By Mike Zavada | June 23, 2020
“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7)
From the nurses and doctors in our hospitals to the essential workers like bus drivers in our cities, and on to our innovative teachers, we have had a lot of people to celebrate the past several months. These people have superpowers. From my vantage point of working in schools, I know that you as school leaders have been marshaling your superpowers as well.
Since Superman came out in 1943 to celebrate the American spirit and serve to rally American WWII efforts, the concept of human superpowers is one most of us love to imagine having. Even in our schools, our young students dress up as their favorite hero every chance they get.
The pandemic first showed us what kryptonite looks like in schools and unfortunately, many of our public school counterparts had to endure the kryptonite of schools: bureaucracy, lowest common denominator thinking, depersonalization of learning, fear of a lawsuit, and strong doses of analysis paralysis.
In Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the nation’s wealthiest and well-educated counties, a total failure of the learning management system resulted in a lawsuit, a month delay in teaching and learning delivery, and many upset students. In public districts across the country, fear that the district could not support students with I.E.P.’s meant the whole district’s learning from remote had to delay, cease, or be compromised.
Nevertheless, our private Christian schools pivoted quickly and in many cases resumed learning in a remote format within just a few days of their forced closures. How can this be? What superpowers do private Christian schools have that their public counterparts do not? How were our private schools able to continue learning, continue building relationships, and even continue formal assessments? How were art and physical education classes able to meet and elementary teachers able to give feedback to students as if they were there with the students in the class?
The answer lies in our superpowers. Every independent school has four superpowers which give them a huge advantage over the Kryptonite-stricken public system. They are:
- Personalized Professional Development
- A Pilot Process for Change
- The Gift of Failure
- An Entrepreneurial Mindset
When a public school decides it would be good for teachers to learn a skill or understand certain policies, they require every faculty member to sit through meetings to ingrain it into their consciousness. The bureaucratic wheel enforces a one size fits all solution to professional growth. It has neither the time nor the inclination to personalize professional development. That would be too hard to track and heaven forbid if a public school did not track its people.
In the private sector, we realize that our people are serious about their professional growth. Most are committed to it as part of their walk with Christ. Therefore, our colleagues use summers and the school year to grow and our leaders like you nurture that growth with suggestions and opportunities to shine. Some schools— like forward-thinking Wheaton Academy— even hire executive coaches to help their administrative team become even more thoughtful about their own professional growth.
Personalized professional development fosters a culture of the other three superpowers. A pilot process for change helps a Christian school pivot quickly with concepts and practices that have already been practiced by stalwarts in the school. In 2015, a Christian school I know well piloted a learning management system integration with about a third of its teachers. The teachers took some training and then ran with the ball, troubleshooting and suggesting the hidden value in the system. The next semester more joined the pilot. The pilot turned into a school-wide endeavor the next year. Then in 2020, when the pandemic hit, the school took just one day to establish its remote learning solution. The school was widely praised by the parent body for being out ahead of the crisis. Without the pilot, the school would have been held back by kryptonite in the forms of analysis paralysis and would not have known where to start.
Pilots engender a spirit that failure is just a step toward proof of concept. Throughout our schools in the last several years, we have fostered a spirit of The Gift of Failure popularized by teacher and author Jessica Lahey. While many schools want our students (and their parents) to experience the gifts that come with not getting it the first time, do our private schools follow suit? From my view, many of our best Christian schools did. They formulated a pandemic learning plan and most tweaked the plan when it was obvious the first rendition may have gone too heavy on daily video conferencing. We saw many schools redesign plans to meet on a less arduous rotation to reduce screen time, but keep the relationship-building going. The gift of failure encouraged flexibility to get to the next right answer.
This leads us to possibly the most important mindset our schools have: the entrepreneurial mindset. If you look back at our histories, many of our schools were started by pioneering men and women who wanted something different than either the public sector or the market could offer. These folks were entrepreneurial. They saw a market made of families wanting something different for their children, established a business plan, and executed the plan with resounding success and consumer satisfaction.
Now in light of the racial turmoil, revelations, and ill-will we see between our brothers and sisters of color today, we know that our pasts were not pure. Schools established as “workarounds” for desegregation orders are a stain on our pasts. Nevertheless, many of our schools have or are confronting those pasts and embracing students of all backgrounds for the good of the school overall. Here too there are opportunities for understanding and growth of our schools. As we invite all in, we can harness more of the superpowers each entity has and make our schools even stronger.
As a wise principal once quoted often, “We don’t have to. We get to.”
Using our ultimate superpower, nimbleness, we will overcome the pandemic and shift education the right way. Not with bureaucracy, one size fits all thinking or lowest common denominator protections, but with innovation, entrepreneurship, and the seizure of opportunity.
Go use your superpowers and share the gospel through education. Families and their children are counting on you! “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Mike Zavada (@mikezavada) is the Chief Strategist and Founder of RoundTable Education Consulting and an advisor for Epic Media Partners. He offers his expertise to school leaders as an executive coach, instructional coach, and strategic planning consultant. Working primarily in the Christian school space, Mike’s expertise comes on the basis of over twenty years in some of America’s best independent schools in roles that include dual division head, revenue generation strategist, athletic director, admissions representative, college counselor, dean, teacher, and coach. His current writing project “Metamorphosis: A Framework for Authentic Professional Growth” will help faculty and those that lead them to grow in a manner that will keep both thriving.