In 1999, I was named academic dean at an independent school that had committed itself to a grand strategic vision around the evolution of its curriculum and pedagogical practices. I became the point person for managing this evolution, and fortunately we had a brilliant and extremely collegial leadership team engaged in putting this work into practice. But in the end division heads, the chief diversity officer, tech folks, and of course the school head had their own worlds to manage, and so I was the only person focusing full-time on the big strategic picture and grappling with the structural and human resource challenges of putting it into practice.
This was sometimes very lonely and isolating work, even in the best of places, and so my discovery of a few listservs and later Nings provided me with not just access to others’ ideas and resources but also with a virtual community of people engaged with the same challenges that energized and sometimes vexed me.
But what really mattered was building the human, flesh-and-blood connections. I was always thrilled to meet a listserv colleague or an “email buddy” at a conference, but best of all were the events like the conferences designed and led by the late David Mallery, who several times a year assembled “just right”-sized groups of peers for a couple of days of learning and a ton of personal and professional interaction.
In 2014, the Independent Curriculum Group offered our first Academic Leaders Retreat, and I will say that I tried hard to channel the incomparable David Mallery—who was among other things a compulsive extrovert who remembered and cared about everyone he ever met—as we worked to balance formal learning, social time, and opportunities for participants to bring forward their own ideas and questions. With the help of guru extraordinaire Jonathan Martin, I felt as though we succeeded in creating in each of our Academic Leaders Retreats unanxious, mutually supportive, and energized short-term microcultures of which even David would have been proud. On those few days I would even feel a bit like an extrovert myself, as the events invited everyone involved to a new level of professional and even interpersonal accessibility and engagement.
In designing the new model of Academic Leaders Retreat we are offering this year with our dear friends and colleagues at One Schoolhouse, we’ve tried not just to preserve but to intensify the personal and professional immersion experience of past retreats. The time span is shorter but the “contact hours” are the same, and we’ve traded the expense of a residential retreat-center setting for more flexible and affordable venues. We’ve even added learning sessions with our One Schoolhouse colleagues while maintaining the unconference sessions that were often cited as retreat highlights.
I left David Mallery’s workshops with whatever I might have learned about doing my work more effectively, but the more important takeaway was always that I was not alone in my concerns, my ideas, my struggles, and my joys. But inevitably most important were the person-to-person connections—lifelong colleagues whom I might never see again in person but on whose friendship and support I could always draw.
With three ICG-One Schoolhouse Academic Leaders Retreats to choose from the first months of 2018, I like to think of all the new relationships that can be forged and all the brilliant ideas to be shared and discussed—and all of the students whose lives will be forever changed because of insights and maybe even the courage to try something new gained at an ALR.
Today, we are happy to announce our call for teachers for the 2018-2019 school year. Consider applying yourself, or encourage a colleague to do so for a simple reason: it will make your bricks and mortar school better. Don’t just take my word for it, consider the thoughts of some of our current teachers about what they have brought back to their face-to-face classrooms.
Improving relationships with students. Yes… you read that correctly. Strong relationships between teachers and students have been a hallmark of independent schools for generations. In the online classroom, building that relationship has to be even more intentional. Sarah Wright, a history teacher at Buffalo Seminary explains:
"One of the biggest things I've learned from teaching with One Schoolhouse is, ironically, how to interact with students and build relationships with them. I always took building relationships for granted in my face-to-face setting, whereas my nervousness about teaching online and connecting with students made me more intentional in getting to know them. As a result of teaching online and learning how to engage students in accountable goal setting, I've learned how to better get to know my students in my face-to-face classes, not just as students and members of my school community, but as learners."
Becoming an on-campus leader in innovation. Teacher-leaders are the lifeblood of innovation on campus. One Schoolhouse coaches teachers to be experts in some of the most innovative approaches to teaching and learning, including personalization and related work in competency-based education (a necessary component for any school thinking about work such as the Mastery Transcript Consortium). John Daniel, French teacher at York School, explains:
"Although I consider myself a career learner as well as teacher, I focused primarily on expertise within my subject matter in the years leading to my work with One Schoolhouse. One Schoolhouse courses incorporate lesson plans designed from the pedagogy of personalized learning. New to this important and transformational model of learning, I now view the teacher as a partner in planned learning, a coach and a guide to students who determine their own best path for accomplishing the learning objectives. I found this pedagogy so relevant, exciting, and transformational to the student experience that I applied for and was awarded my face-to-face school's inaugural research grant in order to imagine how personalized learning could be incorporated into our own program. My colleagues and I are excited about what we can learn and implement, and we have the leadership of One Schoolhouse to thank for the inspiration."
Creating choice for students. We know that students learn differently, and yet, even in a highly differentiated classroom, students will engage in activities and assignments that are more or less meaningful to them. By giving the student-learner the opportunity to choose meaningful learning pathways, we increase course engagement and maximize learning. Elizabeth Allen, the World Languages Chair at Harpeth Hall School explains:
"Because of my teaching with One Schoolhouse, I’ve brought elements of student choice, back to my face-to-face classrooms whenever possible. Choice has become an element of all student produced work. I've had to think carefully about how particular assignments and activities enrich learning. Incorporating options for creativity, even in the production of formal tasks like essays, has made the face-to-face classroom richer. Teaching online has encouraged me to be more intentional as a teacher, and encouraged me to rely less on my instincts because that is not possible in the online environment."
Building courses through intentional design. The online classroom has to be intentionally built using backwards design principles and relying on research related to student engagement and learning. Face-to-face classrooms can greatly benefit from employing these same principles, as Jacqueline Muratore, math teacher at Mount Saint Mary Academy, explains:
"One of the many things One Schoolhouse focuses on is the actual learning process of each student. Through goals, reflection, discussion, and interaction with me and their peers, my students take more ownership of this process and develop a strong awareness of their own learning. Once I began using the skills I learned at One Schoolhouse, I was surprised and excited by how much my students enjoyed these new pathways to learning. Also, as a math teacher, I’ve always appreciated and focuses on the importance of applying our course content to the real world. But, One Schoolhouse has inspired me to bring application to a whole new level which I find is more thoughtful and meaningful."
We hope that you will consider joining our faculty or encouraging colleagues to join us to make your school better.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)