Trust, Collaboration, and Support: Must-Haves in Our Learning Environments

These past two weeks have reminded me of something I have always known to be true in my gut and in my heart. Growth and success in schools is built upon a solid foundation of trust and an intrinsic culture of collaboration and mutual support.

Recently, our district hosted two visits to our school and district from educators and policy makers from across the country, I listened to our teachers reiterate to our guests that it is imperative to be engaged in work in a place where you feel safe to take chances and know you will be supported. It seems so simple, yet we all know it is not something that just happens. It takes a lot of time, effort, and patience. It has traditionally been easier for people to work in isolation, rather than put themselves out there with a team and be mutually accountable for the success of ALL students.

Our school and district (Memorial School and the Sanborn Regional School District), along with the Rochester School District, the Epping School District, and Souhegan High School, have been engaged in PACE (Performance Assessment for Competency Education) for over a year. PACE is a first-of-its-kind accountability waiver through ESEA, and was not approved by the federal government until March 5, 2015. The work leading up to this approval has been going on far longer.

Our work in competency education evolved from a simple vision of trying to allow each student to reach his/her full potential in a supportive environment of “Learning for All” seven years ago. We made a commitment to each other that each child in our school was “our student”, not yours or mine. We made a commitment to focus on student issues, not adult issues (this was a big one!) The learning we all have experienced over these seven years has far exceeded what I could have ever imagined. First and foremost, our school continues to be a place in which students come first. I have always believed that happy, engaged students will be more successful students. But each of us has grown professionally in a way that is difficult to quantify.

Our teachers’ depth of knowledge and understanding related to instruction and especially assessment has grown exponentially in the past few years. Many of our visitors see a somewhat traditional school at first glance. Upon looking a little closer, the true depth of our teachers’ work becomes more apparent. Through speaking with our students, who are able to articulate their learning trajectory in a thoughtful manner, or our teachers, who are able to articulate their practice and understanding of the learning progressions for their students to a very high degree, visitors begin to develop a picture of how the work that we have been engaged in for many years is having a transformative impact on practice.

I was reflecting on a story told by Craig Kielburger during the iNACOL conference in November. Mr. Kielburger was sharing a story related to leadership, and referencing the job of a sheep herder. He shared an example of how leaders aren’t out in front, but rather are in the back, ensuring that everyone is moving forward together, similar to how a sheep herder must be amongst the sheep encouraging them to all move forward. This struck me, because it is a perfect example of the responsibility each of us has for all students in our schools.

We are all leaders in our schools. Therefore, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that we are providing support for those within our schools to continue to move forward. As building or district leaders, we can affect these types of changes within our schools and districts, but it is, and always will be, teachers who have the greatest impact in the classroom when provided the support and trust to do what they do best.

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Jonathan Vander Els is the principal of Memorial School in Newton, NH. Jonathan has presented at multiple local, state and national conferences on topics related to competency-based education, enhancing teacher leaders in schools, maximizing collaboration of staff through highly functioning Professional Learning Communities, and providing tiered instruction for learners of varying abilities. Jonathan may be followed on Twitter: @jvanderels or visit his blog at