I was a bad student in high school. I didn’t study, I got bad grades, I had an attitude, and I disrespected my teachers. I’d like to believe that this was because I was brilliant and existentially bored with the pedestrian intellect of my peers. I’d like to believe that it was because my school was so retrograde and repressive that I was placed into a hopeless situation. But that wasn’t it. I wasn’t especially brilliant; my peers were actually pretty smart; and my school was, all things considered, a reasonably decent place. I’d like to believe it was because nobody in my family had graduated high school, let alone attended a university. But that, too, wasn’t a valid explanation. My parents had always loved and supported me in school. I was just a bad student in high school who never connected to the place.
It was only in college that I found my intellectual voice. I took a course in Medieval history with a maniacal professor who had a passion for the history of ideas. More than any specific content, he gave me a sense that I was a member of a larger community of scholars; that what I was doing mattered. He got me access to the stacks at the Library of Congress; he invited me, as an undergraduate, to present an academic paper at a conference at Villanova University. I eventually left the academic world for classroom teaching, but my transformation from a stereotypical “gen X slacker” to someone dedicated to learning has profoundly shaped my approach to both teaching and school leadership.
What exactly did I learn from all of this? I learned that belonging to a community matters. Until I encountered my Medieval history professor, school had seemed a rather remote thing t...
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...idedly not. It has been filled with contentious and very hard moments. A culture of collaboration and innovation involves honesty, confrontation and differences of opinion. It involves moving people when they are completely comfortable where they are. It is about overturning long-established practices and calling off truces that have existed for decades. My biggest concern in unleashing all of these energies was that we might open Pandora’s box and release toxic elements into our school. And while there have been lots of heated disagreements, the community has, if anything, become stronger. People’s opinions are sought and their input matters in crafting school policies. I cannot say that we are exactly where we want to be as a community - and I’m not sure we ever will be - but at the very least, we have given people a sense that community does indeed matter.
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