Respect and Dignity

At this time of year, I am always reminded of what I am thankful for as a citizen of this country. Since the recent presidential election,  we have all read and possibly experienced events that have made us feel uncomfortable.  No matter our politics, I am reassured and grateful that our democracy is at work and that a peaceful transition of power will occur on January 21, 2017.


My father, who fought in World War Two, taught me that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.  He was a small town Ohio lawyer who helped many clients who could not read, write or fully understand the laws impacting their lives.  My Dad took the time to explain things and make sure they had the best legal advice regardless of what they looked like or what they could afford. Additionally, as a high school government teacher, I taught children that freedom is not free.  We cannot say whatever we want without repercussions nor can we ignore the law. A free society is dependent on treating one another with respect and dignity.  In fact, our freedom is built upon a willingness to listen to our neighbor no matter our differences.

What concerns me today is the fear of losing the very values that our public schools were built on and have maintained since the mid-1800s.  One of the key elements of our democracy is the public school system, an institution that gives all Americans the chance of living the American dream.  As we look to the future, all public schools across this nation must work to improve achievement gaps to ensure that every child has access to a high quality education, and to develop a citizenry that respects the United States constitution and is able to live and function in a democratic society.  


Our public schools today stand for inclusion of all students; not some or a few but all. Every staff member and student deserves to be treated with respect and dignity no matter how rich or poor, their zip code, religion, race or anything else that makes them different.  


Our country and our public schools’ strengths are found in diversity.  We take any and all children who show up at the school house. We will not pick and choose who to educate nor will we send students away from our classrooms like some private or charter schools.

Respect and dignity are key components in providing an excellent educational environment; that foundation builds a great district and country.  As our nation’s demographics continue to shift, I am proud to work in diverse public schools where we educate all students of color, rich and poor students, students new to our country and those with exceptional education needs.


For nearly 200 years, United States public schools have evolved, becoming more inclusive with each generation of learners. Our system provides excellent educational experiences where students and staff have been given the tools and opportunities to accomplish their goals and fulfill their dreams.  Please join me and remind everyone of the inclusive values of education and that everyone in our great nation deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.  Let’s not forget that public schools are the vehicle nurturing ethical citizens and leaders who contribute to and thrive in a global society.

“Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions to maintain and improve a constitutional democracy. We take this responsibility seriously and understand the challenge it represents for public education in our state with each successive generation.” (Rickabaugh CESA #1 Transforming Public Education, 2010 p.10)

Yours in education,

Blane McCann

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.  


Reflections on Vulnerability

Recently, I viewed a TedTalks video from Brene` Brown on the power of vulnerability. Dr. Brown is a qualitative researcher with a degree in social work. During this particular talk, she discussed her research dealing with shame and vulnerability. She shared that as humans, we have a tendency to focus on our weaknesses and disconnections. We have a fear that we’re not good enough. She had difficulty believing her own research and had to come to terms that being vulnerable was really courage in another form. The willingness to be “seen” and to accept being vulnerable may lead to great joy and accomplishment.

She also conducted research with people who feel worthy – as she described it “…wholehearted people living from a deep sense of worthiness.” She suggested that what separated these wholehearted people from those who did not feel worthy was the courage to be imperfect and the compassion to be kind to themselves and others. These people also formed deep connections with others and lived authentically, expressing their true selves, not the persons they thought they should be. In short, these individuals embraced vulnerability, recognizing it as strength, not as a weakness.

Her words resonated with me. As parents, we see newborns as perfect and our job is to keep them perfect. I was reminded of this when I visited my newborn grandson. Dr. Brown suggested that instead of seeing babies as perfect, we must realize they are imperfect. Our job as parents and grandparents is to nurture them and to love them no matter the imperfections.

As educators, her research is powerful to consider. Every day, we work with students who are still learning and growing. They come to us with all the joys and challenges in their personal lives. They open up to us as mentors; they wear their vulnerability daily. We must make deep, wholehearted connections to them as students find their way academically, socially, and emotionally. We must encourage tenacity and hope, so they have that “suit of armor” which can sustain them through tough times. We must recognize and accept their imperfections, which is not always easy. As a middle school teacher, assistant principal, and principal, a book titled The Middle School Years: Love Me when I’m Most Unlovable, impacted me significantly and changed the way I built relationships with my students and transformed the way I viewed them.

We must also take some of these lessons and apply them to our own lives. Dr. Brown encourages us that as we go through life, to be seen deeply, to love with our whole hearts, and to practice gratitude and joy. She implored us to be kind and gentle with everyone around us, but most of all, with ourselves.

I encourage you to reflect on this research and to realize that we have the ability engage in powerful relationships with people of all ages, and to significantly touch their lives. We also have a great capacity for excellence and innovation, if we give ourselves permission to be seen, to take risks and to have the courage to make mistakes and to learn from them.

I’m enclosing a link to the video, in case you wish to view it

Combating Toxic Stress

Recently, I heard some enlightening research about supporting very young children and building their capacity for success later in life.

The research came from Dr. Laura Jana, who is an Omaha-based board–certified pediatrician, health communicator, and award-winning author.  She shared research focusing on brain development in very young children and the dangers of toxic stress in young children.  She explained how that stress manifests itself much later in life and may actually lead to early death.  We know that children who are exposed to constant stress later exhibit health problems such as alcohol abuse, chronic depression, and poor self-esteem.  These outcomes are especially true for children who live in chronic poverty.

The key to combating toxic stress is to put a caring adult in the life of that child.  We all need to pay attention to a child’s emotional health very early in life. The emerging research suggested that children, who are emotionally healthy, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are healthy because they have a caring adult in their life.  A caring adult develops a more hopeful child by helping them build a picture of the future that they see as possible.

Learning Community Superintendents’ recently published a report that emphasized the need for excellent early childhood education as well as the need to support learners who live in poverty. We are currently exploring ways to help local school districts increase and improve these programs.  In fact, the Learning Community Superintendents’ have written an early childhood plan with the help of Sam Meisels and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute that will be implemented in the fall of 2015.

Educating the whole child is very important.  As an education system, we must not forget the importance of the social and emotional health of our students.  We are beginning to find out that it may be as or more important than their academic health.  Westside recently received a $1.2 million dollar federal grant to support and explore the importance of the social/emotional health of our students.

Educators like myself are lucky because our legacy is the relationships we develop and build with our students.  Part of our job is to help build hope in our students and keep them safe and free of toxic stress; at least part of the day.  Many of us see former students who tell us the difference we made in their life.  I know you can think of a former teacher or coach who changed your life.  Let’s be intentional about building positive relationships, safe environments, and hopeful people to combat toxic stress found in those who live in chronic poverty.