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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

The Long Game

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

I offer this gift to independent school leaders over the winter break. It's derived from a conflict I've heard heads articulate often in the last month, namely, the collision between the promise of educational innovation born of the pandemic, and the unlikeliness of an exhausted teaching corps embracing those innovations.

So here's the upside, the gift: play the long game. That anxiety-fueled adrenaline surge you feel every time you read another breathless piece about the doom awaiting any school that does not immediately carry out a Southern New Hampshire University transformation or dissolve the disciplines? Commit yourself to eschewing those articles all winter break, and meditate on a realistic, conservative estimate of the pace for innovation your faculty can sustain over the next 18 months. How can you afford to do this? Because this conflict is yet another example of the many conundrums of mutual exclusivity that the pandemic has presented us. Even the best, most thoughtful attempts to push hard on these kinds of initiatives next year will fail, and in failing, schools will have lost their greatest value proposition, the faculty.

Two other important factors should dominate your thinking on this matter. First, relationships will always be at the center of the independent school value proposition: safe classroom communities, individual relationships between teachers and every child they teach. Against great odds, teachers have worked creatively and exhaustively to preserve the centrality of community and individual relationships since last March. They'll continue to do so next year, and that will be exactly what kids need before they can set out on the stretchy, engaging academic projects we're eager to return to or to innovate from. Second, work driven toward systemic innovation will have to be done collectively next year. The emotional tenor of the faculty, the very low balance that school leaders have in their trust accounts, will not accommodate task forces, think tanks, beta groups. A school shifting student evaluation from grades to mastery, for instance, will have to do the work together, all the sausage ingredients on a giant table, everyone gathered round, all hands immersed. Wholly inefficient, to be sure, but until teachers recapture the emotional and cognitive flexibility to encounter big ideas and trust each other and school leaders, the work will have to transpire slowly and with everyone present at each major step.

Give yourself, your faculty this space. Identify those innovations that you genuinely believe can advance your school's mission and meet the challenges of the future and begin to sketch out a program of exploration and reflection (not decision-making) that comes to its mid-point of articulation in January 2022--not with extra meeting obligations but within the typical rhythm of whole group faculty meetings and in service activity. This will surely feel regressive, a return to the glacial pace of progress for which independent schools (schools writ large, frankly) have been criticized for many years, but this is one of the conundrums of mutual exclusivity that we have faced throughout the pandemic and that will be part of the pandemic's long tail. Does a school exist with a faculty primed to set out on seismic changes next fall, that is, a school that can have a trusting, copacetic faculty AND undertake major programmatic change? Perhaps a tiny handful will assemble somewhere at the hazy edge of this horizon where the possible fades into fantasy. Everyone else must prioritize the needs of the faculty (and by extension, the kids) and put programmatic change on a gentle path next year.

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