Fostering the Professional Judgment of Educators

For the past 25 years, I have noticed that the confidence in professional judgment of educators is eroding due to a constant attack on the education profession.  I continue to observe state and federal legislators passing legislation that is inflexible and ties the hands of  teachers and principals.  These fine educators are unable to make decisions that will positively impact their learners.  They are robbed of their creativity and ability to innovate in the classroom because of these outside forces.  Educators across this country are frustrated and leave the profession because of the lack of respect for their judgment and experience.  


Since 1987, I have been committed to developing processes and structures that would bring meaning to the work of those around me.  These structures depend on the professional judgment of educators who are closest to the classroom.   I feel that connecting community and organizational members to a shared vision and a common purpose developed with staff, parents and community members  is the best way for a school district to: learn in collaborative ways; constantly strive to improve the conditions for students; and allow staff members to do their best work on a daily basis.

Consequently, I continue to search for ways that will bring out our best in times of transition and change.  All organizations seek stability and balance so that we understand the expectations of our work.  To be sure, public education is facing many complex issues such as school funding, various achievement gaps, school choice, and school safety among many others.  In addition, public education is experiencing a transition as learning is being transformed and the future of work is evolving both because of the influx of new technologies that our students must integrate with to find success. For public education to successfully navigate these changes, we must listen to and build the capacity of all educators to lead this transformation with stability, trust, hope and compassion.  


It is important to establish clarity and focus and provide avenues that involve all staff in this important work.  It is imperative that we understand the needs of our students and staff to maximize and build the capacity of all stakeholders.  As we design educational opportunities, it is critical that we do so from the perspective of our students and with the professional judgment of educators. We should then work backward to align our behavior, and that of our system, to meet the unique needs of all learners.

14566189_10154902503516874_6378818163895903633_oWhat I am proposing here is very different from traditional school improvement processes or continuous improvement models, and is one that I feel will help our communities realize their shared vision with energy and purpose. By changing our language from school improvement to school design, we use our professional judgment to examine our system and commit to designing learning opportunities that are personalized and authentic and taught with a rigorous curriculum to ALL students.

By maintaining the language of school improvement, educators remain anchored to the current system. The current system is a deficit model that is focused more on remediation and dependency, and will not lead to independent, critical thinkers who are able to adapt to an ever-changing world.  Despite our best efforts and hard work to change and improve our current system, the weaknesses in this model hinders our ability to meet the unique needs of all our learners and build on their strengths.

By using the language of school design, we release our energy and create synergy using our professional judgment with multiple stakeholders to focus on designing new systems that support student learning.  With a laser-like focus on students and what they need, we create a system that is strengths-based and helps our students visualize a positive future.  Staff are not constrained by the legacy of an old system, but are often energized by the opportunity to design learning opportunities that are personalized and engaging based on student strengths, passions, needs and interests.


The results we seek through this design process are to truly to share our vision for learners, infuse professional judgment into the change process, increase staff buy-in for innovative ideas, build the leadership capacity of all stakeholders, understand District expectations and, of course, increase the achievement and engagement of all students and staff members.

The school design process shared here is based on the work of Stanford’s Design School, The Collective Impact Forum, the Accelerated Schools Process, Adaptive Schools, The Institute at CESA #1, Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge, and my experience developing learning organizations in several schools and districts.

14543841_10154923778386874_3579239965356324363_oWestside Community Schools

At Westside Community Schools we know that to realize our vision and reach our goals, we must develop a connection from today to tomorrow.  The bridge that connects today with tomorrow starts with strong professional learning program that supports our staff in their growth and development as professionals.

In addition, a set of design principles that lead to transformative student learning opportunities is critical to realizing our district’s vision and our one goal.  In our District, the administrative team co-created a strategic plan with a set of essential and supporting goals with internal and external stakeholders.  Today, we work collaboratively to meet agreed upon outcomes for these goals.  Westside’s individual building teams are now meeting to define what this looks like in each building using the design process seen below.  


The following set of design principles and group norms guides the work of our  design teams.  The principles serve as a cornerstone for a process that will release the energy of staff in conjunction with the precision of our vision and strategic plan.  These design elements define our work, but do not limit our creativity. Rather, they provide staff members with clarity and flexibility, and create an opportunity for team learning to occur.  It is my hope to build rich learning environments where teachers and students alike want to learn.

In the Westside Community Schools, learning is grounded in the following design principles:

  • All learning begins with literacy across the content embedded in a viable and guaranteed curriculum for each content area.
  • All learning is grounded in best practices that are supported by high quality formative and summative assessments.
  • Learning is integrated with current and emerging technologies to calibrate student learning to fall within each student’s proximal zone of development, such that success remains within reach, but is challenging enough to require significant effort.
  • Learning is designed to encourage critical thinking through inquiry-based authentic learning opportunities for ALL students.
  • Learning is authentic and designed to foster learning independence through local and global partnerships, rather than dependence on others for direction, structure and solutions.
  • Learning encourages self-awareness, leading to an understanding of students’ strengths and a focus on their passions to nurture learners to “own” their learning rather than view learning as something they do for someone else.
  • Student learning capacity is seen as malleable and developable through practice, persistence and effective use of available resources rather than a hard-wired, unchangeable characteristic.
  • Learning is designed so that students recognize the value of and potential to succeed in relevant learning tasks so they are engaged and persist in becoming independent learners. Adapted from the Institute at CESA #1


csigpfmvuaasyh6The design principles are supported by a set of Design Team norms that serve as objectives by which to operate as a group. They are:

  • Be committed to the truth
  • Build leadership capacity of stakeholders
  • Exhibit trust and respect at all times
  • Take risks and learn from failure
  • Listen to multiple perspectives
  • Be clear of intent/outcomes
  • Presume positive intentions
  • Challenge our mental models
  • Suspend assumptions
  • Let go of the past

In summary, Westside’s design process fosters the creativity, innovation and professional judgment of staff members and facilitates collaboration between and among staff, parents, and community.  It creates a conversation that is open, direct, and respectful leading to a unique product for each building in the district.  Finally, It assists working groups experiencing difficulty to reflect and come together to overcome obstacles and achieve the district’s goal to maximize student achievement and engagement in a positive school culture.  


At the Start of a New Year

Similar to sandhill cranes that return to Nebraska each year, I feel butterflies at the beginning of each school year.  This is my 36th opening of school and each year has brought its owns excitement for various reasons.  In the fall of 1980 after moving to Ft. Myers, Florida, I began my teaching career.  The butterflies consistently returned but came in waves in 1993 when I first became principal of Grant Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Although each year brings its own excitement,  it also comes with challenges.  The upcoming school year feels different to me because of the overwhelming support of a $79.9 million dollar bond issue by the Westside community.  I am so grateful to work in a community that understands the importance of public education and consistently supports the efforts of the District’s professional staff members.

I want to thank the voters who reside in our great District for this support. The community supported the District’s Facilities Master Plan, updating facilities that will improve the safety, security, and infrastructure of our buildings. We will soon be updating our safe areas, enhancing our security at school entrances, and improving our building systems, including heating and cooling systems. In addition, the District will build three new buildings and complete major renovations in two additional buildings.  These upgrades are important to the classroom experience and overall success of our learners.

The master facilities plan will be monitored by the District’s Bond Oversight Committee (BOC) over the next 15 years. The Board of Education appointed five members to the BOC with staggered terms.

Adam Yale       1 year term
David Cota      1 year term
Mike Williams   2 year term
Kris Karnes      2 year term
John Hughes   2 year term

John Hughes will chair this BOE committee during the 2015-2016 school year.  John served on the Facilities Task Force and was instrumental in preparing the 15 year Master Plan. The primary responsibilities of the BOC will be to monitor and evaluate the implementation of phase one of the master facilities plan approved by the Board of Education.  They will ensure that bond spending is  consistent with the Facilities Master Plan and aligned with the work voters approved.  They will review timelines, contingencies, and substantive changes to work or use of funds. They will  address issues or risks that may arise through the the course of updating our facilities. I encourage you to attend an upcoming meeting. Meeting dates are located on our District website,

Additionally the Board of Education hired Project Advocates, an Omaha firm, as the District’s  third party representative. Project Advocates will lead a process developing standards in the areas of functional programming, furniture, equipment, fixtures, heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC), plumbing systems, and other key building systems.  Project Advocates will also lead meetings that will inform the community of the many decisions required to successfully execute phase one of the Facilities Master Plan.  Finally, Project Advocates will create all bid documents and help the District analyze the bids to ensure that the best qualified companies are hired to complete design documents and  the necessary work in a timely manner.

The District finds itself with a generational opportunity to build new and refurbished facilities while at the same time transforming learning across the District.  Westside is in year two of a five year strategic plan focused on literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, personalized learning, and integrating technology in all classrooms.  The transformation of learning is grounded in a strong educational foundation that has operated in the Westside Community Schools for many years.

Last year I shared the following quote from John Gardner “Do we have it us to create a future worthy of our past ?”  It’s clear to me that Westside staff and community members do have what it takes to create a future worthy of our illustrious past.