Critical Work at a Critical Time: Shawn Rubin Named Executive Director of Highlander Institute
Shawn Rubin, Executive Director
My favorite job ever was teaching kindergarten at Highlander Charter School. Each day we began our morning meeting criss-cross on the floor in a circle sharing something important from our lives or something we were excited about for the day. A circle share is such a simple activity. Still, it allowed me to get to know each child in my classroom deeply, and it allowed my students to find areas of overlap and shared interest, which helped build a strong culture of safety and respect that carried through the entire school year. Most educators want what’s best for the students in front of them, but sometimes we miss the mark because we prioritize the wrong things. For me, it was knowing that my students felt known as the individuals they were, not the test scores or designations we applied to them. For me, the number one benchmark for success was that my students felt safe, cared for and that they were essential members of our classroom community. When I focused here, my students found success across all content areas as it profoundly improved their social and emotional wellbeing.
In the ten years since I transitioned out of kindergarten and teaching to focus on professional learning and change management at Highlander Institute, I have never forgotten the lessons I learned in kindergarten.
With these lessons top of mind, I accepted the honor and responsibility of serving as Highlander Institute’s new Executive Director. Our vision at Highlander Institute is for all students to learn in classrooms that empower within schools that adapt under systems that liberate. My goal is to make Highlander Institute a leading design and implementation partner for any school or district interested in scaling those same feelings for students that I was focused on in my kindergarten classroom; safety, a caring community of learners, and a deep sense of belonging to a learning community. Once we establish these core needs within any learning environment, we can support teachers in building students’ "Academic Mindsets are four key beliefs which deeply influence our behaviors as learners, and which enable learning success. These mindsets affect our motivation, strategies, and perseverance. They are:
• I belong in this learning community.
• I can change my abilities through effort (a growth mindset).
• I can succeed.
• This work has value and purpose for me."
- Mindset Works and critical consciousness so they will grow into leaders and change agents in their own communities.
Right now, students and educators are navigating significant challenges. Leaders are scrambling to fill vacancies and navigate a system in crisis. I see Highlander Institute as a critical partner at this critical time. We have a proven track record of supporting schools through intense, long-term, and collaborative work, which is precisely what will be required for us to rebuild our education system with meaningful improvements for students and families who have been systematically and historically marginalized for generations.
We want to do more than just recover from this pandemic. We want to rebuild in a way that doesn’t just benefit the wealthy and privileged. To do this, we will need teachers and leaders who see the complete picture of how systemic inequity plays itself out in our hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, and classrooms. We need stronger awareness of how our behaviors, especially when we are predominantly white staff working within majority Black and Brown communities, can exacerbate academic struggle and alienate families if we are not aware of exactly how inequity manifests within k-12 education.
As I move into this new role, I am struggling against my own biases and blindspots. As an able-bodied, cis, white man born into one of the world's wealthiest nations, I have tremendous privilege. I want to be called out and held accountable for the vision we’ve created as an organization. I want us to be true partners with school leaders and the communities they serve. We must spread and scale equitable practices throughout our buildings and districts, and to make this happen, we must do more co-constructing of solutions and measures with students and families. Our commitment is to work with communities to design spaces that have high expectations without sacrificing the feeling of belonging. We know a better pathway forward awaits us as we slowly emerge from this pandemic together. As I take on this role as a permanent position, I am committed to support our team to meet this critical moment.