Anna Sugarman, Professional Learning Coordinator, Shenendehowa Central Schools

The WHy

As 2019 changed into 2020, the world changed with it. Everybody’s world, our world, the world of international education. With the arrival of Covid-19, school leadership went from difficult work to brutally tough, unpredictable work, where every day the lines grew more blurred, the opinions grew more divided and the stakes grew higher. As Arundhati Roy reflected early in the pandemic, “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality,” trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists.” 

It wasn’t just the disease. Around the world, the long simmering pandemic of racial and social injustice boiled to the surface, in large part catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. The impacts of climate change became almost daily headlines in the news in all parts of the globe. A growing assault on truth spurred by mis- and dis-information on social media platforms left us all struggling with new layers of literacy and sense-making. These and other shifts, large and small, in the ways we understood our lives combined to leave us in confusion and disequilibrium.

Faced with this unprecedented challenge, AAIE went back to first principles. Pre-Covid, that shift had already been made, from ‘Conferences’ to ‘Conversations’. As Michael Fullan reminds us, “Conversations are our best sense-making tool”. David Perkins puts it even more simply, “Organizations are conversations”. Conversations are also a source of comfort and companionship. So when AAIE launched its weekly ‘covid conversations’, those of us in need of comfort and companionship in the midst of chaos found the call irresistible. We answered.

Nobody knew with confidence the How and the What of the ensuing conversation. We joined because of the Why. We joined because of the need to talk to others who shared our challenges, leaders on the same frontline in whom we trusted and about whom we cared. We joined so we could try to puzzle it all out together, to get ideas, suggestions, to share experiences, to give and receive empathy from people who ‘will understand’.

Remarkable things happened. What began as an informal sense-making process began to evolve. In spite of, or perhaps because of, a radical shift in our known universe, a new kind of conversation began to emerge ... a ‘What If? Conversation. What if these major disruptions to schooling and society might trigger a re-think of the purposes of schools in society? What if we followed Jim Collins’ advice and ‘faced the brutal facts’ about our schooling systems? What if we weren’t that good before Covid? Since parents had become home learning teachers overnight, what if parents were always closer to the learning business? What if learners were always more self-directed?

The ‘What ifs’ turned into a full-blown, extended inquiry into whether or not the pandemic might prove to be the birthing ground for ‘something different’. So it proved. We generated tough questions and set out to find answers. The inquiry morphed into a project. It became tangible enough to warrant a name. It became the New School Project.

The Why became clearer. We were determined that our schools would not simply survive the pandemic, but that they would emerge stronger, better, for all learning stakeholders. Our schools would have changed for good, in both senses of the word.

Along the way, other things changed. New relationships formed online. Strong, trusting relationships. Odd to note how this happened so easily when in some ways we were all so ‘distant’. We listened more, and more intently, to more voices. There were silences too, as we confronted the inequities in our schools, the failure to embrace diversity as our greatest source of strength. Reflective silences as we contemplated our own actions, or inactions, in addressing these truths. In truth, some awkward silences, as we pondered how to speak out, what to say, what words to use as we addressed realities we may have been comfortably ignoring, or leaving to others. A truth that emerged is that, in Margaret Wheatley’s words, “Diversity is what is at the root of all life and we need to find ways to realize that it is the source of creativity in our organizations”.

The power of conversation carried us through. If it was tough at times, so be it. As Fullan told us, ‘Leadership is for the hard stuff’. The What became clearer too. If we could distill our beliefs into a tangible form and find some enduring consensus on ‘what matters’, we may have found something worth sharing, a real contribution to positive change. As a way to give form to our thoughts, we settled on developing a set of Principles for the New School we were envisioning. A Principle can be defined as a “shared truth that brings freedom and order to a system” (CGC). So what were our ‘shared truths’? We identified Seven, and they shape everything that follows. Principles capture beliefs. They only begin to shape cultures when they inform norms of practice. So, it fell to us to identify positive Practices to enact our Principles … to find models, sources, examples, mentors, protocols … anything that would provide our schools with the tools to turn our Seven Principles into an organized array of positive, purposeful practices.

Everything we gathered was documented, shared, curated for the benefit of future users … ultimately for the benefit of future learners. Individuals stepped forward, offering to help with the heavy lifting. Teams were formed, often teams of erstwhile strangers who became co-workers for our just cause.

The result is in your hands now. The New School Project, with its Principles and its practical toolkits. Extraordinary work in extraordinary times. A work, in the end, of love. Love for our profession and our students, and a fair amount of it for our co-travellers on the New School journey. It was worth it to all of us. We simply learned so much. We hope it will prove worth it in terms of its impact where it matters … on student learning … the big Why.

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