Caption: A gathering of Philadelphia community members, including youth, to discuss the film “Most Likely to Succeed” and where education is heading. Courtesy of Tom McManus.

Now, I’d done it. I sat exhausted and exasperated on the gleaming, new tile floor, surrounded by half-filled boxes, mismatched tools, and piles of work in progress for our new school. After one grueling build of a file cabinet which will securely hold the school’s essential documents, I thought I had successfully built a second cabinet in half the time. 

Something was very wrong. The drawer hasp which was supposed to slide into the semi-circular housing had instead popped off and was lodged into the sliding closure mechanism, making the drawer impossible to open. At least that’s what I thought had happened. The pieces had no such names, only related pictures that despite their intended universality still seemed to me vaguely Swedish. 

I wryly realized that my 25 years in the field of education had brought me to this climactic moment. After teaching, counseling students, coaching teachers, overseeing dozens of buildings, and managing mission and vision for established institutions, I have arrived at my true calling: an IKEA construction (un)specialist.

Building Relationships at the Outset

When I officially signed on with Revolution School in 2017, I knew I would learn and grow tremendously in our pre-launch years. As our September 2019 opening approached, there was so much learning to celebrate but so little time to reflect on the path we’d taken so far. Moments to take stock were stolen quickly, like when we had an impromptu pizza and nostalgia party while we waited for the van to take the furniture from our temporary office to our new building.

Not for nothing, but I could spend an entire essay talking about why our growing community thinks this new school is special, unique, and innovative (drop me an email to learn more!). Principally, I align this piece with our mission statement: “Breaking Down the Walls Between Learning and Life.” Our high school students will spend much of their time outside the familiar walls of a school building, interacting with community partners, and studying the systems that tie the world together. We are dedicated to a learning environment that’s joyful, integrated, empowering, and diverse. 

We don’t have the answer key or road map in learning or life. In preparing a school from scratch, our team has never lacked for mental pictures of a fully realized one. Our “picture on the box” is one where students make a difference in their world right away and teachers are supported as true professionals. These aspirations have helped us convince our families, followers, and one another to stay the course and believe. 

Along the way, new challenges have required new tools and improvisation. Sometimes the Allen key has to be taped to pen to create torque or a wrench becomes a hammer. Some examples:

  • To gain nonprofit status, we wrote careful by-laws which imagined a board of trustees, but then we had to create one. These early confidants and supporters called themselves the “kitchen table” board, invoking the idea of a family gathering to have important conversations.
  • We built a program with the input of a network of inspiring educators. This extended design team spurred us to create hundreds of pages of documents, reflecting both our process and philosophy. This deep reservoir of thinking became our toolbox when new obstacles (state licensing, marketing plans, school handbooks, etc.) appeared in our path.
  • Leaning on our experience, we built a clear and accessible admissions process, but the key to bringing our founding students was actually what we came to call “living room visits.” We sat down with each family to speak deeply about what school could be for them.
  • We visited dozens of properties with a great real estate agent, but the solution to our facility question was in friendship and strategic partnership with the beautiful, mission-aligned Community Partnership School

A commonality is that all the solutions involved relationship building, something we value at the core of our work with kids. We cannot know what is in store in an unknown future, but we can surround ourselves and our students with mentors and invested partners.

Embracing The Messy Middle

My filing cabinet problem was a micro-example of a “messy middle” on a project. This concept is highlighted in Scott Belskey’s book of the same name. When Gina Moore, our school founder, gave me that book over the holidays, I took solace in the short, digestible vignettes and wisdom from founders of start-up companies. In the messy middle, we have to adjust our mindset, keep the faith, and step back to solve novel problems. No person or project is immune from these moments. 

Belskey writes, “When you’re articulating a vision and set of assumptions with such passion and confidence, reality starts to bend your way.” The true message in the giving of the book was something more powerful than the stories themselves. Gina was communicating her faith that our vision and passion would bend reality where needed. Even as a lifelong educator, I was reminded anew of how powerful power the support and belief from a trusted mentor or colleague can be. 

It takes courage to lead in a new direction, and it takes humility to be a learner again. Adults work hard to insulate themselves from risks we regularly ask our students to take. But that’s the place where the learning is. I walked this path away from my well-traveled road and have now come back to the familiar sights and sounds of the first day of school…in the place not in my mind’s eye but in a reality where collective imagination becomes real. 

Learning is life (and life is learning), and there is no separating the two. Don’t be afraid to turn the filing cabinet over and hit it soundly, Fonzie-style, until the piece you need flies out. The sense of satisfaction you’ll feel will propel you to the next challenge in a new Swedish box yet to be opened.