Resilient Schools in Action ASCD Fall Leadership Event National Harbor

The ASCD 2019 Conference on Educational Leadership in National Harbor, Maryland, focused on resiliency in action. I was fortunate to be of the thousands of educational leaders looking to transform schools and districts to ensure students and staff achieve to their highest degree. The goals of the event were clear, and I saw them come to life in real-time in all the sessions at the conference.

ASCDCEL Goals:

  • Cultivate school safety
  • Foster a healthy climate
  • Raise student performance and trust
  • Instill the mindset of equity and respect for identity
  • Achieve connections to one another and the entire education community

With more than 140 sessions, seven pre-conference institutes, five general sessions, two keynote luncheons, and a welcome reception featuring former Education Secretary John B. King Jr. (@JohnBKing), there was something for everyone. There was so much learning and content, I cannot highlight it all. I will give a fly by and highlight a diverse content to give a full flavor of the event.

Pete Hall (@educationhall) and Kristin Souers (@KristinKsouers) kicked things off with an opening keynote that set the stage for the event with knowledge and strategies. They elegantly explored the impact of stressors on the brain and shared techniques to create a culture of safety. They defined a culture of safety as “a learning environment that is safe, predictable, and consistent.” They spoke about the rising occurrences of childhood trauma, toxic stress, incredible demands, high expectations, public scrutiny, and funding gaps in today’s schools. In speaking with them, I was inspired to hear them talk about “connection.” Pete said, “Developing relationships with self, family, and community will create a solid sense of security and strong values. This will lead to resilience.” As a former principal, I fully agree with Pete. I saw how families that worked to foster healthy relationships reinforced positive messages and created more resilient learners.

Luis Torres (@TorresRealTalk) talked about “Fifth Priority.” He shared how food, shelter, safety, and health come before education. He gave educators a powerful message about finding ways to help families address these needs so that children can focus on their education. In his 20 years in the field, Luis prioritized “whole child education” before shifting to “whole school education” and, now, developing “whole community education” initiatives. When he speaks, his message is authentic and inspiring. 

To kick off day two, Tiffany Anderson shared strategies for transforming Schools for Excellence Through Leadership: Eliminating Opportunity Gaps. She shared inspirational stories that highlighted strategies used to close opportunity gaps in schools resulting in improved achievement.   

Joesph Jones (@josephjonessr), Principal El (@Principal_EL), and TJ Vari (@tjvari) led a session entitled: Passionate Leadership: Access + Agency = Equity. I was moved when they stated, “Equity is not just about access—it’s about outcomes. For better results, students need Agency. Real equity only occurs when learning takes place in a culture that supports the whole child through meaningful, student-initiated choices.” I immediately reflected on how much choice is in our district and visited classrooms after the event to ensure there were supports in place for educators to increase student voice and choice.

As a curriculum director, I wasn’t leaving ASCD without sitting in on a session with Jay McTighe (@jaymctighe). His focus on systems thinking and backward design to develop action plans pushed my thinking on lesson design. Learning about transitioning learning and answering the question, “Students will be able to independently use their learning to…” will be verbiage I use to support teachers in my district.

I am lucky to know Basil Main (@basil_marin) as a friend, and now I am inspired by him as a speaker. I attended his session with Jason Flom (@JasonFlom) and Chaunte Garrett (@drncgarrett). The trio talked about Equity: Awakening, Advocacy, and Activism. Their probing questions and self-reflection made me ponder systemic change and how it requires educational leaders to pursue equity and justice actively. But what I learned the most from Jason, Chaunte, and Basil was that it takes more than a pursuit, it takes action to implement culturally responsive practices. Basil said, “You don’t have to look like your students to support them…Saying nothing is saying something.” As a 48-year-old white male working in a district that is not extremely diverse, I left with a greater understanding of the social justice landscape and how I can make a positive impact in whatever community I work in.

I never met Sarah Johnson (@SarahSajohnson) and still haven’t met her in person, but saw her work all over the ASCD Twitter feed, so I stopped into her session: Resilient Leaders: Why We Need to Be Champions for All Students. We all work in districts (unfortunately) with children growing up in homes with abuse and neglect, but as educators, we have to build them up and become resilient leaders. Sarah stressed how children who belong to teams, schools, clubs, organizations, and religious communities build strong relationships and resiliency. It was affirming to hear that promoting positive social connections between staff and students, among students, and between schools and homes will build up students and resilient learners.

Anytime Baruti Kafele (@PrincipalKafele) speaks as an event; I am in the audience. His passion and perspective always gets me thinking and push me to be better. His session was on aspiring principals. As a district leader, I learned how to support our aspiring and even our sitting leaders: push them to be instructional leaders who make an impact. Two lines that will stick with me, and I plan to use in all my leadership coaching are: 

  • “The purpose of your supervision in leadership is to support every teacher to grow and be GREAT.”
  • “Show me a school with extraordinary teachers but poor leadership…it will be a low-performing school. Build up your staff!”

The last two sessions I attended were:

  • Beyond Effective: How to Take Great Teachers and Make Them Awesome with Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein) and Connie Hamilton (@conniehamilton).
  • Break Down the Box: What Must Happen for Achievement to Skyrocket with LaVonna Roth (@LaVonnaRoth)

In these interactive sessions, I was able to collaborate with peers, gather strategies, and reflect on how to build a foundation in staff relationships. I was also able to push my thinking through questioning. The sessions provided me with strategies to empower educators to take action, transfer discussions from teacher-centered to student-centered, and create a learning system that honors and values students as individuals. Adding voice to the classroom will allow students to be exceptional and confident learners, so they are highly successful in school and life.

The conference closed with an individual I admire and respect to the highest degree: Manny Scott (@ManuelScott). He is a true inspiration and someone who pushes me to reflect and be the best I can be. His talk was a reminder of the power we have on staff and students; a true call to action. His big question was, “Where Do We Go from Here?”

So where do we go from here? For me, it starts with reflecting on all the learning. Part of my reflection is writing and sharing. My big takeaways from the event were:

A Culture of Resiliency and Individual strength. 

Resilience is often considered the ability to overcome hardship and adapt quickly to change. So when I reflect, I have to ask, Are our school systems resilient enough? I know change is the only real constant in life. I also have seen teachers hold onto stability and resist change, and when change occurs they are thrust into chaos and fear.

I believe that resilience is a sign of a growth mindset. As a former principal and current district leader, I understand districts need processes and rigor to operate effectively. However, rigor and rigidity are very different. In my experience, when processes start to break down, it’s a sign the systems are not working, often they’re too rigid and need to be reexamined. So if we are not examining our current state of resiliency, our systems will break down when change happens.

Create a culture of resiliency

I heard so many discussions and “ways to be resilient” while in National Harbor. Part of reflection is knowing who you are and then choosing the most impactful path for your learners; one way will not work for all the students we support. The following points resonated with me and will be my first steps in increasing resiliency in my work and district:

  • Celebrate success. Setting goals and objectives is crucial in a culture of continuous improvement. But, do not neglect the importance of celebrating achievement before moving on to the next big thing. Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is a success.
  • Develop leaders. Resilient districts invests in the growth and development of people, not programs. We, as leaders, must provide regular personal and professional learning opportunities. These opportunities will encourage colleagues to become leaders in their schools and/or districts.
  • Institute peer collaboration. Peers that trust each other are more resilient than those who do not. Build a sense of community that encourages colleagues to coach each other. As Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
  • Develop accountability. Creating a high-performance culture has a foundation in accountability. By establishing clear expectations among school leaders, teaching and non-teaching staff, everyone will feel the students are “their” responsibility, not “your” responsibility. 
  •  Always circle back to “why.” No level of learning or recommendations will matter if your school or individuals lose sight of its cultural foundation. In other words, what is your purpose and the purpose of the school? Michael, Jr. said it best when he said: “when you know your WHY, you walk in, or towards, your purpose.”

Once a culture of resilience is in place, the next step is to focus on developing the learners’ resilience. 

Components of student resilience

  • Focus on student actions, attitudes, and emotions: Physical health supports resilience, including getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and enjoying good health. Additionally, we have to promote social and emotional competencies for resiliency such as:
    • stress management
    • a sense of control
    • self-efficacy, self-regulation, and self-esteem
    • advocacy 
  • Family Support: We are striving for all students to have a positive and supportive family, including warmth, stability, cohesiveness, a positive parenting style, and high expectations. However, that is not always the case, and as leaders, we must work to assist with the presence of a caring adult outside the family, such as a teacher, counselor, coach, or mentor.
  • Build student confidence:  A student’s faith in his abilities is obtained from confidence. We can build confidence by focusing on the best in each child so that he/she/they can see it as well. It is key to provide students with genuine praise about particular achievements and efforts, rather than spreading praise that may lack authenticity or is about “smarts.”
  • Develop student character: As leaders, we are charged with developing a robust set of morals and values for learners so they can determine right from wrong at an early age. This character will allow students to demonstrate a caring attitude toward others and build resilience in those not kind to them.

Focus on creating a safe and challenging classroom   

The dynamics of a classroom coupled with the instructional methods used can shape a classroom culture of resiliency. Sometimes a school may be the only haven students have. In the traditional school system, teachers reward children when they obtain good grades or behave expectedly and discipline students when they do not succeed academically, or when they display an attitude deemed inappropriate.

ASCDCEL gave the overarching message that the structure in schools needs to change and it is on US to create safe and welcoming learning environments. Our approach, influenced by positive messages and highlighting a strength-based model, will lead to a high level of classroom success. We have to move away from focusing on undesirable characteristics and focus on student’s strengths and well-being. It is these strategies that will build student resilience. 

A classroom culture of resiliency is not impossible. We all learned from many examples in National Harbor and now – as Basil Marin said in his session “It’s on us – Leave and Lead.”

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