This week, I have the privilege of traveling with a delegation from my school district to three Dallas Texas area districts: Plano, Lewisville and Coppell. The purpose of the trip was to meet with representatives of the districts and see first hand some of the interesting and innovative programs that they have instituted and to pick their brains on the good and bad of what they were doing.
Now I know that these three districts are in economically well-off areas of the state of Texas. There is no way around it, they have money. They are located in high SES bedroom communities outside of the Dallas-proper area. They don’t have many of the problems that property poor districts have. I understand that. But we were not there to feel sorry for ourselves and make a wish list of things we could never afford. We were there to see how innovation works in innovative districts. Innovation was easy to find there.
After a few hours, it became apparent that some major themes were common in these districts.
And it wasn’t about the money. It was about attitude.
Without exception, the employees we met with seemed to have a consistent set of attitudes:
They enjoyed working in the districts they worked in.
They believed that they could do interesting and awesome things if only they tried.
They were not afraid to fail at something if they learned, moved on and grew from the failure.
They had a spirit of cooperation. One district even called another their “sister school district.”
They understood the direction that the district was headed. They were familiar with the district’s plan.
They worked hard to incorporate the community into their decisions and to maintain a strong community relationship.
I noticed that many of things that they did were not as much to do with money but rather simply attitude. For instance, one district had a professional development center that had a snack area which included an area that looked like it came out of a 7-11: Hot Dogs, popcorn, nacho chips and sauce…serve yourself and clean up after yourself as well. When teachers were hungry during PD, go get a snack.
A very inexpensive thing, However, what that does is send the message that we value having you here and we value you enough that we will provide little things to make you more comfortable.
That attitude of valuing the employees, was evident everywhere and that does not require a lot of money. Employee input was not just something done as part of a yearly or quarterly survey, it actually was just the way business was conducted.
Having an enjoyable place to work. Is that a money thing? I don’t think so. I think it is a leadership thing. Indeed, almost all of the above points are leadership things.
Cooperation, no fear to try new things, communicating the district’s direction, community involvement. Are those money things or are they leadership things?
It is easy for us in the low SES districts to look at districts like these and say “Yeah, well if WE had money, we could do that too.” It is easy to have that attitude and it is easy to use that attitude to not try to excel. (It reminds me of the old story of the amateur photographer that owned a less expensive camera that told the professional photographer that they could take good pictures if they just had a “good camera.” Turns out it is not the camera, it is the photographers. Crappy photography comes from crappy photographers, not crappy cameras.) In districts with High SES, it might be easier to get the word out to parents for instance and that translates into better parental involvement. But really, that is just a logistics thing, not a money thing.
When I was leaving, one of the ladies I was with had an interesting story. “Tim, she said “When I got married , I really wanted to dress like celebrities that I saw on TV and in the movies. Of course we were poor and just starting out, so I couldn’t afford the fancy clothes. My husband said to me ‘You know how they look. You know where the cloth store is, you know how to sew. Why not try to replicate as best you can? It may not be the exact copy, but it would be pretty close.” She went on to tell me how she would make clothes that were pretty close. Good enough. (As Kevin Honeycutt once told me it was “China Good.”) Maybe, she said, we could duplicate what these districts are doing but on our terms, on our budgets (Much like this website tries to do with celebrity fashions.)
The point was, we may not be able to exactly duplicate what these districts are doing, but we can try, with the limitations we have, work to replicate other’s successful programs so that they fit in our needs , our community.
And if we aren’t afraid to fail, we can make magic.