Mark Estrada is a 2021 graduate of the 2-year Holdsworth District Leadership Program.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
If you’re from Texas, you’ve heard this idiom your whole life. But when applied to educating children, this mindset can be limiting. It can hamper our ability to evolve as a system and dampen our dedication to giving all children what they need to succeed, even those who struggle.
On a recent trip to Singapore with the Holdsworth District Leadership Program, I saw what can happen when an entire nation adopts a growth mindset. A small island nation, Singapore has only one natural resource – its people. Educating and developing each child to reach their highest potential is a top national priority, and they work to get better at it every day.
Most American educators have heard that Singapore’s education system is among the best in the world. Seeing it with my own eyes was a transformational experience.
I will never forget walking into a cavernous hangar at Singapore’s polytechnic campus and seeing 16-to-18-year-olds working on real, functional airplanes. I was blown away by the level of investment in technical education and the skills of these young students. And while the classrooms we visited did not look much different from ours in Lockhart ISD, the time allowed for teachers to spend researching and developing their craft and taking on leadership responsibilities during their standard workday is far greater than in American education.
In Singapore, they understand that to produce great results for every student, they need great teachers in every classroom and a great principal in every school. The profession is highly respected and there are numerous opportunities for educators to develop their skills and earn promotions while not necessarily leaving the classroom.
Teachers can choose from three career pathways – teaching, leadership or curriculum specialist – and school leaders are diligent about identifying each teacher’s potential for future leadership opportunities. Within each pathway, there are transparent, formative roles that build upon each other and allow for the mastery of new skills. As teachers progress along the pathway, each step comes with a boost in pay and the ability to make a greater impact.
A lead or master teacher can make as much as a principal, and many take on meaningful responsibilities such as classroom observations, performance evaluations and professional development.
We call this distributed leadership. As teachers are entrusted with more responsibility, principals have the time and space to lead at a more strategic level, plus teachers get more coaching to support their development. Over time, this creates a true leadership pipeline for the principalship by providing young, aspiring leaders with stretch assignments and practice handling challenging situations that are critical to their growth.
Today’s teachers, after all, are the principals of tomorrow.
The way Singapore holds teachers in high regard and is intentional about their development is something I want for Lockhart ISD. I believe we need to show our teachers not just with words but with actions that their experience and ideas are valued. We need to give them the trust and autonomy to try new things, even if it doesn’t always work out.
We’re not planning to make any major changes right away based upon one trip to Singapore. But over the course of our 5-year partnership with Holdsworth, and after a few more site visits to build inspiration, we will reimagine our talent development systems to ensure our focus is in the right place – developing our people. We will ask ourselves, “How can we recognize and cultivate the considerable talent we have right here in Lockhart ISD? How can we give our teachers opportunities to grow and lead?”
In Singapore, they are thoughtful and intentional about change. They spend time making sure it’s the right move and that there is alignment at all levels of the system.
Here in the U.S., we often whiplash between too much change and not enough. When things are going well, educators are afraid to try something different. When test scores come out, we rush to change from a place of desperation.
I think we can do better than that. When we start focusing on what we can do instead of what we can’t do, great things will happen.
Maybe we start small.
For instance, at the suggestion of a teacher, we are taking a different approach to professional development at Lockhart ISD by allowing teachers to self-select their own experiences and train their colleagues. This summer, we tapped some outstanding teachers to develop learning opportunities for their peers – and paid them for their time. We were pleased to see the number of teachers who came out on their break to learn from their colleagues.
In time, we can start thinking bigger.
Something I heard from one of Singapore’s top officials struck a chord with me. Pak Tee Ng, the associate dean at the National Institute of Education who has trained the majority of principals in Singapore, said they tell their people this: “It’s not that what you are doing is not good, but don’t let good stand in the way of better.” In Lockhart ISD, this is an attitude I want us to embrace. I hope all 700 teachers and staff will join me over the next five years in working for positive changes that will benefit all of our 6,200 students. Not because it’s broke, but because we owe it to our students and families to always strive for better.