Mention the city of Jarrell to any long-time Central Texan and they’ll bring up the devastating tornado of 1997. The then tiny Williamson County town – about 45 minutes north of Austin – was no match for the massive F5 twister that hit it. The city was decimated. Twenty-seven people were killed.
Abbe Lester remembers the tornado well. She’s been principal of Jarrell Middle School for more than seven years and has lived in the city for two. And, she has borne witness to the kind of rebound a community can make with enough support and determination.
Today, Jarrell is fast becoming a boomtown with more and more families choosing to call it home. Just as the city has evolved, so have its kids. Old teaching models, Lester says, will not help better today’s students. Then again, Lester is a bit of a maverick. She developed opinions about education when she herself was a student, and she wasn’t terribly impressed with the old teaching models when they were current.
“Looking back, I was bored in school,” she said. “I was always looking for more, looking for something else.”
For Lester, it was about how some teachers taught – what she calls a “shotgun” method of teaching: toss the information out and make it stick.
“The old-fashioned term is ‘sage on the stage,’” she said. “That’s one of the things schools need to change – addressing the way kids learn now. The kids today are wired differently. They’ve been exposed differently. They learn differently. They’ve been bombarded with smartphones, tablets, computers, and TV. They have a shorter attention span, and schools need to adjust to that.”
Some of that adjustment can be fostered through campus leaders. That’s why Lester was selected and sponsored by Raise Your Hand Texas to attend a leadership program at the Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) called Leadership: An Evolving Vision. According to HGSE, the program provides experienced school leaders with an opportunity to reflect, learn and stretch—and so to strengthen—the leadership skills needed to address key challenges and raise student achievement.
“Professionally it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Lester said. “I learned more during that week at Harvard than in any other professional development I’ve done. It’s pretty powerful.”
Lester says Harvard left her with affirmation that principals must boldly leave the past behind and adopt more innovative methods for teaching 21st-century learners.
“We know what each student is capable of,” she said. “We know what they need. Let’s not waste anybody’s time. Let’s teach them what they don’t know.”