More than 200 from 25 school districts in four counties attend leadership conference

NEWARK — Teachers today need to unlearn things to better serve students in a rapidly changing world, according to Chris Lehmann, founding principal and CEO of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, who spoke to 240 Finger Lakes educators in Newark Thursday.

“What can we unlearn that will allow us to create better schools?” he asked.

As an example, he cited being ahead of the curve several years ago, teaching his students to read and write in html, something that even garnered national attention.

Asking how many in the room learned math from a slide rule, he said two years after Microsoft came out with an update, he was still teaching html, but it wasn't what the kids needed anymore.

Lehmann said teachers need to teach what is good for the kids, not what is good for themselves.

“Think about 60 years ago,” he said. “The closest thing to Amazon was a Sears catalog. We have no clue what 60 years from now will look like. The most important thing kids will need is nimbleness of mind.”

Lehmann was one of several speakers at a two-and-a-half-day Wayne Finger Lakes Leadership Academy, focusing on “Engaged Leadership: Creating Healthy Schools.”

He talked about the frustrations of dealing with his two sons' teachers, few of whom saw them for who they were, but more for their grades and statistics, leading Lehmann to start his own inquiry-driven, project-based high school where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

“Parents send us the best things they've ever done,” he told educators from 25 school districts in four counties. “They send us their kids. They're not leaving the good ones at home for somebody else to teach. We've got to be worthy of that.”

He urged the educators to go beyond thinking their job is to prepare kids for the 21st century workplace and think about future citizens.

“If we shoot for worker, that is all we will get.” he said. “But, if we shoot for citizen, then we will get the neighbors, the scholars, the parents, the voters we desperately, desperately need.”

Lehmann said he believes deeply in public schools, noting they're under attack by a lot of people who don't think they're needed anymore.

He said it's too compliance-driven with students being told to do the same thing over and over again, without knowing why.

“If we were to create a Student Bill of Rights, right after safe schools, would be the right to know this answer,” he said. “Every kid deserves to have a reason for why what they're learning will be good for them.”

For instance, when his wife was in high school, she asked an engineer why she needed to learn what was being taught when she was going to major in English.

Instead of ignoring her and focusing on those interested in building things, Lehmann said he could have explained how she too would need to know about mechanical things for future experiences such as buying a car or a house, to understand how they work.

He cited the Lifelong Kindergarten group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an example of maintaining that sense of awe of young students, wonderment and joy for learning.

Lehmann said education has to be more inquiry-driven and that children should never be the object of their own learning; every child should know they are cared for and part of their community.

He said he wants kids with heads full of ideas, to change the rules and have the passion to push through when someone tells them they can't achieve what they think they can.

“Problematize everything,” he suggested, emphasizing educators teach wisdom. “Empower the kids. Be one school. Everything you do has to make sense. Kids have more information in their pockets than we have in our heads.”

Lehmann was introduced by Jessica Sheridan, director of staff development with Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES which hosted the conference, participating along with the 25 area school districts.

“Two hundred and forty administrators are here to collaborate and learn and work better together,” said David C. Bills, superintendent of the Honeoye Central School District and president of the Wayne-Finger Lakes Superintendents' Executive Committee.

Lehmann said it was really weird to see hundreds of his books displayed on each district's table as part of a centerpiece that included individualized water bottles and lovely etched wooden keepsake plaques made by Noah Mueller and John Jones, two of the top students of Kelly Paladino, advanced manufacturing and engineering teacher at Wayne Technical & Career Center, who proudly noted they are interning with Optimax Systems Inc.

“We're all very much involved with innovative instruction, engaging kids,” said Bills. “It's not that we haven't done that in schools, but there's new ways to leverage access to information for kids and our region is on board together with this. We do more together than we do separately.”

He said teachers visit one another's districts and Sheridan has been to all of the districts, looking for best practices.

“We don't want to become stagnant,” she said. “It's one piece — the need to learn new things and unlearn things. Our world has changed, so we need to be continuous thinkers. I think that's one of the great things in our region. If you look into any of our 25 school districts, you'll see that shift in pedagogy and that change is coming, working collaboratively to make that change happen.”

The leadership academy, in its sixth year, opened Wednesday afternoon and continues through Friday. Many of the speakers are from local districts, furthering the collaboration and support among local educators who had a wide selection of several different skill-building sessions they could attend.

One such, taught by Nikki Miller, director of student services for the Marion Central School District, looked at the connection between a student's health and academic success.

“If we don't focus on the health of our kids, then the rest doesn't matter,” she said, noting the main health focuses — poverty being a common factor in many — are vision, asthma, teen pregnancy (she noted one of three girls will get pregnant), aggression and violence, physical activity, breakfast and inattention/hyperactivity.

If those are not adequately addressed, she said they will impact a student's discipline, grades, absenteeism, truancy, dropping out, school climate and graduation rates.

Miller also noted there is a disconnect between how administrators and teachers believe they are serving students and the perceptions of the students.

The conference was planned by the Executive Committee, which also consists of superintendents Matt Frahm of Naples; Bob McKeveny, Seneca Falls; Matt Cook, Newark; and Charlene Dehn, Manchester-Shortsville (Red Jacket).