“I had an interesting childhood, in that I grew up in a very supportive household in a very tough neighborhood. I think the duality of my existence caused me to have an interest in this area of research.”
“As a general rule, I say to schools and parents, you do the best you can with what you have.”
“If we’re consistent with our love and support, the research is overwhelming that kids can overcome some really tough circumstances.”
“The ultimate role of a school is to prepare kids for life when they leave us. That is the point.”
“Distributed leadership means that we’re coming together under a common mission and vision and we work together to get stuff done.”
Q: Could you start by giving us a little background, career wise and experience wise, on how you developed this area of focus and passion?
A: Well, I think I need to go back to my upbringing. I had an interesting childhood, in that I grew up in a very supportive household in a very tough neighborhood. I think the duality of my existence caused me to have an interest in this area of research.
Also, something that a lot of folks don’t know about me – and I normally don’t share it during keynotes – but while I was a soldier, I was deployed to Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict and responded to what we now know as the L.A. riots. One thing I noticed, the folks that were acting most outrageously were grown, the kids were okay. I had a chance to really talk to them about life, school and where they wanted to go and what they want to be. That really made me know that education is what I need to do and understanding how people bounce back from adversity is something I need to really focus on. So it’s kind of a unique background.
Q: Apart from academic instruction, what are some of the factors that play a role in closing the achievement gap?
A: I think we have to be holistic in our approach to educating students. I think the achievement gap is not merely representative of a person’s academic level, it’s representative of a lot of different factors that they bring to the school. So, in closing the achievement gap, if we’re serious about not just closing it, but preparing children for life after school, we have to be holistic in what we do.
I think whether or not education is a priority in a home has some bearing on academic performance. We have to keep in mind that some children are coming to us in survival mode. When you are existing in survival mode, what’s important to you is surviving the day. You’re not necessarily thinking about the test next Friday or the report card nine weeks from now, you are surviving day to day. If we can infuse education as a priority and a bright future as a possibility while a child is in survival mode, that’s a win. Because then it’s, “Okay. How can I conduct myself in such a way that I address the needs, my learning requirements and survive?”
The great news is kids can start learning very early, at 6 years old, that education is a priority. If my lights go out, I go to my neighbor’s house, who has electricity, and I do my schoolwork there. Those are the kinds of things that we can start to instill in children very early. Yes, we know circumstances are very difficult, that’s real, but a child doesn’t have to be a victim of circumstance. I think that’s a very important learning experience that we need to offer children as early as possible.
Q: What role do guardians, educators and school leaders play in helping students develop resilience?
A: I’ve traveled the country and I’ve been to lots of different school districts. In my normal job, I am assigned to schools that are attempting to meet or exceed state accreditation standards. My company is a school improvement company, so we do a variety of projects and primarily I work in high-poverty schools. So, I’ve seen lots of different schools, there are lots of different levels of resources in those school districts, sometimes a big difference between urban school districts and rural, for example. As a general rule, I say to schools and parents, you do the best you can with what you have.
I’ll give you a pretty drastic but true example. If you are a parent and you have lots of different kids at home and you’re raising them by yourself, you don’t necessarily understand the content that’s coming home with your child, one of the things you can do is you offer a quiet time and a quiet space for your children to address their assignments from school. I’ve seen an actual example where a parent put a taped box on the floor, maybe three feet by three feet. When her child was in her chair, sitting in that square, everybody else had to be quiet. Now that’s not a kid with their own room, that’s not a kid with their own desk or a place in the basement to study exclusively. That’s a parent doing the best she can do with what she has.
Another thing kids need in these circumstances is consistency. Worrying about whether or not mom’s going to be home, whether or not the folks who are raising me are going to be supportive, whether or not my teacher really likes me or not – kids don’t need hot and cold, they need consistency from the adults around them. We need to be consistently supportive, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you can get a kid everything they want and need. But if we’re consistent with our love and support, the research is overwhelming that kids can overcome some really tough circumstances.
Q: Last school year, standardized tests were not administered in Pennsylvania and the extent of learning loss caused by COVID-19 is still to be realized. What is your perspective on this pause in typical instruction, and how it may or may not cause a shift to higher order thinking? What’s the importance of this type of thinking as well?
A: Here is an essential question that every educator needs to ask – every school, every department of education, every school of higher learning that’s preparing teachers. That question is the following: What skills, traits and characteristics do children need for success in school and success in life? The whole purpose of school is not to pass a state assessment. Yes, state assessments are crucial, they’re very, very important, but the ultimate role of a school is to prepare kids for life when they leave us. That is the point.
With regard to standards and assessments and higher order thinking, I do think, if it’s part of the direction the school district is going in, you may see a shift to higher order thinking, but I don’t think that’s the whole piece. I think another thing that needs to happen is we have to look at some of the content that may have been missed and extract essential questions, essential standards. Maybe you’re not addressing all of the standards, but the essential ones you are addressing, because kids are going to eventually leave you and go to the next grade level. So, it’s important to extract what’s most important.
Let’s think about how we’re thinking. It’s not just about school, it’s bigger than that. I’m in the Commonwealth of Virginia. So, let’s say for the last 30 years, you’ve been working in an industry that employs 234,000 people, it has a 6.4 compound growth rate every year, it accounted for $26 billion in revenue in 2018, and in March of 2020, that industry ceased to exist. What do you do? Well, that’s a real question because the industry I just described is tourism in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
As a child, when I leave school, if I’m not ready to handle complex problems like that, I’m not ready for a post-COVID economy. So it’s not just about the state assessment or our courses, that’s really important, but higher order thinking is a necessary life skill. I think it’s something we should be doing anyway because life is pretty complex. So yes, we may see a shift. I don’t think it will happen by osmosis, I think that our leadership needs to make it a priority, because if it’s not, what you might see happening in some schools, is that we’re just in survival mode, we’re just covering what’s in the textbook and that’s not necessarily preparing kids for life.
Q: Can you talk about the SAME, approach to education and how this has been successful in schools?
A: SAME is my company’s answer to the question I posed earlier: What skills, traits and characteristics do kids need for success in school and life? In our opinion as an organization, in order to adequately prepare children for school and life, we have to be holistic. Within our delivery system, within a school, we have to address what we call the social environment within a school. That’s the S in SAME. SAME stands for social, academic and moral education, so the S in SAME stands for social. We define the social environment as how members of the school community behave. Now, when I say school and behavior, most people think I’m talking about the kids, and I am, but not just the kids because children model what they see. In the social domain, teachers have to be what we want our students to become. We have to clearly communicate and overtly model the behaviors we desire, and then we can hold kids accountable for those behaviors. So, the social environment is all about behavior.
The A in SAME deals with the academic environment. The academic environment deals with how members of the school community engage in teaching and learning. As a teacher, do I have the skill sets required to develop, or to deliver, a very engaging, aligned academic lesson? Yes, hopefully you do. But on the other side, as a student, do I have the skills required to participate in said lesson? Do I know how to ask questions? Am I organized? Do I know how to make the most of a classroom and get this and that, even if my teacher’s boring?
Then the M is the moral domain of SAME. The M, as we see it, deals with what members of the school community believe. Do I believe that my students can be academically successful regardless of their zip code? Does it matter to me where a kid comes from, who they are and how they look? Do I think they can make it anyway? Do I have that sense of efficacy? That’s the belief system on the part of the adults. On the student side, do I value education? Do I see the relevance? Do I see education as relevant to my survival? And if I do, then I can get through a lot of stuff, I can survive. But if I don’t, if it’s just something I have to do right now, then my academic performance is not going to be what we would want it to be. All of these things have to be addressed within a culture of distributed leadership, which means all of the kids belong to all of us.
If I’m a fourth grade teacher, but there’s an issue with fifth grade kids, those are my issues too.
I can’t say, “Oh, that’s their problem. I had them last year.” Because you might have the answer to the issue, right? So there has to be some degree of collaboration, grade to grade, departmental, that we have to work together to address the needs of our children. That’s distributed leadership. And we involve, to the extent possible, the home, the community and the school. That’s SAME in a box.
What we’ve seen is that, if you take this approach with fidelity over time, you not only achieve academic success, but you’re in a better position to sustain it. Because, as you grow as an organization, there’s this M, that belief system says that we think we can keep doing this, we know we should. And as we bring people into our organization, there’s an onboarding that takes place where we say, “Hey, here’s how we do business in this school.” We do that, we’re going to make a huge difference for the lives of a lot of kids in this country. So, that’s SAME in a box.
Q: How can educators and school leaders develop a culturally inclusive school? How does a distributed leadership concept play into that culturally inclusive environment?
A: Let’s think in terms of a school’s school improvement plan.
Because everybody develops one, the degree to which everybody knows what’s in it, that’s another story, that’s another podcast, right? But every school probably has one, right? So, if you look at a typical school improvement plan, there’s normally a column that might talk about accountability. Who’s going to be collecting data in this specific area, who’s going to report back to the school leadership team how the school is doing? And what you see is principal, principal, principal, principal, principal, one person. In a school of 3,000 people there’s this one person who’s accountable for all this stuff. Well, distributed leadership says, “I don’t have to be the person who corrects a behavior, as a teacher, but I can be a person who can report back the degree to which we are making progress in a specific area.” So, I’m part of the leadership because I’m helping us to implement the things that are going to make us better as the school. That doesn’t fall on one person, that falls on us.
And that’s a good thing because, I got to tell you, a lot of times, the best answers for a school are in the faculty, it’s not in the main office, it’s somebody on faculty. If you’re not including them in the decision, if they’re not a part of the discussion, there is no way you can implement change of any kind, unless they’re a part of it, right? So, to us, that’s distributed leadership. Sometimes the first step we take in working with schools is to build teamwork. The lone ranger is dead, he’s gone. Seriously, you got to be together on this stuff or there’s no way you can get it done. But if you are together on it you can make crazy stuff happen. That’s the good news, right?
So distributed leadership means that we’re coming together under a common mission and vision and we work together to get stuff done.
Q: Where can listeners learn more about your work? Is there a website they can go to, to check this out?
A: Yeah, you can check out my Twitter handle. That’s DrJhodge1906. I make a lot of commentary on education, but I also make a small degree of social commentary because I think we can’t live in isolation within a school, we live in a world, so I do some discussion of both. If you go on YouTube, there are several clips where I talk about our philosophy and what we do as an organization. I’ve co-authored a book called Standing in the Gap: A Guide to Using the SAME Framework to Create Excellent Schools. If you’d like a copy of the book currently, you can call (757) 224-8017 and talk to our office manager and we can send you a book. But if I were you, I would wait, because our fourth edition is coming out in October. And our website is www.ullcschools.com.
Dr. John Hodge
Dr. John W. Hodge is vice president of the Urban Learning and Leadership Center (ULLC), a staff development and training organization that serves school districts throughout the United States. An expert in assisting schools to plan and implement strategies for continuous improvement, his career has been defined by helping students and teachers overcome obstacles and achieve goals. Dr. Hodge’s presentations often serve as “the spark” for many schools in their quest to meet state and federal accreditation standards.
Dr. Hodge is a trained facilitator for the Southern Regional Education Board’s Leadership Initiative Modules “Leading Assessment and Instruction” and “Creating a High Performance Learning Culture,” and a trained assessor and mentor/coach facilitator in the National Association of Secondary School Principals “Developing the 21st Century Principal” program.
Dr. Hodge has held many education-related roles including reading teacher, English teacher, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher, assistant principal and associate director of AVID Center, Eastern Division. He served as director of An Achievable Dream Academy, a high-performing, high-poverty school in the inner city that has received numerous national awards. Prior to starting his career in education, Dr. John W. Hodge distinguished himself in the service of our country with the 7th Infantry Division of the United States Army.