At first glance, it would be easy to see me as a poster child for our current education system. I have made a career of working in schools, and I am currently a principal of an elementary school in a high-performing school district considered one of (if not the) best in Missouri. I have worked as an educator for over 14 years, have 5 college degrees and certifications, and am currently working on finishing my 6th. My mother was a teacher. My sister was a teacher. My brother is a teacher. It would be easy to think I stand behind the education system––because school is “in my blood,” and the system “worked for me.” But, in reality, it never really has: I have felt all my life that school is working against me.
My mom tells me that starting in kindergarten, each morning I asked if I had to go to school. (Even now, I complain about going to doctoral classes.) It wasn’t that I struggled or didn’t want to learn. In fact, I have always loved learning. Whether it was books like the Guinness World Records, Fabulous Facts About the 50 States, and Great Escapes of World War II, or Matt Christopher books about sports, each night I fell asleep reading. But when I woke up and went to school, it felt like I had to stop learning and start “playing the game”––and it wasn’t for me. I needed meaning and relevance, and I couldn’t find it at school.
In college, I quickly quit going to class, eventually left school, and felt totally lost. At that time, I moved away from home and into a one-bedroom apartment with a friend. My “bed” was a pool raft in our so-called “family room.” The first job I found was a pyramid scheme––I sold knock-off cologne out of the trunk of my car. After that, I started working at a rent-to-own furniture store. Better than cologne sales, but I hated the job. It wasn’t something I was proud of, and I wanted to do more.
Then, it hit me––I would go back to school. Ironic, I know, but I had found a new purpose. This time, I wouldn’t just be playing the game, but figuring out how to change it for good.
I am telling my story for the same simple reason that I went back to school, started working as a teacher, became a school counselor, and am now an administrator: our current education system needs to change. It didn’t work for me, and, more importantly, it doesn’t work for many of our students. Many students succeed in spite of our system, not because of it. And the students who need the most from our system are often the ones who receive the least. The world keeps on changing, and as students’ needs change, our schools need to change with them, too.
We have all heard about 21st century skills and making sure our students are future ready. And many of us have seen or engaged in minor changes, like redoing mission statements to incorporate these skills. But I would also guess that many of us have experienced the frustration of seeing a new mission statement that promotes lifelong learning and prioritizes creativity, critical thinking, social/emotional learning, and other outcomes students need but so often leave school without, and then watch as no meaningful change follows suit. Our missions may change, but our practice stays the same––we fail to measure what we say we believe in.
This is my second year in my current school. During my first year, our staff took a deep look at what we want for our kids. We talked with students, we surveyed their families, and, ultimately, we emerged with a shiny, fantastic, familiar mission statement:
We Strive to Create Global Citizens Who Are Empowered to Better Themselves, Better Their Community, and Better Their World.
But the question remained––how do we make sure our practices match our mission? How do we measure whether our students are citizens who better themselves, their community, and the world? How do we ensure we progress toward our mission, and how in the world will we do it in a system whose values––students’ test scores––don’t approach the fullness of our mission?
These are the questions that led me to The Learner First. One day, while asking the questions in my head and scrolling through Twitter, I came across a hashtag: #MeasuringHumanReturn. I read it, and thought, “Wow!! That is exactly what I am looking for. How do we Measure Human Return?” I saw it as a chance to bring our mission to life. So I ordered the book, read it, and shared it with my superintendent. I also reached out to The Learner First, and with my district’s support, I started working with Joanne to help our practice––and, our school system––match our mission.
I am a firm believer in the power of stories and of sharing our journeys. I want to share some of what I have learned with the hope that it will help other school leaders, but also because I would love to learn and connect with some of you. Like with any growth or change process, there are days when I feel stuck and others when I feel we may even be heading backwards. I want to be able to ask questions and hopefully find a community of others who may be able to help me find answers.
So, over the next few blogs, I will talk about this work from the lens of a principal. The job of a principal is a unique one, and it is even more unique when we are working to lead whole-system change. I am hoping to share our successes and struggles, and hopefully to offer some ideas and insights that help others in your journeys toward what students need.
I look forward to making connections and to learning from and with one another, and I hope you will join me to help guide our systems on the journey from mission to meaningful practice.
Patrick Fisher is the principal of Meramec Elementary School in Clayton, Missouri. Join us for a series of entries from Patrick as he explores what it takes to lead deeper learning “From Mission to Practice.”