Changing systems from the inside out | The Chalkboard Project

Changing systems from the inside out

Thursday, January 11, 2018 Dale Rooklyn

Teaching always felt like a natural fit. My experiences in school growing up were always positive. There were many teachers along the way, starting in elementary school and continuing on through high school and college and graduate school, who showed interest in me, who mentored me. What’s more, they made me feel they cared.

I took a similar approach throughout my 30+ years as an educator, most of that as the principal of Ashland Middle School. As an educator and a leader, your mission is to make every student and every teacher successful, and that starts by building relationships.

As a teacher, I often felt that the “system” got in the way of my creativity. I pushed back quite a bit. Ultimately, I became a principal because I wanted to change that system to give teachers a stronger voice in what happened in their classrooms and schools.

As a principal, I always kept in mind there is no education work more challenging than being a teacher, and my job was to do whatever it took to make their work more doable. The way to do that was through shared decision making. By being open to new ideas and new perspectives, teachers would find ways to be more innovative and achieve better outcomes. 

In my work, I’ve mentored principals at some struggling schools. These were places where the staff was working very hard, but the results were not reflective of that hard work. A lot of times the problem was with the decision-making structure—the principals were not as effective because they were making decisions without involvement or collaboration with teachers.

Since joining Chalkboard seven years ago, I’ve gotten to work in some great places in southern Oregon. I’m currently a coach in the Prospect, Eagle Point and Rogue River districts.

I most enjoy seeing how districts grow over time. In the beginning, the coach plays a more active role—answering questions, giving guidance and direction to the process. You have to be able to problem solve, to get them unstuck at times. Then as the people in the districts work through the grant you see them taking more and more ownership and responsibility. The team members grow very close over the duration of the grant.

By the time the work is winding down, you’re able to take a step back and see the big picture of how the district is different. Seeing the sustainable successes of that work is very exciting. What’s interesting is that every district does it in a unique way that reflects its local context.

It used to be that school districts always sought outside experts to solve their problems. Now districts see that they are they are their own best experts. To see so many amazing, hard-working educators step up to work together is a huge cultural and system shift in education.

It’s said that systems are perfectly designed to achieve the results they get. That’s why by changing the system from the inside out, we’re hoping to get better outcomes for everybody.

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