From Dream to Reality

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that are men are created equal. These words from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence have been stuck in my mind lately. As a little girl, I had thoughts about the year 2020 would be. I envisioned a world much like the cartoon The Jetsons, full of technological advancements and flying cars. I also envisioned a world where “little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls,” as described in the dream Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently described in his famous speech. I remember sitting in class reading that and imagining this world he audaciously dared us to dream about. A world deeper than just being created equal, a world where we could be treated equitably.

While equality is well and good, equity is providing each person with what they need to be successful, with freedom from bias or favoritism. The murders we have watched play out across our televisions and social media this year have shown us that we are living in a world that is far from equal and certainly not equitable. While it was encouraging to see the consciousness of America awaken over the summer, consciousness and awareness alone will not be enough in and of themselves to make real sustainable changes that will allow us to make the preamble true or Dr. King’s dreams become reality. First, we have to dedicate ourselves to making changes within our sphere of influence.

When committing to creating equity, we should take the following steps:

  1. Conduct a self-evaluation. The first step toward creating a more equitable world and classroom is to take a critical look at ourselves. We must be honest about how we are assisting students and asking what more we can do to help students realize their full potential. We as educators have a responsibility to provide students with access to an equitable, high-quality education. Asking ourselves questions such as how we can meet students’ needs more effectively, as well as how can we address and redress areas of bias within our own practices, can set us on a path of a lifelong commitment to creating equity within spaces we occupy.  
  2. Create a plan. The second step is to set actionable steps to become equitable by creating a plan that allows us to hold ourselves individually and others mutually accountable. Being realistic, strategic, and timely will be the key to seeing growth. We also need to determine what success is and how we will measure it. Success is measured in many different ways, but we have to remember that any growth is growth that should be celebrated. If we fail to plan, we can plan to fail.  
  3. Build a team. The third step is to build a team to assist with the plan. Be a change agent in your school. Encourage parents, teachers, and students to become a team, committed to the success and well-being of every child. Begin leading critical and necessary discussions about how to replicate pockets of excellence and how to challenge and create areas of growth. 

While we may never have a reality that looks like that of the Jetsons, it is beyond time to create a world that truly treats all people as equal, one where Jews and Gentiles, Native Americans, and Black boys and girls can stand together singing “free at last,” one where my son is more likely to go to college than to jail, and one where a routine stop by a police officer does not end in death for Black people. Through evaluation, planning, and coming together, we can create just and equitable schools, communities, cities, states, and a nation. 


Kelisa Wing has been in education for 14 years. Her journey into the teaching profession began after she was honorably discharged from the United States Army. She served as a Youth Consultant for the Self-Expression Teen Theater (SETT) under the United Way in Toledo, Ohio. After moving to Germany with her family, she began substitute teaching, then transitioned to a Special Education paraprofessional, was a school secretary, and eventually, an Administrative Officer. She then taught 8th-grade Language Arts and Reading to military-connected students at Faith Middle School in Fort Benning, Georgia, has been an Elementary School Assistant Principal in West Point, New York, and is now a Professional Development Specialist in Virginia. Kelisa honorably served in the U.S. Army for six years and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant. She is the author of ‘Conversations’ (2006), ‘Weeds & Seeds: How To Stay Positive in the Midst of Life’s Storms’ (2017), ‘Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline’ (2018), ‘If I Could: Lessons for Navigating an Unjust World’, and a contributing author of ‘Becoming a Globally Competent Teacher’ (ASCD, 2019).

She is a 2017 State Teacher of the Year, a 2016 Association of Supervision, Curriculum, and Development (ASCD) Emerging Leader, and the 2017 University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Edward Parnell Outstanding Alumnus of the Year. She is the only educator on the Education Civil Rights Alliance (ECRA) Steering Committee, and a member of the Leading Educator Ambassadors for Equity (LEAE) with the ECRA. As a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), she has led efforts for mentoring teacher leaders through a partnership with 100Kin10, and she is also a member of ASCD. She is also on the Advisory Board for the Learner Variability Project (LVP) & Digital Promise, ASCD’s Global Advisory Council, and the ASCD College Football Playoff Foundation (CFP) Diversifying the Teacher Pipeline Working Group. She speaks both nationally and internationally about discipline reform, equity, student engagement, and many other topics Kelisa holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UMUC, a Master of Arts in Secondary Education, and an Educational Specialist degree with a concentration in Curriculum, Instruction, and Educational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. Kelisa credits her faith in God, and His grace, favor, and mercy as the key to her success. Kelisa lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and children.

Silver Linings

It’s easy to list the ways the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted students, teachers, and learning. The real challenge is finding any positive aspect. But there are actually silver linings. Here are five that I think are important. 

  1. Student Agency and Autonomy

Early into the 14 weeks of home learning this past spring, I saw a big shift in my students. When I would give an assignment, many students would run with it. If I asked for two Google Slides, I would get six. If I asked for two paragraphs, I got several. Students would replicate projects on another topic of their choosing, innovatively exploring their interests. With fewer distractions came greater focus on self-driven learning. Students’ sense of freedom and responsibility empowered their learning and boosted their pride. As confidence grew, they expressed the joy of learning and wanted more. 

  1. Equity in Education

Sadly, equity is a topic mostly focused on in certain arenas such as teacher leadership organizations or nonprofits. This pandemic shone a spotlight on the existing disparities in every corner of education, as if the arena lights were turned up at the end of a show. The digital divide immediately became evident as students were sent home without the resources necessary for distance learning. Soon, fragile learners began to struggle more than their peers in the less structured and supported learning environments. Food insecurity became a central topic that needed to be addressed urgently. When grades were due, all stakeholders began to debate the role of varying degrees of parental support in student achievement. These conversations are now leading to policy changes on a scale we have not seen before. One indicator is the discussion around access to Wi-Fi as a basic need instead of a luxury item.

  1. Relevant Professional Learning Community

For years, teachers have been charting their own professional learning experiences. Many have spent valuable time reflecting on their pedagogical choices and exploring better ways to reach educational goals. Technology has been at the forefront of our minds as we prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist. Yet while many teachers have embraced teacher agency and technology, many others have remained steadfast in their traditional methods. Suddenly, however, the latter group was forced to reflect and change. Throughout the educational ecosystem, leaps of progress were occurring. In-person meetings were transformed to virtual formats, or informative emails. Families could now participate no matter where they were. 

Teaching and learning saw great changes. Outdated, irrelevant assignments were abandoned or updated. Student engagement became a priority, driving teachers to examine and improve instructional methods. Professional learning was overhauled and focused only on what was most relevant. Collaboration, innovation, and creativity were required as everyone became a first-year teacher overnight. No one alive had experience teaching during a pandemic. There was a general sense of “roll up your sleeves and let’s solve this together.” 

  1. Social Emotional Learning and Well-Being

Like equity, social-emotional learning tends to be a niche interest for teacher leaders and  guidance counselors. With the pandemic, the concept of Maslow before Bloom has really experienced an uptick. Focusing on basic needs now includes making sure our students are emotionally ready to learn. Because of this pandemic, trauma-informed teaching is now a universal skill that all teachers should learn. What is revolutionary is the expansion of this conversation, which has traditionally concerned students and now includes educators and parents. It has been said that a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions. With teaching and learning now happening in home environment, the family is part of the classroom as well. We are redefining the educational ecosystem and the need for emotional support for the whole community. This will benefit students in the long run. 

  1. Fresh Perspectives on Assessment

One last shift in school culture has been in the area of grading. Many spirited discussions have centered on the topic of report cards and grades. A teacher’s philosophy on assessment and grades is usually established early in their career. It doesn’t often get challenged and reexamined. But the pandemic has led many of us to reflect on core beliefs as to how we assess learning. What role and purpose does grading have in the equation? How can we be fair in grading when the degree of support provided in each student’s home is so varied? These conversations are ongoing, and the debates are far from over, but they are happening, and that is a good thing. 

The pandemic is something I never would have wished for; it has cost me a lot personally that can never be restored. I have seen suffering, fear, and trauma, but as in all things, there is a choice to find the positives. 


Michael Dunlea became a teacher to make students feel valued, become empowered and live extraordinary lives. This is his 18th year and he teaches 3rd grade in Tabernacle, NJ. 

Michael received the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and is National Board Certified in Early Childhood. He is a 2020 NEA Global Learning Fellow. He was also selected as a 2020 Global Teacher Prize Top 50 Finalist. 

Michael has served as an advisor to the NJ Department of Education. He is on the New Jersey Education Association’s state Elections Committee and serves as an NJEA state delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly. 

Michael founded the non-profit Stafford Teachers And Residents Together (START), when Hurricane Sandy hit where he lives with his wife and his 3 children. He was President of Alliance for a Living Ocean, ALO from 2012-2019. 

He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Thomas Edison State College, a Masters Degree in Educational Technology from New Jersey City University and a Masters Degree in Teacher Leadership from Mount Holyoke College. 

Pandemics and Partnerships: Teacher Prep in the Time of COVID-19

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” 

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Disruption can be a catalyst for change. COVID is more of a disruptor than anyone imagined, but pandemic restrictions have provided the opportunity for teacher preparation programs to think outside the box and examine existing policies and practices. Preparing the next generation of educators is an evolving challenge, made more difficult by the complications the pandemic has introduced. 

Even before COVID, educator preparation programs (EPPs) were doing more than ever to ensure candidates are prepared to teach when they graduate from their certification programs. Guided by state code, candidates in New Jersey, for example, must now maintain a 3.0 GPA and pass external assessments in basic skills, content, and performance in addition to completing their usual coursework. Candidates must have a minimum of 225 hours in the field prior to their full semester of student teaching, and there are qualifications for who can serve as a mentor teacher. EPPs are highly regulated not only by the state but also by national accreditation standards that require data to demonstrate content and pedagogical knowledge of candidates, clinical partnerships, candidate recruitment and quality, program impact, and the provider’s continuous improvement and capacity. Anyone who has gone through this accreditation process knows how exhaustive it is, with the writing and analysis of the data to show evidence of the standards and laying bare areas in need of improvement. The process is brutally revealing for preparation programs and engages the faculty and staff in deep reflection on what they do and don’t do to produce high quality teachers.  

The pandemic has made one of the top priorities of teacher preparation securing placements, which was always challenging because it is seen as additional work, but even more so now that teacher candidates are considered outsiders that local school communities see as increasing the risk of COVID transmission. Other issues that existed prior to COVID have been exacerbated because students who must work their way through college are also feeling the pain of unemployment, loss of on-campus housing, increasing levels of food insecurity, and decreased access to technology.  

Even without a pandemic, there are a few aspects of teacher preparation that should be addressed if we are going to build a positive culture that entices future generations to become educators. The first issue is the cost to candidates as they go through the certification process. This includes the state required assessments, the professional wardrobe, criminal background checks, the transportation to and from the clinical site, and other related expenses above and beyond tuition and room and board. While every state has its own set of certification guidelines and requirements, these expenditures are prohibitive to many candidates who are already working to put themselves thorough school and may be facing the burden of a large amount of student loan debt upon graduation. For those who are first-generation college students or who are supporting families, these costs may be felt more acutely. Low starting salaries in many school systems mean that novice teachers may need to hold down two or three jobs to pay the bills. Loan forgiveness and grants are too few and far between, and we lose good teachers to other jobs and careers that pay better. 

A second area that has been compounded by COVID is wrapping our heads around the idea that working with teacher candidates should be a mutually beneficial relationship that requires collaboration and partnerships between school districts and EPPs. That means that EPPs can’t just place a candidate in the care of a veteran teacher and expect that he or she knows what to do. In certification programs, teachers learn how to teach children—pedagogy—rather than how to teach adults—andragogy. These are completely different skill sets (Ambrosetti, 2014; Zeichner, 2002). The term cooperating teacher came about because EPPs used to expect that teachers would simply cooperate with university personnel, who believed themselves superior, and step aside to let the teacher candidate learn how to teach (Cornbleth & Ellsworth, 1994). Times have changed, and today not only do EPPs want teachers to actively coach and mentor their candidates, but policy and accountability measures for teachers and school districts require that teachers work collaboratively with candidates to achieve successful outcomes for students (Clarke et al., 2014). This has resulted in many programs’ changing the nomenclature from cooperating teacher to mentor teacher. But mindsets must change both on the EPP and school levels to match that title. 

One result of accountability measures dating back to policies enacted because of No Child Left Behind is the emergence of coteaching between candidate and mentor teacher, which has proven to be a beneficial model for the candidate, mentor teacher, and students in the class (Bacharach et al., 2010; Bacharach & Heck, 2012; Bacharach, Heck, & Dahlberg, 2008; Gallo-Fox & Scantlebury, 2016; Murphy & Martin, 2015; Sanchez, Roegman, & Goodwin, 2016; Zeichner et al., 2015). Especially when many teachers are working in hybrid models where they are teaching both in person and virtually, coteaching teacher candidates could be a great support for school districts. When it comes to mentoring, however, EPPs must remember that in the absence of any other training on how to work with a teacher candidate, most mentor teachers will default to the way they were trained. Mentor teachers want information about mentoring and feedback about how they are doing when they mentor a candidate (DelColle, 2019). Just like with teacher candidates, if mentor teachers don’t know they are doing something wrong, they can’t fix it. We also know that one bad experience with a teacher candidate is likely to stop a mentor teacher from volunteering to take a candidate again for many years. EPPs and districts must work together to ensure that mentor teachers are trained for the job. Learning how to work with other adults is a cornerstone of teacher leadership, and the modeling of effective collaboration sets a great example for students. 

Unfortunately, with the pandemic altering the nature of classroom teaching, the focus is on how to survive in the time of COVID. But this disruption provides the opportunity to address existing challenges that are compounded by new ones as teachers try to navigate virtual, hybrid, or in-person learning with social distancing protocols. Anyone who knows a teacher knows that his or her workload and stress level have increased exponentially, while funding for school districts has not increased enough to cover the costs of reopening safely. In some cases, this has resulted in budget cuts for school districts due to increased costs coupled with declining state and local revenues that would normally support education. Brixey and Smillie (2020) report that the School Superintendents Association estimates that it will cost the average district $1.7 million to safely reopen for in-person learning. This includes one-time costs, such as infrastructure, plexiglass partitions, and technology as well as ongoing costs including PPE, cleaning protocols, transportation, staffing, COVID testing, and disposable food service items. With all the added stress of strained budgets, learning how to teach effectively in two places at the same time, and the daily threat of catching a deadly virus, some districts believe it is unreasonable to expect teachers to do so much and work with a teacher candidate at the same time. Placements are extremely difficult to find, and no one is volunteering. But districts need to remember that if teacher candidates can’t get placements, then candidates can’t certify to become teachers, and the result will be increasing teacher shortages for years to come. We can’t recruit future educators and diversify the pipeline if districts are not willing to host candidates so they can meet their certification requirements. 

The good news is the teacher candidates of today are savvy digital natives who have proven to be an asset to mentor teachers during this pandemic. This is especially the case when an EPP provides professional development for teaching teams on platforms like Google Classroom so everyone is on the same page. It takes some outreach from EPPs as well as a lot of flexibility from EPP faculty to take all these changes in stride. But doing so is important if we want to keep placing candidates in the field during the pandemic and prevent future teacher shortages. When we have strong mentor teachers, we get strong candidates, and EPPs must work with the teaching team and not just the candidate (Clarke et al., 2012). A big step toward creating mutually beneficial partnerships is to remember we are all on the same team in trying to do what is best for kids—in normal times or unprecedented ones.  


Ambrosetti, A., Knight, B. A., & Dekkers, J. (2014). Maximizing the potential of mentoring: A framework for pre-service teacher education. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning22(3), 224-239.doi:10.1080/13611267.2014.926662

Bacharach, N., Heck, T., & Dahlberg, K. (2008). What makes co-teaching work? Identifying the essential elements. College Teaching Methods & Style Journal, 4(3), 43-48. doi:10.19030/ctms.v4i3.5534  

Bacharach, N., & Heck, T. W. (2012). Voices from the field: Multiple perspectives on a co-teaching in student teaching model. Educational Renaissance, 1(1), 49-61. Retrieved from 

Bacharach, N., Heck, T. W., & Dahlberg, K. (2010). Changing the face of student teaching through co-teaching. Action in Teacher Education, 32(1), 3-14. doi: 10.1080/01626620.2010.10463538  

Clarke, A., Collins, J., Triggs, V., Nielsen, W., Augustine, A., Coulter, D., & Weil, F. (2012). The Mentoring Profile Inventory: An online professional development resource for cooperating teachers. Teaching Education, 23(2), 167-194. doi:10.1080/10476210.2011.625086

Clarke, A., Triggs, V., & Nielsen, W. (2014). Cooperating teacher participation in teacher education: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research84(2), 163-202. doi:10.3102/0034654313499618

DelColle, J. M. (2019). Mentor Teacher Development During a Co-teaching Model of Student Teaching (Doctoral dissertation, Walden University).

Brixey, E., Smillie, S. (2020) State Information Request: School Reopening Costs and Personal Protective Equipment, Education Commission of the States


Dr. Jeanne DelColle is the Executive Director for the Center for Future Educators at the College of New Jersey. She is an award-winning educator who has dedicated 25 years to her field. During her time as a social studies teacher, Jeanne was named NJ Council for the Humanities Teacher of the Year, NJ History Teacher of the Year, and 2012 NJ State Teacher of the Year. She spent a year and a half at the NJ Department of Education, where she created the NJ Teacher Advisory Panel to bring teacher voices to policy making. Jeanne’s interest in policy led her to be named a National Hope Street Group Fellow, which allowed her to advocate for education on both a state and national level. After being selected for an NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellowship to examine the education system in Brazil, Jeanne designed and co-directed a mentorship program for Global Learning Fellows.

Since 2013, Jeanne served as the Strategic Partnerships Specialist in Stockton University’s School of Education, where she organized all field placements, implemented innovative partnerships with school districts, and oversaw student teaching. She was also the sole author of Stockton’s Standard 2 CAEP re-accreditation. Jeanne holds NJ certifications as a teacher and supervisor. She completed her Ph.D. in Leadership, Policy, and Change in Education with a focus on mentor teacher growth during a co-teaching model of student teaching.

The Impact of COVID-19 on School Culture

Last spring, when my school closed due to COVID-19, my instruction effectively shut down as well. While some teachers were able to make the transition to virtual learning with minor inconveniences, my newcomer English as a Second Language (ESL) algebra students floundered. Very few of my students were able to attend online instruction sessions, some due to lack of access to reliable internet and some with competing schedules from work and family. Each call to a student’s home was a challenge in itself because of the language barrier, and I often had to rely on a combination of my own limited Spanish language and translations from the student or family members. That breakdown in communication left me with a surface-level understanding of what my students needed to succeed. In the past, we could rely on an in-class ESL liaison, nonverbal gestures, and classmate support to accomplish our math missions. Now, we had to get by with texts and emails—digital messages in a bottle. Thankfully, Google Translate proved to be quite effective.

This fall, I won’t return to the classroom. Instead, I will serve as my school district’s Government Relations Liaison full time; a position I beta-tested last year half- time. The Texas State Legislature meets every odd-numbered year, so my Superintendent saw the value in having an in-house staffer to cover legislative advocacy efforts. Now, my focus on school reopening isn’t tied to a student roster, but to funding and policy decisions at the state and federal levels. I have been given time and space to take a high-level view of the challenges and opportunities my school district faces in this unprecedented time, and there’s a lot at stake. 

The primary challenge as I see it is that every action schools and districts take is hyper-politicized. The decision to go virtual or hold classes in person is somehow an indicator of political party affiliation. Leadership at the district, local, and state levels are in a constant tug-of-war, with most community members not realizing that dollars are tied to doors opening. Here in Texas, the Attorney General recently stated that county health officials cannot preemptively close school campuses and that doing so may jeopardize funding. The Texas Education Agency then had to update guidance, and school boards and superintendents had to reconsider school start dates and reopening plans.

There is no doubt that schools and other social and economic factors are interconnected. The US House of Representatives Oversight Committee held a hearing on reopening schools in early August, and some of the talking points included child abuse, rising unemployment, nutrition, mental health, affordable housing, shuttering of small businesses, multigenerational households, vaccines, systemic racism, and telecommunications. Undoubtedly, school openings will heavily influence voters in November and candidates up and down the ticket will need to have responses at the ready. Governors have had a particularly tough time, facing heavy criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, regardless of their own party identification. 

The silver lining in all this is that since schools and education are at the core of conversations at the local, state, and federal levels, there is an opportunity to improve the lives of children in our country. Americans want kids back in school when it is safe. And while there has been a rise and fall in the esteem of educators since last March, there is a renewed appreciation for the technical difficulty of actually teaching kids. The sentiment is that the school is the heart of the community, perhaps even more important than the businesses that surround it because those, too, are dependent upon the schools. It’s no small feat to tackle economic, social, and educational inequities, but now that their interdependence is clear, it’s the right time to address these issues at all levels. Doing so will mean that this year won’t just be marked by a global pandemic, but also by a revolutionary change in education.


Shawn Sheehan is the Government Relations Liaison for Lewisville ISD in Lewisville, Texas. He has taught math for nine years in Texas and Oklahoma. He is a 2018 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow and the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.

Shawn earned his BA in Journalism at Arizona State University and his M.Ed. in Special Education at the University of Oklahoma. Shawn made an unsuccessful bid for Oklahoma State Senate in 2016, campaigning on strengthening core services, workforce development, and STEM education.

A strong advocate for improving public education, Shawn has been featured on CBS This Morning, NPR, and The Economist. Shawn is happiest when he’s spending time with his wife, Kaysi, who teaches 10th grade English at Hebron High School, and their four-year-old daughter, Scarlett.

Exploring the Self

The question is not “Can resilience be learned?” Of course, it can, and a growing body of research confirms this. But let’s be clear: Learning resilience and teaching resilience are far from synonymous. In fact, in spite of our ability to identify the characteristics of resilient people—such as virtue, positivity, purpose, and gratitude—we struggle with how to teach resilience as a skill, as one would teach a student various academic skills: how to solve for x, understand why plants need sunlight, or identify the learning needs of Generation Z. The difference between teaching the knowledge of resilience (facts) and teaching the development of resilience (application) is significant. 

As a writing teacher, I impress upon my students the importance of showing in addition to—and more important than—telling. Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell readers about a scene, a character, or an allegory; show them. Lead them down a path to discover it for themselves—to feel it, to understand it, to apply it. This is where we need to take our students: down a path toward personal affect, concept, and relevance. There is a way, when we don’t get in the way, to foster resilience. 

While the current movement to incorporate the explicit instruction of resilience is encouraging and constructive, resilience is not transferrable or transformative. That’s not bad, biased, or fake news; it’s just news, one of the current events that perplex, frustrate, and discourage educators. We are keenly aware of how this makes us feel, but imagine how it makes many students feel, knowing (because we’re telling them) that resilience is a real thing—that there are specific characteristics of resilience and resilient people—knowing resilience is tangible but somehow, in spite of their best efforts, elusive to their touch. They hear us talk about it, but they can’t touch it. It’s an entirely different, deeper level of frustration. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting we should stop (or that we should not begin, as the case may be) teaching resilience. I am suggesting that we move from telling to showing, that we take our knowledge of resilience and offer it to students in the context of introspection—theirs, not ours. The best way to learn something—to truly learn something—is when it becomes personal, when students can test it and assess it themselves, manipulate it, mold it, apply it to their own situations, their own experiences and expectations, perceived strengths and weaknesses, hopes and regrets. When students see resilience in relation to their subjective views of self, this is when facts transfer to action.

But how can students see resilience in relation to self if they can’t see the self? Our next step in teaching resilience should be teaching—or rather facilitating—the exploration of “self.” 

Actually, it’s not my suggestion; I’m just passing along information from the original source, the missing variable in our flailing attempts to make students more resilient: students themselves. For the past two years, I have interviewed people, adolescents mostly, hundreds of 15-to-25-year-olds across the country, and collected their lived experiences, interpretations, and suggestions about how school (especially middle school and high school) can better prepare graduates for productive, fulfilling lives. To know thyself, most say, should be the most important “subject” to learn in secondary school. From more than 300 interviews across 48 states and 20,000 miles—not surveys or questionnaires, but face-to-face, open-ended questions and at times in-depth discussions – young people shared that the need to explore who they are would be the key difference-maker in engagement, resiliency, and motivation. 

I believe them. I believe adolescents, not just from two years of interviews but also from 20 years of teaching. However, to test this theory based solely on the opinions of a few hundred young people (and anecdotal evidence from a single teacher) would be foolish, right? After all, there is no quantifiable fact to justify such a shift in educational approach, no “what works” research or “best practice” strategies to support a connection between self-knowledge and resilience. How could we risk investment of precious time and resource on the theories of adolescents, especially with the constant pressure of test-score judgment looming over us?

How could we not? 

Research is how we confirm, discredit, and discover. There is simply not enough research to meet the criteria for What Works Clearinghouse evidence of SEL or resilience initiatives in high schools. We need to know what works. Therefore, I am calling for more research on resilience. Not a fundamental change in the structure of high school, curriculum, or instruction—just research to test the opinions of teenagers, too often ignored as one of our multiple measures of data-driven decision-making.  


Chris Holmes holds a Masters in Educational Psychology and 20 years of experience teaching in both public and private schools. Recently, he helped found a high school for adolescents who learn differently. He works with a broad range of teenagers, from those on the verge of dropping out to those with exceptional gifts and talents, and focuses on introspection, executive function, and self-determination. He is currently writing a book about academic motivation based on hundreds of interviews with teenagers across the country.

Chris is the 2015 Missouri State Teacher of the Year.

A Culture of Valuing All Students

It was with a lot of luck that I entered the profession of teaching. I was not an education major as an undergraduate student back in the mid-1990s. My life was changed when I happened upon a Special Olympics event one weekend, 25 years ago. 

There, I met a group of young adults who were the most authentic and joyful I had ever encountered. I knew immediately what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So, I went straight to graduate school to earn my degree in special education while working as a teacher’s assistant at a school for children with autism. I have been a teacher for students with cognitive disabilities from the moment I finished graduate school back in 1998.  

I believe that within school, communities need to be connected. A large part of that belief comes from my experience that day with the Special Olympics participants. Before that day, I did not think very often about people with cognitive disabilities, or even about my peers who were teaching in special education classrooms. In part, this was because I didn’t have any opportunities to interact with the students in special education classrooms.

The landscape for special education has changed, for the better, since I was a student back in the 1980s, but there are still vast opportunities for improvement. Inclusion models still view education as a vehicle for general education students where, through inclusion, special education students can get a sampling of a classroom as it should be.

No one considers having general ed students experience special education classrooms to observe their peers who learn differently. When general education students are with special education students, it is to help. Therefore, they do not view their special education peers as actual peers.

This creates a situation in which special education students look up to general ed students as if they are automatically role models. What this system is doing is keeping students from truly connecting as peers.

When I think back to how my life was changed the day I witnessed that Special Olympics event, it makes me want to ensure that all students have a chance to meet all their peers, even those with different ability levels. I have been fortunate enough, as a state teacher of the year, to have a large platform for giving talks and trainings on truly connected schools. So, I have dedicated a lot of my time to talking about creating more connected schools—schools in which the culture is different. 

Learning happens best when all stakeholders feel a part of something larger—a culture of learning in which each student is valued, respected, and seen. If a large portion of a school isn’t valued, respected, or seen, the school isn’t a true community, and the culture is not one of formation of all students. It is our duty as educators to make all students feel that they are part of the culture of learning that constitutes a school. 


Kareem Neal is a self-contained special education teacher in Phoenix, AZ. He has taught students with cognitive delays for 23 years. He is the recipient of the 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year award, and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University for his contributions to special education in Arizona. He is also a 2019-2021 Understood Teacher Fellow.

Kareem’s passion is connecting all students in schools, springing from his awareness that students with learning differences did not truly feel like members of their school communities. This led him to evaluate his own educational journey and how students in black communities often did not feel like education spaces were for them. He is now a restorative justice trainer for the Phoenix Union High School District. He focuses on building community through eliminating bias that comes from lack of connection with people who are different from each other. This work has led him to winning the Arizona Education Association’s Diversity Grant and the Maryvale Revitalization Committee’s Educator Excellence Award, and being named vice president of the Phoenix Union High School District’s Black Alliance.

Kareem’s academic journey was filled with adults who let him know that he was capable, which he attributes to being a lifetime learner. Too many students aren’t afforded that same opportunity, and Kareem is working tirelessly to change that.  

The Role of a School Leader is to Set the School’s Culture

You can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree.
—Malcolm X

Being a principal is a rewarding profession. It is also one of the most challenging. 

Each year, I had the pleasure to watch young people at the Mastery Charter School – Shoemaker Campus grow as young men and women, the culmination of which being their graduation. One of the great joys I had as a principal was watching our students walk across the stage with diploma in hand as family and friends cheered loudly. Our students were the manifestation of the hopes and dreams of their families. They were also the borne fruit of the competence, dedication, and commitment of our school community. 

The competence, dedication, and commitment necessary to produce the fine young adults who left our school were made possible by our school’s positive culture. Our success as a school community hinged on our school culture and as principal, it was on me to cultivate such an environment. 

Administrators play a huge role in establishing organizational culture. Organizational health is crucial, and so is a culture of learning—for everyone. While the chief role of the principal is as the instructional leader in their building, a principal wears many hats. We serve as advisors, mentors, disciplinarians, and guardians. However, our ability to be what our institutions need hinges on the culture we establish within our buildings. 

In The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni describes healthy organizations, which would include schools, as having minimal politics and minimal confusion. Healthy organizations are those operating with clarity of vision, missions, and methods and thus experience high morale and low turnover. Lencioni also speaks of the skills that can facilitate such healthy environments and how they aren’t often developed in college. Sadly, most teacher colleges fail to center their instruction on the skills necessary to cultivate such environments: how to build trust, resolve conflict, commit to a goal, allow for accountability in one’s work, and keep the objective in focus. 

Meeting performance measures is a part of the work; however, strong growth rates and test scores don’t mean that Black students are making the full progress they deserve. For me, student performance on exams is just one component, albeit a huge one, of the success of a school. I wanted students to cite positive racial and cultural experiences, healthy relationships with their peers and the adults in the building, and the high expectations and excellence they demanded to meet – all necessary to pursue their aspirations and goals.

My goal was to create a culture where Black children, upon entry into our building, sincerely believed that their success, academically and otherwise, was a foregone conclusion. I wanted the same for our faculty and staff. It was a goal of ours that when you walked into the Shoemaker Campus, the sense of community welcomed you at the door. Our students felt safe and our faculty felt right at home. It was a collective endeavor and I am proud to say we achieved the community we wished for. 

I am sure that’s what any school leader who cares for children and families desire for their school. But it takes for school leaders to set the tone. 

If we consider Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions, it was my goal to be proactive with addressing these areas of dysfunction. It wasn’t that our community was filled with dysfunctional people in need of repair. Rather, we needed an environment, a culture, whereby dysfunction couldn’t flourish. To build trust with our students, we established a culture that was pro-Black. I shouldn’t have to say that pro-Black is not anti-white, but I want to be clear. A culture that rests on being pro-Black is a culture that values the humanity of Black people; in our case Black children, in a society that did not.

In order to value the academic progress of our students, 95% of whom were Black, we needed to value them first.   

While our white teacher percentage was far from the national statistics, a good portion of our teachers were white. If building trust among the students rested on a foundation of pro-Blackness, resolving conflict and ensuring commitment on the part of those teachers would be involved in our work to build culture. Curiosity is positive for both young people and adults with respect to continuous learning. We held professional development each week—one week for content support and the following week was for professional learning communities (PLCs)—ensuring we interrogated our mindsets and how race, class, power, and privilege showed up in our leadership and in our work.  

It was the willingness of the staff to have those conversations that solidified their commitment to our students. Through supporting one another with opportunities to learn and reflect, we could engage in courageous conversations designed to make us better professionally and personally. 

We were modeling the sort of learning environment we desired for students inside the classroom. We were accountable and it couldn’t be avoided. The foundation of pro-Blackness in a school where the vast majority of students were Black was and is a revolutionary idea. It forced us all to confront our own identity formation, issues of race, class, and power. We forged a community of trust to engage in conflict and reaffirm our commitment. It didn’t come without some scars. But scars heal and we were accountable to the students, the families that raised them, and each other to utilize the truths we internalized in ways that provided students with the culturally relevant and affirming education for them to exhibit their proficiency,  as well as actualize their purpose.

I became accountable for maintaining the synergy I helped to develop. 

With that, we were able to identify our performance goals. Those goals never came at the compromise of our foundation—which was pro-Blackness. Rather our foundation informed our desired outcomes for our students. In our work of confronting and learning, we internalized a spirit of servant leadership; our community was valuable and we each had a part to play in the educational success of our young adults. We internalized a spirit of humility whereby we encouraged students to question everything; from the content to authority. We internalized a spirit of love. 

The essence of our culture helped lay the groundwork for a place where performance measures became a byproduct of the fruit we produced each day working and striving together in community. Our goal was to ensure that Black students made the progress that they deserved. And, naturally, with our students’ progress, so came ours. 

Modeling behavior, consistency, collective accountability, and relationship building are key to school leaders’ building the culture of their building. The role of an administrator also calls for problem solving and high levels of self-efficacy. If a principal and the leadership team model this, they can accomplish much. If not, it means looking beyond their locus of control and blaming everyone else for their failures—parents, community, policy makers, and so on. 

This doesn’t mean that principals shouldn’t speak out; they should and loudly. But one can’t fight and rest on their laurels at the same time. When it comes to delivering outcomes that were promised to children and parents, it’s hard to be hungry and satisfied at the same time. Choose hunger.



A former principal and teacher, Sharif El-Mekki is founder of the Center for Black Educator Development and The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice; a founding member of the Mayor’s Commission on African American Males; a former US Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow; and a US Delegate to the International Summit on Teaching and Learning and the Conference on Integrating Refugees and Immigrants into Schools. He writes for the Seventh Ward blog and is a and podcaster on 8 Black Hands.

10 Questions That Lead to Growth in School Culture

Creating and maintaining a positive school culture seems to be on the minds of education leaders everywhere. 

Books. Conferences. Seminars. Social media. This blog post, among the countless others devoted to the topic. The advice and “solutions” seem almost endless. 

Why? Why is developing a positive school culture so hard that we need so much help? 

I think it is because we need to rethink what school culture actually is. It is not something that can be scripted. It cannot be instituted, much less planned and plotted. 

Before you click away, please stick with me here for at least a few more lines…I know many of you are here because you want there to be a clear answer—a clear vision on how to improve your school—but first you have to let go of the idea that you can control culture. Let me explain.  

Let’s start our thoughts in the kindergarten classroom—perhaps the most challenging and inspiring room in any district. 

Skilled teachers know that they are not actually in charge of their classes. The students are. In reality, a teacher standing in front of a group of 25 kindergartners would have no chance controlling the situation if the students decided to break all the rules. There are simply too many of them, and they are fast! Skilled teachers do not control students. It is not possible. Instead, they teach and empower students to control themselves. 

The secret is that those 25 kindergartners each individually decide to follow the teacher’s lead because they trust that teacher. 

A skilled teacher develops trust between and among the students by learning about each and every student—their skills, talents, wants, needs, dreams, friends, enemies, and favorite stories. 

How? By asking students the right questions. More importantly, that skilled teacher turns the answers into deeper questions that prompt the student to make connections. From basic arithmetic to calculus in high school, there will be times when the student is not ready for the next question; skilled teachers have to know their students fully so that they can recognize when to slow down. 

And that is when learning can really begin: at the intersection of positive teacher-student relationships and trust. 

So the premise is this: Classrooms are controlled by students, not by the teacher. However, the teacher can guide students by providing the right questions that allow their students to create their own positive classroom culture. 

The same is true with the entire school. It absolutely scales up. The principal does not control the school. However, by asking the right questions, they can guide students and staff to create their own positive school culture.  

A skilled school leader will ask their staff questions that will allow each of them to grow and gain trust in the school system. So what questions should they ask? Great question. Glad you asked. 

Naturally, the answer to that question continues to grow and develop as the needs of staff and students change. But these 10 questions can help define and develop positive school culture. These are not simple and must be asked repeatedly to be effective. Education leaders should be asking both themselves and their staff members these on a regular basis. 


10 Questions to Help Define and Develop Positive School Culture

  1. When was the last time you were nervous at work?

To be successfully growing as a professional, appropriate risk taking needs to occur. Being nervous (but not fearful—big difference) is a good thing. Allowing staff to try new approaches, new programs, even old programs that are new to them, means that the school values growth. Nervous—not fearful—also means that staff feel supported even if their attempt fails. Administrators, staff, and students should all be experiencing some level of nervousness from time to time. Have you or your staff been allowed to be nervous recently?

  1. What stories do you tell your coworkers?

The stories we tell become a vision of who we are. If we only tell stories of failure, loss, or struggle—then those will be the stories and outcomes we seek next. Are we intentional about the stories we tell? Have you shared a story of student or colleague’s success?

  1. What story will your students tell from today?

Over the course of a student’s day, what will they want to share about when they get home? If we are not giving our students stories to tell, then what are we giving them? This does not mean that they must be entertained…but they must have an experience worth sharing. 

  1. Whose voice is most important in your day?

Simple test: A student is in the room asking you a question, a coworker stops by in the doorway to tell you something, and your phone rings showing an administrator on the caller ID. Who gets your attention?

Bonus point: Would every staff member answer this question the same way? Why? (Hint: it should never be the administrator…they can wait).

  1. Do your assignments match what you value as an educator?

Make a list of the qualities you value as an educator. Now evaluate the last five assignments you gave. Do those assignments demonstrate those values?

  1. Should your students know better? Why?

In my school, 7th graders are graded A–F for the first time in their schooling careers. But as a system, we never really stopped at the start of the year to help students understand what A–F meant until last year. Students would be told they were failing a class but not know what that really meant. Up to that point, “They should know this,” was assumed. Last year we stopped assuming and intentionally taught them the grading system. Incredible difference in student academic behavior after that! 

If you hear a staff member say, “They should know this already!” do you analyze it as a system? Should the students, in fact, know it? If they should, then will you determine why they don’t and do something about it? 

  1. What did you ignore today?

Student behavior? Test scores? District-level paperwork? Coworker? Papers to grade? Something somewhere had to be dropped to the bottom of the list. The job is simply to daunting to do it all. So what did you ignore? More importantly, can you continue to ignore it?

  1. What should you ignore tomorrow?

True story. I took my family to Disneyland a year ago. Standing outside the gates waiting to get in, 5 minutes from gate opening, the excitement literally causing my children to bounce excitedly…and then it hit me. Literally. On the head first, then down my shirt, and onto my jeans…the largest most disgusting pigeon dropping you can imagine. There was no hiding it. It was awful. And I had no way to get back to the hotel to change without a giant disruption to what was supposed to be an amazing day. So I used the wipes we had to clean as best I could…and then…I let it go. I even completely forgot about it until the very end of the day when I changed for bed. It was one of the best days ever.

Will you choose to ignore the right things? Will your staff all make this choice? Should they?

  1. Have we treated fellow staff as well as we treat our students?

We spend a lot of time focused on positive interactions with our students—learning about them, adjusting our plans to meet their needs, supporting them when they fail, pushing them further when they succeed. Do we treat our staff with the same respect?

  1. How have we advocated for our students and the community?

Advocacy can take on many forms. But ultimately, what have you done to ensure that your students and community are receiving the very best?

Bonus Question: After asking these questions, what will your school do with the answers? The answer to that will ultimately define and develop your positive school culture.


Jeff Charbonneau has worked at all levels in the education spectrum. From 2001 to 2018, he taught chemistry, physics, and robotics at Zillah High School. Since the fall of 2018, he has served as the principal of Zillah Middle School in Zillah, WA. Charbonneau has also worked as an adjunct faculty member at Central Washington University in the Continuing Education Department. After being named Washington’s Teacher of the Year in 2013, he was selected as the 2013 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. President Barack Obama recognized him for his innovative teaching approach and success during a ceremony at the White House. In 2015 he was a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. Charbonneau is an internationally recognized teacher leader and education advocate. He has presented at more than 400 conferences across the globe focusing on STEM education, teacher preparation programs, teacher leadership initiatives, and dual credit programs.