Your “Why” is the motivation you bring to an action or decision. If someone understands your why, they will know your guiding principles and can better understand how to communicate and serve with you. That works in reverse as well. If you know someone’s “Why,” you will be a stronger partner with and for them.
It isn’t a question often asked in education, but starting with the “Why” behind the decisions we make about teaching and learning is one of the most powerful things that we can do as district, school and classroom leaders. And it’s not just about asking yourself, or your fellow educators. Ask everyone, and be willing to listen. It is a critical step to beginning the process of personalizing learning to better serve all students.
Sometimes we might think we’ve done our due diligence by having the town hall meeting or hosting the information night. That’s a great start, but we can do more. We need to uncover everyone’s “Why” and keep it at the center of the work we do to personalize learning. We need to be transparent, open to new ideas and pursue alignment. It’s all part of the process.
How do you get at the “Why” and create opportunities for everyone to learn more about what inspires and motivates others within their learning community? Community engagement can happen anywhere: in our schools, in civic community groups, homes, churches, community events and fundraisers, at the local pumpkin launch or on someone’s front porch. When we’re intentional about our communication with our learning community, we create opportunities for them to be open with us – which means honest feedback. It can feel personal or messy and you may want to stop listening, but this is when you listen harder.
As a superintendent and principal, I often visited with community members at school functions, but I learned as much about our successes and opportunities for improvement by joining our community at small gatherings and conversations away from school grounds.
One of those meetings that stands out took place at a barbecue. When I received the invitation, I thought it would be a great way to meet more of our families and learn more about our communities. I was honored to be on the guest list. What I didn’t know was that I, too, would be on the grill. After some pleasantries and initial tastes, the questions began to come in hot and heavy. My tasty morsels were now big clumps of anxiety in my belly. Questions such as:
- What are colleges going to think about competency-based education?
- Did you all figure out honor roll and eligibility?
- Is personalization possible for all children?
- How is giving kids multiple opportunities reflective of the real world?
All questions were valid and deserved a response, requiring me to set aside the barbecue and address their concerns: our learning community had worked through these questions in collaboration with many stakeholders. However, I and we as a community needed to listen, engage, understand, build and learn more together. Learning is personal. Building a system that honors that belief and the Why’s within a community, requires us to lean in. And in the case of these folks, the breaking of bread allowed them and ultimately us to support progress and transformation not just for their children, but our community’s children as well. As educators, we must be prepared to answer similar questions from within your community and to redesign in concert with the community Why.
Listening with respect and vulnerability to other’s concerns and thinking about how they can align to our own “Why” is a powerful tool for engagement. And it’s a critical first step in becoming more than just a school district: it’s a big step toward becoming a learning community.