Facing Opposition: Hard Lessons in Learner-Centered Transformation
14 August 2018
By Natalie Tucker
“We all want to have a place where we can dream and escape anything that wraps steel bands around our imagination and creativity.”
It doesn’t take a history buff to understand the rich history of Pike Road, Alabama—a rural town that sits on the outskirts of Montgomery. That history book was lengthened when a long-held dream of the Pike Road community was finally realized—opening a school to uniquely serve the young people of Pike Road. With this, Pike Road Schools came into being.
In the Spring of 2015, 500 educators showed up for Pike Road Schools’ first recruitment day—ready to take advantage of the exciting opportunity to reimagine education. The superintendent at the time, Suzanne Freeman, opened the day with tears in her eyes. The overwhelming number of potential applicants who wanted to leap right out of their comfort zones and into this transformational work underway in Pike Road was inspiring. The energy in the room was contagious. This was the first taste of what was to come as we worked to make the shift that all children are worthy of.
The people in this room would soon become family. A shift in the education system from one that values the institution to one that values the learner and their agency, coupled with a start-up school system, has a way cultivating a tribe mentality—everyone has everyone else’s backs.
After the recruitment days were over, 60 lead learners (teachers) were hired to spearhead our learner-centered revolution. Sixty ready and willing teachers were ready to start fresh and do the hard work necessary to make this revolution a reality.
Even though we knew and understood the necessity for change, the change was still hard. I think it always will be. But, isn’t that the beauty of it? The challenge? It’s a driving force.
Fast forward four years, and our overcapacity, one building campus has turned into three campuses. Our original 60 member faculty is nearing 200. And, our enrollment numbers continue to rise year after year.
At the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, our fearless leader headed into retirement. As we welcomed a new superintendent, the entire community, and much of the state, watched the transition with eagle eyes.
Although we have experienced tremendous achievements in the last four years, we’ve also committed some gut-wrenching flops. This makes for some rough waters when everyone is watching your every move. However, I think it’s important to tell this side of the story—the one that talks about the real challenge of transformation and the courage it takes to keep pushing forward.
I was one of the 60 teachers hired during those recruitment days back in 2015, and to say that I would do it again in a heartbeat is an understatement. But, for my fellow education revolutionaries, as someone who has been in the transformation trenches, I want to heed a bit of advice.
Change is the Constant (And It’s Constantly Hard)
Change is inevitable. Change is necessary for growth.
I taught this concept to my learners during my first years of teaching. It seemed that if we started the year with this mindset, there would be much less panic as the learners navigated this new paradigm of learning. Rather than hide in our shells, we could all embrace change.
Even though we knew and understood the necessity for change, the change was still hard. I think it always will be. But, isn’t that the beauty of it? The challenge? It’s a driving force. Even after four years of venturing down this difficult road, it’s that challenge that keeps me, my learners, and my colleagues pushing forward.
I vividly remember meeting with a group of 15 board members and stakeholders at the beginning of Pike Road School. They asked several questions, but the one that still sticks out the most is: “What are you most afraid of as we start PRS?” My answer: “I’m afraid that we will all be in the same book but on different pages.”
If I had an opportunity to go back to this conversation and clarify my answer, I would have explained: I knew we had a good thing going, but if we weren’t careful, we were going to create our own divisions long before we were able to combat the brewing oppositions from the outside.
The irony of it all is that it’s a really good book, but each page must build off of the previous, essentially creating harmony throughout this thrilling storyline. We all know that if a book doesn’t read well from the beginning, most of us are going to leave it on the nightstand—even if we know how great the ending might be.
The paradox with education is that the story never ends. If we want to play this game, we have to understand there is no winner or loser. There is only what’s happened, happening, and what will happen next. However, this shouldn’t deter us from playing. This revolution is real and possible. Play the infinite game. Resist the status quo. Be the creator of “what’s happening next,” so that our children’s futures are even better than our own.
Learn from Your Opposition
During our first year, parents, learners, lead learners, community members, town council members, and board members were all rocked by change. And, with change comes the naysayers. Traditional education is comfortable, right? It’s what most of us, over multiple generations, know.
While we had majority support for the impact we were striving to make on the world of education, we always had some opposition. We still do, and we always will. You will, too. It’s the nature of change.
But, opposition does not mean defeat. Our opposition shook it’s gnarly head on a variety of changes we were making, but it made us that much more intentional in creating a system that could withstand the toughest storms. Like a sailor at sea, facing bad storms is uncomfortable but energizing.
And, the beauty of this opposition is that it creates opportunity. The energy from our opponents is partly what kept us in the game at Pike Road Schools. They taught us about the power of stories.
In our professional learning at Pike Road Schools, we reference Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey because we so deeply identify with the trials and excitements of the journey. The Hero’s Journey involves a hero on an adventure who encounters crisis, victory, and transformation. As a result, the transformation propels the hero into another journey where she will transform yet again.
For example, when Pike Road Schools opened its doors, traditional grading was nonexistent. We wanted the focus to be on learner autonomy and growth. However, this radical idea didn’t acknowledge the impact it would have on our community’s understanding of how education should operate. We didn’t meet our community where they were.
From this crisis, we were able to merge an old assessment paradigm with the new, and transform our entire community’s understanding of what assessment should look like. As you lead your own transformational effort, allow the crisis to lead to victory and then transformation. Embrace opportunity. Accept the call to adventure!
Where’s the Good?
Ok, even though I wanted to bring to light the hard work that goes into transformation, I’d be remiss not to reflect on the good stuff as a catalyst to get your own work started. We have and are experiencing many successes. Oftentimes, the successes come in the most unexpected ways or at the most unexpected times.
I remember being interviewed by a news source, and they asked why we were not as prepared as they would have liked. My answer was this:
“I have a child, and before she was born, I read every book and blog I could get my hands on. I listened to every relative and friend who had raised children in ways that I admired. I was a nanny in college. I’m comfortable with children and always have been. But, nothing prepared me for the child that was uniquely mine. No book, no friend, no advice, no experience. Nothing can prepare you for such an experience.
This experience at Pike Road Schools has been similar. Just as I would go through all the hurdles of motherhood with eagerness—even though the outcome was far harder to achieve than I could have ever expected—I’m willing to do the same on this journey to reimagine education. Would I do some things differently if I started over again? Absolutely! But, I wouldn’t get to say that if I never started in the first place.”
Overall, my advice for all education revolutionaries would be to remember the tortoise and the hare. Who won the race? Exactly.
Change, especially in something as complex as education, is easier and more fruitful to swallow, manage, and refine in small chunks. Education has been the same for well over a century. Reimagining the system and executing on that change isn’t going to happen overnight.
At the start of the Pike Road journey, we were so excited about the opportunity that we began sprinting before realizing we were running a marathon. This idea of a fresh start in a new system and working with innovative leaders and supportive stakeholders got us a bit too revved up to realize we needed to play the long game. In hindsight, I would be more like the tortoise and less like the hare.
Go slow, to go fast.
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