Great educators reinforce a growth mindset in students and staff

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UrbanBlogHeader John Brown, Researcher in Residence, AASA

On a bright Sunday morning and the second day of the workshop, the 36 participants in the latest AASA Urban Superintendents Academy assembled for a moving presentation by award-winning superintendent, Dr. Deborah Wortham—currently the turn-around leader of East Ramapo Central School District, New York. Like yesterday’s sessions, Dr. Wortham reinforced the power of service-oriented and mission-driven educational leadership. She formed an instant rapport with the group—and used a range of presentation strategies and media to engage them and provoke both deep reflection and a sense of possibility for the future.

I had seen Dr. Wortham in action previously in her role as a transformational superintendent in Pennsylvania. She continues to amaze me with her charisma, dedication, and commitment to the future of the students she serves as the leader of her district. Her presentation, “Critical Issues in Education Facing the Modern Superintendent,” reinforced a powerful recurrent idea underlying the academy: The superintendent today—especially in urban settings—is participating in what Joseph Campbell called a “hero’s journey.” Every urban superintendent, Dr. Wortham reinforced, is responsible for the lives, well-being, and prosperity of the learners served by his or her district. In spite of what can appear to be sometimes overwhelming challenges, the heroic superintendent leads staff, parents, community members, and—most importantly—students toward a process of transformation, leading them to a better future and society to a greater level of both civility and achievement.

I was deeply moved by Dr. Wortham’s personal reflections, honesty, and support for the participants, encouraging them to consider such questions as: (1) Who have you blessed along the way of your own journey? (2) What is the “20%” difference you will make in your school or district? (reinforcing the range of variation that is possible within school and district structures) and (3) How many “firsts” can you put your shingle on? As a renowned and award-winning educational leader, Dr. Wortham also reinforced the difference between a transformational leader (“I am called to bring it up—Someone else is called to take it forward…”) and one who can sustain the momentum triggered by transformational change.

A few highlights of Dr. Wortham’s presentation that have stayed with me: (1) Great educators reinforce a growth mindset in students and staff. (2) The mission statement of a learning organization must be a living, breathing, and organic document—that is revisited continually as we reflect on our purpose, our goals, and the ways in which were are monitoring our progress toward achieving them. (3) Great professional development can only occur after students have been brought into understanding and “owning” the mission and vision of their school and district; once the superintendent engages their commitment and sense of efficacy, professional development priorities and performance targets can follow. (4) Learning walks can be a useful tool for providing supportive feedback to staff about how PD targets and strategies are being implemented—including areas for enhancement and growth. (5) Perhaps most significantly, Dr. Wortham presented a 5/20/80 rule: Educational leaders should be in at least five classrooms per day, 20 per week, and 80 per month. Interactions with staff and students at the school level are critically important for transformation to occur and be sustained.

I’ll close with two quotes from Dr. Wortham that I found especially moving: (1) “Love, relationships, caring, and concerns are essential in any effective school.” (2) “It is the non-cognitive elements of schooling that must be addressed first—and continuously…Students’ social-emotional learning is a priority before the cognitive-academic can truly be transformed…” Dr. Wortham embodied in her presentation—and continues to demonstrate in her career—her assertion that the “work of educators is deeply meaningful—We must believe in ourselves and our students—and our shared capacity to succeed.”

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