I seem to be waking up early in other cities a lot lately. This week it was Boston, where I visited some educational programs and schools. I’m working on a short book, on behalf of the Philanthropy Roundtable, on teacher and principal quality. The itinerary I had both days involved me reporting somewhere at 6 a.m.
So I was waking up at 5:15. I don’t particularly like setting an alarm for 5:15, but every time I do, I’m happy I did. I walked the streets of Boston as the city was just starting to wake up. The coffee shops were open. Commuters started hustling down the streets a few minutes before 6 a.m. Already in mid-September it was clearly fall, with the brisk temperatures waking me up. That first day, I visited the offices of Building Excellent Schools before riding the T with these prospective school leaders to go visit the Excel Academy in East Boston (we did Match Community Day on Tuesday). By 2:00 p.m., I’d observed multiple classes and interviewed various people, which left the afternoon free for a 30 minute walk around downtown Boston, and then lots of reporting and writing in my hotel room for other projects. Add in a radio interview at 5 p.m., and a conference call from 5:30 to 6:30, and then my realization that I should take advantage of being away from home to write in the evening hours, and it was kind of a long day. But by waking up early, I managed to get 13-14 productive work hours in, and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Having access to early morning hours feels like manufacturing time.
Touring schools and talking with various people in education has cemented something I’ve been mulling over lately. Individual talent matters and should be developed. But individual talent within great systems can reach heights that are hard to fathom on your own. Two years ago, in the 2011 Boston Marathon (which should be the most famous one, but which, thanks to 2013’s tragedy, won’t be), Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran the fastest marathon ever recorded. It doesn’t count for the world record because of various rules, but it was a full 57 seconds faster than the current world record. What’s crazy about that is not just the time, but that Moses Mosop, the second place finisher, was only 4 seconds behind him. Several other runners (including Ryan Hall, who came in 4th) beat the course record that year by a lot. They fed off each other. It was competitive, but collaborative in a way, too.
There’s a parallel in education. In a chaotic school, a smart and energetic teacher can create an oasis of calm, where students actually learn. But in a high-functioning school, her principal is in there coaching her to get even better. She’s observing other effective teachers and picking up techniques from them. They’re critiquing her lesson plans and she’s critiquing theirs. Everyone feeds off each other and elevates their games.
Of course, such high-functioning systems are hard to create. Particularly in student situations, well-meaning adults often stress collaboration in ways that are doomed to fail. You need people with at least somewhat similar preparation levels and motivation. It wasn’t the bulk of the Boston Marathon runners who pushed Mutai to run so fast. It was the elite runners in the pack.
Nonetheless, I’ve been pondering how other systems can create such feedback loops and examples to draw inspiration from. I probably should read more than I do…
Photo courtesy flickr user Sarah&Boston