THE BLOG
11/10/2014 05:42 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Making Connections Throughout the Educational Pipeline: Valuable Lessons Learned

How different are the needs and challenges across the educational pipeline? In September, my two colleagues Fran Bisselle, Ed.D. Head of School, Maple Street School, Manchester Center, VT, Trudy Hall, Head of School, Emma Willard School, Troy, NY, and I decided to swap places for the day, leading each other's institutions. The ground rules were straightforward: the schedule should be authentic -- filled with the events, issues and interactions that would make up an ordinary day. For two of the leaders, the swap involved moving to a feeder school -- the college president led the high school, and the high school head led the elementary school. The elementary school head led the college. This enabled the college president to meet with 12th graders, anxiously engaged in the college application process and the high school head to meet with 8th graders nervously awaiting their move to high school. The elementary school head was able to witness students who were years beyond their early levels of education and probe what was important to them early in their education that allowed them to pursue and achieve their college dreams.

The overt and original goals were clear: we wanted to live in someone else's shoes to demonstrate -- literally -- and then communicate the value of respectful engagement across the educational pipeline and how increased communications could help improve how we think through the transitions students experience as they move through each critical stage of their education. We also wanted to learn more about the issues students, faculty and staff (and in some cases parents) encounter as they participate in the school experience, proactively reflecting on strategies that can ameliorate difficulties.

While we certainly experienced, learned about and developed some increased strategies that would improve the educational process and facilitate student progression to and through college, we also came to appreciate that regardless of the age and gender of the students and the differences in the overall headcount, the issues educational leaders confront are remarkably -- and frustratingly -- similar.

We came to see that all of our small institutions face fiscal challenges and that there never is enough money to fund all the initiatives and improvements that are needed. Compromises are needed; these are difficult moments and the use of the right decision-making lens is essential at any age of a student's educational process. We came to see the challenges and excitement of technology and how it can and should inform our work in and out of the classroom; that it is absolutely not an "add-on." New technologies require deep re-thinking about the students of the future and what pedagogies will serve them well. And, we came to appreciate that tone and culture are our differentiating assets -- particularly in regard to faculty and staff, most of whom need to wear multiple hats within a small institution. Each of us witnessed true commitment -- a deep and profound student-centeredness that informed the activities, pace and decisions within the institutions.

For our students and students everywhere, we realized the enormous benefits that could occur by vastly greater interaction among the collective of our students and faculty, staffs and administrators. Think of the benefit of colleges providing more information to their high school neighbors on topics such as the challenges of collegiate athletics, or of high schools sharing with elementary school educators the skill sets ninth graders need to hit the ground running. We could envision more sharing by elementary school teachers with college professors the ways even kindergartners are using technology so the professors could cross the developmental divide to think about the impact on learning years down the road. All levels of education could have more conversations about the importance of civility and character education.

At the end of the day, the three of us agreed that we can create more opportunities for our students to watch and learn and grow from those in front of and following after them in the educational pipeline. Here are three promising practices that emerged -- strategies that can be tried out and tested in different settings. We issue one caution: trust is central to these efforts. There has to be a belief that the leaders and their faculty, staff and students are worthy of profound respect and that suggestions and recommendations are proffered in the spirit of continuous improvement.

(1) Expand the notion of what faculty/teacher/staff development means and consider opportunities for these groups to work across the different age groups, enhancing their understanding of what learning is needed, what strategies are transportable and what linkages can be fostered. This could be done through national or regional professional organization or within a locale where the leaders are or could become connected to each other.

(2) Quality leadership depends on an every changing balance between reflection and hands-on engagement. It is easier at one end of the spectrum (K - 8) to spend a disproportionate time on hands-on engagement with every constituency; in contrast, high schools or college leaders may be less involved with students and perhaps parents too at residential institutions. Yet, all leaders need to pivot back periodically to reflect on whether the balance they have struck is right -- for a given time or a given situation. Both hands-on engagement and reflection must become intentional parts of a leader's practice.

(3) Learners across the educational pipeline can enrich the experiences of students both older and younger than they are. We can take learners from where they are, helping them to where we want them to be, recognizing that input from others students is often a pathway that can be followed. And, that requires that students across the educational pipeline need opportunities for deep and active engagement with other students.

There is one major hurdle to all of these suggestions: time. But, what this switch showed all three of us is that the time we spent preparing for leading each other's institutions, the actual leadership opportunity and the time to reflect thereafter was refreshing, impactful and energizing. We had a full day dedicated to thinking about education -- not just "doing" education. We had a chance to engage with each other as well as with another institution, its people and its challenges. In short, the opportunity took valuable time but our horizons have been expanded, enabling us to be better leaders... more thoughtful leaders... wiser leaders.

That is time well spent.
Contributing to this piece were: Fran Bisselle, Ed.D. Head of School, Maple Street School, Manchester Center, VT, and Trudy Hall, Head of School, Emma Willard School, Troy, NY.