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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Forget about what you have to do

I value Paula’s gift for capturing her practice in writing tremendously. Her advice to us teachers on how to reform education from our classrooms is pragmatic and provocative at once. I reflect on my own willingness, experience, and practice with

  • Teaching parents.
  • Challenging crap from colleagues.
  • Challenging crappy colleagues.
  • Challenging bad decisions publicly.

I ask myself also, how do I “teach” to unfetter the beauty of students’ learning, leadership, pride, and joy?

My activism is a work in progress. Better defining it online lends it shape and provides it with some accountability. However, I am conscious of my role outside mainstream education. I teach at one of three active charter schools in Virginia. From this perspective, I offer my advice:

Start a school. Or start an public unschool.

Nothing teaches you quite so much about yourself as a teacher, leader, and change agent than defining and implementing a school that you think serves an unfulfilled need in your community.

Establish the Vision

  • Identify kids’ needs in your division. Then identify your strengths and weaknesses. Compare them to kids’ needs. Find the best overlap and begin using your strengths on kids’ behalf.
  • Put together a pedagogical portfolio of curriculum, methods, assessments, materials, and schedules that address the needs of the children whom you want to serve. Find exemplar schools doing the work you want to do and be prepared to share their results with your could-be stake-holders.

Share the Vision

  • Recruit fellow teachers to support your work. Some of them may be critical friends who will help you hone your proposal. Some may be teachers eager and especially suited to work at a school like yours. Some of them should be friends who will help you keep the faith in your vision no matter what.
  • Educate your stake-holders. Let your school division know what you’re up to, and begin working with community leaders to drum up support for your school. Meet with parents in their homes, community centers, and places of worship. Handout fliers about your school to people coming out of local grocery stores. As our co-founder Bobbi Snow says, starting a school “is like running for mayor.”
  • Ask supporters to sign on to your proposal. Recruit broadly from parents, teachers, other educational experts, and business and community leaders. Show your school system and school board that your community acknowledges the needs your school addresses and believes that your school can meet those needs.

Nurture the Vision

  • Begin researching the policies you’ll need to know to get permission to start your school. Are you proposing a magnet school? Suggesting a specialty center? Applying for a charter? If you need legal advice, work with your division counsel. If you need to establish a non-profit to attract funding, find the help you need to do so.
  • Find grants, donors, and alternative revenue steams that you can bring to your school system and school board. Help make it easy for them to say yes to your proposal by bringing money into the division.
  • Negotiate your agreement. Get permission to start your school. The more independence you hard-wire into your agreement, the better able you’ll be to achieve your vision over time without succumbing to the status quo. Reserve the right to interview and observe the teaching of potential hires as you see fit. Establish an equitable enrollment process that communicates the purpose of your school and invites families to join it. Ask for what you need to successfully open and run the school; be tenacious in expressing your needs and your reasons for them, but also be prepared somehow to help fund the school. Contract an accountability plan that serves learning instead of capping it. Negotiate a way to share out your successes with the division so they can be scaled-up at traditional schools.

Implement the Vision

  • Communicate frequently thereafter with your internal and external stake-holders. Make sure everyone involved in your school feels in-the-loop and trusts you as a facilitator of your shared work.
  • Get your space. Borrow it, build it, buy it, lease it, rent it, renovate it.
  • With whatever resources you secure, maintain fiscal discipline. Get help doing so from your division’s finance department.
  • Recruit your students. As a public school, maintain open enrollment, commit the school to supporting the students it enrolls, and work hard to help potential students and their families understand the need the school is trying to meet and how it will do so. Be clear about the primary purpose of your school, but don’t be exclusive. Listen to students and parents when they tell you why they need your school.
  • Be kind and attentive to the people on whom you’ll depend – the experts in school operations: custodians, office associates, building services personnel, finance department personnel, your transportation department, your technology department, and your special education department, which if full of educators with broad and deep experience in customizing learning for students.
  • Recruit your teachers. Be brutally honest in your interviewing, with yourself and candidates. Explain your vision. Ask for proof that your interviewees share the same one. Explain your expectations. Explain how your school will support teachers and students in meeting those expectations. Explain how long it takes for a school to get on its feet – 3-5 years. Explain how your school will let teachers leave if the fit is not good. Explain how much work will need to be done the summer before the school opens for little or no extra pay apart from the opportunity to join the school.
  • Get your stuff. Whatever you can order before you have your teachers, order. Whatever they need to fulfill your shared vision, order.

Sustain the Vision

  • Hold one another true to the vision.
  • Accept and act on valid criticism, but filter out the noise of resistance to change.
  • That being said, change what doesn’t work, but do so in accordance with your vision.
  • Have fun together.

All of this is just to say go out Friday night. Bring your teaching buddies. Forget about what you can’t do. Forget about what you have to do. Imagine what kids want to do – how they want to learn. On Monday morning get to work on that in a bigger way than you ever have before.

Start a school. Get a team of teachers together who are interested in change and engage your division leadership in scaling up your ideas about teaching and learning into a school. It may take years, but those years will be well spent in serving students and knowing yourself.

Starting something new can be daunting, but no more so than looking at another year of compromising our beliefs about kids and learning to keep our feet inside the door of public education.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


8 thoughts on “Forget about what you have to do

  1. Chad,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective from the start-up perspective. Encouragement to set out on new and unchartered (like that pun?) waters is always helpful to push out of safe harbors.

    I want to clarify one thing, you link the Maine Farm Enterprise Schools (MFES) through the term “unschool,” and this is not what they are. Maine Farm Enterprise Schools are replicable models using an inquiry and project-based pedagogy. Students still need to demonstrate proficiency in Maine standards of learning. However, it is a very exciting model that strips away a lot of the tracking and grade levels issues that we have discussed elsewhere.

    Unschooling is a movement unto itself and I think unschoolers would readily agree that Maine Farm Enterprise Schools is not an unschool. While MFES uses a “classes when you need them” approach, meaning that learning is done most often hands on–in the field or shop or garden…learning experiences that will look like familiar classes will also be held to extend learning that is happening.

    Anyway, I could go on about MFES for a long time because I think it is a top-notch example of what public schools can be.

    Your advice on starting schools is clear and purposed. For example, there is a big difference between start-up boards and growth boards, often times one cannot perform the task necessary of the other, and knowing how to help people gracefully move on is important. Your words about hiring teachers is strong. Again I think there needs to be a graceful means for people who don’t fit into the model and vision to move on.

    Thanks again for this post, I am going to share it with many people I know interested in starting schools.


    Posted by Adam Burk | May 4, 2010, 5:03 pm
    • Adam, thanks again for your comment and unschooling insights. I want to use the term perhaps too liberally for what it’s come to mean. I think “unconference,” for example, has more flexibility to it, describing an approach without so many preconceived characteristics. How do unschoolers think outside the box about unschooling, I wonder?

      “Classes when you need them” is a great concept and descriptor. Given our interest in schools like MFES, maybe we should write occasional exemplar school reviews in addition to book reviews.

      Can you share more about your experiences working with community partners? Have you gone after social venture capital or donations, as well? What advice do you have on fund-raising for non-traditional public schools?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 5, 2010, 5:45 am
  2. Thanks, Adam – I’ll amend my link and respond more in depth later – I’m looking for exemplars of the most not-popular-notion-of-school-like schools.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 4, 2010, 5:53 pm
  3. Chad this is awesome. I wonder if you seen the Sudbury valley school book on starting schools… It is pretty good.

    My goal and hopefully in the next 5 years is to open a school of my own. I have been doing the underlying work at Goddard while trying to mean all the requirements to become a licensed teacher. It has been hard, because the more i read, the more I just want to start working and start doing the work need to start the school. My goal in the present is writing a film or documentary about a group of people starting a school. It would be great to pick your brain at some point about the process. What resource! Awesome!

    The new Goddard President wants to make Goddard the center of inquiry about Charter Schools. She has mentioned trying to have national conference on charter education in Vermont. Hopefully this happens soon. I think the word charter is losing some of the negative qualities removed in the public eye. I am excited to be a voice for positive alternative choice in public education.

    I am have been volunteering for the last month at a Waldorf Charter School in Eugene Oregon called Waldorf Village School. It has been a great experience.

    Thanks for this post. Inspired.


    Posted by dloitz | May 4, 2010, 7:49 pm
    • Thanks for the kind feedback and enthusiasm for providing kids with meaningful school choice, David –

      I haven’t seen the Sudbury book, but will track it down. My experience comes from learning from my school’s co-founders and serving as our schools head-teacher during the 2008-09 school year.

      It’s great to see Goddard, inquiry, and charter schools in the same sentence. I would love to keep up with that work. I grew up in New England, and am very curious about how school choice will play out northeast of NYC. I can’t imagine Vermont or New Hampshire contracting with charter management firms, but I can see Connecticut, with its history of magnet schools and court-ordered bussing, looking to address its educational inequities by emulating NYC with more business-like solutions.

      Maine seems to me to have its own educational initiatives going. Adam, what’s school choice like there?

      How do Vermonters see school choice? New Hampshirites? Rhode Islanders? Bay Staters?

      How is the North East reacting to Obama and Duncan’s plans?

      I’d love to talk with you more about your film.

      In closing, as one my (most kindly and consistently pushing) mentors (@drjackking) would ask me, why not open a school now?

      Best regards,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 5, 2010, 5:59 am
  4. Okay I am going to say it, I am addicted to this site. I have refreshed this page about 20 times in the last 3 hours… I am eager for conversation.

    Thanks everyone, I am going to need a 12 step program soon.


    Posted by dloitz | May 4, 2010, 10:17 pm


  1. Pingback: Try Something New « Cooperative Catalyst - May 7, 2010

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