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Blurred Vision

Much of my coursework and my thinking over the past eight weeks, since I started graduate school, has focused on leadership. This shouldn’t surprise me, since one of my courses has the word leadership in its title. Still, I find this theme reappearing in my Education Sector Non-Profits class as well as the course on Pursuing Teacher Quality. The question of what makes a good leader intrigues me, because I think there’s such a dire need for leadership in education right now. I certainly didn’t witness much of it at any level during my time in the classroom.

While my classes have presented a number of different models and approaches to leadership, one constant seems to be a need for a clear vision. It sounds ridiculously obvious and simple, but looking back on my experience in the Bronx, there was a shocking absence of vision. At the school level, too few principals articulated a clear and inspirational vision for what teachers and students should be accomplishing. Yes, every school is required to have a mission statement, but I rarely saw schools translate this from a superficial document into meaningful action that pulled them together internally toward a collective purpose.

If vision was missing at the school level, it was even more absent from the city Department of Education at the level where it was arguably more vital. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein spoke constantly about the need to close the achievement gap, lower drop-out rates, and raise graduation rates. Their approach was clearly focused on data-driven results and greater accountability for schools and teachers (not so much for themselves). But this speaks to their strategies. It did not lay out a vision, or at least not one that a communities, students, teachers, and school leaders could passionately rally behind.

As I’ve thought about my own teaching, I wonder if I laid out a vision for myself and my students. I know that my driving goal was to prepare my students to pursue whatever path they chose. I wanted to give them the academic and social-emotional skills to succeed against all obstacles. Underlying these ideas was the hope that my students would become lifelong learners, critical thinkers who loved the pursuit of knowledge. Sounds nice, right?

But to what extent did I express this to my students, parents, or myself? I know I tried at times, but I wish I had done so more explicitly and consistently. Perhaps it would have made the learning more powerful for my students. It could have helped engage parents. It may have helped keep me focus when I felt discouraged by seemingly endless test-prep or other frustrations.

I don’t think my experience is uncommon. It is rare that teachers are actually asked about their vision for their classrooms or education in general. These discussions need to happen between school leaders and their teachers, and between policymakers and teachers. In this way we could empower teachers, and find a way to create a more cohesive vision of education at all levels.

Vision can certainly seem like an abstract, even unimportant, component of school reform. If you discuss the day-to-day challenges of teaching, it’s more likely you’ll hear about resources or academic support. These aren’t unimportant, but attacking these problems at their roots requires stronger leadership, and while there’s a number of factors involved in that, a clear vision is the foundation. It’s a shame it seems to be so hard to find in our leaders today.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.