Teaching Civility in Turbulent Times

A contentious presidential election should cause us to reflect on the skills that students need to participate in a democratic society. As I recently wrote, our freedom is contingent upon our ability to govern ourselves, and that self-governance requires an educated populace. Schools, therefore, must continue to provide students with strong foundations in history and civics and must also deliberately provide ongoing opportunities for students to practice interacting in a civil manner with diverse people whose views are different from their own.

While there are many forms of conversation, modern society relies primarily on discussion or debate. While these are important skills, they are specifically intended to create a “win/lose” situation whereby one party attempts to impose or convince another party of their personal views.

The Purpose of Dialogue

The purpose of dialogue, on the other hand, is to gain a deeper understanding of different perspectives by viewing issues through multiple lenses in a non-judgmental manner.  It is designed to help students not only gain a greater understanding of the opinions of others but their own as well. They not only examine “what” different opinions are but also the root cause of “where” they come from and “why” we have them. 

Plato. Etching by D. Cunego, 1783

For centuries, dialogue has been acknowledged as an important form of communication when gaining a deeper understanding is the goal. Although originally attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato, many other contemporary thinkers have promoted and expanded upon this concept. 

Boemian Dialogue, based on the work of theoretical physicist David Boem, poses that dialogue “is a freely flowing conversation in which participants attempt to reach a common understanding, experiencing everyone’s point of view fully, equally and non-judgmentally.” It is more concerned with the process of understanding than “winning.”

Noted Brazilian educator, philosopher and advocate of the oppressed Paulo Freire called for a form of dialogue where all voices are held in equal accord and people engage in a search for truth and understanding, as opposed to a process that is critical or contentious and where views that differ from one’s own are perceived as an imposition.

In his tome Pedagogy of the Oppressed Freire writes, “At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” He believed that engagement should be based on humility, love and an inherent trust in humanity.  

At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.    

~Paolo Freire

When writing about humility, Freire poses the following questions:

  • How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own?
  • How can I dialogue if I consider myself a member of the in-group of “pure” men, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all not-members are “these people” or “the great unwashed”?
  • How can I dialogue if I am closed to—and even offended by—the contribution of others?
  • How can I dialogue if I am afraid of being displaced, the mere possibility causing me torment and weakness?

The American systems scientist and author Peter Senge writes that “one of the most reliable indicators of a team that is continually learning is the visible conflict of ideas.” He advocates for a balanced use of both dialogue and discussion as a way for groups of individuals to move beyond their individual perspectives to recognize that everyone is part of a single larger system. 

Teaching dialogue to today’s students is a challenge. Social media, entertainment disguised as news, and the lack of proper models all contribute to students not being exposed to dialogue as a viable form of conversation.

Furthermore, the ability to withhold one’s judgment requires tremendous effort.

The Benefits of Dialogue

However, the benefits of dialogue can be great.  When students learn to dialogue, they learn:

  • that in a society where all people are created equal, no one person’s viewpoint or opinion is more valuable than any other’s regardless of issues related to status such as gender, skin tone, socio-economic level or education.
  • that our thoughts and beliefs are simply a result of our own individual experiences formed over the course of our lifetimes creating our own personal culture.
  • to support their opinions with logic or reason and not to revert to attacks.
  • to not be threatened by opinions that differ from their own.
  • that opinions can be fluid and changed when other information becomes available.
  • that diversity is not something that separates us but makes us stronger.

Considerations for Education

Here are a few considerations as we reflect on our task of  preparing students to engage in our democracy and in an increasingly diverse nation and world.

  • Actively promote the role education plays in sustaining our democracy, not just its economy.
  • Encourage educators to understand dialogue, its purpose, its history and how it can be implemented in our classrooms.
  • Encourage educators to model dialogue for their students through their own behaviors.
  • Support all teachers—in all content areas—to read and understand their state’s English/Language Arts speaking and listening standard which outlines how students at each grade level should be taught to engage with diverse learners.
  • Encourage heavy doses of cooperative learning in classrooms with an equal attention placed on the academic content and the process of working together.
  • Ensure that students are exposed to books and articles that demonstrate the skills of compromise and collaboration.

Governing Ourselves

Securing our freedom depends largely upon our ability as a nation to govern ourselves individually and collectively. Teaching students how to communicate through dialogue has the potential to help students gain a deeper understanding of their beliefs and opinions as well as those of others.

Through this understanding—grounded in “humility,” “love” and “trust”—we will provide our students with the tools to engage with one another in a civil manner securing our democracy and the freedoms we cherish so much.

Boem, David. (2013) On dialogue. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Senge, Peter M. (1990). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
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Mark Rolewski has spent over twenty years assisting school leaders and teachers in developing a deeper understanding of leadership and instruction and strengthening their skills in these areas. He works as a presenter and coach across North America and Internationally. Prior to launching his own firm, Mark was a teacher, principal, central office administrator and leadership consultant with the Success For All Foundation and the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University.

Our Civic Duty: The foundation of a democracy is rational conversation

Listen with curiosity, speak with honesty, act with integrity.

Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Democratic freedom comes at a great cost. It is not an ideal that can just be demanded by individuals, but rather must be collectively earned. Therefore, our success as a nation is contingent upon our willingness and ability to govern ourselves— both individually and collectively. Only through these efforts can we navigate our way to a new and better tomorrow, and many tomorrows after that.

Many great thinkers and leaders have linked freedom to self-governance. Greek philosopher Plato linked freedom to one’s ability to govern himself. Seventeenth century English philosopher and key influencer of the framers of the US Constitution, John Locke, claimed that while men were naturally free, they had to transfer some of their rights to a government established by the consent of the people in order to pursue life, liberty and property. Self-governance is the price we must be willing to pay to be free.

But the process of self-governance is as fragile as it is strong. If we take it for granted, it fails, if we nurture it, it flourishes. Our Founding Fathers believed that to be sustained, self-governance required an educated populace. Thomas Jefferson believed that “self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently” and advocated that “sustainable education” be provided for all citizens.

Later, Abraham Lincoln stated that education was “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in” to support the American democracy. Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote that “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” 

Education is “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in” to support the American democracy.

~Abraham Lincoln, March 9, 1832

Simply put, freedom is not possible without self-governance and self-governance is not sustainable without education.

Formal K-12 education in the United States prepares its citizens to participate in our democracy in many ways.  One way is to provide strong foundational knowledge that includes understanding various forms of government, learning the lessons of our history and the histories of others, comprehending our guiding documents such as the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and understanding liberty, politics, the rule of law and the value of voting. This foundation provides the critical knowledge base that every citizen should possess and continue to study.

However, knowledge is not enough. Self-governance requires not just understanding, but action. Therefore, schools emphasize two fundamental skills, interwoven into one, to form the basis for participation in a democracy and securing our freedoms—speaking and listening. For when we do them well, we truly fulfill our patriotic duty. When we do them poorly, we erode our freedom.

Let’s examine how schools guide our students toward participating in our democracy with a particular emphasis on those two specific bedrock skills. Maybe, along the way, it will serve as a reminder for all of us interested in sustaining our freedoms.   

Educators understand that what is taught in schools is determined by each state individually through a series of published standards.  Standards determine what is taught in numerous content areas including mathematics, art, science and language arts. While many standards address the skills necessary to participate in self-governance, let’s focus on one standard in particular. This standard extends from kindergarten through graduation, gradually increasing in complexity as students progress through their schooling. Regardless of grade level, the premise remains the same:

Students should be able to initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade appropriate topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

silouhettes of people in crowd

Simply stated, the first part of this standard focuses on teaching students to listen and speak to people who are different from themselves. “Diverse partners” has many connotations in today’s world and is constantly changing but includes people from different countries of origin, cultures, languages, religions, ages, sexual preferences and political persuasions. Diversity is this country’s greatest strength—and yet our greatest weakness. We are at our best when we are united and at our worst when we are divided. 

United, of course, doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.  Quite the contrary. We know that, if done well, discourse allows us to move toward a more perfect union for all of our citizens, as put forth in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. It not only allows for others to be heard but allows us to refine our own beliefs and gain a clearer understanding of the beliefs of others. It provides us with the opportunity to respect each other’s point of view and even change our minds. It provides the opportunity to learn tolerance and to seek common ground. Speaking and listening, together, form part of the foundation of a stronger Union.

To help children—and all citizens—to “participate effectively” in discussions with diverse people, our speaking and listening standard includes some guiding principles.  One such guideline states:  

Work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision-making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed.

This guideline focuses on the rules necessary to ensure that all people can be heard and can make effective decisions.  When asked, even young students can list rules such as listen to each other, don’t interrupt, take turns, and stop when the teacher tells you to stop. Indeed, the best teachers include students in creating rules for engagement, provide opportunities for students to deliberately practice these skills, and interweave speaking and listening with all content areas.  

As early as fourth grade, the following caveat is added:

Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.

This guideline focuses on the ability of students—all citizens—to engage in an “exchange of ideas” that is based on reasoning or logic. Indeed, teaching students to provide accurate evidence to support their beliefs with reasoning or logic is a great challenge for schools. However, one attribute of a quality teacher, regardless of the content area they teach, is the ability to weave reasoning and logic into their teaching by constantly asking the questions Why? and Can you justify that?

Business arms raised with speech bubble by concrete wall.

These questions require effort on behalf of students and require them to think beyond their own personal experiences and opinions. The difficulty of teaching reasoning or logic is compounded by the cacophony of opinions or positions that are supported with the weak or twisted evidence available on various news channels (where entertainment is disguised as news) and social media platforms. Even our foreign adversaries recognize that their best strategy for weakening or defeating our democracy is to cleverly infiltrate our social media in an attempt to pit us against one another.

Students must recognize the differences between news, opinion, and propaganda. They must also guard against their own bias by not exposing ourselves only to information that matches their beliefs but instead recognize the value of multiple sources of information. Media literacy must be emphasized including using resources that subscribe to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Remember: speaking and listening, when done well, make our country great. When done poorly, they erode our freedom.

When students don’t possess the skills to discern evidence from hype, they become susceptible to making errors in their reasoning (i.e., overgeneralizing, relying on hearsay, counterfactual thinking, and catastrophizing), or they simply resort to ad hominem (i.e. personal attacks).

Furthermore, we must understand the danger in the fallacies that are encouraged when complex concepts are reduced to three-letter phrases or acronyms (i.e., Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter), memes, or by asking questions that encourage only dichotomous thinking (i.e. either/or). Collective self-governance consists of complex ideas that require a well-reasoned exchange of ideas as opposed to explosive reactions. Our ability to engage in a thoughtful, rational discussion requires that we closely monitor and evaluate our information intake.

But education is not just the responsibility of the schools, it is the responsibility of each of our citizens. We must embrace the idea that freedom is embedded in the behaviors of each and every one of us. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each of us to regulate—or govern—ourselves. We must be disciplined enough to consistently model the behaviors (i.e., honesty, open-mindedness, tolerance) expected of a member of an educated populace. We must be willing to do what we ask our students to do—engage in the types of behaviors that make us stronger, not tear us apart.

Freedom is contingent upon self-government and self-government is dependent on its citizens engaging in a well-reasoned exchange of ideas. This is one of our most important civic duties.   Effective listening and speaking are at the foundation of this process. They make us stronger—individually and collectively—and contribute to sustaining the freedom we cherish so dearly.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
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Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.

Esprit de Corps: Creating Positive School Relationships

Back to School

From my years as an elementary school principal, I still recall the excitement and anticipation of the new school year when teachers returned to prepare for the arrival of their students.  It is a special feeling and one that continues to stir within me every year around this time. Teachers buzzing about arranging their classrooms with desks, chairs and tables and colorful decorations that were both functional and fun.  Materials and supplies neatly organized and readied for day one.  Teachers visiting one another’s classrooms exclaiming how wonderful they were and looking for ideas that could be added to their own. 

I recall one year when an intermediate teacher informed me that she would not be setting up her classroom prior to the students arrival.  Instead, students would arrive to an empty room without anything on the walls and furniture and materials stacked in the hallway.  She felt strongly that it was the students’ responsibility to arrange and decorate the classroom, not hers.


It was an interesting proposal and one that I wholeheartedly supported given her rationale.  When students arrived, they were bewildered and invigorated at the same time.  I recall the students, sitting on the floor of an empty classroom, listening with curiosity to the teacher explaining to them that this was their classroom as much as it was hers and together they would be able to arrange and decorate it.  She emphasized that they were going to be a team and that strong teams worked together to solve problems and make decisions while respecting the opinions of others. 

Students were arranged in teams and were asked to generate multiple ideas that they would be able to present to their classmates for approval, revision or rejection.  Various standards in language and math were creatively woven into the project as students wrote, calculated and presented to one another.  Over those first few days, more and more ideas were put into place and the classroom began to take shape.     

She emphasized that they were going to be a team and that strong teams worked together to solve problems and make decisions while respecting the opinions of others.

As a student of leadership, I realized that what was happening in this class was different from many others.  Phrases such as “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” and “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship” are often posted in classrooms. While those sayings are both noble and true, this class went a step further.  This class was not only about teacher/student relationships but relationships between students.  It was a quest to establish an esprit de corps among the entire class—teacher to student, student to teacher and student to student.  In time, parents became part of the equation, too. 

They established an identity by creating a class name, symbol, flag, song, pledge and agreements that would bind them together as one.  When you asked students what class they were in they didn’t state the teacher’s name, they stated their team’s name.  Students felt that they were part of something bigger than themselves.

What I observed over the course of the year was a tight-knit group with an attitude that no obstacle was too large for them to conquer.  Students were taught skills not only in self-regulation but also in how to help others in the group with their behaviors, social skills and academic learning.

es·prit de corps
/eˌsprē də ˈkôr/

a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group.

Students set academic goals for the class, not just themselves.  Students learned to work together in teams to teach, support and encourage one another.  The teacher involved students in the lesson planning process, seeking input as to how to best teach content in a way that students would find motivating.  Motivation became everyone’s responsibility, not just the teacher’s.

When assessment results became available, team results were examined before individual results.  Students learned the concept of mutual accountability and realized that their efforts contributed to the overall group.  Celebrations were not just for individual achievement but for class achievement. 

Everyone had to learn how to accept criticism, handle rejection and check their egos.

That is not to say that this was always a smooth process.  Establishing an esprit de corps never is.  The students—and even the teacher—had to learn how to get their needs met within the structure of the team. Everyone had to learn how to accept criticism, handle rejection and check their egos.  Reflection was a central part of this project with team meetings held regularly to analyze potential problems and solve existing problems away from the heat of the moment.  

At the beginning of each year we have to remember that students’ social lives have been disrupted.  They are concerned about who their teacher will be and also which students will be their classmates.  Teachers have a unique opportunity at the start of the year to begin to foster an esprit de corps among their students that will allow them to thrive individually and collectively, socially and academically. 


For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.



Thriving in the Meteor Shower of Back-to-School Initiatives

Meteor Shower

One of the brighter meteor showers of the year—Perseids—occurs every year at the end of July and the beginning of August.  It is spectacular not only because of its brightness but because, on a good night, you can see up to 60 to 100 meteors in an hour if the conditions are right.  Recently, after spending the day working with school leaders in preparing for the upcoming school year, I sought refuge in the quiet night and settled in to watch this spectacle.  The sky did not disappoint.  As I watched, my mind kept thinking about the similarities between the night sky and the work I had engaged in with school leaders during the day. 

School leaders had communicated to me that they were concerned about the overwhelming number of new and updated initiatives that they were attempting to implement during the upcoming school year.  They also realized that all initiatives were new to the new teachers they had hired over the summer.  The list ranged from school-based to district or even state-based initiatives, academic initiatives such as new reading programs, updated math materials, new technology, new instructional strategies, social and emotional initiatives and the like.  Each of these blistered across the landscape of the new year like the meteors that showered the night sky.

They also shared with me how they felt as they sat through their own personal Perseids when their district held its well-intentioned annual leadership retreat full of high-speed presentations from various departments designed to inform administrators of the new and revised initiatives for the upcoming school year.  School leaders were now faced with how to communicate—and implement—these changes to and with their faculties while avoiding the same rapid overload they had just experienced.

I am sure there are many school administrators who feel as if they live in the middle of a meteor shower with initiatives and directives zooming by with every new meeting and email.  To help manage this chaotic and complex environment, here are some key points from school leaders who were trying to navigate this shower in a way that was respectful and user-friendly to teachers.

Not All Meteors are Equal:
Discern the most important initiatives

While the beauty of the meteor shower consisted of the various streaks of light across the night sky, it was not that hard to distinguish between the spectacular and the not-so-spectacular.  Similarly, great school leaders possess the ability to know the difference between what is insignificant, important, and most important.  This skill—discernment—is a critical skill necessary to survive—and thrive—in the meteor shower.   

To assist in helping school leaders discern what is most important, each school made a list of all the initiatives that were to be implemented during the school year regardless of origin.  Needless to say, there was no shortage of meteors on each school’s list!

The next step was to put the lists aside and instead of focusing on the initiatives, focus on the student achievement needs of each school.  School leaders knew that they first had to be clear on their most important student achievement goals and the gaps in their performances, and then ascertain how well the initiatives aligned with closing those gaps.  They realized that many of the new initiatives, while legitimate, did not always address their most important needs. 

It was a challenging task because the case could be made that everything on the list was important; however, the school leaders realized that if everything was deemed important, nothing was going to be important.  They also understood that to be successful they had to do a few things very well—not everything.  The key was to identify those few things.

As a result, those initiatives that aligned with the schools most urgent needs were given the highest priority in term of attention, time and implementation.  Other initiatives were delayed, or given lower priority, which meant that they would be addressed but with significantly less intensity and effort.  Other initiatives were eliminated or received “compliance treatment.”     

Encourage Brilliance
Be diligent in focusing on what is most important

While observing the Perseids meteor shower, I certainly had no impact on the length or intensity of the meteors.  However, school leaders had considerable influence over the intensity and length of time for how programs were to be implemented in their schools.  They valued their teachers and were empathetic to how challenging it is to simultaneously teach and learn new skills as teachers are asked to do.  They knew that if posed with too many initiatives, teachers wouldn’t have the opportunity to become skillful enough in those that were most important.  They also wanted to avoid the “illusion of change” whereby initiatives are presented but with no real follow-up. 

To remedy this, once school leaders identified the initiatives that aligned with their greatest student achievement needs, they calculated the amount of time and resources—or organizational capacity—that they possessed to truly implement their initiatives in a manner that resulted in both strengthening instruction and in increasing student achievement.  School leaders calculated minutes available during teacher pre-service days and throughout the year that could be used to support teachers in learning these new skills.  Each school then examined the human capital, such as instructional coaches, administrators, district personnel and external providers, who could assist in a successful implementation.

It became apparent that even with narrowing the scope of new initiatives and allocating time and resources, school administrators continued to be concerned that they did not have enough time or resources to provide the high-quality follow-up and feedback necessary to develop a high level of skill in multiple initiatives for all teachers.  Administrators were juggling multiple meteors, too.   

The key was for school leaders to clearly define what a high-quality implementation for each initiative looked like.  Furthermore, they created implementation progressions that described what implementation would look like at the early, developing, consistent, and impactful levels of development.  These tools would serve as roadmaps that would not only provide clarity about the different levels of performance but also allow teachers to self-assess their current levels, track their own progress and seek out support that was specific to their needs.  

On a regular basis, each teacher would complete a self-assessment and set short-term implementation targets for each initiative to be shared with administrators who could monitor growth, arrange support and hold teachers accountable for meeting performance expectations.  By focusing on specific areas of growth, it would help alleviate the pressure for teachers to learn all aspects of the new initiatives immediately.  Teachers who already possessed skills or who developed skills quickly could progress at their own rates, and teachers who needed more time and support would progress at a pace that aligned with their personal skill levels. 

The success of most initiatives depends on the ability of teachers and administrators to be diligent in focusing on what is most important over a long period of time.  Many well-intentioned initiatives have gone by the wayside because people got caught up in the ever-present meteor shower and lost focus on what was most important. 

To help with this, school leaders developed a system by which every two weeks, teachers—based on their self-assessments—would write their targets on an index card and post it in their rooms.  During walkthroughs, administrators would be able to write specific, targeted feedback on the back of these cards.  At the end of the two weeks, teachers would add their own reflections and submit the index card to an administrator followed by writing new target cards.  The ultimate goal was for teachers to self-assess their own learning and take charge of their own professional development on the school’s most important initiatives. 

Impact Student Achievement

Life in schools—particularly at the beginning of each school year—can be like living in the middle of a meteor shower.  New and revised initiatives fly in from all directions.  A skilled leader will

  • determine the most important needs of their students and which initiatives align with those needs.
  • provide clarity as to what the initiative should look like in the classroom.
  • allow teachers to take responsibility for deliberately developing their skills in a reasonable environment.
  • provide support so that each teacher can progress to a level of development that impacts student achievement.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.

Historic Florida School Rises Again

“F” stands for FAST, not Failure

Fessenden Elementary School in Ocala, Florida has had its fair share of challenges over the past 150 years.  Opened in 1868 with the original mission of educating freed slaves, Fessenden provided educational opportunities for African American students during a time when racism and racial segregation were the norm.

Today, Fessenden Elementary School, a racially integrated school that is part of the Marion County School District, continues its quest to serve students who live in poverty.  And, once again, it has overcome its latest challenge—a school grade of “F” issued from the State of Florida in 2018.  As one of only twenty-five elementary schools in Florida with such a designation, Fessenden found itself in the lowest one-half percent of schools in the State.  However, by embracing the mindset that “F” represented Fessenden Fast, not failure, the historic school demonstrated significant growth and earned a school grade of “C” after only one year.    

To effect this growth, a team of committed teachers, staff and school administrators, along with support from the Marion County Public Schools, the State of Florida School Bureau of School Improvement, and external school turnaround support from Ro Educational Leadership, Inc., helped Fessenden take its next step towa the prominence deserving of its history.   

To begin the journey, a new principal had to be hired, a team of committed teachers and staff had to be put in place, and a turnaround plan had to be designed and put in place—fast

Identifying a Leader

The first move that Deputy Superintendent Jonathan Grantham and Area One Director Melissa Kinard had to make was the hiring of a new principal—Lacy Redd.  An experienced Florida administrator, Ms. Redd had experience in multiple districts and multiple schools where there were large number of students who lived in poverty.  Fessenden would become her newest challenge. 

Building a Team

The next step was for Ms. Redd to build a cohesive team out of the returning staff members and replace multiple teachers who left the school through normal attrition or through mandated transfers dictated by the State due to performance.  Hiring a quality staff when qualified teachers were limited and the stigma of being an “F” school was ever-looming proved to be a challenge.   Over the course of the year, the churn of teacher turnover remained constant with numerous teachers being hired, many classes having multiple teachers throughout the year, and some classrooms being staffed by substitutes. 

To help provide support to the instructional staff, Ms. Redd and her assistant principal, Ms. Lisa Coy, rebuilt their leadership team to include instructional support personnel.  By the end of the first semester, three instructional coaches—Ms. Courtney Hauck (Math), Ms. Angela Slagle (English/Language Arts) and Dr. Suzy Colvin (Multi-Tiered Support)—were added to the team. 

Phase One: Fessenden Fast

Ms. Redd realized from the onset that strong instructional processes had to  be in place for Fessenden to be successful.  To assist with this task, Ms. Redd turned to a partner with whom she had worked before—Mark Rolewski from Ro Educational Leadership, Inc.  Having served as a turnaround principal himself and working with turnaround schools from across the country for the past twenty years, Mr. Rolewski helped Ms. Redd design and implement Phase One of the turnaround process—Fessenden Fast, where the “F” grade represented “fast,” not failure.   

Fessenden Fast combined a results-oriented, collaborative, standards-based instructional approach in which teams generated common laser-like goals and used common short- and mid-cycle formative assessments to determine the effectiveness of their instruction.  Recognizing that only one out of every four students at Fessenden was reading at grade level and armed with data generated from the frequent assessments, teams were able to make timely instructional decisions and provide additional opportunities to learn—within and outside of the regular classroom—for students who were struggling. 

Teachers remained focused and diligent throughout the year by engaging in ongoing, team-centered professional development that strengthened skills in collaborative planning, instruction, and reflection, and created a culture of mutual accountability centered on results.  Teams were also provided with opportunities to develop high-quality student tasks aligned with the standards and learned brain-based instructional techniques designed to engage all students—particularly those who live in poverty—in learning. 

Phase Two: Fessenden Forward!

Of course, building a school that lives up to the reputation of its past requires more than a one-year commitment.  Therefore, formal planning for 2019-20 began in January 2019, long before the results of Phase One were known.  Phase Two—Fessenden Forward!—is designed to build on the strengths of Fessenden Fast and further lay the foundation for continued improvement at the storied school.  The five components of Fessenden Forward! focus on the school team strengthening their ability to know their students, teams, standards, instruction and results.

Fessenden is a school that was created to beat the odds.  A committed group of people with clear goals and path can continue to create a school that is deserving of its history.  As third grade teacher,Ms. AJ Vereen stated, “I’m excited about the 2019-20 school year.  Let’s go!”  Phase Two—Fessenden Forward!—is already underway!

There is No Freedom without Education

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Happy Independence Day!  As we celebrate this holiday with fireworks, patriotic songs and picnics, we should take a moment to reflect not only on our current freedoms but also our continuing obligation to continue our journey to create a more perfect union for all Americans.

Today, among all the festivities, is a good day to take time to read—or re-read—The Declaration of Independence.  Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson in consultation with the Committee of Five, it outlined the colonies’ intention to be absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.  It’s only a ten-minute read, even less if you skip over the body of the document devoted to outlining the specific grievances against the King.   

Most Americans are familiar with the part of the preamble which outlines our individual rights.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

The remainder of the preamble emphasizes that the new government would derive “their just power from the consent of the governed” and that it is the responsibility of the “People” to institute, alter and, if necessary, abolish a government to achieve these rights. 

Four score and seven years later, President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address recounted this point when he referred to a “government of the people, by the people, for the people…”.

These are the freedoms that are celebrated today—the freedom to govern ourselves to ensure that our rights cannot be taken away or infringed upon by a possessor. 

However, we must also reflect on my second point—our obligation to sustain and improve upon a form of governance that protects and, as appropriate, expands to all our citizens the freedoms our Forefathers worked so hard to secure. 

We must recognize that fundamental to sustaining and refining such a form of government is a strong educational system which provides everyone the opportunity to learn our true history—both the positive and negative—and to learn how to engage civilly in the discourse necessary to effectively govern ourselves.  That is our obligation.  It is an ongoing effort that must be persistently addressed in our federal, state and local governments as well as in every school district, school, classroom and home. 

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to William Jarvis in 1820:

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

So today I celebrate the courage of our Founding Fathers to declare their independence and their wisdom in recognizing that education must be a centerpiece of sustainability and progress.  Additionally, I applaud all those who continue to educate, support and invest in our schools as we persist in our efforts to create a more perfect union for ALL Americans.  For without them, we wouldn’t be celebrating with fireworks, patriotic songs and picnics.

Happy Independence Day! 


For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
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Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.



What are you waiting for?

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Are you asking the most important questions?

Effective school leaders who find themselves leading lower-achieving schools must have a clear focus on theStudent in front of blackboard with complex problem on board. one most important thing in school—student learning.  However, with most schools already in session for nearly a month, many leaders still aren’t monitoring student learning as closely as they should.

Here is a typical conversation I have with school leaders during this time of year.  See how you would answer the questions at the end.

I notice that the first unit of study listed in your 3rd grade Mathematics curriculum map consisted of 10 days and focused on exploring equal groups as a foundation for multiplication and division and included the following standards:  3.OA.1.1, 3.OA.1.2, 3.OA.1.3 and 3.OA.3.7.  I also notice that the unit has already been completed.

      • How many students met the criteria for mastery of these standards? 
      • How does that number compare to your overall goal for proficiency in Mathematics for this school year?

Do you have the answers?

If so, you should be on your way to developing the habits that get your school off to a great start.  You are communicating to your team that you are a results-driven leader and influencing them to always be examining if their instructional decisions are impacting learning.

If not, you have to ask yourselfHow many students met the criteria for mastery of these standards? if student achievement is truly your number one priority and if it is, if your leadership aligns with that belief.  In my experience, leaders who closely monitor the outcome—(student learning)—not just the process (e.g., checking lesson plans and walking through classrooms and providing feedback on instruction)—know the answer to these questions and so do their teachers.

The early weeks of the school year are critical to establishing the habits for long term success and effective schools already have feedback—in the form of data—to determine the effectiveness of  their instructional decisions on the standards that have already been taught.  With the feedback gained from this type of system, leaders and teachers receive timely feedback necessary to quickly determine not only if their achievement levels align with their overall goals but, more importantly, if their interventions are working and if any changes need to be made in their teaching.

What do you need?

To be able to accurately answer these questions, five things must be in place.

    • Common student achievement goals
    • Common unit assessments aligned with the standards and levels of cognitive complexity
    • Common scoring to ensure consistency
    • Collective and transparent reporting of achievement data
    • Ongoing opportunities for students to demonstrate growth or mastery

Too many low achieving schools wait for the results of benchmark assessments that are administered way too infrequently and don’t provide timely feedback that allows for rapid decision making.  You have to ask yourself if student achievement is truly your number one priority and if it is, if your leadership aligns with that belief.You simply can’t wait for an entire quarter for this information!  While these types of measures are important and should be part of a school’s assessment palette, the results generated from such assessments should validate what you already know from the data you have been gathering all along.

What are you waiting for?


For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.



Teachers AND Teaching: The Leadership Decisions that Matter Most

Teacher Moving is Only the First Step

People and ProcessThis is the time of year when leaders make their most important decisions.  When it comes down to it, there are two critical factors that will determine the student achievement results for the upcoming year—teachers and teaching.

No doubt, school administrators are spending considerable time thinking about teacher “moving”: retaining their most effective teachers, replacing teachers who won’t be returning, and reassigning teachers so that they may become more effective.

Administrators know that if they are able to replace a less skillful teacher with a more skillful one, they upgrade the instruction in their school.  Conversely, they know that if they replace a skillful teacher with a less skillful one, the overall quality of instruction decreases.

Great attention is also being paid to placing teachers on the right teams in hopes that they will find the right “chemistry” that will allow them to work together in a highly collaborative manner.

Strengthening Teaching  is the Critical Step

However, improving instruction through personnel changes and reorganization of staff is limited.  The most effective school administrators understand that the real power is in strengthening the teaching in their schools.

Strengthening instruction within a school is challenging as it must ultimately result in changing the behavior of teachers both inside and outside the classroom.  And, for a variety of reasons, behavior change is the most challenging of all as it requires us to learn new skills as opposed to relying on our habits.

Most leaders focus on improving instruction by offering teachers various professional development opportunities during the summer and throughout the school year.  Many will focus on specific instructional techniques that teachers will be asked to practice in isolation.  This is a failed model that only works for a very small percentage of teachers.  Unfortunately, it often contributes to many teachers’ distaste for professional development.

As opposed to focusing first on instructional techniques, effective leaders begin with helping teacher teams establish clear student achievement goals.  They help teachers understand that the goals are the end and teaching is the means to that end.  Too often, leaders design professional development without clarity of purpose or clarity of student achievement goals.

Effective leaders also help teacher teams create core values that, together with their performance goals, will guide their individual and collective behaviors as they strive to strengthen their instruction.  These leaders establish opportunities for teachers to learn and practice new behaviors as well as receive the reinforcing and shaping feedback that encourages them to grow.

Compared to focusing on teachers, strengthening teaching is hard. It’s not about teachers nor about professional development of isolated instructional techniques.  It is about leaders who have the skill to clarify the student achievement goals that are most important to the school and to establish a safe, nurturing and collaborative culture that encourages the behavior change that is necessary for schools to be successful.

During this most important season that includes some of the most important decisions that a school leader makes, ensure that you are focusing on teachers, teaching and…leadership.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.



Today’s Decisions are Next Year’s Results

one-way-or-another-way-street signThis time of year, I spend time with many principals asking them about their plans for the upcoming school year to strengthen the most important variable that increases student achievement—instruction.  After all, it is the most critical time of the year for making the decisions that will ultimately determine the future success of a school.  Miss this opportunity and you will have to wait another entire year for it to come around again.

Based on my observations, three different types of principals are evident this time of year.  They are Busy Principal #1, Busy Principal #2, and Productive Principal.  Each is well-intentioned but only one leads to the path to success.

Busy Principal #1 is consumed with the current day-to-day operations of the school and hasn’t had time to think deeply about the instructional decisions that will impact student achievement in the upcoming year.  Let’s face it, leading a school is chaotic and testing season only adds to the fray.  These busy principals are not thinking too far into the future other than examining their staffing numbers and contemplating personnel issues such as who will be returning, who will be departing, and who will be moved to a different position in an attempt to increase the quality of instruction through personnel changes.

Busy Principal #2 appears to be on the other side of the spectrum.  They, too, are strategizing personnel moves but also have already made their decisions about the major processes they will put in place to improve instruction for the upcoming year.  You can hear the excitement in their voices as they are eager to get started.  Some have even scheduled or begun the trainings.  They are off and running!

When working with a Busy Principal #2, I often hesitate to ask what led them to selecting their new initiatives because I know they already have their minds made up.  I know that they often have based their decision on something they have heard at a conference, something that another school has done, or something based on this year’s hot book, topic, or buzzword.  While each of these decisions is  well-intentioned, I always wonder if the initiative—even if implemented well—will actually solve their most pressing problem.  Unfortunately, it often doesn’t.  In this case, busyness becomes the illusion of change.  Lots of excitement, materials, and initial training but ultimately little impact.

Productive Principals are different.  Before these principals even consider a new initiative they pause to clearly identify the problems that, if solved, would give them the results they desire.  Charles Kettering, the former head of research for GM, wisely said “a problem well-stated is half-solved.”  All principals would be better off if they heeded this advice.

Effective decision-making does not begin with what I refer to as a “shopping trip” whereby principals browse and select from the plethora of interventions that exist without first considering their most critical needs.  It begins with a deliberate, thorough and less-busy process that includes clearly identifying a critical problem to be solved and determining the root causes of this problem before “going shopping.”

Busy is not always productive.  Productive is not always trendy or flashy.   To solve your most critical problems it is often better to go slow to go fast.

Will your decisions align with your most critical problems?  Your future results depend on it.

(You can read more about Productive Principals in my article on the Transformational Principal.)

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.

An Open Letter to Betsy DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

First, I’d like to congratulate you on your appointment as the United States Secretary of Education.  I share with you the passion of influencing the lives of children through education.  I am particularly ardent about providing educational opportunities for students who live in poverty.

I’m sure you would agree that whatever form of governance schools use, they should implement the best possible programs and practices, ones that have been tested in rigorous research and found to be effective.  Evidenced-based solutions are a bi-partisan, non-political issue that focuses on common ground and, in my opinion, has the potential of having the greatest effect on student achievement regardless of the school a student attends.

Our country, as well as others, has invested extensively in high quality educational research.  The pace at which we are accumulating evidence of what programs and practices are effective in reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies and other areas is astonishing.  My former colleague and current Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Robert Slavin, claims that “If all 52,000 Title I schools adopted and implemented the best of these programs, the U.S. would soon rise in international rankings” and “achievement gaps would be cut in half.” With the potential of results like that, it seems to me that this is the topic that should be on the forefront of our national dialogue on improving all of our schools.

As it relates to evidence-based solutions, I encourage you to use your platform as Secretary of Education to do four things.

  • Elevate the conversation and celebrate the promising news regarding the body of educational research that is available to educators. Understand that most practitioners continue to be unaware of this information or are skeptical of its worth.  Use your voice to let educators know that the research is legitimate and that it contains a body of knowledge that will enable them to become more effective in raising the bar for all students.
  • Adopt policies that will help support educators at all levels to understand which programs and practices are most effective. It is challenging for educators to wade through the labyrinth of claims that many companies make regarding their products.  To assist the public in making informed food choices, the federal government requires food manufacturers to accurately label their products.  To assist in keeping our citizens healthy, the federal government requires that claims made by pharmaceutical companies are supported by evidence and federally approved.  In education, there are no such regulations to help protect our students.  Providing such guidelines will go a far way in assisting educators in making informed choices for our children.
  • Establish policies at the federal level that encourage states, districts, and schools to adopt and successfully implement evidence-based programs and practices. Adequate support must be provided to educators at all levels to encourage them to select research-based solutions and implement them successfully.  When schools successfully adopt and implement these solutions, our students—particularly those who live in poverty—are given the best chance for success.
  • Continue to support and fund the continuation of educational research so that we can continue to verify its effectiveness and relentlessly identify new practices that will help us to serve all students. While much has been done to establish a strong research base in education, we must continue to foster our nation’s innovative spirit and encourage our educators to develop new ways to best teach our students.

It is my hope that by doing these things we can change the current national debate from bringing students to high quality schools to bringing high quality evidence-based education to all students. 

Let’s make our schools greater.


Mark T. Rolewski, CEO
Ro Educational Leadership, Inc.

Mark T. Rolewski is a former teacher, principal, and central office administrator and currently the CEO of Ro Educational Leadership, Inc. He has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years.