By. Caroline Raville, Assistant Principal at Auburn (Alabama) High School
Walking through the busy halls of Auburn High School (AHS), sunlight warming my steps, students nodding as I pass their classes, it is hard to believe that anyone would have wanted to be anywhere else. But change is difficult. That feeling of leaving behind the familiar, particularly if the familiar is pretty darn good, and moving into the unknown brings about irrational feelings of resentment and even panic. Our current building had been our school for decades, and it was a wonderful place to be. Why fix something that isn’t broken? However, population growth stretched the space beyond its capacity, and a new school was necessary. Our district leadership wanted more for our students than a re-creation of the status-quo, and with the hiring of innovative architecture firm Perkins+Will, a fresh perspective and design was born.
There were many changes to digest: floating classrooms, collaborative spaces for students and teachers, integration of green space, moveable furniture, and glass walls. I discovered that it does not matter how exciting the transition is – it still forces people to step forward into an unknown darkness, and that is frightening. When preparing our staff and students to not just inhabit, but to truly settle into our new home, we had to first accept this fear as being part of the process. Personally, I have always loved change. So much so, in fact, that I have to check the impulse to create it just because I find it to be invigorating. I learned that I am in the minority with this, and the rush of adrenaline I felt about our impending move was not echoed by many of the teachers. Listening without judgement, sometimes over and over again, was vital to our success.
Still, we needed more than a compassionate ear. We had to actively shine a light on the path we were taking, and cast a vision for the bright future that was just beyond the struggle of change. To do this, we created a living FAQ located on a shared server that could be accessed and added to at all times, and a bulletin board that was frequently updated with construction pictures. We invited the architect to come and speak to our staff about the methodology behind the design. Our district office included a representative from each department in meetings related to outfitting the classrooms, and we took teacher groups to visit a school that had a similar design to ours so that they could see floating classrooms and transparent walls in action.
It also became paramount for us to find ways to facilitate productive conversation about what our new space meant for the AHS community. We implemented a monthly Braintrust Breakfast that was open to anyone who wanted to speak about anything at all (this idea was stolen, with gratitude, from Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc.). As we listened more and asked the right questions, our teacher-leaders emerged and began asking questions of their own. Was our current bell schedule conducive to this new style of learning we wanted to see? How will we ensure collegial interaction when we are sharing a room? Is our vision statement still relevant? In the end, more than just our address had changed.
Pausing in front of a history classroom, I see trapezoid-shaped desks being quickly maneuvered into circles of five students. The teacher, unaware she is being watched, references an image on the Smartboard, and then there is a flurry of activity. Students are gesturing frantically at each other. I am not sure what they are up to, but I am energized by the sight of their learning. Beyond their heads, a swath of green trees and a blue sky. I walk on, the bright mid-morning sun streaming through windows, across desks, and beyond glass walls, until it casts my shadow as I greet a group working on self-portraits.
The research about the benefits of natural light in a school at this point cannot be denied (a brief, clear article by Shishegar and Boubekri is a nice beginner). It is one of my favorite design choices for this building. As leaders, we too must be bringers of light when faced with the dimness brought about by the unfamiliar. The ever-growing mountains of knowledge about the importance of interaction with nature, the impact our buildings are having on our health, and the stark reality of our own future if we do not make swift changes is daunting. This call to action forces our education community to forge a new path. To be trailblazers is to be, necessarily, not on a trail anymore. As we set our course, we must go back to the light that inspires us, not to the darkness of fear that paralyzes. Yes, change is difficult, but on the other side is a future of possibility too vivid to be denied.
Caroline Raville is an Assistant Principal at Auburn High School in Auburn, Alabama – the Loveliest Village on the Plains. She recently had the privilege of helping to lead through the transition from a traditional facility to a progressive, more sustainable building, and was lucky to work with a generous, forgiving staff as she learned along the way.