What Does It Mean to Celebrate? Reflections on NTN Spring 2018 Leadership Summit

March 12, 2018

Jim May, Chief Schools Officer

Last week New Tech Network (NTN) held its semi-annual Leadership Summit where over 200 teacher, school, and district leaders representing 82 schools, 51 districts, 16 states and Australia convened for three days of leader-centric learning and reflection.   The focus of this Summit was Bright Spots: How Learning from Our Successes Builds a Culture of Continuous Improvement.  Jen Benkovitz, NTN’s Director of School Leadership, challenged us to swap our typically problem-centric view of the world for one where we focused on “Bright Spots” as a path towards scaling success in our classrooms, schools and systems.  As part of Jen’s introduction and framing she had us watch an excerpt of Dewitt Jones’ wonderful TEDx Talk where he reflects on his career as a photographer.  While telling stories through a series of beautiful photographs, he implores us to embrace the simple yet profound charge he was given as a photographer for National Geographic – “Celebrate what’s right with the world!”

His challenge for us to “change our lens” and celebrate surfaced a question for me.  What does it mean to celebrate?  More specifically, it raised two questions for me as it relates to thinking about the context of schools.

  1. What do you celebrate?
  2. How do you celebrate?

How We Typically Celebrate in Schools

Generally speaking, there is no shortage of celebration in schools.  We hold school meetings that celebrate accomplishments big and small by students.  We hold pep rallies that celebrate athletic endeavors. We hold award ceremonies that celebrate academic accomplishment.  There is Homecoming, which celebrates social accomplishment (e.g. popularity).  On the adult side, the reality is not much different.  We commonly acknowledge the efforts and accomplishments of our colleagues during staff meetings, school announcements, and sometimes in writing (e.g. school newsletters).  We give out forms of recognitions that celebrate a range of contributions via simple, brief “shout outs” all the way up to the Teacher of the Year.   Schools also celebrate things like the 100th Day of School, Red Ribbon Week, Teacher Appreciation Week and so on. And all of these are marked by the presence of food.  In American public education, every celebration is a reason to eat cupcakes.

In short, our general practice around celebration in schools is that we 1) take a break from learning, 2) briefly acknowledge some accomplishment by a student or colleague, and 3) eat food (usually high in sugar).  After that is over, we quickly return to whatever problem had our attention before the celebration interrupted our daily routine.  

The practice described above reveals a frustrating reality about American public schools.  Namely, that we typically give considerable energy and attention to ritualizing the social life of schools and are comparably neglectful when it comes to ritualizing the intellectual life of schools (for students and adults). At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I would argue that the pattern of practice described above represents a weak vision of celebration.  Not because I don’t like cupcakes (I do) but because it divorces the practice of celebration from the practice of learning and reflection. The forms of celebration described do not furnish us with any additional understanding of or insight into the accomplishments being celebrated, be they social or intellectual in nature. Consequently, we are ill equipped to reproduce similar successes going forward because we have very little explicit understanding of what produced those successes in the first place. Read full article…

In the coming months, we’ll be sharing bright spots from our network of schools including high quality projects, innovative professional development, and best practices in creating and sustaining school culture. If you have a bright spot at your school that you would like to share, tweet us @NewTechNetwork. 




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