If you entered my history classroom in California twenty some years ago at 6:45 am, you would have seen groggy eyed, laughing teens carrying vats of Dunkin Donuts coffee while sashaying to their seats as Cuban music played in the background. Marc, a giant Samoan football player would have interrupted me wiping down desks to give me the biggest of bear hugs. Students would have peaked into our absurdist class diorama of a tiny pig, random tchotkes, and a paper puppet of Sister Wendy, the art historian. You would have noticed that the stark concrete walls were covered in museum posters, a portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, and up front at the podium, where I would later stand, was faced with a photo of two hands, one black and one white lovingly entwined.
That room was a refuge of love, learning, and my aspirations to cultivate what I saw as the sublime beauty found in the thoughts of young people. In terrible contrast, outside my door was the hot and dusty Quad of a sprawling campus that quickly and often turned dangerous with “cops” roaming and barbed wire on the perimeters. Students were viewed with hostility and treated like prisoners in that underfunded public school serving an impoverished community like so many around the world.
But in that room, I developed, understood, and embodied my vision for schooling in the smallest and largest details of learning; a vision that always prioritizes compassion and human connection. Curiosity, joy, meaning, and transformational learning always accompanies this atmosphere when it is applied in systematic ways.
When I speak about my vision for international schools decades later, I can’t help but effuse in passion on my beliefs and experience of similar rooms and schools l have led. My vision for education is grounded in the experience of students because what works in the harshest environments works in all relationships. Belonging matters in all the settings of our lives.
Funny, though, I have trouble finding others with such well-formed insights. “What’s your vision for education?” I ask an interviewee and inevitably they are stumped. It’s not my intention to lob a hard question but I am looking for a glimpse on the thinking of the applicant and whether they carry a vision that unconsciously or explicitly leads their practice as an educator. If you are aspiring towards leadership, a clearly articulated vision formulated in your experience, background and intersectional identities will always serve you.
Leadership requires a continuous future projection of decisions. If we make this choice x, there are various implications of action, perception, impact, resources, and new responsibilities that might unfold. Those who are rigid in their thinking will be disappointed to find that those expectations of results will rarely be accurate or linear. Decisions cascade unpredictably but we look to past patterns to help inform nudges that a community might take. Our faith in education as a panacea often distorts our future predictions and we find that training and professional development never ends with an immediate sea change of school culture or practices. Despite these challenges, you have opportunities towards change and here is where you must have a vision for the type of future you are trying to bring to fruition.
Your vision acts as a filter in your decision making. If it is too narrow, then decisions will inevitably disenfranchise large swaths of community members. For example, you may have a leader who is solely focused on standardized test scores as the pathway towards excellence. If this is their filter then the implications of spending, resources, training, and scheduling will be focused on improving the results of particular assessment tools that may or may not quantify the desired learning impacts. Such a vision can only lead towards exclusionary practices as those who "succeed" are inevitably prioritized. In the same vein, if your vision is too general or inarticulate, then structures are difficult to build and members of the learning community become confused about the next steps leading to a possible a loss of trust.
Your vision should compel you towards action and without it, decisions and initiatives lead to little impact. Understanding that leadership is an iterative process is essential but when you know where you and your community truly want to go, then real steps can be enacted, measured, and observed and not necessarily by quantitative means but through the reflections of the learners themselves.
My vision leads me towards authentic action towards social justice and a questioning of "school" itself. It forces me to be critical of all practices including my own. I need not despair if I find that my attempts have not yet achieved my dreams of inclusion, belonging, and love for all learners though. I'm working on it, and I have surrounded myself with others on the same important path.
I encourage you to be visionary. Leave behind a legacy of positive change for your class, team, or school. Develop your vision, practice and hone it in experience, and most importantly, wield it for the betterment of your community.
Kathleen Naglee is the Head of School at the International School of Helsinki and serves as a Commissioner for NEASC. You can find her at www.kathleennaglee.com and Twitter @KNaglee.