The Critical Move From Vision to Action: St. Christopher’s School, Richmond

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The Critical Move From Vision to Action: St. Christopher’s School, Richmond

St. Christopher’s School is a K12 boys school in Richmond, VA.  They celebrated their centennial last year, have strong admissions demand, and are considered in the top tier of schools in the Richmond market.  So why does a school like St. Christopher’s embark on a path of innovation to change what and how they teach?  Why fix something that clearly is not broken?

IMG_0744Because they have thoughtful leaders with as much of an eye on the future as they do on today.  Head Charley Stillwell asked me to come speak to his board during their annual retreat.  Charley had talked to Pat Bassett about getting input for his board on trends in innovation and pedagogy around the country; Pat suggested he give me a call based on the reporting I am doing from my EdJourney last fall to visit 64 schools around the country.  Not only did I get to speak with the board, but also I got to spend the entire morning meeting with members of the talented, thoughtful, and forward-looking faculty and staff who will implement what the school is calling their 2nd Century Vision.  (But before I go on, I just have to tell you this: the afternoon board session opened with Pat Bassett calling in via video teleconference from this vacation in Boulder, CO. My resume may never be further aggrandized than on the day that Pat Bassett “opened” for me!)

What better way to start a school day than with a few quiet minutes of reflection at morning chapel?  Many schools don’t do this, of course, and I am not a regular churchgoer myself.  But finding time in the busy school day to be quiet and share a few minutes of community reminds us that we make choices about how we allocate that most precious resource: time.  St. Christopher’s is a high-powered college prep school with all the attendant pressures on the daily schedule.  Yet they manage to carve out up to two hours a week for morning reflection time. Can you find time in your schedule for something that is a truly high priority?

IMG_0745Charley and his team have been through the discussions of what constitutes the essential qualities of a St. Chris graduate.  They know what their core values are.  They see the major changes taking place in the world around them and know they have a fiduciary responsibility to the school, and a moral obligation to the students, to not stand pat on a winning hand.  They have embarked on intentional discussions of what they feel are innovations to prepare their boys for a future that is fluid and changing.  Over the last few years they have become increasingly embedded in the Richmond community, working with the University of Richmond to create student internship opportunities; hosting a remarkable speaker series with presentations for the likes of Colin Powell and Google CEO Eric Schmidt; and starting a winter X-term program with overseas travel opportunities for the Upper School.  They have crossed over the threshold on technology integration by going fully 1:1 and adopting the idea that technology in schools is as much a part of the natural learning environment as air and paper. And I love this one: at a faculty meeting recently, rather than the old sit-and-get, Charley had the teachers jump into this exercise: if you were in an elevator in New York City and had to tell someone else in the elevator what is special about our school and why they should send their child here, what would that be?  What a marvelous way to engage the teachers, in a very tangible way, in the discussion of the school’s organizational value proposition!

The discussions I found fascinating today were about that critical middle ground of innovation, the systems level, and the fact that the faculty and staff I met with were talking at this level is credit to them and their board.  Here is what I mean.  It is one thing to agree on a vision.  What happens next?  At many, perhaps even most of both the private and public schools I visited, at least some group of teachers are eager to “get going”, to pilot new programs and try out new curriculum or pedagogy. St. Chris has a strong group of those teachers.  Another group of faculty are willing, and in many cases eager, to meet with curriculum coordinators, academic deans, Chief Innovation Officers, principals, and others tasked with implementing innovative practices, but they are busy and tired and really want to just be told what to do.  For this group, checking the box is important. They want to do what the school asks of them, but they really don’t have a clear idea why.  This is a critical group to bring along on the innovation pathway, so we talked about how to do that.

If a school organization asks people to implement classroom tactics aligned with a vision of innovation, asks people to do things differently than they have in the past, the school needs to provide three things: a clear, overarching articulation of how these changes en toto support the vision; a picture of what innovation looks like; and the time and resources to learn the new skills they require. The second two are a matter of resource alignment: spend some money and send people out in to the world to see what analogs are working for other schools.  The first issue requires a critical step in planning between the vision statement and the classroom tactics.  The school needs to make sure that their systems are compatible with the new pedagogy.

IMG_0743What do I mean by this?  Here is an example. If a school wants to have a more global curriculum, they can open opportunities for students to travel abroad, and check that box.  A systems-level approach would look at the school wide support of the new program: are the other divisions involved; do all students have financial access to the program; is global learning embedded in subject-area courses; do many faculty have the opportunity to travel with the students and learn alongside them; what are the long term financial implications and opportunities to communicate the added value of the program to the larger community? When a school looks at a program change in insolation, they are nibbling at the edge of the cookie. When they map out the supporting systems of a different learning experience, they are building a thoughtful, intentional model that will sustain change over a long period of time.  After just a day at St. Christopher, it is pretty clear they don’t intend to nibble the cookie.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I think others are thinking on these same lines, particularly Bo Adams at Unboundary, with their Pedagogical Master Plan approach.  As Bo has said, we spend lots of school treasure master planning things like campus facilities, capital campaigns, and marketing and branding. We need to take a similarly holistic, system-wide approach to mapping out what, for many of us, is a new and evolving pedagogy.  It is a big task, and it is not just happening in private schools.  I met this week with the Director of Instructional Support for a 35,000 student unified district in California, and they are tackling the exact same issues at exactly this systems level.

I presented a summary of my trip findings to the St. Chris board, and the questions and discussion were lively and thoughtful.  How do we assess?  How do we understand the cost implications?  How can we support the educators?  There did not seem to be much dissonance on one point: the world is changing whether we in schools like it or not, and great schools recognize and deal with those changes, even when the near term picture is as rosy and all dashboard indicators are green.

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  1. Jason George March 28, 2013 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    I love the faculty meeting exercise about what you would tell someone about your school and why it is special. I am definitely suggesting this to my administration!

    • glichtman March 28, 2013 at 5:15 pm - Reply

      Yes, this is a great exercise on so many levels! I don’t know many schools that entice (require?) teachers to be able to act as true advocates for the school value in this way; it is a powerful lever that is wasted if not used.

  2. boadams1 March 28, 2013 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on it's about learning and commented:
    As I continue the work on Pedagogical Master Planning here at Unboundary’s studio, I engage blogging as a way to think out loud, test ideas, benefit from co-thinking with commenters, and connect dots with other educational leaders. Just this morning, @akytle, @LisaLpez1, and @HollyChesser/@SAISnews offered invaluable insights within this collective exploration and 21st century ethnography of school transformation ( Now, @GrantLichtman adds what I see as an invaluable extension of our ongoing conversations and a critical intersection with the morning exchanges with Angel, Lisa, and Holly. Grant provides a strong “case study” of the work demanded by school communities, of school communities, and for school communities to embrace harmonizing the incredible efforts of administrators, faculty, parents, and students. It is transformation work that insists on collective sense making, systems thinking, strategic designing, and the requisite time and attention to engage in such adventure TOGETHER.

  3. boadams1 March 28, 2013 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    Grant, this is a powerful synthesis post. Thank you! I rarely, rarely reblog, but I felt compelled to reblog this post. It’s interesting how a day can present itself – unknowingly – as a coalescence of months of thinking, talking, wrestling, and curiously trying to figure things out. This has been a very good day.

    • glichtman March 28, 2013 at 5:32 pm - Reply

      Thanks; I guess I can write somewhat cogently on an airplane late at night after a long day of school visits. Either that or your bar is just falling 🙂

  4. hollychesser March 28, 2013 at 6:43 pm - Reply


    I’ve followed and written about your EdJourney for many months, which for me personally has been a tremendous learning experience. This post in particular provides so much clarity about why some schools struggle to innovate while others forge ahead.

    I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Pat Bassett’s warning that sometimes when you move too fast, the rest of the army begins to confuse you with the enemy. That’s not uncommon for many progressive educators who find themselves suddenly and strangely in a defensive posture. Without an articulated, blueprinted vision, it’s easy to get lost, to get personal, and to get misdirected. I’m probably going to entangle myself in this metaphor of battle, but schools often seem prey to this fog of war.

    You’re right: “It is one thing to agree on a vision.” Yes, it is one, huge thing. You can’t create a military strategy until you know what you’re defending. It takes a leader to help guide his or her faculty through a discussion of why it’s so critical to shift the focus from teaching to learning, of what should be learned and what learning looks like, and how the organization will operate to achieve what is agreed upon. But once these understandings have been determined, they can be codified and the blueprint can be constructed. That blueprint offers clear skies and a direction forward for everyone in the organization. When confusion rolls in, when personalities take over, an individual in the organization, including those fast footed soldiers, can defer to the blueprint as the overarching guide.

    What I hope schools, and particular their leaders, begin to see is the liberation and inspiration these blueprints provide. Most educators are willing to fully engage, but they want to know what they’re fighting for.


    • glichtman March 28, 2013 at 6:52 pm - Reply

      I think we are starting to really coalesce around this recognition that a systems level approach, like Bo’s PMP is a critical step. Why is it often missing at schools? Because it takes a lot of work and time and some of the discussions can be uncomfortable. It is easier to jump into a classroom unit and check that box, but that does not have any sustainable impact. We need to do the heavy lifting. It is not hard, but it might be heavy.

    • boadams1 March 28, 2013 at 7:06 pm - Reply

      I need a “Like” button for Holly’s comment! And a +1! And one of those “Favorite” stars.

      • glichtman March 28, 2013 at 7:08 pm - Reply

        Roger that! Say, someone should hire Holly to come in and drive real innovation at a school! 🙂

  5. Jason March 29, 2013 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    This conversation is inspiring for me. I work at a school that is fledgling, has had major overhaul on the board, and is now merging to form a k-12 school for the area. We, both schools’ communities are currently discussing new mission, core values, and the portrait of a graduate. We, the faculty, have been asked to define our signature program, what makes our education worth the money. I am firmly in the group of wanting to innovate and redefine our courses to become interdisciplinary, student-driven, and collaborative. But our community is obsessed with AP and SAT scores, so real change seems hard to reach. Your and Bo’s and Holly’s focus on systems level and learning offer some hope. It is also good to remember that time and discussions and plans are key to sustainable change. I’m ready to plunge right in, but I realize the need to engage all constituencies and market the necessity of reform. Thank you. Now off to Unboundary.

    • glichtman March 29, 2013 at 3:05 pm - Reply

      I was about to reply that if I could be on any help in your work to let me know, but if you are working with Bo and Unboundary, you are working with the best! Hopefully you will share your progress with the rest of us so others can learn from your work.

      • Jason Bell March 30, 2013 at 12:29 am - Reply

        I’m just learning from Unboundary, so I’m sure I’ll ask for some assistance. Right now, I’m mapping out the numerous stakeholders to get a visual for communications and connections.

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