What Makes a Wildflower School

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The following letter was written by Sep Kamvar to all Wildflower teachers in November, 2014.

 

Wildflower is not a top-down organization.  In fact, Wildflower is not even an organization.  As the head or assistant head of a Wildflower school, you don’t have a boss and don’t sit in a hierarchy.  Each Wildflower school is an independent school in a decentralized network of mutually supportive schools.

What then, makes a Wildflower school a Wildflower school?

Design Principles

First, and most important, the teacher-leaders of each school commit to the set of design principles I articulated when we started these schools.  These principles may evolve over time, but they will not evolve lightly.  Like the constitution of the United States, these principles form the framing documents for the Wildflower model, and are intended to provide a long-lasting foundation for how we work.  In the rare cases where the principles are amended, they may only be amended by the near-universal consensus of those teacher-leaders living those principles.  New principles may not be imposed or dictated from the top.

While these principles are sacrosanct, the implementation of these principles may vary from school to school.  The principle of blurring the boundary between home-schooling and institutional schooling, for example, may be implemented by one school as a full-scale co-op, by another school as having parent Fridays, and by yet another as rotating parents in the classroom.  The principle of accessibility may be implemented by one school as a sliding-scale tuition, by another as being a public school.  This variability is not only OK, but it is important for our learning as a community.  

What is crucial is for the commitment to each principle be strong.  We do not strive to simply check boxes.  Rather we strive to live the principles as fully as possible.  For example, a parent day for one hour per week, or once per month, would not be sufficient to satisfy the homeschooling principle.  

Over time, some best practices will emerge around principle implementation, for example, the monthly parent-ed evenings that parents are expected to attend.  These best practices will be shared across the network and heavily encouraged.  The style of our info sessions, the design of the classroom ecotecture, the weekly newsletters, and the aesthetic of the logos all fit into this category.  These best practices will be moderate in number, generally external-facing, and provide for a feeling of conceptual consistency across the schools.  In the same way that you know an Apple product when you see one, these practices allow people to know a Wildflower school when they see one.

There are many principles and practices that have value, but are outside of the core Wildflower principles and practices.  These provide opportunities to create varied Wildflower schools.  There may be Wildflower schools that are bilingual, or that focus on at-risk children, or that are primarily outdoors.  We encourage these different flavors, and even those schools that don’t have an explicit flavor will end up having one based on the personalities of the teacher-leaders.

 

Excellence

The second thing that makes a Wildflower school a Wildflower school is a commitment to the highest standard of operational excellence.  Vision is necessary, but alone it is weak.   It requires a marriage to an equally inspiring operation.  The details matter here -- not just in day-to-day classroom management, but also in details like timely parent communications or event planning for the opening night of school.  A rule of thumb is that in each thing that we do, we aim to be ten times better than the mean.  We have seen the results of this: people have come away from an observation, or from seeing our handbooks, or our classroom spaces, and have only been able to say ‘wow’.  Excellence is inspiring, and inspiration makes people work to be the best versions of themselves.

This can be challenging, especially at first.  It is difficult to be great at one thing.  It is even more difficult to be, at the same time, a great teacher, a great administrator, a great entrepreneur, and a great researcher.  It is difficult to set the highest standard of excellence on all aspects, from the experience of the children in the classroom, to your website, to your financial projections, to your info sessions.   The network is here to help you on this.  It may take time to get there, but what is important is that you are committed to getting there.

 

Culture

The third thing that makes a Wildflower school a Wildflower school is a regular faculty meeting.  This may seem like a small thing, but I cannot overemphasize it’s importance.  The faculty meeting is where knowledge is shared, where faculty come for network support on different issues they are facing in their school, and where people get to see each other face-to-face.  In short, this is where the culture is formed.  

The faculty meeting has 3 scales -- there is a weekly faculty meeting, that is 2-3 hours long, there is a monthly professional development day, that will last all day, and in time, there will be an annual retreat, that will last 2-3 days.

Note that, while some decisions will be made during these meetings, the core purpose of these meetings is not to make decisions, but to come to a shared philosophical framework that you may use to make your own decisions for your school.

It’s important to keep these faculty meetings small enough so that everybody has the ability to meaningfully contribute to the conversation.  As the network grows, we will likely have many of these meetings be regionally based, with the exception of the annual meeting.

By virtue of the being a part of a rich network, you will have access to a range of great people that most schools wouldn’t have access to -- designers, scientists, nutritionists, early-childhood experts.  The relationship with each of these people is as collaborators.  They are not your boss, nor are they your employee.  Be wary if it starts to feel like either.

The best way to get the right balance is to be open and clear at the outset about how you like to work and how the network works, and ask your collaborator at the outset how they like to work.  Then you may together define a clear process for working together.  I encourage you to write down each of these processes, and iterate on it as you learn from experience.  For new collaborators, initiating this will be your responsibility, not theirs, since you will have more practice.  

 

Helping

The fourth thing that makes a Wildflower school a Wildflower school is the commitment of the faculty to help other Wildflower schools, especially those that are in the process of starting.  Outside of the faculty meetings, and outside of the informal relationships that are fostered by those meetings, the most common way this is codified is by faculty members of existing schools being on the board of new schools.  The role of the faculty board member is to serve as your main point of support for the school, walking you through the process of starting a school, including licensing, design, info sessions, etc.  Along with the weekly meetings, this is the mechanism that creates a network ecosystem.  

An ecosystem of schools is not complete with just schools.  We will eventually seed non-school organizations.  One may imagine a training center for each region, a support organization for each region, a play space for each region, etc.  In general, each of these organizations should remain human-scale, like the schools themselves, and be collaborative with the schools.  We aim to provide flexibility in the jobs of the teacher-leaders so that they may be involved in these efforts.  As an example, most teacher employment agreements are structured in a way so that half the summer is open to work on other areas in the network.

 

Teachers as Professionals

We believe that teaching is one of the most important professions -- if not the most important profession -- in society today.  We believe that the art of great teaching requires years of cultivation, care, personal investment, and mentorship.  It is important for us to create opportunities, and importantly, the space for you to invest in each of these areas.  

A model that we look to here is the treatment of professional athletes by their teams.  They work very hard.  But they also have a trainer, and a strength coach, and get a massage after practice.  Their teams understand their value and therefore invest in them.  

Similarly, a primary role of the Wildflower network is to continuously invest in you, at all capacities: professional, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  We will provide access to people to help you to grow in each of these regards.  We will work to create systems to take things off of your plate so that you can focus on using your time to your best and highest value.  And, perhaps most importantly, we will provide you access to each other.  You will be one another’s greatest resource.  

We encourage you to prioritize these opportunities.  If you are feeling burnt out, we prefer that you find ways to decrease time in the classroom rather than decrease the professional development time.  Over the long run, being the best version of yourself is the most effective way to serve the families in your schools.