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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Envision Opportunity

Take a quick look at the phrase that follows and read it aloud:


How did you read it? What does it say?

Did you read it as, OPPORTUNITY IS NOWHERE
or did you read it as, OPPORTUNITY IS NOW HERE

It's interesting how we interpret words when we read real fast. There's a significant difference between the two distinct outcomes one can arrive at when reading the phrase, just like it seems there's always two sides to everything.

The perspective we have on issues is often reflective, at a conscious or unconscious level, of what we believe, what we value, and how we feel. There are numerous factors that form an intricate mosaic of our responses and views. You'll have to indulge in self-introspection to examine why you read the phrase as you did and what that interpretation might mean.

I have always tried to operate with a constructive and optimistic perspective, as opposed to adopting a skeptical or cynical outlook. Perhaps that's idealistic or naive, but I prefer it over the alternative. Therefore, I read the phrase as OPPORTUNITY IS NOW HERE rather than OPPORTUNITY IS NO WHERE. Much of my work as the superintendent of Green Island is designed to influence members of the school and community to read the future of our school in the same manner. That is, that our opportunity is in fact here and subscribing to an opinion or belief that OPPORTUNITY IS NO WHERE will not serve any of us well.

It takes time. It requires a vision with credibility that invites faith. And, it will necessitate compelling evidence to enlist people in following and committing to an adventure that requires sacrifice and resilience. But, as an old Chinese adage states, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."

One of the featured components of discussions on school improvement is "vision." What is a vision? Why do people talk about vision? Where and how do you get a vision?

A vision is an imagined and desired state. It is timeless rather than finite and terminal. Like the stars that guided ancient mariners, perhaps we will never reach them but we can certainly plot our course by them. A vision is an ideal that is constantly modified to meet changes and improvements in what we know about excellence in the teaching/learning process. In their work "Creating Excellence" authors Hickman and Silva describe vision as "a journey from the known to the unknown, creating the future from a montage of facts, figures, hopes, dreams, dangers, and opportunities."

A vision should serve as a beacon for the school community. The meaning and direction expressed in the vision provides a mental image of what "could be, and should be" such as Heatly: A small school with BIG ideas! This guide will then function as a filter that screens actions and decisions of the school by way of asking, "Does this facilitate the pursuit of the vision?"

A vision is captivating and motivating. For instance, the late Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech is a classic example of communicating a vision. When King delivered this famous address to over two hundred thousand people in Washington, D.C. the civil rights movement was galvanized. A review of King's presentation yields several essential ingredients for articulating a vision. King utilized repetition, imagery, and metaphors, in an emotional appeal to the central values and beliefs of his audience. The message was enduring, motivational, credible, energizing, and most of all, it was right. He presented followers with a more attractive future in such a fashion that they enlisted in the pursuit of the day "When we let freedom ring."

Contrast this with the light that guides many schools today. The accountability movement is so oriented toward test scores that the accepted "vision" of schools is "raise the test scores" or "let's have scores higher than school district X." This goal hardly serves as a vision worthy of the sacrifices of valuable time and sincere effort required by those involved. Where is the personal conviction? the emotion? the tug on the follower's inner feelings? And we wonder about detached constituents in and out of the school.

In an effort to craft a vision the school leader should examine the institutional history of the school for important artifacts, heroes, and legends. These symbols can be assimilated into the fabric of the vision to create context and meaning. Assuming a variety of perspectives generates multiple possibilities for the school's future. Scanning the internal and external environment for input provides added ingredients for the vision. Developing a vision is similar to the task of an architect designing a blueprint for the school. Instead of a visible, concrete structure the school leader is casting a conceptual framework; a blueprint for social architecture.

In order for the vision to work it must be clear to everyone and applicable to all members of the school staff. Furthermore, the staff members must have the ability and responsibility to make the vision happen. Feedback and reward systems should reinforce the vision. The school leaders must live and preach the vision daily.

The following story (taken from "Bert and I", a comical record of Down East Maine humor by Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge) can be used as an example of how a school operates when it lacks a crystallized vision for the members of its community.

It seems that Bert and his partner were out in their boat in quest for lobster. A dense fog rolled in and enveloped their craft. Without a fathometer to determine the depth of the water they could not tell when they were approaching land. The absence of radar dealt them another navigational hazard.

Bert went to the bow of the vessel and reached into a sack of potatoes. He threw a potato into the fog as far and as straight as he could. If he heard a splash he directed his shipmate to maintain the course. If he didn't hear a splash he quickly yelled "Right!" or "Left!"

If our school practices that same sense of direction, proceeding in a fog of issues and challenges without anything to guide our efforts we will be leading the learners on an irresponsible detour to their future. An entire staff relying on the arm strength of the school leader throwing the educational equivalent of potatoes and anxiously waiting to sharply veer the direction of the school to the right or left at a moments notice will likely fall well below expected performance levels. We must make sure that the members of our school community are pursuing a common path toward an accepted vision instead of participating in a parade of the blind leading the blind.

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