Welcome back, Essex County Learning Community (ECLC) members! We hope that you’ve had an opportunity over the summer months to refresh and renew, and that you are ready for the 2019-2020 school year.
I remember when the year 2020 once seemed like a distant horizon, but it is now a near reality. This particular number has meaning beyond its sheer mathematical value — “normal” eyesight is said to be 20/20 vision. For some of us, that is a physical reality; for others of us, we approximate it with the aid of eyeglasses or contact lenses, or perhaps laser surgery. Please allow me to share a story about vision that goes even deeper—demonstrating how easy it is to not see what’s in front of you.
As many of you know, my daughter has some learning challenges, including a math learning disability. In the last quarter of her junior year, she failed an important math exam. For several years, I had been asking the high school to let her demonstrate her understanding in an oral exam, knowing that the written format triggers massive anxiety, while an oral exam provides relational support that enables her to stay on task. When we were notified about the F, I asked again for an oral retake, and they listened this time. To their great surprise (not mine) my daughter scored an 80 percent on the same exam that she had failed just a few days earlier! Perhaps even more remarkable was the email that I received from the teacher afterward. “I have to say it was fantastic to work with [your daughter] today. In class I very rarely get much reaction from her, but was amazed at how much her personality came out when she was working with me one on one. It was a pleasure. I know there isn't much time left in the year, but I look forward to working with her more.”
My daughter’s teacher had clearly had not fully “seen” my daughter for most of the school year. The teacher’s vision, in other words, was not 20/20. She made assumptions about my daughter—due to the fact that she had an IEP and that she protected herself from feelings of shame by not participating in class. When the relationship moved to center stage, both my daughter and her teacher could feel more capable and more energized.
As this story illustrates, vision in its fullest flourish is far more than what one can see with the eye; it is about what we think and feel, what values we hold dear, and how we express them in ways that bring together the hearts and minds of our colleagues, our students, our families, and our communities. In my years working with school and district leaders, some have argued that vision is the soft and fluffy stuff, and that “we just need to get down to work.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve noticed that those who do set aside the time with their teams and the community at large to articulate a clear vision tend to make more sustainable progress. It may take a bit longer, but without a vision, there is not a clear driver for change; and that lack of destination creates anxiety in the system that can lead to poor decision-making.
The beginning of the school year is a good time to reexamine your district and school vision. Is it clear? Is it aspirational? Is it ambitious? Is it do-able? Is it adequate to the task of reaching all students? Does it motivate people to come to work every day with their whole selves? Do students know and understand the vision? Do parents? Do your community partners embrace it?
The ECLC recognizes that educators rarely get the time to step back and reflect on the adaptive aspects of their work, such as visioning. And they almost never have enough time to collaborate meaningfully with their colleagues. That’s why we attempt to foreground both of these activities during and in-between our formal learning sessions. You count on us to hold you accountable to yourselves—and we count on you to help us find an effective balance between technical and adaptive experiences that will help you grow.
Make no mistake about it: the ECLC is about adult development. Eduard Lindeman, one of the earliest writers on adult education, describes it as “a cooperative venture in non-authoritarian, informal learning the chief purpose of which is to discover the meaning of experience; a quest of the mind which digs down to the roots of the preconceptions which formulate our conduct.” This suggests, of course, that we are all works in progress. I truly believe that the more honest we can be about our challenges and struggles, the better we can connect with and support one another, which ultimately benefits students. And it’s not just my opinion: research confirms that when educators are engaged in learning of their own, students are more engaged, too.
The ECLC is focused on reaching all students, especially those who assets and needs may be outside the so-called mainstream for a variety of reasons. We know that these students suffer needlessly when they are misunderstood, not known, or not seen for the strengths they bring into the schoolhouse. Though I firmly believe that every educator wants to do right by all of their students, there are unconscious dynamics that operate under the surface to create barriers in the relationship. Educators must work to identify—and then push through—these barriers. It is challenging work, but surprisingly meaningful.
As we aspire to 20/20 vision in the year ahead, may we all feel more capable and energized. And may the ECLC help you achieve 20/20 vision—perhaps like the progressive lenses that many of us wear—allowing us to focus our vision for both near and distant goals.
Wishing you a joyful and productive school year!