's how we intend to do that. By using a technology (SWIVL) we’ve piloted at Mitchell High School over the last few years, in the event of eLearning, we’ll be offering classes — elementary, middle school, and high school — live and at the very same time they are offered or would have been offered were school physically in session.
Additionally, we’ll have a single contact point for students and parents, GoogleClassroom, so everyone knows where to start every day. Our schools and teachers will be providing students and parents daily schedules — as we’ve actually already done — and will expect students to be “in” class at the same time as those daily schedules indicate. Have English First Gold? If you’re on eLearning, then you need to be in front of your computer attending English at 8:15 on first gold days. Does your child’s first grade reading teacher have her literacy block daily from 9-10:30, then your 6-year-old (who, again, we’d much rather have in school and will making every effort to do so) needs to be not just listening in at 9 but reporting in, engaging with her class, answering questions live that his teacher puts to him.
The system we used in the fourth quarter of last year was not terrible. But it did have unfortunate elements of confusion. I have personally taken virtual courses in the past and suffered under the guise of a learning program that was never terribly clear about when and where I needed to be or to what I needed to attend. This was hard for me and I was in my 40s with a doctorate. How much harder must it be when it is an 11-year-old or a teenager faced with an unclear schedule?
This year, if eLearning becomes necessary for one student or several students or large numbers of students, we’ll have clear schedules and clear expectations. To make that work, we’ll need to have responsible students and engaged parents, ensuring that their charges are attending school when school is in session and taking from those live lessons the assignments and activities assigned to them.
It will take work and it will take commitment from both school and home. But constant, continuous improvement takes both.