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What are you willing to tolerate?

What are you willing to tolerate?

A number of school leaders across Iowa recently had the opportunity to spend a day with Pam Moran and Ira Socol at the Prairie Lakes AEA office in Storm Lake. Pam is the award-winning superintendent of the Albemarle County (VA) School District and is widely recognized as one of our nation’s most technology-savvy superintendents. Ira is the Program Manager for Design 2015, an innovation and school redesign initiative currently underway in the school district. This year their district received a Magna Award Grand Prize from the National School Boards Association. As you might guess, our day of learning with Pam and Ira was phenomenal. Everyone left with new ideas whirling in their heads for fostering greater innovation in their schools and districts. 
One of the key concepts from Pam and Ira that resonated with me was the idea of instructional and administrative tolerance. As they described it to us, instructional tolerance refers to what teachers are willing to tolerate from their kids: Is it okay if kids lie on the floor while they work? wear headphones to minimize outside distractions? collaborate and make noise? occasionally drift away on their laptops? and so on… Teachers exist on a continuum of instructional tolerance. As we administrators advocate for greater student collaboration, hands-on learning, technology infusion, real world projects, and student agency/ownership of their learning, these new paradigms of student work often run into many educators’ long-held notions about learning, student behavior, and teacher control.
Even more important to us as leaders is the idea of administrative tolerance. In other words, what are we willing to tolerate as principals and superintendents? Is it okay if some of our students get to experience technology-rich learning experiences but others don’t? Is it okay if some educators are facilitating problem-based learning opportunities for students but others aren’t? Is it okay that there are such wide ranges of action and inaction across staff members? Is it okay if some of your principals are on board but others aren’t? Pam and Ira pressed us to think about exactly what lines we’re willing to draw and enforce in the name of organizational consistency and progress. Throughout the day, a constant theme in our discussions was the need for a shared organizational vision AND the leadership necessary to ensure that vision is enacted. In order to create new learning opportunities for ALL students, many of us will need to have lower degrees of administrative tolerance for some existing educator behaviors.
If we think even bigger than the idea of tolerance, we can move toward the idea of celebration. For example, when it comes to differences in American society, over the past half-century most schools have moved from grudging tolerance of students of different backgrounds to celebrating what those students and cultures bring to the school environment. Similarly, how can we move from instructional / administrative tolerance of newer forms of student and teacher work to celebrating those different ways of working, thinking, and being? I think that’s a question worth some serious consideration…
When it comes to new forms of student learning and work, what are you willing to tolerate? What are you ready to celebrate?
[If you’re interested in learning more about our day with Pam and Ira, see my notes.]

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