Dr. Kyle Palmer
Wondering what makes successful schools and districts tick? In this series, “Leading Model Schools,” we ask principals and superintendents from across the country to share the secrets behind the recent gains and successes in their schools and districts. Find out what’s happening in Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Liberty, Missouri.
If you had visited Lewis and Clark Elementary four years ago and then returned to our school for a visit today, you would marvel at the many changes to our school. You would also marvel at the many things that haven’t changed. Let me explain.
Lewis and Clark has had a storied history of excellence for almost 50 years. Still, three years ago I was confronted with a shocking reality; we had spent many years trying to “perfect the past” (to quote Bill Daggett) rather than “re-imagining a different future” and improving educational outcomes for our Trailblazers. I had a revelation in the summer of 2014 that we needed to change, and to do that I had to change my stubborn and traditional views of education.
Fortunately for us, someone in our building was already setting the stage to transform learning for our kids: Angela Rosheim (@ARosheim), Expert Library Media Specialist and extreme influencer at our school. Angela had created Genius Hour lessons, built a makerspace, and created rigorous and relevant learning opportunities for our kids! It was time to build on her work.
When we challenged ourselves with the larger task of transforming our traditional school to a more future-ready school, that challenge looked daunting. It would have been easy to make excuses and accept the status quo, but we didn’t. If you walked into Lewis and Clark today, you would see things that are very innovative, creative, student-centered, and maybe sometimes a little crazy. These things are the things that have changed.
A visitor today would also walk into the warmest, most caring education environment I have ever seen, with laughter echoing in the hallways, students enjoying learning, and staff who love what they do and why they do it. These things have not changed. Strong relationships with students and a talented staff that feels like family will always be the cornerstone of Lewis and Clark!
How to Go from Good to Great
Create a Culture of Collaboration
One essential thing we held onto at Lewis and Clark was our high level of collaboration. We built our school on the essential understanding of what a professional learning community truly is. Without teams that obsess daily about student learning, data and implementing new ideas that positively impact kids—what I call the “right work” —change would have been very difficult.
Connect the Dots
It’s human nature for people to get frustrated when they don’t know what you want them to do or why you want them to do it. I fit that mold as well, which is why I understand the importance for leaders to always connect back to the mission and vision and the overall goal of the change they desire. If your actions can’t be connected to outcomes, then something is wrong and change cannot happen.
Go from Small to All
I believe a smart way to innovate is to start on a small scale, see how it goes while making it better, and then expand. What once started as a makerspace in our old reading room is now twice as big and 10 times more awesome. We started with a small handful of teachers creating flexible learning environments in their classrooms; now nearly every class—and even the hallway—has some form of makerspace. Project Lead the Way (PLTW) helped our teachers learn how to become more student-centered, and this innovation eventually was scaled out to our entire school and district. It was also PLTW that inspired us to do more with project-based learning and personalization.
Build a Culture of Risk-taking and Learning from Failure
We all agree that students need to be comfortable taking risks and learning from failures. If we want this for kids, doesn’t it make sense to want this for our adults as well? We must model for our staff what we want for students so they can do the same in their classrooms. Sometimes growth and change can be messy, and that’s okay.
Get Others to Think Instead of Just “Do as I Say”
I firmly believe we must get others to think differently before they can do differently. It’s not enough for leaders to try to “make” their staff do things. Change is hard, and it’s important to allow others to be skeptical, ask questions, refuse, be disgusted, and get frustrated. These are normal reactions! Be comfortable enough in your skin to allow it all to happen. Lead change by not forcing others to change.
My advice to school leaders who are contemplating change?
Do a Belly Flop from a 50-Foot-High Diving Board into the Deep End
I have heard some suggest it’s best to jump into the deep end when initiating change. I would take that one step further. Don’t just dive into the deep end; do a belly flop from 50 feet high to get it rolling! It may seem drastic, it may hurt, and it may look ugly at times, but I think it sends the message that things need to change and look different. Once you awaken others to the calling, true leadership gets you there.
That’s the story of Lewis and Clark—a school that has succeeded by changing mindsets, people, and actions in the classroom. We still strive every day to be even better, as should all educators. I hope you have enjoyed hearing about our journey; we would love to hear about yours!
Lewis and Clark Elementary School has been honored as an International Center for Leadership in Education Model School for three straight years! Learn more about what it takes to be a Model School.