The Importance of Feedback and How To Provide it

Performance management has become a necessity in almost all organizations, irrespective of venue and yet, typically, they are one of the most stressful and virtually useless activities in modern-day leadership.

Unfortunately, in public education and elsewhere, the evaluation process has become engrained as a bureaucratic requirement, much like high-stakes testing. If principals, as with all supervisors, focus on their mission, however, formal performance evaluations should be little more than a minor inconvenience.  All it requires is to integrate feedback into the daily work of principals. Same is true for superintendents providing feedback to principals. I call this integrated performance management.

This may seem impossible within the context of the existing education process, but imagine an education process structured to support these responsibilities. This is exactly the type of process I propose in The Hawkins Model©.

So, what is a principal’s purpose?

Their mission is to help teachers develop their potential to the optimum and do the best job of which they are capable; to help your teachers develop their craft, relentlessly. Principals have no greater purpose and their success will be measured in terms of how well teachers are able to serve the needs of their students.

What is “a teacher’s craft?”  

Teaching is an uncertain science. Never can we be assured that if we do “x”, “y” will be certain to follow. Not only is every teacher unique, as are each of their students, every teacher is on a unique growth and developmental path and the principal’s role is to help them improve the level of their “craftspersonship,” daily; which, in turn, improves the quality of outcomes.

A teacher’s craft is a dynamic body of skills, tools, experience, and wisdom coupled with the ability to apply them to meet the unique needs of individual students.  By utilizing their accumulating body of experience, teachers learn how to assess and respond to the unique needs of each student as each of them moves along their individual growth and developmental path; whether academic, physical, and emotional.

The teacher’s mission, also, is to help students begin accepting responsibility for their own dreams and aspirations. The ultimate objective for each of our students is that they leave school with meaningful choices and become productive members of a participatory democracy.

Ironically, teachers are much like their students; they must take increasingly more responsibility for their own professional growth and development.

As a principal, the job does not involve comparing teachers to one another or to grade them. Neither is it to find someone doing something wrong, unless it presents a teaching opportunity. When you spend time, daily, talking to each team member about their unique situations and working to help them develop their craft, they will always know how they are performing, and you will always know their status. Providing this kind of ongoing, integrated support is not something done once a quarter, semester, or school year, rather it is what you do every day in your interactions with both teachers and staff.

Principals must also understand that his works only if your teachers are willing to trust that your purpose is to help them be successful. They must view you as their champion and this must be demonstrated by your actions, not just your words.

This kind of an approach will help teachers feel they have some level of control over both process and outcomes. Having control over the outcomes in our lives is a powerfully motivating force.

Neither teachers nor students will commence their developmental journey from the same point of embarkation; rarely will they follow the same pathway or progress at the same speed; and, always, the objective is to help them apply in life what they have learned every step along the way.

If we learn to appreciate the value of every individual, what we do ceases to be work and becomes an adventure. There are few things in life that feel better than helping another person be successful. Being a principal, like being a teacher, is supposed to be rewarding.

There may be times when principals must make tough decisions. We do not want to give up on our teachers too quickly, however, any more than we want our teachers to give up on their students. The key is to give everyone an opportunity to surprise us, which, in turn, gives us something to celebrate together.

When formal performance evaluation reports are required, they will be little more than a status report and will almost always be a positive. The exceptions are when some remedial action has been deemed necessary and, in such cases, there should be a specific remediation plan where expectations are clear for all parties. Never should a teacher be out there feeling alone, hopeless, powerless, or unsure of their professional standing. We must help them learn to expect positive outcomes. The same goes for students.

Working in a bureaucracy is never easy but we are not required to let the bureaucracy define us. The best way to avoid being constrained by the environment around us is to keep a laser-like focus on our mission/purpose, which is: “help people be successful.”

If you are thinking this is impractical or even impossible in your school, you are offering “proof positive” that the existing education process is obsolete and unable to meet the needs of kids, teachers, and communities. For as long as a principal or teacher must circumvent the process to do their jobs, we will never produce the outcomes we need.

My education model is engineered so that the structure supports the work we do, not the other way around. Please take the time to check out The Hawkins Model©. You might be surprised!

Reinventing Public Education: A Categorical Imperative!

Transforming/reinventing public education in America is well within the realm of possibility because it is a relatively simple human engineering challenge. The obstacles to its realization exist not in the architecture or mechanics of a solution rather in the politics of change. Those obstacles begin with how difficult it is for people to step outside their paradigms and envision a different reality. Being able to envision a new reality is important to all human beings but is imperative for educators if we are to insure equality in education.

The danger we all face when confronted with a long history of disappointing outcomes is succumbing to resignation that we are powerless to alter those outcomes. It is so easy to become inured to the human consequences.

In public education, disappointing outcomes have been a fact of life for generations and the consequences have had an adverse impact on virtually all aspects of American society. Teachers entering the profession almost always believe that all kids can learn but, over time, they are confronted with the reality that so very many of them do not. Some educators succumb to the proposition that there are children who cannot learn.

That so many of these students are poor, black, and other minorities makes it inevitable that some men and women—not a majority, we believe—will draw unfortunate conclusions. Educators must be challenged to reject stereotyping or profiling by racial, ethnic, or any other categorization and conclude, instead, that the problem is not that these kids all look alike, rather that they experience similar disadvantages.

This tradition of unacceptable outcomes will not be altered until educators take a paradigm leap and imagine a new reality outside the boundaries of conventional thinking. Envisioning an alternate reality does not guarantee a solution, however. Even when we discover a transformational solution, we are still faced with one of greatest challenges facing organizations; we must overcome the paralysis of inertia.

What teachers, principals, and other administrators must do is simple. They must acknowledge that what they are asked to do in their schools and classrooms is not working for many students, especially the disadvantaged. They must be encouraged to forget about what the critics say; forget about the corporate reformers and the politicians who have been influenced by them; and, forget about test scores.

The only thing that matters to teachers is what they see in their classrooms. Not all teachers can see the pattern from their classroom, however, nor can all principals. Those educators blessed to work in high performing schools must not turn a blind eye to the challenges faced by so many of their colleagues.  They must remind themselves, often, that “if not for the grace of God, that could be me.” They must stand shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues in our most challenging schools and districts.

Superintendents have a special responsibility to provide positive leadership and in districts populated by struggling schools and failing students, superintendents must be strong enough to share the truth of what they witness. Their responsibility includes their students, the men and women who staff their schools, and the communities they have been chosen to serve. It serves none of these interests to act as if everything is okay.

It may be unreasonable to expect all top administrators to break from tradition, but they must be  relentless in challenging the assumptions of conventional wisdom. When these leaders see a long pattern of academic distress, they must feel compelled to act because if they do not, who can? 

It is not my desire to shower these good men and women with blame, but I do challenge them to accept responsibility. Blame and responsibility are two entirely different things. There is an essential principle of positive leadership that suggests “it is only when we begin to accept responsibility for the disappointing outcomes that plague us that we begin to acquire the power to change them.”

It has long been my belief that the top executives of any organization must be positive leaders with a passionate commitment to their mission. I have observed far too many leaders in education, whether superintendents or principals, who appear to be administrators more than powerful, positive leaders. Because most were hired and are evaluated based on their administrative experience and skills, we should not be surprised. Those graduate programs for school administrators that do not place great emphasis on leaderships skills must be challenged to rethink their mission.

It is my assertion that the absence of dynamic, positive leadership in school districts throughout the U.S. has given rise to a groundswell of dissatisfaction that, in turn, has opened the door for education reformers. These reformers—also good men and women—are only striving to fill a void of leadership. They see inaction from the leaders of public schools in the face of decades of unacceptable outcomes. Those outcomes are the millions of young people leaving school without the academic skills necessary to be full partners in the American enterprise.

What is unfortunate is that the solutions these education reformers and their political supporters offer have proven to be no more effective than the public schools they are striving to supplant. And, why should we be surprised when all they do is change buildings, call it a charter school, and ask teachers to do the same job they would be asked to do in public schools. They rely on the same obsolete education process and it is inevitable that they will get the same results.

This flawed education process impacts every child, adversely. To disadvantaged students, those impacts are often devastating.

Once again, I ask the reader to consider an alternate approach; a new model designed to focus on relationships and giving every child as much time as they need to learn every lesson, at their own best speed. Please check out The Hawkins Model© not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment.

The ultimate measure of the success of our schools is not graduation rates, or the percentage of students going off to college. Education must be measured by each student’s ability to utilize, in the real world, that which he or she has learned; regardless of the directions they have chosen for their lives. Education must be evaluated on the quality of choices available to its young men and women.

Whether you are a teacher, principal, or superintendent, how does one explain that all your dedication, best efforts, and innovation over the last half century have produced so little in the way of meaningful improvements in the outcomes of disadvantaged students?

Blaming outside forces is unacceptable. If the pathway to our destination is obstructed, do we give up or do we seek an alternate route? If we succeed in treating the illnesses and injuries of some patients does this let us off the hook in dealing with people whose illnesses and injuries are both more serious, and more challenging? “They all count, or no one counts.”

It serves no purpose to beat the superintendents of our nation’s public school districts about the head and shoulders, but we have a responsibility to hold them accountable. 

If teachers would rally together and utilize the collective power of their unions and associations to challenge conventional wisdom, they would gain support and become a revolution. The same is true of administrators and their associations. If teachers and administrators would link arms, they would become an irresistible force, not for incremental improvements, but for transformational change.  

Is there any doubt in the reader’s mind that if teachers and administrators were united behind a positive new idea that would assure the quality of education of every one of our children, that their communities would rally to the cause?

Educators, you truly do have the power to alter the reality that is public education for every child in America.

Quadrilateral Pegs in the Round Holes of Public Education; Revisited

Author’s note: In hopes of retaining a presence on social media, while writing my new book, I am selecting a few of the most widely-read blog posts from the past. I hope you enjoy this one.

 

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how many of these remarkable professionals seem unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered since I began school 67 years ago. Teachers labor in an education process that has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, it is easy for them to discount the merit of my education model as the work of just one more outsider telling teachers how to teach.

My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your hearts and minds to a new idea. If you see merit in what you read, I am asking you to help spread the word to other educators that there is an idea worthy of consideration.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. Over a nearly fifty-year career, I have worked with kids for 9 years as a juvenile probation officer and in a volunteer capacity for nearly 20 years. I have lead organizations; taught and have written a book about positive leadership; solved problems; created new and innovative solutions; reinvented production and service delivery processes; have written four book and many articles; have done testing for the military; and, while writing books, have spent ten years working as a substitute teacher in the same public school district from which my own children graduated.  Also, I have been a student of “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

The experience of participating in and observing what happens in public school classrooms as a substitute teacher, was an incredible opportunity to walk in the shoes of public school teachers. What I witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that does not meet the needs of a diverse population of students.

If you can imagine what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students in the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids will become the men and women who must lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole, from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they lack the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These education reformers, policy makers, and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve.

As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace. Many of these charter schools have failed to meet expectations in community after community.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids from every community in America. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We cannot produce the results these children and their communities need, so desperately however, until we examine the current education process through the lenses of a “systems-thinking” approach. Systems thinking allows us to challenge our assumptions about what we do and why. Only when we have taken the time to understand the flaws in the underlying logic of the existing education process will we be able to alter the way we teach our nation’s most precious assets and the way we support our teachers as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes have been and will continue to be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting the transportation needs of the 21st Century.

I have been working to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level. I am seeking superintendents of a public-school districts willing to test my education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools.

You, our superintendents, know what the data illustrates and you know that what you have been asking your teachers to do has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way.  Most importantly, you know the number of elementary schools in your district that are languishing no matter what you do.

Yes, I understand the data produced through standardized competency exams is a totally inappropriate way to assess the performance of our teachers and schools but let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. The results of these standardized tests do tell us one thing of inestimable value.  They tell us that the education process does not work for millions of children no matter how hard our teachers work on behalf of their students .

We often cite poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why so many of our students fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education, we leave the most vulnerable at the mercy of discrimination.

I challenge teachers, principals, and superintendents to ask yourselves whether there is anything you have done differently, over the course of your careers, that has resulted in a significant improvement in the performance of your students, in the aggregate. Yes, you can cite examples of individual students whose lives have been altered, but what about your student body as a whole? Your underperforming elementary schools and their teachers and students are waiting for you to do something different; something that will help them be successful. How about now?

It is time to consider a novel approach in which a new education model is crafted around the important work our teachers and students must do. It is a model designed to support them as they strive to meet the unique needs of an incredibly diverse population of American children.

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time to examine the model, not seeking reasons why it will not work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach and learn in such an environment. Are your students and their beleaguered teachers worth the risk of a couple of  hours of your time, given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

At my website you will also find my blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream with this and almost 250 other articles about the challenges facing public education.

Our goal must be to arm our nation’s young people with the skills and knowledge they will need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

It Is Time to Mold the Classroom Around Ts & Ss! Please Help!

We cannot afford to waste another school year. Next fall will be here before we know it and we must find superintendents who are willing to test a student-teacher-parent focused education model in one of their underperforming elementary schools. And yes, there are underperforming schools in both urban and rural school districts throughout the U.S.

Many of you reading this post are educators. We follow each other on Twitter so you have heard me make this plea, often. Please join the small but growing number of educators who have been both intrigued and excited after reading the education model I have developed. The model is based on my fifty years of experience working with kids, as an organizational leader, as a leadership and organizational development consultant, and as a substitute school teacher.

It is a model designed to support the important work of our teachers and students not impede their efforts. Please help me find a superintendent willing to test my model in one of their underperforming elementary schools next fall, for the 2019/2020 school year.

I ask you to:

  • Read my education model;
  • Follow my blog, Education, Hope and the American Dream:
  • Follow me on Twitter;
  • Share your enthusiasm for my model by “Retweeting” and “liking” my Tweets and by sharing my blog posts to the people whom you know and with whom you work;
  • Reach out to other educators, beyond Twitter, and encourage them to read the model; and, finally,
  • Implore superintendents, principals, and other administrators in your network to consider testing my model in one of their underperforming elementary schools

 

If you do, we can transform public education in America and begin repairing a nation that is becoming dangerously divided. I believe this is the only way we can preserve democracy in America for future generations.

If you take the time to read my model you will see that there is a solution to the challenges facing American schools, but it requires that we abandon a century-long tradition of employing incremental changes. These challenges demand that we go back to the drawing board to create an education process engineered to produce the results we seek.

Our children, their teachers, and our nation are in desperate need of an education process that rejects the failures of the past and put our focus on helping children learn so that they can use what they learn in the real world. Passing state standardized tests is meaningless if kids cannot use what they learn next semester, next year, and beyond. The same is true with respect to high school diplomas.

Please consider this informal analysis of students in my home state of Indiana.

ISTEP+ results in Indiana have been released, recently, and the numbers are staggering. Also understand, that Indiana is not unique. What we see in Indiana is true in school districts in virtually every state in the union and it has been true for decades.

ISTEP results for nine counties in Northeast Indiana show that there are at least 40 schools in which less that forty percent of the students in two or more grades, have passed both the English Language Arts and math components of the ISTEP. These exams are given to students in grades 3 to 8 and, again, in high school.

There are an additional 45 schools in which less than thirty percent of students, in two or more grades, pass both ELA and math components of the ISTEPs.

These schools represent both urban and rural school districts and both public, private and parochial schools. And, no, charter schools are no exception.

It is understood that we shouldn’t be testing. It is understood that many teachers and schools are under tremendous pressure to teach to the test. It is understood that high-stakes testing is the worst possible way to assess the performance of teachers. It is true that some of the tests, themselves,  may be flawed. None of these things, however, justify disregarding what the results tell us.

What the results of high-stakes testing tell us is that the education process, itself, is fundamentally flawed. It sets children up for failure. Disadvantaged kids, many of whom are children of color and/or who begin school with a low level of academic preparedness, suffer irreparable damage because of the education process.

This damage occurs despite the heroic efforts of our children’s teachers. Blaming teachers is like blaming soldiers for the wars they are asked to fight.

If that were not bad enough, there is research to show that many of the students who do well on such tests do not retain what they have been drilled to reproduce—to regurgitate—for more than a few weeks or months. As a former employer, I can attest that an alarming percentage of these young people are unable to use, in a real-world work environment, what their diplomas certify that they have learned.

The State of Indiana has begun letting students use the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to help qualify for graduation when they are unable to pass their ISTEPs.

As one of many individuals who administer the ASVAB, both in schools and for young men and women seeking to enlist in the military, I can attest to the fact that more than 30 percent of the high-school graduates and high school seniors seeking to enlist, are unable to get the minimum score to qualify for enlistment. The percentage of minority students who are unable to pass the ASVAB (achieve a score of at least 31 out of a possible 99), is substantially higher, over fifty percent.

This is a national tragedy that, through the balance of this 21st Century, will have devastating consequences for American society. I would also assert, that the policies of neither Republicans nor Democrats will be successful if we do not act to replace the flawed education process employed in our nation’s schools. There are no short-term fixes and we cannot return to earlier, simpler times.

It is imperative that we act now!

How To Make People Feel Important is an Essential Skill of Positive Leaders!

Great teachers and great principals share a common characteristic and less effective principals and less successful teachers lack that same characteristic. Great principals and great teachers have learned how to make people feel important, which is one of the essential attributes of positive leaders.

While following teachers on Twitter, one of the things these dedicated men and women often share is the nature of the culture in their school. Do they feel valued and appreciated or do they feel that their principals prowl the hallways looking for reasons to be critical? The culture in any organization is a function of the quality of leadership and the same is true in a classroom. The experience and success of students is every bit as much a function of the culture in the classroom as the experience and success of teachers is a function of the culture in their school.

Anyone who aspires to a position of leadership must learn what I consider to be the essential lesson of positive leadership: “It is not about you!”

The only measure of a leader’s success is the success of their people. Teachers may not think of themselves as leaders but leaders they are. Children are desperate for affection and affirmation and the heart will always be the portal to the mind. Make people and/or your students feel important and ignite the internal motivation to learn and to excel that exists in each of us.

Examine your own experience with your favorite teacher or supervisor. You felt a special relationship with your mentor, a real kinship. You knew you were liked and you did your best work while they were involved in your life. What did they do differently than the other teachers and supervisors who clutter your memory?

These leaders treated you as if you were special. They liked you; they remembered your name; they listened to you; they valued your opinion; they showed appreciation for your efforts; they smiled at you; they treated you with respect; they trusted you; they challenged you; they strove to help you do a better job; they provided you with clear expectations; they gave you continuous and ongoing constructive feedback; they let you make mistakes without fear of retribution or humiliation; they encouraged you to stretch, knowing they were there for you when you needed them. They made sure you received full recognition for your contributions and they celebrated with you. They expected much from you and so much more.

They worked hard to make you feel important. It was a genuine display of affection. And, it was easy because they liked people. Positive leaders genuinely care about and believe in the capabilities of the people with whom they work; whether those people are five, twenty-five, fifty-five, or older.

When subbing a few years ago, I was helping a young lady with an assignment. When we finished, and she understood, she thanked me; not for helping her but for caring. I responded that caring is what teachers do. She said, “Not mine. If they cared they wouldn’t be so quick to give up on me.”

Students will respond to the positive attention and affection of a teacher who communicates that they care with their words, actions, their smiles and even the twinkle in their eyes. They care enough to expect the best of a child; they care enough to give their students the safety of boundaries. The student is sufficiently important that their teacher refuses to give up on them. Teachers will respond to that same positive affection and attention from their principals.

If you are a principal, how would your teachers rate the quality of your leadership? How fondly will they look back on their time with you?

The Biggest Flaw in our Education Process is not Giving Kids Time to Learn!

My challenge to teachers, whom I consider to be unsung American heroes, is to look deep inside your hearts and think about how many times the education process requires you to move your students on to a new lesson before they are ready.

How many times in a given semester, year, or in your career have you had to record a lesser grade beside a struggling student’s name, not because it was the best that they could do, rather because an arbitrary schedule said it was time to move on to a new lesson module? For many of you, this happens, routinely, with one or more students on every lesson module. In some public schools—in all schools, actually—it happens for the majority of a teacher’s students. In our lowest performing schools, it happens to teachers with almost every student on almost every lesson; semester after semester and year after year.

Is it any wonder that so many of these students are unable to pass state competency examinations by the time they reach the third grade? Why should we be surprised that a significant percentage of these boys and girls have given up by the time they reach middle school? We all know what happens when a child has given up and lost hope. They stop trying and begin acting out in class. After all, they cannot appear to care! Peer pressure is far too powerful.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America (2013), I used an example of children learning how to ride a bicycle and I will use the same example in my new book, which will be finished by the end of the year.

We know that some kids learn quickly and are riding within an hour or two, and that other children will endure bruised egos and scraped appendages for several days before their brains finally gain a sense of balance. We also know that once they learn to ride their bikes they derive the same enjoyment from riding as the early learners. The fact that it took them longer to learn is inconsequential. The only thing that matters is that they did learn and can use what they learned.

There are many things that determine a child’s success in learning. Children learn differently. They have different potential. Some have special needs. Some kids arrive better prepared to learn. Some children are shy and timid and are fearful of being embarrassed in front of their teachers and classmates. Some boys and girls need more personal attention before they are ready to test their knowledge. So many others just need more time to learn.

Imagine that when half the children have mastered the art of riding a bicycle, we immediately push all ahead to learn advanced riding skills. Can you imagine popping wheelies, doing jumps, or racing around turns before you’ve mastered keeping your balance, braking, and steering? Can you imagine even having the courage to attempt using more demanding skills when you are still afraid of falling?

With poignant clarity, this example illustrates the trauma that children face when the learning process is more focused on keeping up with an arbitrary schedule than helping children learn. The more scrapes and bruises, whether egos or appendages, the greater the trauma. Imagine the added indignity when we attach grades to the names of these children: A’s for the fast learners and C’s, D’s, and F’s for their slower classmates.

Learning is not a competition. It is not like a race to see how fast they can run and where the winners get ribbons and medals and the losers get nothing.

Learning should be thought of as more like healing from an illness or injury. It does not matter that some individuals heal more quickly than others and we certainly do not award ribbons, medals, or A’s to patients who recover the fastest and easiest. The only thing that matters is that our patients heal.

Learning, also, is not a trip where all students travel to the same destination. It is not grooming children for the life we envision for them rather it is preparing them to discover their own future. With our help, they acquire the basic academic skills they will need to interact and communicate with the world around them. From that foundation they can begin to discover their own talents, interests and, ultimately, the destinations they choose for themselves. This adventure of discovery requires that they are exposed to a broad range of learning experiences that challenge their own imaginations and the imaginations of their teachers. Teachers, in a positive leadership environment, must keep in mind that we can barely imagine the world in which our students must be prepared to prosper.

If you think about these examples you can see that what we ask teachers and their students to do in our schools, today, makes little sense. It’s the way we’ve always done it, however. The entire education process is structured, tasked, and resourced to reward the speed or ease with which one learns rather than assure that every child learns. Tragically, we have become inured to the reality that so many of these precious young lives fall behind and out, along the way.

We talk a great deal about the importance of relationships between teachers and their students but the process, itself, and the way we organize teachers and their students, makes it difficult to develop nurturing relationships with every boy or girl, especially the most timid and reticent. Where does it say that the best way to organize teachers and students is in grades Kindergarten through 12? Where did we get the idea that it is in a child’s best interest to assign them to a different teacher, every year?

Who decided it was okay to allow children to fall so far behind that they are never able to catch up? Who got the bright idea that it is okay to expect kids who start from behind to keep up with classmates who arrive at school, readier to learn? What were they thinking when they decided that it was in a child’s best interest to learn at the same pace as their classmates and reach the same milestones together?

Who in the world got the idea that it is acceptable to tell students we cannot give them the extra time they need to learn? When did we decide to accept, unquestioningly, that our education  process is working when the same kids and the same schools are unable to pass state competency exams, year after year? It is bad enough that administering such exams has become our focal point. Is it not worse that we seem not to learn and then utilize what the exams are telling us?

Whether you are a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member, or policy maker, do you deem it acceptable that some kids excel in school while others fail? Do you not see that while it might be wonderful that some teachers are able to accomplish extraordinary things for their students, it does not mean the education process is working for children, everywhere?

The truth we must accept is that the teachers and schools that are able to accomplish extraordinary things for their students are succeeding despite the system, not because of it.

Examples of these success stories are wonderful in that they show what educators can do when allowed to use their imaginations in an environment supported by positive leadership. The challenge, however, must not be helping more teachers and principals carve out exceptions to the norm. The challenge must be creating a process that allows all teachers to use their skill, training, and imaginations to help children learn as much as they can from their own unique starting point; all kids, not just a few. The challenge must be preparing them to take command of their own destinies.

We must not preserve the existence of a system that constrains the ingenuity of our teachers and the performance of their students. What we must do is go back to the drawing board and create a system that exists to help all children learn, grow, dream, and create.

Through the application of my nearly fifty years of working with children and leading organizations, I have developed an education model crafted around the work of teachers and students. I urge you to take an hour or less of your time to examine my education model. Read it, not looking to find fault. Read it like an explorer to see if there might be a better way to do what you do. You can find the model simply by scrolling down to the previous blog post.

We Must Be Willing to Believe There Is a Better Way to Teach Our Children!

One of the things that distinguishes positive leaders from the rest of the crowd is their belief in the possibility of a better world. How many times, when presented with a new idea for solving a problem have you heard the response, “That’ll never work!” “You will never convince them of that.” “Management will never go for something that grand!” “You are biting off more than you can chew!” “You will never get the funding!” “What makes you think they will be willing to listen to you?” “That’s impossible!” “You are spitting in the wind!” “You’re dreaming!” We could go on and on with similar examples of the excuses people use for not taking action when getting of unacceptable outcomes.

Right now, in the USA, we are producing unacceptable outcomes that have an adverse impact on millions of young people. In our public schools, disadvantaged kids, a disproportionate number of whom are black and other minorities, are failing in great numbers. This is an untenable situation that has a negative impact on almost all aspects of American society and is placing our democracy at risk.

We have the power to alter this reality, beginning now and all it requires is for professional educator—teachers, principals, superintendents, and policy makers—to admit to themselves, if not to the world at large, that what they are doing is not meeting the needs of millions of our nation’s children. The only thing stopping us from altering this reality for all time is our unwillingness to acknowledge that their must be a better way, one that will meet the needs of every child, including disadvantaged kids.

Yes, I know many teachers in many of our nation’s best schools are happy with the job they are doing but they must not be content with the success of their own students and schools. What about the students who are struggling in other public schools in communities throughout the U.S? What about your colleagues who are giving their hearts and souls to students less fortunate than those in our nation’s best public schools?

It is time to reinvent the American education process in use in schools throughout the nation, both public and private. I have offered an idea educators can use as a starting point. I believe if you take the time to truly understand the model I have developed, you will see that, not only can it work, it would be relatively easy to implement and would require minimal action on the part of our state legislatures, if any at all.

What do you have to lose but a few hours of your time? What you may gain is something that might very well inspire you to act. At the very least, it will give you food for thought and get you thinking of other ways the failure of disadvantaged kids can be remedied.

You have the power to help create a whole new world for students, teachers and their communities. All it requires is that you convince, first, yourselves that maybe there is an idea that would work, and then, ask one or more of your closest friends and colleagues to join you in a campaign to transform public education in America.

Can you imagine how exciting it would be to participate in something that will change the world around you? Can you imagine how satisfying it would be to begin a process that will render education reformers and high-stakes testing, irrelevant.

Please examine my model at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ and envision what it would be like to teach in such an environment. Imagine the difference it would make for your students. Envisioning better outcomes and then utilizing their imaginations to bring that vision to life is what positive leaders do whether or not they occupy formal leadership positions.

Quadrilateral Pegs through the Round Holes of Public Education

Participating in the dialogue between teachers, principals, superintendents, and other players in our public schools has been enlightening and inspiring on the one hand and frustrating and discouraging on the other. It is wonderful to know there are so many amazing men and women who have dedicated themselves to teach our nation’s children. It is heartbreaking, however, to see how so many seem to be unaware that they are being asked to do one of the most important and most challenging jobs in the world in an environment that has not been significantly altered in at least a half century and clearly has not been adapted to meet the needs of 21st Century children.

It has been a struggle to find an analogy that resonates with teachers, principals, and superintendents so they can see what it looks like to observe them at work, from afar. I know that many consider me an outsider because I have not been trained as a professional teacher, making it easy for them to make light of my education model. My perspective is unique, however, and merits the attention of our nation’s public school policy makers, leaders, and classroom teachers. I am speaking as an advocate for public education and for American public-school teachers and school administrators, not as an adversary. I consider public school teachers to be unsung American heroes and I’m asking you to open your minds to a new idea.

As a student, I have earned two masters’ degrees, one in psychology and the other in public management. On my own I have been a student of leadership for over forty-five years and have written a book to share what I’ve learned about the power of positive leadership. Also, I have been a student “systems thinking” since reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, when it was first published in 1990.

I have had an opportunity to both participate in and observe what happens in public school classrooms from the perspective of a substitute teacher over a period of ten years. I have worked with some of my communities most challenging children as a juvenile probation officer for the first nine years of my career. I have spent 30 years of my career in organizational leadership and consulting where I designed from scratch or reinvented service delivery and other processes to produce acceptable outcomes for the customers of my organizations or for my clients’ organizations. I have both taught and counseled CEOs, managers, and supervisors how to be effective positive leaders of their organizations and its people. I have been both the designer and instructor of multiple employee training programs.

What I have witnessed as an observer of the public schools of my community are dedicated, hard-working professional men and women, giving their hearts and souls to their students in a system and structure that has not been significantly altered since I started school in the fall of 1951.

If you can imagine, even for a moment, what our nation’s system of highways would look like—given the number of automobiles and trucks on the roads, today—if neither President Eisenhower, in 1956, nor any of his successors had envisioned America’s interstate highway system, you will have an idea of how our public school classrooms and the education process at work within those classrooms look to me, observing from afar.

We are asking good people to educate our nation’s incredibly diverse population of students on the education equivalent of Route 66. These kids are the future men and women who must be prepared to lead our nation through the unprecedented and unimaginable challenges the balance of the 21st Century will present. Think about the diversity of American public-school students. They represent every color of the human rainbow, speak innumerable languages, come from families both fractured and whole from every corner of the planet, and with a range of backgrounds with respect to relative affluence and academic preparedness that is as cavernous as America is wide.

Public school educators are striving to do their absolute best for students in an environment in which they are without the support of our federal and many of our state governments and are under attack from education reformers with their focus on “school choice.” These reformers and the politicians who are influenced by them are destroying our public schools and the communities those schools were built to serve. As I have written on so many occasions, a handful of charter schools serving a few hundred students at a time, even if they were innovative, will never meet the needs of the millions of American children on whom our nation’s future depends. These charter schools that are being funded with revenue siphoned from the coffers that were meant to support our public schools and rely on the same obsolete education process used in the public schools they were intended to replace.

We already have school buildings in communities throughout the U.S., staffed with the best teachers our colleges and universities can produce, and filled with kids. This is where the problem exists and where its challenges must be met. We just need to change the way we teach these kids and the way we support both teachers and students as they go about their essential work.

There have been many innovations in public education in recent decades, but they and other incremental changes will be no more effective within the context of an obsolete education process than repaving the highways of the 1950s would be in meeting today’s transportation needs. It is the education process or system that is obsolete.

Over the past few years, I have worked to build an education model that I believe will put both teachers and students in a position to be successful. It is a model that was designed from scratch to be molded around the relationship between teachers and students, enabling all to perform at their optimal level.

I am seeking a superintendent of a public-school district willing to test my education model in one of its underperforming elementary schools. You know the numbers and, therefore, that what you have been doing has not altered the bottom line with respect to student performance in any meaningful way. Why not consider a novel approach?

My education model and white paper, can be examined at my website at: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ along with over 200 articles on public education on my blog. I am asking you to risk a couple of hours of your valuable time. Are your students worth at least that much given that the value of the upside is incalculable?

We often blame poverty, discrimination, and segregation as the reasons why these children fail. The reality is that when we ignore the unique requirements of our students and try to push their quadrilateral pegs through the round holes of public education we are the ones who discriminate. What we are doing has not worked for the last sixty-five years and it will not work for the next sixty-five years. When we let them fail we render them defenseless against discrimination.

Our goal must be to arm these young people with the skills and knowledge they need to be impervious in the face of prejudice and discrimination and to ensure that they have meaningful choices. We can only accomplish this goal if we transform public education in America.

Black or White They’re Just Kids: They Need Us & We Need Them!

This is the 3rd segment of our series of articles on education, racism and the performance gap.

It is incredibly difficult for a white person to understand what it is like to be black. Sadly, most white people are perfectly content to know as little as possible about such things. For others like my white daughter and son-in-law, who are parents of a black son, it is imperative that we understand as much as we possibly can.

My wife and I have three grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, golden brown skin, and a smile that lights up the world. The second is a little boy whose skin is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match, who has his sister’s smile, and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest grandchild is the biological child of my youngest daughter and her husband. She is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. She is also beautiful with a smile that is second to none.

These children represent our family’s beautiful rainbow and, like all grandparents, we love them so much that it hurts.

When our daughter announced that they were adopting a black infant we knew he would face challenges but we did not yet grasp the whole of it. From the events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere we have become painfully aware of the dangers our sweet and beautiful little boy will face; not because of anything he has done but only because of the way the color of his skin will affect the attitudes of a huge population of Americans.

We shuddered after reading such powerful articles as “I Never Knew How White I Was Until I Had a Black Child,” which you can find on Rosebelle’s Blog; and more recently, “7 Ways Racism Affects the Lives of Black Children” by Terrell Jermaine Starr on the website Alternet.

I have spent my entire lifetime striving to understand why our world is so full of hatred over issues as insignificant as the color of one’s skin. I still struggle to understand why differences in eye or hair color are perceived as different shades of beauty while differences in skin color can produce such hatred and mistrust.

I was blessed to be born to parents who taught that we are all children of Creation and that we were blessed to live in a country in which we are all considered equal under the Constitution.

I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school where I learned to be friends and playmates of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friends, I was devastated. Innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

Later, at the age of 20, I was privileged to spend a summer working in a churchyard in Philadelphia, providing a place for kids to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All were African-American. While I was responsible for the 30 to 40 different boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who chose to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised.

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17. Later, I was one of the founders of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged to be around and play with a diverse group of children.

What I learned during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids.

They all laugh when they play or act silly; cry and bleed red when they get hurt; get mad when they lose; celebrate when they win; get embarrassed when they are made fun of; yawn when they get sleepy; respond to love and affection with love and affection; and, suffer egregiously when abused by their parents or when bullied.

They all have the ability to learn; they all are curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete. That we give up on them only adds to the tragedy.

They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions all of which add beauty to the world. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation.

They all deserve the absolute best we have to offer and the very fact that so many of them fail provides irrefutable evidence that they are not getting our best and that what we are doing does not work for everyone.

Whether we are teachers, principals, policy-makers, or deans and professors of schools of education we must be willing to pull our heads from the sand and stop defending the indefensible. The fact that so many children are failing, particularly minorities and the poor, is not a predisposition of birth or a fact of nature. Such incidence of failure is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between white children and their black and other minority classmates is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce.

This flawed system is not the fault of teachers and other professional educators. Rather, the culpability of educators is the result of the fact that they are the people in the best position to identify and remediate this flawed educational process but they hold back as if they are afraid to act. It is critical that we understand that this lack of action is not because they are bad people or incompetent professionals rather it is because they have succumbed to the belief that they are powerless.

Teachers must be challenged to accept that powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice. They are equally free to choose to be both hopeful and powerful.

The over-riding truth, as we move deeper into this exponentially complex 21st Century, is that we need each and every one of these kids just as desperately as they need us.

Our ability to compete in the world marketplace will require the absolute best of every single American and if we do not pull together as one beautifully diverse nation of people—the proverbial melting pot—the results will be tragic for all of us, black, white or any of the colors of the rainbow. We will no longer live in a world where being an American is something of which we can be proud. Neither will it be a world where our children and grandchildren can feel safe and hopeful in rearing their own children.

The final segment of this series will be devoted to showing professional educators one way in which we can irrevocably alter the reality of public education in America.