To Ohio – With Love from Washington (State)

Compassionate Schools

I am hoping there is room for another voice in Ohio’s effort to create a culture of compassionate action that transcends any of the professional or societal delineation of groups working in the same general direction….even if that voice is from Washington State.

For many, a shift in professional standards for school administrators (in particular) might be proverbial “back page” news. Think again, especially for those who recognize that in and across our school systems there has been little understanding of the connection between leading for “academic” reform results (ie, closing the achievement gap) and reforming the mindset and skillset of those charged with the task of leading their organizations and providing vision to service providers in their care.

As a central office administrator over the past 10 years in rural Washington State districts, I will sheepishly admit I found it comforting that the standards for leadership varied little from year to year. Continuity has its advantages. My comfort level with such status quo standards, however, became greatly diminished as I learned more (and more) about the nature of trauma on young learners, the ongoing and often cumulative effects of trauma on adolescent learners, that not all “help” is created equal, and the profound implications of the ACE Study for all educators – including administrators.

I wondered to myself, “How long will it be before the professional standards by which many school leaders are evaluated will reflect what we now know research tells us about the importance of understanding social and emotional learning?”

I now have my answer. Consider what has been posted in EdWeek’s online format (Sept 26, 2014):

A newly updated set of standards for school leaders—the first extensive review of the guidelines in six years—heavily emphasizes instructional leadership and focuses on the role of principals and other administrators in addressing factors outside of the classroom that impact student achievement.

The draft standards, known as the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards—or ISLLC—describe what principals, assistant principals, superintendents, and other district heads should know, and the critical competencies they should demonstrate, in order to run schools and school systems that graduate students who are ready for college and the workforce.

Spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Policy Board for Educational Administration, the “refreshed” standards released last week are meant to ensure that “the current roles of leaders as well as the current research are reflected,” said Michelle D. Young, the executive director of

the University Council for Educational Administration. Ms. Young, a professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, also serves on the National Leadership Preparation Standards Committee. Source:…erstandards.h34.html

(note: emphasis added)

This is an important development for those working to implement trauma-informed practices in schools and one that might actually get lost amid so many sound bites swirling around Common Core implementation and in cases where states have opted out of the Common Core. While many are engaging in debate about factors related to implementing (or not) the Common Core State Standards, one thing is clear:

leaders must provide leadership in creating a learning culture where each student is known, supported emotionally and socially as well as academically regardless of the academic learning standards adopted by any particular state.

While states may opt out of the Common Core, individual educational leaders will be expected to work within the professional expectation that leading educational professionals in their care toward a culture of care. There is no opting out of that.

Consider the implications of the ISLLC Standard #5:

Beyond Academic Leadership

While the revised school leaders’ standards focus heavily on instructional and ethical leadership, they also lay out in greater specificity an expanded role for principals and others in improving school climate, engaging the school community, and recognizing and embracing cultural diversity. Here are two of the expanded areas, as they appear in the draft document:

Standard 5: Community of Care for Students An educational leader promotes the success and well-being of every student by promoting the development of an inclusive school climate characterized by supportive relationships and a personalized culture of care.

FUNCTIONS: A. Ensures the formation of a culture defined by trust B. Ensures that each student is known, valued, and respected C. Ensures that students are enmeshed in a safe, secure, emotionally protective, and healthy environment D. Ensures that each student has an abundance of academic and social support E. Ensures that each student is an active member of the school

(NOTE: “culture of care” is my emphasis of what is summarized in these standards)

The final version of Standard 5 of the “refreshed” ISLLC Standards are certainly not “back page” news to those working in schools to create a “culture of care” (as per Standard 5 revised language). While this is great news for those of us working in education and wanting to work in partnership with leaders to implement “trauma-informed classrooms” or “compassionate schools” or from a “whole child” perspective – consider also that for the vast majority of administrators there has been little to no training available for them on these important topics.

One look at the reading materials on any administrator’s shelves and you will see the number of books on “leadership” is probably 10:1 in favor of books on PLC’s, running effective meetings, aligning curriculum, implementing standards-based academic reform – etc – rather than books filled with strategies for implementing an inclusive culture of trust where every student is known and provided emotionally and psychologically safe learning conditions – and where the result is a “culture of care.”

Yes, there are exceptions, but ask the administrators you know or where your child attends school and what their top ten books on leadership are. Odds are strongly against there being more than 1 book strongly aligned with ISLLC Standard 5 where the leader’s skill in building a “culture of care” is explicitly stated as a standard. This begs a very real question – if this is to become the standard (or norm) and not an exception, what has to change?

This begs the question, “What will best support our leaders as they “refresh” their own mindset, learning and skills in ways that align with their own professional standards of practice as reflected in ISLLC Standard 5?”

Here are 5 ideas to help get you started (and I’d love to hear the dozens of other ideas that will no doubt become necessary to build a “culture of care”!):

  1. First, trust that as professionals all administrators want to demonstrate evidence of meeting all of these professional standards – including Standard 5.
  2. Consider the barriers that leaders might encounter throughout systems where they are now facilitating “crucial conversations” they had previously opted out of. Ask yourself if you are one of those barriers (either real or perceived) and how you might lend support from your role (either in education or from outside)
  3. Engage leaders in constructive dialogue on each of these professional standards in conjunction with Standard 5 in order to explore the mutually reinforcing nature that alignment of efforts could provide.
  4. Recognize that as leaders look to demonstrate evidence-based practice from within their role that they will ultimately need to partner at very deep levels with a diverse range of practitioners – and this will include you.

Finally, help leaders to know that leadership is a function – not just a formal title – and that if/as you have opportunities to engage in constructive dialogue around such topics as becoming “trauma-informed” or “creating a compassionate school” – that you will avail them to your own informal leadership skills and influence in service of the needs of all learners. Get rid of the “we” and “they” thinking and make it a concerted “us” that helps take “compassion to scale.”

As you may not be very familiar with such leadership standards, or perhaps have never viewed them, consider also that those in formal leadership positions will now have a greater professional impetus, or pressure, to lead conversations within and across organizations that help integrate professional convictions around viewing student needs through a trauma-informed or compassionate lens. In other words, couching the discussion as an “either/or” between academic achievement vs. creating learning conditions that honor the social and emotional learning needs of students will start to fall flat or apart.

It is now more likely than ever that educational leaders will view academic reform efforts previously associated with NCLB and now associated with the Common Core as being intricately connected to what I like to call “Common Care” standards. If we want improved academic outcomes we must recognize that learning conditions matter – and that affect impacts effect.

But what if a leader encounters resistance in an attempt to provide evidence in support of Standard 5? Can they simply say, “I can’t lead effectively on Standard 5 because _______(fill in the blank)____ ” reasons?

The answer is “no”, they cannot. That said, it will be vital to recognize that just as there will be no “opt out” for those in formal leadership positions (principals, superintendents, etc), there will also be no “opt out” for staff who work against leaders in formal positions who are clearly attempting to create a culture of care where students are supported in the ways described in ISLLC Standard 5.

After serving as an administrator for 10 years in 2 rural Washington State districts, I began summarizing much of my own learning as a professional and leader in the form of “online courses” that synthesized the great things I was seeing evidenced in my own context. The result included a 3 credit course titled, Creating Compassionate Schools, which can now be accessed from virtually any location in the nation including several NCATE accredited universities. Residents of Ohio can access the course at the following website:

Though I had very little of what might be called “push back” in my own context, I had heard from colleagues that sentiments from within their organizations fell along three distinct lines. With this in mind, I began my course by surfacing these sentiments head on.

From the opening pages of the course:

It is anticipated that as a committed professional you are already actively engaged in many levels of educational reform that have a variety of applications to your work. You also may have a strong sense about your teaching style and wonder whether it will fit within a compassionate schooling approach. Perhaps you have so much on your plate right now that you can’t entertain the thought of adding more.

You may have one of three basic concerns about “compassionate schooling.”

  1. Compassionate Schooling concerns itself with unscientific fluff or “TFC” (“touchy feely c+@p)
  2. Compassionate Schooling represents a distraction from “real reform” efforts (ie, addressing the academic achievement gap)
  3. Compassionate Schooling is not for everyone and professionals need to be allowed to opt out.

These are valid concerns that will be addressed as you move through the course. Time will be invested in thinking through whether “compassionate schooling” is TFC, is just another reform strategy, or should remain optional for professionals. Source: Creating Compassionate Schools, CE Credits Online (

As I bring an already long blog post to the network members in Ohio to a close, I surface the idea that if any true traction is to be gained in the “refreshing” of the ISLLC Standards – and in particular Standard 5 – it will not be the result of service providers who themselves are out of step with what research clearly now supports. If they attempt to disconnect from the conversation, minimize it as being “TFC”, or characterize it as “a distraction from real reform efforts”, or that it should be left up to each individual whether to opt in or opt out……it will speak volumes about what reading volumes are (or aren’t) on their own desk.

Simply put, what exactly is the valid, research-based argument against implementing a compassionate school culture of care?

Only time will tell what additional evidence will be produced in Ohio as a unified professional “academy of learners” embraces a common standard of care – or “Common Care” standards – resulting in greater access to and success in learning through improved learning conditions for all learners regardless of need – academic, social, or emotional.

In Washington State there has been a concerted effort to design training and networks across schools which the Ohio network members may find useful. For example, news media in Ohio are promoting such connections:…passion-in-education

Please let me know if there is anything I can do to be of assistance! So I end the post as the title suggests

Greetings Ohio – with Love from Washington!

Steve Dahl

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