By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
While some people might dismiss the importance of creating the proper mindset within a school’s faculty as critical for improving academic success, the outcome of this year’s World Series may help change that misperception.
That victory by the Boston Red Sox was good for baseball. One of the sport’s most storied franchises had waited 95 years to win a championship on its home field. It was an emotional boost for a city that has endured so much pain at the hands of terrorists. And it was great fun for the casual fan to watch a group of men who looked like characters from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy celebrating their title-clinching victory like a group of excited little boys.
But for education this Boston team could also serve as a model for success.
A little bit of historical background
In 2012 the owners of the Red Sox spent huge amounts of money on a team filled with superstar talents and a big name flamboyant manager. They watched that group crash and burn finishing in last place. The next season, with more than $2500 million of “great” players discarded, a number of unknowns taking the field on a regular basis and a soft-spoken man now at the helm, the franchise won their division, then the American League pennant and finally the World Series.
Underlying this success was a unique mix of chemistry and attitudes. Thomas Boswell, the outstanding sportswriter of the Washington Post summarized the secret to this remarkable turnaround.
“This transformation, from a team that symbolized entitled arrogance and beer-and-chicken munching in the clubhouse during defeats, to world champs is a testimony to the strengths of individual key players, like Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, but also to the centrality of personality and teamwork in baseball. No other sport forces players to be so close for so long, play so many games and expose every crack in a group dynamics.
“Every few years, baseball searches for the next advance in analysis…. The next wave has to do with trying to measure and create ‘team chemistry.’ How do different personality types, races and nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds and even quirks of character interact over a season that starts in February and ends around Halloween? ….. They know homogeneity isn’t the answer. What’s the right mix? How many extroverts do you need? What is a leader?”
Teaching staffs and baseball rosters
The similarities for creating success in a school and a Major League Baseball franchise are striking. Both measure their work on a yearly basis with a definitive opening and closing day. Within those timeframes individual efforts are intertwined and their success is often dependent upon the work of each other. During the course of each “season” there will be unexpected setbacks and challenges that will demand changes by every individual involved in the effort. Consequently, the task of building a successful teaching staff is much like that of what faced the decision-makers of Boston.
In my book “The Algebra Miracle” I devoted an entire chapter to outline the critical importance of the collective mindset possessed by the school’s math department. It was the creation of an educational environment that exhibited many of the same attributes of the Red Sox. As a group, these teachers understood that they had a difficult task before them. They worked with a student body that had the highest rates of free or reduced lunch, mobility and ELL in the school district. They realized that it would require teamwork more than individual talent to give these adolescents the skills necessary to flourish under such circumstances. And most importantly they realized that their own personal preferences—teaching the high-profile classes, having their own classroom or master schedule concessions—did not necessarily work for the greater good.
Mel Riddile summarized this group attitude in the foreword of the book.
“Mindset and Variations in Time – (the) Math Department was our ‘skunkworks…. As evidenced by the school wide practice of increasing learning time, the staff had a “growth mindset”—student success was due to work, effort, and time on task. If students weren’t succeeding, they simply needed more instructional time. Stuart High School was essentially practicing whole-school RtI (Response to Intervention) before RtI was RtI.
“Freedom to Act – Stuart High School teachers were encouraged to experiment and were afforded great latitude in implementing their ideas…. Some were discarded. Some were fabulous successes. However, none failed, because we learned from every experience.
“A Culture of Collaboration – While teachers had considerable latitude to experiment, they always consulted each other. Unilateral, top-down decisions became a thing of the past. The teachers always had a visible role in every decision that impacted the classroom. Administrators and teachers worked in partnership collaborating frequently.
“Fidelity of Implementation – Where most schools are weak, Stuart High School was strong. The school had a laser-like focus and was obsessed with consistent implementation. All efforts were multi-year. There were no quick fixes. “
If these themes of team-first, bottom line focus, a willingness to sacrifice, experiment and admit mistakes sounds familiar, it is. It played out in vivid and triumphant detail on a recent autumn evening in Fenway Park. And that success can be replicated in schools everywhere.