A Year of School Visits: Four Lessons

Erik EllefsenThe Teachers' Lounge1 Comment

Since April of 2018, I’ve had an opportunity to visit more than 20 schools as a learner and observer, not as an employee or consultant. This opportunity arose because of two MindShift projects I’ve participated in, but also just out of my own curiosity. Rex Miller, in particular, encouraged me to find the “bright” spots in a dark world, and I have found more than most would expect.

Some of these schools were charter (Da Vinci, Idea, and Bulldog Tech), others were non-religious private (The Bay School and Fusion), several were religious (Monte Vista, Maranatha, and The King’s Academy), and still others were public (Alamo Heights ISD and Wheaton CUSD 200). I was on each campus for different reasons, but I found great work being done in all of these places–with an understanding that more could be accomplished.

Likewise, I noticed four things that these schools have in common.

Lesson 1: Embrace the Challenge of the Mission

During my two decades in education, the narrative seems to grow more negative and less hopeful. However, at each of the schools I visited there was a clear sense that the difficulties, challenges, and hard work were worth tackling. If you look through the school websites, you will see that each is quite different from the next, but they each embrace the challenge of creating better learning communities for both students and staff. Likewise, there was a “get it done” attitude that impacted many of these school communities–a grit and grind mentality to having an impact.

Lesson 2: Filled with Hope and Joy

The grit and grind of these schools was infused with a hope and joy that is not found at all schools. The energy was infectious from the top of the organization to the bottom. Despite the community challenges, they have discovered why school improvement matters to them and how to enjoy the work of improving learning opportunities for students.

Lesson 3: Purposefully Unique

Each of these schools has made decisions about its distinctiveness and has said no to good things for the sake of better opportunities. These schools have escaped the temptation to jump from one initiative to the next by determining their mission and letting that drive their efforts. The best schools had a sense of self, purpose, and design that was unapologetic and unwatering.

Lesson 4: Together is a commitment

After doing significant research on collective leadership, my friend Jon Eckert believes the following:

This kind of schooling . . . demands a new kind of leadership and cannot rest on a few individual administrators, or even a handful of assistants and teacher leaders. It requires collective leadership—where teachers and administrators together inform, inspire, and influence colleagues, parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders to improve student outcomes.

In many ways, my yearlong journey was in search of places that valued leadership in all people and embraced the idea of creating a community of strength through collective leadership. I was amazed to find many schools that fostered a belief in the human capacity to do great work and to do that great work within the context of a collective group. The most impactful schools will be those that have a commitment to do the work together compared to those schools who constantly seek the superhero leader or educator.

Don’t misunderstand me: each of these schools had high-capacity leaders, but there was a commitment to the leadership of the collective whole that is atypical for school leadership design.

Lastly, here are two commitments from the Da Vinci School that I would implement if I had the opportunity:

  • Set aside 20 days of professional learning for staff and faculty, and
  • Hire school leaders only from within the organization.

These two commitments alone pave the way for creating the collective leadership conditions that transform how we do this great work.

Personally, I am excited for what is happening in our profession. We have the opportunity to undergo a dramatic mind shift in what we do in our classrooms, offices, schools, and communities. The future is always uncertain, but the embrace of these lessons will allow educators and leaders to enjoy their challenging work and calling with greater significance.


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

One Comment on “A Year of School Visits: Four Lessons”

  1. I love the joy in Erik’s article when he observes the creativity in the schools he visited – creativity and imagination are a part of the character of God (Genesis 1) that He has gifted to human beings and that we should celebrate in Christian schooling. I also agree that we must be extravagant in our commitment to teacher professional learning. However, I am greatly dismayed by Erik’s concept that some schools are “non-religious” There is no such thing. There is no neutrality. Whether they acknowledge it or not, all schools are religious and we must not let the secular community pretend otherwise. All schools are seeking to shape children according to some god – according to some view of the good life. (redlin@edservinternational.org).

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