Watching vegetables grow until the moment that they are perfectly ripe for harvest can be an exercise in patience. Each day it means carefully inspecting a variety of facets of the vegetable with the eventual question being, “will it be even better tomorrow?” Waiting one more day holds the potential for vegetable nirvana, but it also gives the squirrels another day to destroy all the patience and waiting that led up to the day of perfection in one tiny squirrel bite.
Too many schools around the country are waiting for perfection to begin the transformative changes needed in our spaces of learning. They are waiting for a better infrastructure or few more people to retire. They are waiting for the completion of the right amount of professional development or the semester change when things will settle down. They are waiting. They are waiting. They are waiting. Waiting is often an effort to ignore doing the really hard stuff. Waiting is a strategy to avoid failure and not lean into the uncomfortable. Waiting is hurting kids. Waiting also allows others outside of education to fill the void.
Over the last 18 months, the Affton School District in Saint Louis, Missouri has broken through the inertia of waiting and into a fresh mindset of fire, ready, aim. This shift in mental model (by a growing number of learners throughout the ecosystem) has unleashed fresh energy for innovation throughout the district. Two factors have been the primary catalysts for allowing this to occur.
The first was building a culture of service. When things are broken, in need of update, or outdated, the innovative spirit is crushed. When instruction is inhibited because there is no support, risk taking becomes non-existent. As the lead innovator in the district, it was important for me and my team to take visual, concrete steps that showcased that fresh culture of service and rallied every human resource available, both technical and instructional, into action to solve the backlog of problems. The result has been a new trust and the opportunity for new conversations around our future as a learning community.
The second was a dedicated effort to saying YES. The most powerful change agent in education is the word YES. It unleashes ideas. It grows confidence. It builds momentum. It releases trapped wisdom into the system. It really is that powerful. Affton said yes to an app development pilot. Affton said yes to a Bosnian Studies program. Affton said yes to traveling to other schools to see innovation in practice. Affton said yes to a library redesign. When NO is your default setting at any level of your organization, bits and chunks of the system are wilting.
Affton School District hasn’t arrived. It is on a journey, a long journey, but no one is waiting. Instead there is a growing acceptance that failing forward fast and being in beta by design are the new way forward. Transformational change, the kind that comes from when we are working with the goal of being different as opposed to getting better, is exactly what all of the kids should expect each day from the adults that are in charge of making our schools ripe for learning.