Eliminating inequities begins with each of us; we see students as people with assets and aspirations, and it is our job to help them realize their goals and dreams. This is one of our shared equity beliefs in our school district. We start many of our meetings by making time to reflect on one of our beliefs by sharing with a colleague a time that we lived that belief versus a time we missed an opportunity to do so. The reflections are compelling moments for our leaders and teachers to think about times they have empowered our learners to become their authentic selves with our guidance and support. Our job is to help them realize their goals and dreams, which means we need to have relationships with our learners so we know who they are. We also have to create opportunities in every class, school, and grade level for students to know themselves, find their strengths, learn areas for growth and have time to explore their passions.
We want our learners to know that our schools are designed for them to define their own trajectory and realize what’s possible for them after graduation. It is not our job to determine their pathway. Our job is to hold everyone to high standards, to push learners in conjunction with their families and other supports to develop their skills, both personally and academically, and to make space to try new things. It will mean some of our students enter the military, some enter four-year colleges, some attend technical schools, some enter the workforce, and some create their own pathways by becoming entrepreneurs. Schools should be co-designed with learners so they know how to try, how to fail, how to try again, and what options are out there to discover the ones that are right for them.
Those are the outcomes that we are working towards. The outcome is more significant than a test score. Don’t get me wrong, test scores are also important as they can open doors for learners to enter post-secondary education and earn scholarships if that is their pathway. Test scores are also how we are publicly judged, and like it or not, that’s important. However, the most impactful outcome we are searching for is that every single learner is living life on their own terms years after graduation with the skills to achieve their goals and the skills to adapt when the goals need to change.
I get to see some incredible samples of this every day in our schools. We have second and third graders who talk about how they spend time in class learning about their strengths, growth areas, and how they can support one another when things are challenging. We have middle school students who can talk about closing their own academic gaps because once that they have applied the skill to a real task, the work has a purpose. We have high school students who can share which standards they mastered by creating a jewelry business or a candle company. The amount of empowerment I get to hear often makes me know that we have many learners who will be ready to achieve any goal and have the perseverance to overcome any obstacle for their lifetimes.
One of the most outstanding examples of exactly what we want for every student in our schools was articulated on an internationally followed podcast. I was invited to be a guest with two of our students on the Transformative Principal podcast to talk about our learner-centered practice. One of the students who joined me that day shared that he has his own podcast. As connecting with experts to help us grow and finding an authentic audience is an essential part of our deeper learning work, we connected with George Couros, who helped Deontay learn about producing a podcast and finding your audience. Deontay talked about how school helped him find his passions and what he plans to do after graduation. They also spent a lot of the time talking about basketball shoes as that is a huge passion for both of them.
A few weeks later, Deontay was one of the graduation speakers from Dottke Project-Based Learning High School. In his speech, he talked about overcoming obstacles in his life and why the people around him mattered so much to his journey. It was such a beautiful representation of what we want for all learners- demonstrating speaking and writing skills, talking about exploring your passions at school, connecting to peers and adults around you, and knowing that learning takes multiple tries to get right. He shared how he has the skills, both those he learned at school and elsewhere, to overcome challenges and to know he can always learn more and try again. I shared the speech with George and then Deontay sent George an email a short while later to thank him for the time they spent together, which led to George inviting Deontay to be the first student guest on his podcast.
In his first episode, he talked about educators who have inspired him. It was a beautiful reminder of how powerful our relationships with our learners are the key to success in school. As it was hard for him to name just one, the number of educators he named was inspiring. After watching the episode, I sent it to the teachers he mentioned to thank them for their work. We don’t do that often enough- express our gratitude for one another and celebrate the thousands of successful moments we experience every day.
In the next episode, Deontay shared about the learning experience he has had where educators saw him for exactly who he is and brought out his strengths. He talked about finding his people, including peers and adults, who connected with him to make sure he had the tools and resources to celebrate the great moments and work through the hard ones. The most powerful part of the episode for me and one I have used in professional development and a class I get to teach at a local university is this one:
He gives advice on how school has to change for the betterment of everyone from a system designed years ago to what learners need now. It’s a message we’ve heard repeatedly, but coming from a recent graduate who had a more personalized experience in school was pretty awesome.
Many people may think the outcome is that one of our learners got on an internationally followed podcast. While that is amazing, that is not it. The outcome we want for all our learners is that on that podcast, with no prompting about what he was going to be asked or prep work to tell him what he should say, he was able to beautifully articulate how school helped him to find his authentic self and define his own trajectory. A local public school was a place where he felt he was celebrated for his strengths and given chances to apply those to school by making podcasts for classes or building aquaponics labs. A local public school was a place where he knew what he needed to work on and felt safe to do so knowing the adults around him were there for support. A local public school was a place where he knew he belonged and was celebrated for exactly who he is and what he was becoming. He used each of those experiences to be ready to define his own pathway to success. That’s the outcome that matters most.