Ready, Player One? - Mid-Pacific Institute

High School Principal's Blog

Ready, Player One?

Posted on July 30, 2017

by Thomas McManus on July 30, 2017

"Are you ready for school to start?"

There isn't a teacher or administrator who likes being asked, "are you ready?" We know that our learning--like that of our students--is recursive and on-going. Being ready is a state of mind rather than an absolute. We prepare for the year ahead like planning a long car trip: milestones are mapped, pitstops and snacks considered and dashboard indicators checked. Scheduled maintenace before, during, and after is very important.

I spent the last week with teachers new to Mid-Pacific who will be teaching in Elementary, Middle and High School. Then, on Friday, the curricular leaders of the school retreated for the day to reconnect about what is most important to us and to our students. This coming week, the entire faculty and staff returns for a few more days of meeting, planning, and discussing. These are key days for reconnecting and sharing. However, the whole year will have powerful pockets of adult learning, and it is one of the principal's roles to look out for them.

At Mid-Pacific, I am proud to work with teachers who are all expert learners. They are curious, motivated, and creative. As a community of adults, we are humble as we embrace our roles as mentors to roughly 840 high school students each year. Every teacher in our school has deep questions about their work that they assess and puzzle through all year long. These folks are tireless and thoughtful because they know the learning journey is iterative.

Great learning of any kind comes from rich experiences, enabled by expert models and enriched by a resource-filled environment. However, our physical spaces and time periods in schools are often highly prescribed and inflexible. Most educators decry these "legacy constraints" of a factory style of education first introduced in the 1800's. For students, I'm talking about constaints like pre-ordained class periods, fixed classrooms, and even narrow subject matter. These aspects of school are not keys to learning but rather organizational principles meant to hold and transition learners from experience to experience. Even a great school like Mid-Pacific still fights some of these challenges.

Adult learing--and especially learning by educators--is the same. We have an hour here for a faculty meeting and a day there for an in-service; faculty are grouped by teams or departments or grade level; themes and initiatives are plentiful, worthy, and sometimes overwhelming. I sometimes feel like we are playing jenga with time and focus. Where does everything that everyone needs fit?


As a principal, one of my jobs is to stack the limited jenga blocks of time we have together throughout the year into a shape that will help everyone continue their learing without the stack falling over because the pieces don't fit. With over 90 full-time techers in our program, one size can't possibly fit all. We have faculty meetings, professional learning days, team retreats, lunch meetings, and conference opportunities (not to mention improptu hallway and parking lot confabs). We are always examining our own instruction, assessment, curriculum, student well-being, relevance, character education, community building and more. Any academic leader will tell you, planning the windows of time to effectively support all the ways the adults want and need to grow is the thing that keeps us up at night.

In consultation with our teachers, this year our administration is looking at professional learning time through the lens of personalization. We will be working with our teachers to offer choice during our professional days so each adult learner can--with the larger group journey in mind--attend to the things that are most useful and timely for them. This approach will take even more collaboration and conversation from all of us to ensure that options are varied and common commitments and values are shared. I am excited to engage in this important process and see where it leads us.

We already know some things that work and some that don't. Bear with me on an illustrative example. Mid-Pacific's student-selected summer reading is Ernest Cline's sci-fi adventure Ready Player One. As an educator who dabbles with being a futurist, I was amused and provoked by Cline's satirical portrait of educational progress. In the school he describes, students don their virtual reality "rigs" and inhabit avatars in a simulation of the same hallways and rows of desks we know from our youth (the staples that industrial, factory model of education). In Ready Player One, when students aren't feeling engaged, they easily tune out and go have real experiences elsewhere. Left behind, the student "shell" dutifully sits in a virtual classroom, getting credit for "doing school." If the future is just a better method of escaping an inauthentic classroom, we will have failed to capitalize on what truly works in our schools--relationships and personal connection.

Great schools encourage mentorship, close conversation, and communities of common cause. People know one another, know what matters to their peers, and participate in making a real life impact. In teacher professional learning, a great example of this is Mid-Pacific's Kupu Hou Academy.


K-12, Public, Charter, and Independent School Teachers learning together in the summer at Kupu Hou Academy

At KHA--which had its 7th summer cohort begin last June--teachers create a real lesson for real students with real colleagues. They ensure that the lessons reach beyond the old classroom paradigm and into the community. Teamwork and humility is the center of this creative process. The KHA cohort is made up of PS-12, public, private, and charter teachers who will come back together during the year to again to share what is working and what is not; they will re-desing and grow together. KHA is a perfect example of ways that teacher learning can be relevant and individualized. The teachers bring their own real questions and have guides on their side to generate answers.

In closing, don't ask educators if they are ready for the school year. Ask them what matters to them right now. Digging in on the authentic questions is how we prepare and rise to the challenge of a new class of kids in front of us. As the principal, what matters to me is helping each educator around me to grow all year long. I am excited for the journey and to be doing the work we love again with students!

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