What does it take to become an educational changemaker?
I have long believed that to answer this question I needed to work my way to the top of the public school system. That is what I have done with my life thus far. It is 2020; I am 34 years old. I have been leading the charge within public education for 11 years; first as a teacher, then as a middle school team leader and district leader, and finally as an assistant principal. I have been tirelessly working within a system and attempting to change people’s mindsets and to give people freedom and permission to look at children and life differently.
So in my pursuit of change, I have believed in a quote I found three years ago: ‘Construction workers do not just discard a broken road and build a new one. They fix it. We cannot just build new schools in hopes this fixes the problem.’
I connected with this quote deeply. The broken roads were the system in public education and one of our country’s solutions was to create charter schools and private schools, alternative methods. These are the new roads that are built to address the problem. We are discarding the main way we have educated children: public education. We are not fixing anything, just creating more problems with more schools.
So, I had taken this on as my charge: to make the system of public education better, be a construction worker, fix the road. Until recently, I have whole-heartdly believed I could change it. I helped write a state innovation waiver to allow more freedom and flexibility to students and teachers; I coached and mentored teachers that were seeking permission to follow their hearts and put children first. I tried to convince teachers at the district level to trust themselves and do what was best for kids regardless of what others expect. My school instituted flex days that inspired change and sparked creativity. So, so many things. All things to change the system.
In spite of all this, only glimpses and tremors of change persisted. Doors have closed, my voice has gradually felt silenced, and a well-built system of traditionalism continues to say ‘...but the majority of students are doing well….’
As a result of these feelings, I have been forced to ask myself different questions. These questions make me uncomfortable and most likely make everyone else feel this way too.I have had to challenge my beliefs and decide if I still held them so tightly. Instead of changing the system, I was changing myself.
Among the many questions I have asked…
....what are we measuring students on? Standardized tests filled with knowledge answers that Google will tell us in fractions of a second? Not always. But the more classrooms I entered, the more I could see a truth I did not want to admit.
...do grades really matter? I have helped hire dozens of teachers and I have never once looked at anyone’s grades or GPA; yet, this is what we measure our high school students on for scholarships, graduation, rank, and ultimately, worthiness.
...why do we want all kids to be exposed to all the same things? Why wouldn’t we want them to have different experiences based on their likes, choices, and strengths? Whether we want to admit it or not, we are sending a message to students that school is to rank and sort them, not to help them learn and grow. Many strides are continuing to be made to change this, especially in my district. But, we remain stagnant.
...how much does school really affect an individual’s life success? Depending on what area we consider, answers vary. The pressure high school students feel to do well and get the right grades is real. But again, these grades are based off of an individual’s opinion of a combination of how a student treated a teacher, how he or she performed on some tests of knowledge that Google knows, and if he or she was responsible enough to turn in work.
All these questions and many more led me to begin asking myself if the public school system can be fixed or even if it should be. It is built on centuries of beliefs of compliance, making people look the same, and turning out kids like a factory. They are competing against one another for top grades on work that no longer is valued in society. They have been told they need to fit in, do what the teacher wants, and the rest will fit into place. Play the game and you will succeed. Why do we keep going back to ‘well, we have always done it this way’ as the answer? Am I willing to allow my own children to go through this system? (The answer to this question was no; see my blog post titled The Innovation School to learn more.)
In my heart, I wanted to believe the public school system could be made better and I could be the one to help do it. But in my head, I kept wondering if I was being honest with myself.
While I have loved the quote of fixing the road, I feel it is time to let it go. I have begun shedding my beliefs about education over the past five years. It is time for me to follow my heart and take a risk. Educational changemakers are everywhere, not just the top of a system. I will be leaving my role as assistant principal and moving to an alternative school, The Innovation School. My title in this new role is actually educational changemaker, not teacher, not administrator. I have discovered I had to look outside of the box to find where I would fit.
When reading my other blogs, you see the path that has led me to this point. Being a young teacher living in a system that has only provided me with success (scholarships galore, graduating top of my class, pleasing everyone but me), watching our boys struggle with school, experiencing other children and teachers struggle to express their strengths, finding a different way, and finally, discovering something that suits children so graciously (see blogs Our School Story and The Half-way Point).
This school may seem super alternative or not so much depending where your own journey is in regards to education. Students at The Innovation School are on a path to discover their strengths, who they are, and who they want to be. This is a school that does not condition children to believe what it believes; instead, it allows children to be free-thinkers and decide what they believe. It is a place that values choices, individual thinking and puts children’s needs at the front. While I am working to reconcile the thought of ‘building a new road’ instead of fixing the old, I just know this move is right for me.
I believe the educators within public school want these same things for children. There are pockets of choices, passions, projects, and student-directed learning throughout my current district. The sparks of creativity and individuality are there; I have seen it. There are just so many barriers, mindsets, and beliefs to work through. While I will no longer be within public education, I still hope there will be a way to marry an old system with new ideals to benefit all children. Because I am an idealist, my new belief is to merge the roads.
I am taking a risk, following my heart and my passion. I hope you will follow me on this journey; see my other blog posts and podcasts. I know I will experience challenges, successes, and many more situations I have not even thought about. I am excited, and scared. Scared that I may be wrong. I have, after all, bet all three of my boys’ educational careers on this way of learning. They will not follow the traditional path of requirements or be conditioned to believe what others have. They will have many choices; they will be different. I hope they will be different.
So I will be signing off as Mrs. Sharp, assistant principal, on June 30, 2020 and back on as Miss Meagan, educational changemaker, Sept 1, 2020.
Let the ride begin.