Amplifying Talent – Part I

timsThe year was 1985 and I had just purchased my first car, paid for with a short lifetime of lawn-mowing, grocery aisle-stocking, bean-walking earnings that had been lying dormant for several years, anxiously awaiting this withdrawal. It was a two-door Chevrolet Impala, some shade of orange that could fit seven to eight teen-agers comfortably. It was quite an upgrade for my social status, after having driven a 1979 Country Squire station wagon (you know the one with the wood panels) for the first two years of having a driver’s license. The only problem with the Impala was that it came with a stock radio. So, after my next three months of hard work, I again emptied my bank account, grabbed the tattered JC Whitney catalog and called in my order – a Pioneer KP-005 stereo and GM-A200 amplifier. While the KP-005 was a great stereo, it was time to let more people than just those riding in my car to know about the great music being produced in the 1980s – thus the need for the GM-A200 amp!

Amplifying the sound of the Pioneer KP-005 was relatively easy. Connecting the wiring harness to the stereo and electrical power took an afternoon but by nightfall, the music was being shared quite liberally with others in the community. Amplifying talent in a Christian school is a bit more complicated. Ask the question “How can Christian schools, and Christian school leaders, swell the talent that lies within each faculty and staff member that God has chosen for this vocational task of teaching and leading Christianly?” My guess is that you will get a number of different responses based on beliefs about school reform.  Dr. Carrie Leana, a researcher who works for the University of Pittsburgh, has challenged schools to consider what she offers as three implicit beliefs that have gotten in the way of amplifying the talent that is already in our schools. The first one is that schools focus too much on human capital – teacher experience, subject knowledge, and pedagogical skills – and too little on social capital – the patterns of interaction among teachers. The second belief often held to is that in order to improve schools we need to bring in people outside the school to solve our inside the school problems. Dr. Leana’s final belief centers on the role of the principal. She states that, in many schools, the principal is cast as the instructional leader or “super teacher” of the school, responsible for developing and managing teaching practices. These three beliefs are what she identifies as the current ideology, or set of ideas that are currently held around the concept of school reform.

Before you get ready to type an immediate rebuttal to this post and to Dr. Leana, please note that she fully recognizes the research that identifies some truth in this ideology. Of course teacher competence affects student learning and outside experts can bring in some innovative (defined as something new and better) practices. And principals certainly have a role in school reform. Her thesis, however, is that when we only try to amplify from the top, we undervalue the benefits of social capital and stability on the bottom.

So, how does a Christian school recognize that we need to hire for talent, bring in experts who can share better practices, and put the principal in a place of proper influence? The first of three suggestions for consideration:

1) Understand the wisdom of the crowd and the power of collective impact. Stanford’s Social Innovative Review defines collective impact as a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.

It seems to me that Christian schools have the centralized infrastructure in place, employ dedicated faculty and staff, and schools are fairly structured in their processes. Therefore, we can proceed to consider the next list of conditions for success. First, a common agenda is needed. This can be the school’s mission statement, vision statement, or an idea I am growing fond of, the promise that the school makes to their students and families. Do all of our faculty and staff share this same vision/promise for the school? Is it a collective one? Do we have the opportunity to share ideas about how we can personally fulfill the mission? When differences arise are they ignored, allowing strong efforts to be splintered? How are the differences recognized and common ground identified?

Second, what is our school’s shared measurement system that is essential to collective impact? What gets measured at our school? Have we simply allowed our accrediting bodies to tell us what we need to measure or have we identified the criteria upon which we measure outcomes and make decisions for change? What comparative data do we use?

Third, systemic trust needs to be proven. One critical way this trust is established is through continuous communication. This might take a few meetings, maybe a few years, to develop. Those who are in the community will need to have experiences with one another to see the shared vision and a fulfillment of the promises made. Students and families need to know that their interests matter and decisions are made after good communication has occurred. Institutional language (mission/vision/promise) takes time to become rooted.

Finally, the collective impact of a Christian school depends on a diverse group of invested people – faculty, staff, administrators, parents – who encourage one another to use their specific gifts and unique talents in ways that support and coordinate with those gifts and talents of others. The power of such impact does not come from sheer numbers but from synchronized, interdependent efforts. Teacher-of-the-year programs do not fit very well in such a school system but mentoring programs do.

“Are we amplifying the talent entrusted to us?” I hope you have the opportunity to have this discussion at your next administrative team meeting or board meeting. As school leaders, we have the unique opportunity to create a culture with a common agenda, measure the things we treasure, talk about these things when we sit in the faculty lounge and board room, and discover how to be excellent stewards of the talented people committed to our schools mission/vision/promise.

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