Last week I had the privilege of visiting a very unusual school. I was there with a group of executive leaders who had traveled across the country to learn from the advanced architectural design and the successful implementation of an emerging education philosophy and culture.
Having visitors like this is a common occurence for the school's principal--people come from all over the world to learn and understand how she overcame the obstacles to create a high performing team that utilizes the remarkable design of these facilities. She has become adept as a tour guide, explaining the challenges, the failures, the successes, and the lessons learned.
This K-8 public school is two years young and is located in a city with strong unions, especially among teachers. Hiring a new faculty is hard enough, but was even more difficult navigating the contraints in this community. In preparing for our tour, I was most interested to observe the culture and engagement of the employees because that is such an important predictor of organizational success.
Most obviously missing from this new school building is the traditional hallways with lockers, four-walled classrooms with desks all in a row, and a bell system to dictate time intervals. Instead, the teachers use an open cluster of learning spaces that are clearly designed to provide autonomy within the inquiry-based curriculum. These methods were implemented in coordination with the philosophy of the building architecture, which was intended to maximize the benefits of student-centered learning.
In our conversations and observations, the teachers demonstrated a high degree of energy and enthusiasm for their work. The level of formal and informal communication between faculty members supported deeper relationships and trust--which is often a huge obstacle in an area with such pronounced union influence. They were proud to be part of this program, expressing respect and appreciation for the principal's investment in creating a culture in which they can thrive.
In any organization, employee engagement is the key to higher productivity, employee retention, and innovation. This principal was a master at communication skills that encourage faculty interactions across the campus, sustaining both collaborative learning AND collaborative action--She emphasized in her presentation the difference between the two. It isn't enough that her faculty learn in a collaborative manner because of the team teaching structure that is utilized. They also have to plan and implement in an interactive, synergistic practice that enables a geniune learning organization.
Just as we were there to explore this unique organization, they too were on a learning journey. From the intentional onboarding and professional development, the evidence showed that every day they are seeking to understand more about their students and how to equip, encourage, and enable them as dedicated learners. They were eager to engage with other teams working on related efforts and share their discoveries. The executive leadership was adept at listening to the employees and making adjustments in light of the mission, culture, and strategies.
On the ride back to the airport, our conversations explored all facets of what we had learned. The building was beautiful and inspiring. The students were delightful, and we enjoyed watching them learn with such intrinsic motivation. But what stood out the most was the leadership of the principal and her uncanny ability to build such a high performing team that was fully engaged in their work. She is a Champion of Talent and we are thankful for such courageous leaders.