What this year’s “tour of schools” taught me.

I just came off a few weeks of visiting PreK-12 schools in different states. While I’m frequently in schools, it’s good for me to get far away from home and see what others are really doing to keep education (especially public education) relevant for our kids and our communities.

Here are the big lessons after walking into big and small, rural/suburban/urban, and everything from well funded to completely broke public schools.

Lesson 1: If you really want to do amazing things for kids you let absolutely nothing stand in your way.

That’s a big lesson and I was grateful beyond words to see it so clearly enacted in so many communities. These were the same communities where there was clear vision, attention to data that went well beyond test scores, kids empowered to do all they can without superficial adult-imposed limits, and strategic leadership behind it all.

In these communities I saw kids using hand held science tools along side the EPA. I saw kids coding real programs (doing incredible writing and mathematics along the way). I saw kids using 3D printers to solve real problems. I saw kids writing letters to representatives. I saw non-verbal kids using tools with peers to be 100% involved. I saw families and grandparents and all generations of volunteers keeping things moving when staff was shorthanded. I saw everyone running (staff, leaders, directors, kids) in the same direction towards the same end game: a great personal future for kids.

Lesson 2: We cannot simply tell people what we think or what we want. We must show, support, engage, publicly encourage, and fight for what we want in our schools. Schools must own the dialogue of the learning they wish to see and believe in what is possible today (and tomorrow). They have to be able to say “this is the framework with which we are moving ahead” and run.

Evident in the Chief Technology Officer that knows the limits of the system and knows so clearly his plan for improving that system so that every child gets an enriching, real, purposeful educational experience with tools and skills of today and tomorrow. His work is not about wires and networks but about innovation and empowerment of children.

This was also evident in the teacher leaders who are pushing one another to be better for their kids. Not by being boastful or bossy, but by being welcoming and humble. These teachers are fighting tooth and nail to get their students and colleagues everything they need. Albeit through grants, community partnerships, or unique collaborations; these teachers are getting things done. The beautiful part is that these things aren’t random but very purposefully connected to a guiding goal that is shared and meaningful to administration, teachers, staff, families, kids, and other community stakeholders.

Lesson 3: Change is as hard as you make it. I saw example upon example of schools that run on peanuts with no Title funds, little cash, and seriously depressed economies. But what I saw was effort towards the best possible scenario for kids. Schedules from K-12 were changed and adapted to empower kids. Teachers were empowered to use expertise and share knowledge and collaborate fluidly with trust. Kids were embracing opportunities and making real contributions (not only to their schools but their communities). Every time that I witnessed people in schools approaching change as an opportunity rather than a burden it was clear that these changes would longitudinally and very positively impact the entire community. If good things happen in schools then good things happen in communities; and visa-versa. If we look at change as a constant instead of a “special initiative” systems of education will continue to improve. We treat change as a “one-off” event, we won’t do much for the long term benefit of our kids.

Lesson 4: Kids kick ass. I saw so many examples of PreK-12 students doing amazing things. These weren’t special projects that were selected by a teacher. Rather they were organically cultivated contributions that originated through curiosity. Albeit passion projects, students driving their own out of school learning, kids working as partners to personalize their learning, or communities calling upon young people to chip in; I saw kids doing work that I doubt the majority of adults could accomplish. They are capable, free them up by opening opportunities and not directing.

When I see kids writing and distributing community newsletters, helping with the budgets and account balancing of schools, graphing weather on interactive boards (in preK) and thinking about their predictions… when I see those things I know that we can all do better to unleash the amazing power of our kids.

Lesson 5: Somethings should never change. Those things are not the “how” (the how of learning has to continually evolve with our kids, opportunities that technology affords us, and our continued understanding of learning). Rather, those things are the “why.” We should never change our commitment to kids. We should never change placing their collective and individual futures at the center of every decision. We should never change the environments that create a home, safe haven, dream space, or community for our kids. We should never change our capacity to pivot our systems quickly and with ease, so that we can ensure that kids are never held back by a system of adults or bureaucracy. We can never falter in our ability to meet the needs of the local community kids (if they need to learn to farm so be it; if they need to learn to code, so be it).

Like every other year this one has reminded me of the importance of community, the necessity of dialogue, the courage of leadership, and the essential place public education holds in our country. There’s so much opportunity and to see educators using that to its fullest on a systematic level was inspiring. There is great work being done for some of our kids, maybe next year we will come closer to that great work being equitably present for all of our kids.

Every teacher that I saw was doing there best, we have to continue to push for nationally connected educators so that we aren’t reliant on our own backyard to teach us and grow our understanding.

There’s a lot to learn, let’s keep on it.