One Schoolhouse is a fast moving organization; to work with us is to embrace change! Admittedly, we have a faculty that welcomes opportunities to be stretched, but they are also masters of their craft and have strong opinions about best practice. When it’s time to make a change, we work to manage it carefully, because failure to do so has consequences for both the effectiveness of the change and the long-term climate of the school.
We have learned two important lessons: (1) people resist change because they care deeply (that’s a good thing!), and (2) equipping people with the skills to navigate the change constructively is a process (expressing emotions is also a good thing!).
These lessons don’t mean that change is all rainbows and kittens; it’s predictably stormy and stinky sometimes. How about an example? Recently we changed Learning Management Systems. Not only was this a lot of hard work, but it was also disorienting. For an online school, a new LMS is like building a new building--you’re excited to move in, but you’re not sure where the copier is.
For our faculty, who had spent years mastering our old LMS, the worry focused on losing their deep base of knowledge. They worried that the skills that they had spent years mastering in the old system wouldn’t translate, and they worried that they wouldn’t always be able to provide a swift and certain answer to any student questions. As an administrator, I could provide two reassurances. First, we would support our teachers through the process with resources, conversations, and feedback. Second, we would model growth for our students, and that might mean asking for help, sometimes making mistakes, or having a sense of humor about it all.
The sense of loss that we felt in saying goodbye to our old LMS was palpable. But because we wanted the same outcome (the best pedagogy platform for our students), we worked to maintain open communication (meetings and videos and access to information as it became available) so that teachers felt supported through the transition. By welcoming questions and doubt, we got through the uncomfortable confusion and were able to move into focused integration of the new LMS in a few short months. Are there still frustrations? Absolutely, but no one is paralyzed by their skepticism because we have the language to be pragmatic and productive.
Six months ago, we didn’t know what life inside the new LMS would be like. Of course we did all our research in advance, but research only got us so far. We had to make the move to know for sure. By communicating effectively and providing transparency, we maintained strong relationships and supported our teachers. Now that we’re here, we know we’re in the right place--the best place--for our students.
In this transition to a new LMS, it was helpful for us to gain an awareness of how people move through and experience change. So, we worked with Lorri Palko, a Change Cycle™ consultant to better understand the process. Lorri has now created On-Demand Programs that help educators and administrators understand change and communicate more effectively during times of change.
Change Cycle™ - Managing Self Through Periods of Change
Change Cycle™ - Managing Results/Leading Employees Through Change
Change Cycle™ - Communication Strategies For Leading Change
Susanna Jones, Head of School at the Holton-Arms School, shares the founding story of the first ever online independent school, the Online School for Girls - now One Schoolhouse. And, how the unknown didn't stop us from acting!
Last month, I promised to share ten insights from ten years in independent online education. Every month, I’ll tell you about one of the lessons we’ve learned from creating and growing our program. This month, I begin with our first insight: don’t let the unknown stop you from acting.
Sometimes, in independent schools, deliberate is translated as “slow.” We’re planners. We like to have our ducks in a row, and have all our questions answered before we jump into a project. Generally, that’s a good thing. As schools, we have high expectations for ourselves, and so do our students and their families. When we started with online learning, we were the first independent schools to enter the space. What should we do when the answers simply didn't exist?
If we tried to answer all the questions about online learning before we started creating the Online School for Girls (now One Schoolhouse), we would have spent two years spinning our wheels and then still would have been disappointed by the lack of answers. In new spaces and ones that are constantly evolving, we have to be ready to jump and and try. So, that’s what our consortium of schools did--quickly.
Inspired by design theory, before we really had terminology like “design thinking,” our structure for building was highly iterative. The idea for a first ever online independent school was formed in February 2009. A group of four schools met for dinner in March 2009 to discuss the possibility. For the next three months, two administrators from the schools involved (sometimes joined by the heads of schools) met every week in online conversations to work through an agreement, a plan, an announcement, and, eventually, a launch.
We started small, designing an Alpha test for the fall of 2009, with two courses and fifteen students. In winter 2010, we started a Beta test with an additional four courses and 35 students. By fall 2010, we launched on a bigger scale, with 135 semester enrollments in eight classes. By 2011, we had more than 300 enrollments.
Starting small allowed us to iterate frequently. For example, the first year of courses taught us that there needed to be much more oversight and training for faculty members in online spaces than we had imagined, and that students needed staged on-ramps to online learning spaces, too. In response, we created training courses for our teachers and a full week of orientation for our students. We also learned that reliance on existing research, mainly from outside the independent school space, could guide and accelerate our work. I’ll write about that part of the journey next month.
Back in 2009, a group of girls’ schools got together to create the first online independent school, the Online School for Girls. The purpose was to connect schools and extend opportunities for students, in a way that was based the values, ethos, challenge, and feel of independent schools — with particular focus on relationships between students and teachers, and students with each other. The goal was to create an online school that wasn’t opposed to the tenets of independent school education, but instead brought those tenets online.
Along the way, the consortium recognized that online education could also be a great extender of opportunities for faculty, and thus the school created online professional development courses. Later on co-ed schools and boys’ schools asked for similar opportunities. Eventually, the name “Online School for Girls” was not sufficiently encompassing of all of the work of the school. To capture the breadth of the work, the consortium renamed the school: One Schoolhouse.
What started as an idea with four schools in 2009 quickly spread to twelve schools by the end of that year. In the first year, 50 students enrolled in semester courses, and just a handful of faculty tried to learn online. Ten years later, the network has impressively expanded. In the last year, 664 schools around the world enrolled students in more than 1800 semesters of classes, and 1000 educators in professional development programs.
The idea has been successful. This year, as a part of our 10th Anniversary celebration, we’d like to share with you the secret to that success. So, over the course of this year, we’ll offer 10 insights from 10 years in online independent education. In the process, we’ll offer examples from each insight, ideas on how these insights might hold value for your school, and a glimpse at what this means for the future of independent schools and their work online. Here’s the insights. Look for an in-depth look into the first insight in February.
Use Research to Challenge Assumptions
Design Backwards, Then Measure
Don't Let the Unknown Stop You From Acting
Every Student Learns Differently
Faculty Can Learn Online, Too
Online Learning Supports Financial Sustainability
Learning Online Solves Unique Challenges
Every Student Can Learn Online
Simple Design and Technology Improves Learning
Choice Increases Student Engagement
Like many of you, I’ve been reading Michelle Obama’s wonderful new book, Becoming. I wanted to read the book for many reasons: I have degrees in history and American Studies and love first person accounts; I’m an admirer of Obama’s work, particularly her emphasis on youth leadership, healthy eating, and expanding opportunities for girls; and I’m a Washingtonian who frequents the same exercise classes. What surprised me was that I should have gone into reading Becoming with a different primary purpose: because of her self-reflection on her time as student, as a mother of two girls, and as a First Lady who spent as much time as she could with kids. Michelle Obama might not call herself an extraordinary educator, but she is.
I’m not going to detail every lesson for educators in Becoming, in large part because I think that everyone should read the book. Instead, let me reflect on two themes that come back time and again.
High Standards and High Empathy
Obama’s first teacher was her great-aunt, Robbie, an exacting piano teacher who lived downstairs in their house. Robbie made the young Obama study piano by-the-book, in a way that drove Obama crazy. In spite--or perhaps because--of that, Robbie also instilled in Obama how hard work and dedication led to success: “As much as I found Robbie to be snippy and inflexible, I’d also internalized her devotion to rigor” (Obama, Michelle. Becoming, Crown. p. 15). And, Robbie was there in moments of need: “With a tight throat and chugging heart, I looked out to the audience, trying not to telegraph my panic, searching for the safe harbor of my mother’s face. Instead, I spotted a figure rising from the front row and slowly levitating in my direction. It was Robbie… But here in my moment of comeuppance, she arrived at my shoulder almost like an angel.. Without a word, Robbie gently laid one finger on middle C so that I would know where to start. Then, turning back with the smallest smile of encouragement, she left me to play my song” (Obama, p. 16).
Later, Obama would notice this same level of high expectations and care throughout her own schooling at Bryn Mawr Elementary, Whitney M. Young High School, and Princeton; and in other educators she encountered, noting educators at inner-city Chicago high schools who extolled positivity and championed their students who were facing extraordinarily hard odds (Obama, p. 385).
The best teachers know that students need both high expectations for success and a deep empathy to understand when help, support, guidance, and exceptions to the rule are needed. I’ve been talking with my colleague Lisa Damour a lot this fall, as we prepare to offer a course about her upcoming book Under Pressure next year. Lisa reminds me often that high performing students and particularly high performing girls (like Michelle Obama was) hold themselves to extraordinary expectations -- a perfectionism that can never be reached but is sought. Teachers working with these students must be particularly empathic to situations when those students need an excuse from holding themselves to that high standard -- to those moments when they try to lean in, and either can’t or shouldn’t. As Obama said recently to an audience in Brooklyn: “that shit doesn’t work all the time.”
Battling Impostor Syndrome
Throughout the book, Obama repeats a question that has nagged her throughout her life: am I good enough? The first time she asks this question is in high school, attending a top-flight magnet school in the city of Chicago. As educators, we know that even our top students have impostor syndrome (and that this is particularly prevalent among high-performing girls, as Lisa Damour reminds me). Obama kept asking that question throughout her time as First Lady, though by then she was able to recognize it as an expression of our society’s assumptions about women and people of color. With her new platform, she was determined to help the next generation understand their intrinsic power and potential--to stop asking the question, and to know the answer instead.
"I wasn’t fully prepared, though, to feel what I did when I set foot inside the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School and was ushered to an auditorium where about two hundred students had gathered… There were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose skin made up every shade of brown. I knew they’d have to push back against the stereotypes that would get put on them, all the ways they’d be defined before they’d had a chance to define themselves. They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female, and of color… Looking up at the girls, I just began to talk, explaining that though I had come from far away, carrying this strange title of First Lady of the United States, I was more like them than they knew.. Speaking to those girls, I felt something completely different and pure—an alignment of my old self with this new role. Are you good enough? Yes, you are, all of you" (Obama, pp. 319-320).
Our students, perhaps most especially our best students, ask themselves “Am I good enough?” all the time. Obama reminds us that we can’t remind our students enough that they are. “I’d been lucky to have parents, teachers, and mentors who’d fed me with a consistent, simple message: You matter. As an adult, I wanted to pass those words to a new generation” (Obama, p. 383). Teachers express this to their students all the time. And, more and more schools are teaching students about imposter syndrome and its nefarious related cousin, stereotype threat, in order to help arm students with the knowledge to combat these thoughts and understand their significant worth and value.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO