The 7 Gateways: The Search for Meaning and Purpose

At many schools, the last day of the school year tends to be kind of a wasted day – a day spent packing up boxes, watching a video, or talking about summer plans.  Attendance is often sparse as many students chose to begin their summer vacation a day early.

In Gamble’s middle school classrooms, however, the last day of school serves as both our fourth quarter cycle wrap-ups and our wrap-up for the year as a whole.  Rarely are students absent.

Last year, on the last day of school, my students wrapped up our “Change” cycle with a school-wide carnival fundraiser.  You can read about it here.  While the carnival was truly an amazing experience, holding it on the last day of school made me a bit worried.

Would we be able to clean up everything in time to hold our traditional end of the year ceremony?  Would we be able to capture students’ attention after such a high-energy experience?  Would we, as teachers, be able to shift the tone and focus of the day after the exhaustion of managing a carnival for several hours?  After all the fun and excitement, would students even be interested in sitting down for a closing circle?

As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.

Many students approached me throughout the day and asked questions like, “Are we going to have time for a closing?” “We are going to end in circle, right?” and “We’re not just going to dismiss from the carnival, are we?”

So after a high-energy morning, followed by an hour of cleaning up, we had our ceremonial closing.  Somehow, just a few minutes after ascending the stairs, all fifty of us were circled on the carpet, silently examining a linked circle of carabiners.  Students waited with nostalgic anticipation as the final moments of our year together moved toward the carefree joy of summer vacation.

First, we reflected on the power of our Change project, announcing and celebrating the nearly $1,000 raised from the carnival to send girls to school in underprivileged countries.  We, then, reviewed each of our cycle themes from the course of the year – Sense of Belonging, Weathering the Storm, Enlightenment, and the culmination of all three during our Change cycle, and shared our favorite memories.

As each student shared, I unlinked one carabiner from the circle and handed it to him or her as a token remembrance, symbolizing both our final field experience for the year, held at an indoor climbing center, and the contribution of the individual to the whole of the community.

After the last student had taken his turn, a few carabiners remained to represent those students who had begun the year with us, but who had left us mid-year due to a move or a change in schools.  I opened the floor to the students to say the names of these people who remained a part of us, but who were no longer among us.  I had brought a list with me to ensure that no one was left out, but I shouldn’t have bothered.  My students remembered all the names on my list, plus three that I had forgotten. They were careful to leave no one out, to make sure that everyone belonged.

When the dismissal bell rang, many students stayed in the classroom looking for hugs and final words before heading out into their summer vacation.  I’ve previously written about those tender moments here.

When the room was finally empty, and I headed downstairs to my after-school meeting, it was like I entered a different world.

To celebrate the end of the school year, our 9th and 10th graders had snuck water guns and water balloons into the building.  At the dismissal bell, a hallway water fight had erupted leading to good-spirited shrieking and laughing but also causing unsuspecting students to slip and fall in the puddles left on the floor, and resulting in a window being broken in the chaos.

While I am certain that the students saw this as being “all in good fun,” it seemed at cross-purposes with the atmosphere we had tried to create for our 7th and 8th graders.

That evening, when I shared my confusion about this with my husband, who is also a teacher, he said, “Well, it’s pretty much the same thing, you know.”

“What do you mean?!” I responded incredulously.

“What you did for your students and the water fight.  It’s basically the same thing.”

I very nearly came out of my chair as I responded, “It is NOT the same thing at all!  We had an important ceremony acknowledging each other and the work of the year!  And they had a water fight!  That is NOT the same thing.”

“Yes it is,” he responded, “It’s exactly the same thing.  Those students who planned the water fight were looking for meaning and closure.  You and your team provided it for your students, but it’s what all students want – to make meaning of important events.  The water balloon fight was simply their way of constructing meaning for the end of the school year.  Sure, it was immature.  Sure, it doesn’t compare to what happened in your classroom, but it’s the exact same thing.  If we don’t provide meaning for our students, they will find a way to do it for themselves.”

He was, of course, right. Those students were looking for a way to mark the moment, to make meaning of the last day of the school year.

In her book, The Soul of Education, Rachel Kessler identifies the search for meaning and purpose as one of the Seven Gateways to the soul of the adolescent.

“The search for meaning and purpose concerns the exploration of big questions, such as ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Does my life have a purpose?’ ‘How do I find out what it is?’ ‘What is life for?’ ‘What is my destiny?’ ‘What does my future hold?’ and ‘Is there a God?’”

 While Kessler identifies the seeking of meaning and purpose as essential for the adolescent, it is a critical component for all of us – teachers, parents … humans.

Google recently released their research results on the five strategies for effective teaming.  Numbers four and five on their list nearly mirror Kessler’s words.

  1. Meaning of work:Is the team working toward a goal that is personally important for each member? Does work give team members a sense of personal and professional fulfillment?
  2. Impact of work:Does the team fundamentally believe that the work they’re doing matters? Do they feel their work matters for a higher-order goal?[1]

Meaning and Purpose:  It’s important for all of us, and we will seek to construct it for ourselves in its absence.  As adults, if our work, or our presence, doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t have a valuable impact that we inherently believe in, then how will we be motivated to engage deeply in it? This concern underlies the research that Google conducted on the characteristics of successful teams.  As is true in so many things, their study reveals that what is important for adults, is crucial for developing adolescents.

Kessler’s search for meaning and purpose is a fundamental component of the adolescent journey.  Our children are actively seeking their role in the world as they navigate the passage from childhood to adulthood. This is at least as much, if not more so, a part of their work as is learning to construct a thesis statement or being able to deconstruct the Pythagorean theorem.

It is our role as parents and teachers, as adult guides, to help our children and our students discover meaning and purpose in their world – both the world of the classroom and the world that exists beyond those walls.

One way we do this at Gamble, and in other secondary Montessori programs, is through the use of cycle themes.  Each quarter focuses on a big-picture idea, essential to the adolescent, to which cross-curricular content is connected and through which students engage in social-emotional development.

The cycle is begun through a kick-off activity and the presentation of a “cover sheet” which gives an overview of what is to come in the cycle and how it fits together.  Throughout the cycle, connections are made both explicitly and implicitly to the cycle theme through academic content, seminar discussions, group initiatives, and field experiences.

The cycle concludes with some type of wrap-up activity.  Cycle themes help students construct meaning and purpose in what they are learning – both in terms of curricular content and in terms of the so-called “soft skills.”  Through cycle themes, students discover connections between what they are learning and the bigger issues that are a fundamental component of being a member of society.

It is challenging to tease apart Kessler’s Gateways as they often overlap and interweave with one another.  The search for meaning and purpose seems inextricably connected with two of Kessler’s other identified gateways:   the yearning for deep connection and the need for initiation.

Montessorians call this work taken together “cosmic education,” but this idea of curricular content tied to large, thematic ideas is expanding beyond the world of Montessori.  In recent years, Cincinnati Public Schools has identified what they have dubbed Essential Questions.  These questions are very similar to the Guiding Questions that overarch Montessori cycle themes.  Some examples of CPS’ Essential Questions are:

What causes some individuals to become successful while others fail when faced with adversity?

What is the relationship between personal independence and social responsibility?

How does one’s perception impact their vision of reality?

Cincinnati Public Schools is no stranger to being on the cutting edge of shifts in traditional education. They have already received national attention for their community learning center model, and they are looking to further influence the national K-12 education discussion through the comprehensive MyTomorrow Initiative designed to prepare students for college and career.

The thematic connection component is just one piece, borrowed from the Montessori model, in a much larger program designed to increase rigor and relevance in the curriculum.

There are many ways to create meaning and purpose in a classroom.

  • Connect content to real-world application
  • Get students out into the real-world as often as possible, so they can see their work “in action.”
  • Let students lead – allow them to choose areas of interest or work products whenever possible
  • Empower students to take action on important topics
    • Expose students to complex issues
    • Allow students to dialogue about them
    • Guide students to consider how they can create change
    • Help them to implement their ideas
  • Ask big picture questions – Montessorians call them Guiding Questions, CPS calls them Culminating Questions – and tie them to bigger themes/motifs
    • Display these questions
    • Embed them in discussions
    • Connect to them through novel themes or current events
    • Relate them to social-emotional learning
  • Develop activities or rituals, such as openings and closings, to provide depth and importance to these ideas

There are infinite ways to help students find meaning and purpose in their lives.  Last year’s fourth quarter middle school cycle theme was “Change” for all four of our communities, and yet each group wrapped up the cycle in different, powerful ways.

As noted, my community held a fund-raiser carnival and closed with a sharing of memories of the year.

In the Luminous Achievers community, students each wrote an acrostic poem for one of their peers.  These poems were compiled into a book that each student received a copy of on the last day.  Students then signed each other’s books including memories and well-wishes for one another.

 

Students in the ZenCOH community, held a community meeting where together the group came up with three positive adjectives to describe each student.  These were recorded on the white board to demonstrate the way that each individual contributes to the whole.

 

 

The Community of Original Learners (CoOL) held a moving-on ceremony where they viewed a video of images collected over the course of the school year and signed the ever-expanding mural on the classroom wall. The eighth graders were given back the rock that they initially received during the initiation ceremony at their first fall camp.  Each of these ceremonies serving as a bookend on their middle school experience.

In all of these classrooms, the teachers worked to construct meaning and purpose.  Students reflected on their value as individuals and on their importance to the group as a whole.  In each of them, the school-year was brought to an intentional, purposeful, and ceremonial close such that students need for meaning and purpose was fulfilled.

Avoid the water balloon fight.

While it may indeed be “the same thing,” and it may serve the same function, it does not do so effectively.  As Kessler says, our adolescents actively seek meaning and purpose. We must provide structured opportunities to help them discover it.  If we do not guide students to find meaning and purpose, they will construct it for themselves.

 

 

[1] Rozovsky, Julia. “The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team.” Re:Work. November 17, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/.

 

Student-Led Conferences

Originally published February 8th, 2016.

-by Krista Taylor

Montessori philosophy uses the “Golden Triangle” to represent the strength and importance of the relationship between teachers, students, and parents, but Gamble, like many other urban schools, struggles with lower levels of parent involvement than we’d like.

It is important to remember that many parents experience anxiety about involvement in their child’s school. This may be because of negative school experiences they had themselves, worries that either their child or their parenting skills will be critiqued, or concerns about their ability to understand the academic instruction that is being provided.

I didn’t fully understand the depth of this tension until I attended my first parent-teacher conference in the role of a parent. Despite the many times I had sat on the teacher side of the table, and regardless that my child was doing well, and I understood what the conversation was going to be about, I was nervous.

What exactly would the teacher say about my child?

If my child is experiencing challenges, how will that reflect on me?

How can I both make a good impression and serve as an advocate for my child?

As a teacher, there are strategies to alleviate some of this discomfort, which then in turn, allows the parent or guardian to engage fully with school staff to support the academic and developmental growth of the child.

Proactive Conference Strategies

  • Begin each interaction with something positive about the child
  • Assume that the parent or guardian is doing the best that they can; however do not assume that they already know how to address concerns.
  • Do not label a child; rather describe the behavior you have observed
  • Open the door to further communication
  • Remember that you are teaching other people’s children; that every student you serve is someone’s child, and they have chosen to share this gift with you.

All schools hold parent-teacher conference nights. In Montessori programs, these look different. Our conferences are Student-Led Conferences, so called because the student leads the meeting. It is the student whose performance is being discussed; therefore the student is in charge of the conversation.

At Gamble, we require all students to hold these conferences at least once, and often twice, a year. This is part of the school contract that our students and parents sign upon enrollment. To manage this, we hold two conference nights each quarter, rather than the required one. Since students lead the conference, multiple conferences happen simultaneously, with teachers checking in at each table to provide information and clarification.

Templates guide students in running the conference. The templates vary according to program, teacher, and grade level, but generally include the following:

  • how to formally introduce your parents and teachers
  • preparing materials for presentation
  • identifying strengths
  • noting concerns
  • setting explicit goals for moving forward.

This process allows the child to self-report on how things are going at school, and to take responsibility both for what is going well, and for what is not. Additionally, when information is shared together, and everyone hears the same message at the same time, it creates a sense of collaboration between the student, the parent, and the teacher – strengthening that “Golden Triangle.”

It is yet another component of “what we do here,” and another way to develop a school culture of belonging. This is illustrated by the conference we had with Deon and his mother last spring.

Deon had been highly disruptive in the classroom – he had more than 40 logged disciplinary offenses for the year. This was a difficult conference to hold; it was challenging to find anything positive to say. It could easily have turned into a conflict, but because of the way we conduct conferences, the outcome was one of unified support. Deon’s mother ended our meeting with a request for a group hug, and with these powerful words, “We are all on the same team – Team Deon.”

Parents can be a teacher’s greatest allies. Every interaction a teacher has with students’ parents or guardians can serve as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, even if the conversation is a difficult one.   Conference nights can be powerful for all parties involved; never miss an opportunity to connect with a child’s family, to be a member of that child’s “team.”

 

Rebuilding Your Ladder of Inference

A student leaves the room without permission, suddenly, and in the middle of direct instruction. The teacher, justifiably, exclaims to the class “Can you believe her nerve?” He makes a show of writing up her consequence in front of the class – while claiming it was the student who caused the interruption. The student returns to explain that she had left the room to help a teacher in the hallway who had dropped her papers and her coffee.

A non-teaching staff member reports to the principal that another student is refusing to go to class at the start of the day and is “giving me attitude.” The principal intercepts the girl in the hallway and she asks to use the phone to call her mother. When asked why, the student explains, “My mother did not come home last night. I need to call to see if she is okay.” After calling home and speaking with her mother, the student returns promptly to class.

A coach, upset at a student who had gotten in yet another argument with yet another teacher in the school, tells a student, “You don’t belong here.” Following a suspension, several interventions from school staff, parents, counselors, and a psychiatrist, the student proceeds to have a full semester free from any disciplinary action. When, after winter break, the student has another conflict, his first in months, the coach dismisses him, saying “I knew it.”

In each of these cases, a person in authority, and in a position to make or break an individual’s day or even their life, made a series of judgments about a student in their care.  And in each of these cases the person made a judgment about a student that was incorrect, or at least incomplete.

We know that any decision we make is based on a series of other decisions and underlying assumptions, beliefs, and facts. At each of these decision points, we are often left with only one resource for our decision-making: our own past experience and, perhaps more powerfully, our biases. In the moment, the teacher is unable to research or investigate, and instead must base a decision entirely on his or her own learning and experience. This is where cultural competence, kindness, and investments in personal relationships can combine to turn potential conflicts into learning experiences.

This series of inferences impacts every decision a person makes. It starts simply, and uncontroversially, from observable reality and facts. Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline and Kegan and Lahey’s book Immunity to Change both describe the role of a “ladder of inference” that prevents a person from seeing anything without a certain bias.

In a presentation discussing the lessons in his book Conversational Capacity, Craig Weber described a situation where a police officer and an architect share the same taxi downtown. Driving through a neighborhood and seeing the same things, essentially, they draw very different conclusions about where they are. “It’s a dump,” proclaims the cop, who sees evidence of age and lack of care in the buildings. “It’s beautiful,” exclaims the architect, who sees the age and care taken to build these same structures years earlier. Same set of facts, different sets of experiences, very different conclusions.

At the bottom of the ladder is objective reality. In the case of the cop and the architect, they looked at the same buildings in the same part of town. This was reality and facts. From there, they started climbing the ladder. The age of the buildings then prompts them to climb the ladder. Perhaps they both focused on this same selected feature of the buildings. It is in their interpretation of reality that they then start to derive divergent views. The officer sees the age as a potential indicator for a less cared for part of town, while the architect sees strong “bones” of a building.

From here, each professional made assumptions based on their experience, and developed conclusions. The officer concluded it was a dump, and the drawer concluded it was beautiful.

In this example, the only “action” was an exclamation. In the world of daily instruction and education however, hundreds of tiny actions and reactions can result from a few beliefs. These actions can influence how much or little a student is pushed to be successful, or punished for breaking a rule.

It is hard to overcome these initial biases. It is even harder to overcome the assumptions and conclusions we reach based on these lower rungs, these hidden biases that we might not even know we have.

In the George Bernard Shaw classic play Pygmalion, a teacher, Professor Higgins instructs his student, Eliza, in the manners and language of their time. He promises his ability to educate her to the point where he could pass her off as “the Queen of Sheba” and haughtily claims, “I shall make a Duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe”. After winning his bet with a friend that she could fool a room full of elites, he tells Eliza she is free to return to the gutter from where she came. She instead elopes with a gentleman of the same social class as her professor.

The role of education today is a bit more noble, and hopefully less class-driven than that. However, ultimately, the goal is to increase the ability of our students to make their way in the world through increased academic skills and – perhaps more importantly – their increased social skills.

It is from this work that the term “Pygmalion effect” originates. This effect relates to Professor Higgins’ inability to see that education has indeed transformed Eliza. More broadly applied, this is the inability of any person to see the transformation in another, or to ultimately always judge a person based on their first impression.

In the classroom, this can have positive or negative effects, depending on the initial opinion the teacher has of the pupil. Studies have repeatedly shown that teachers who have high expectations for their students, even as a result of being fed incorrectly positive information about the group, achieve high results with that group of students. Alternatively, students who have a low opinion of their students, get lower results.

It is evidence that, despite our best efforts, the Pygmalion effect happens to teachers too. Just like in Professor Higgins’ case, the irony is that it is teachers who should best understand the ability of an education to profoundly change a person to their core. And so often we do not.

In the examples at the start of this article, a teacher or other school employee makes a judgment about a student action that could have long-lasting negative effects on a student. In each case, an assumption was made and acted upon. In each case the child faced the disapproval and the potential of consequences from an adult. In one case, a child was told he did not belong in school, and even a period of prolonged improvement appeared to have no effect on an adult who seemed interested in proving an earlier opinion over working to improve a student.

We must be willing to be wrong in order to reach a student

As educators, we have to learn to prevent ourselves from climbing the ladder of inference. Or, short of abandoning our human nature, we must learn to use our ladder of inference to reach better results.

Our ladder of inference can be retrained to provide positive rather than negative outcomes.

In a situation similar to those that started this article, one teacher found herself needing to move a student from a talkative group. Three years earlier she had a similar situation with a similar student that turned into a disruptive confrontation in class when the student refused to move. This time, though, the teacher asked the student to step outside, and reminded him that he liked to sit alone at the table at the back of the room. She asked if this might be one of the times where he would do this to get away from a talkative table group, and he quietly agreed and chose to move.

Overcoming the ladder of inference in your own thinking requires discipline of thought.

  1. Assume the best / most positive explanation
  2. Ask questions to attack your own assumptions
    1. Ask each person involved what they did
    2. Ask each person why they did it – what was their intention
  3. Question your own conclusions by presenting them as questions to others
  4. Be willing to challenge your own beliefs
  5. Act on the facts, and let assumptions go without being acted upon

This feels like a lot. In reality, though, it is just the same series of steps you might take anyway. The only change is that you are practicing climbing a ladder of inference where the student gets the benefit of the doubt.

How important is that concept? So important it was enshrined in the Constitution of the United States of America, though unnamed, in the 5th Amendment.

As educators, we must always see the best interpretation of an act by a student. We must always provide a better reality for a student to live into. We must also grow in our ability to do this with other adults.

Finally, we must be encouraged by the words of Eliza Doolittle, when she returns at the end of Pygmalion to meet with Professor Higgins, and his partner in the experiment, Colonel Pickering.

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl isn’t how she behaves, it is how she is treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will. But I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.”

Seeing our students as we want them to be, and as how they want to be, is a powerful elixir.

Many years ago, as a second year teacher, I failed to get a student to remove his hat and was following him down the hall. He seemed impervious to my requests. Until, that is, he reached the door of a veteran teacher. She immediately summed up the situation and with a big smile on her face she embraced the student and called him by name. “Certainly you would not be wearing your hat indoors, would you?”

“No ma’am,” he demurred, awkwardly crooking his arm around her snug embrace to remove his hat.

She asked, without really asking, “Why don’t I hold on to your hat, and you and I can talk about it when you come back at the end of the day?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She let him go with a hearty, “I am glad you’re here today, the reading is at your desk and there is a writing prompt on the board.”

This student had sought to remove himself from the nuisance of correction from a teacher he did not know, but he walked into the arms, literally, of a teacher who expected more from him. She didn’t ignore or disregard his behavior at all. Instead of seeing the young man, as I did in the moment, as someone simply seeking to avoid consequences, she chose to see him as someone growing in his ability to regulate himself. She got the desired results, and ensured that there would be meaningful follow-up later, and she did it without a confrontation.

Senior Project

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In Senior Project, students explore questions that drive societal trends.

-by Jack M. Jose

Each spring, Senior Project Night is a proud night at Gamble Montessori. The school becomes the very public arena where our seniors’ projects, started a full year earlier, are seen in their entirety for the first time. Nervous students, in their Sunday best clothing, circle their tables and wring their hands, making small talk with their parents and mentors as the time arrives and space fills with curious guests. Senior Project Night is easily summed up, but difficult to fully understand. It is not just an artifact of a student’s research, or a short speech, but the culmination of years of education.  Students are really presenting themselves as fully prepared for the world beyond high school.

The recent full-length documentary film Most Likely to Succeed drew a lot of attention in the education world in early 2016 by shining a spotlight on a charter school with a unique structure. The movie portrayed High Tech High in San Diego as a nearly utopian vision of future-school, where students worked continuously throughout the year on a major culminating project.

The movie attracted a cult-like following among fans of hand-on school, including Montessori schools.  Groups of educators planned private screenings, wrote blogs, and posted rave reviews to Facebook that sometimes admittedly were posted before the authors even saw the movie. I was also caught up in the interest in the movie. I attended a screening at Xavier University in Cincinnati as part of their Montessori Lab School program in partnership with Cincinnati Public Schools.

The movie itself, however, was not really the main draw for educators like me. In fact, the film was prone to hyperbole and to overselling the possibility of this kind of future school sweeping the nation. At one point one of the protagonists speculates about the significance of the completion of his project by saying, “It will be the best day of my life.” As a member of the audience in a well-made documentary, it is true that I felt his excitement and agony. However, this felt a bit oversold.  Perhaps what had happened was life changing for him. This sense was heightened by his efforts being made public for all to see. The effort of completing this year-long project would have been an important event for this young man even without a documentarian filming his progress.

The primary attraction for most of us was that Most Likely to Succeed, by drawing attention to project-based learning, had the opportunity to change even more lives by helping to explain the impact that project-based learning can have on individual students.

The reality is, asking students to complete a major capstone project is not the provenance of some utopian future school. Project-based learning is not a new fad set to sweep the nation. Many schools have been doing a version of this for years, Gamble Montessori and our sister school, Clark Montessori, included. The work for senior project begins at the end of the junior year and ends on this night in May, just days before graduation.

Mary*, from the Gamble class of 2015, was a reserved student, who worked hard and was satisfied with the grades she received. She was well liked by her peers, but she was unlikely to speak up in a group larger than 2 or 3 of her close friends. When I first met her, she was transferring to Gamble Montessori from another local high school renowned for its academic rigor. Her initial reaction as I approached was to step behind her mother. She was not exactly shy, but rather, wary. Her academic and personal transformation while at Gamble was completely embodied in her senior project, which was an investigation of food production practices, food labeling laws, and the forces that drive our food consumption. She called it, simply, “The Ethics of Eating.”

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An exploration of the psychology of monogamy.

When I asked her in August of 2016 to describe a bit of her senior project experience, Mary’s response was effusive, more than a page and a half of single-spaced written commentary in a Word document. It was clear that it made a huge impact on her, and she was excited to talk about it.

Senior Project starts in the spring of the junior year, with students doing interest inventories and investigating questions in areas that spark their passions. They travel to the Cincinnati Public Library Main Branch and learn the basics of researching from the expert research librarians. While there, they locate several sources of information and start the process of reading the research and taking careful notes over the summer. The senior team provides support days periodically during that summer so students who are struggling can get back on the right path. Students have chosen a mind-bending range of topics, from fuel-efficient cars, prostitution in Cincinnati, animal welfare laws, and the existence of angels. Students must reach out to local experts in the field and find someone willing to mentor them, or at least to provide guidance showing that the student’s work was contributing to the larger conversation in that field.

The mentors have included the following:

  • Music Therapist from Melodic Connections
  • Attorney at Ohio Innocence Project
  • Chemical Dependency Counselor
  • African Drum Teacher
  • Children’s Transgender Clinic Social Worker
  • FBI Agent in Gang Task Force
  • Epidemiologist and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa
  • Sex Crimes Detective
  • Miami University Women’s Studies Professor
  • Professional photographer Charles Peterson
  • Local Business Owners
  • Local Activists from Black Lives Matter and other organizations

When the school year starts, the seniors’ schedule provides an additional bell that abuts their English and social studies bells but which is used primarily for senior project work. Mary explains the intense workload this way:

I personally spent so many hours on reading parts of books, whole books, articles, magazines, and blog posts.  I also watched documentary after documentary.  I watched every single one that was on Netflix (and there were surprisingly a lot) and then I watched more.  I loved my topic so it was easy to waste away a lot of hours digging deeper into the subject.  It is impossible to calculate how many hours I studied by myself but it was a lot.  The classroom provided 5 hours of work time each week and that was every week for most of the entire year … It took me about 15 hours to put my video together after I got all of the footage.  The footage happened on several different days and was then later combined into the final video at the end of the school year.  Talking to my mentor took up a lot of time too.  Basically, this project is very time consuming but that was expected and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Everything we do at Gamble should be aligned around creating this love of learning in a student. We set out to make a school that was safe for students – not just physically safe, but safe for them emotionally and educationally. This statement from a student expresses a sentiment that can never be measured on a standardized test. This is our Super Bowl win.  I hear in there the joy of learning. I hear her talking of hours spent happily exploring a fascinating idea. The Socratic method  of asking questions and digging ever deeper for answers drew her in, engaged her curiosity, and created a deep passion for a topic. Within that, we taught her the skills to follow future ideas that capture her attention. This is what every parent hopes for their child to experience at school – a passion for learning.

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An in-depth look at making America’s favorite possession – our cars – even better.

How was senior project different from other work she had done in school?

I had to contact professionals and ask for help, I had to talk face to face with strangers, I learned how to take advice from constructive criticisms and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas.  I think the most outstanding thing about senior project though, was that by the end I felt that it had made me a more confident, outgoing, and educated individual; and the best part was that I achieved all of that studying something I was passionate about.

Above are the words of scientific discourse, of intellectual engagement, the words of a person who is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge for the public good. To seek out ideas that challenge your current thinking is the heart of a strong and confident education. This is the “ready man” as described by Sir Francis Bacon and further explored by Samuel Johnson, who both assert that the “ready man” – the educated man ready to engage in leadership and intellectual discourse in his community – is made by conversation.

Challenges confront the students throughout the year. Occasionally a student will lose the passion for a topic, proclaiming it boring, or lose the thread of an argument. This often means they think they have run out of areas to research. Through a conference with his teachers, he will have to decide whether to revise the question, start over, or struggle through the roadblock. This is akin to a dead end in scientific inquiry, and the answer depends on the calendar and the individual. Is there time to start over? Is there any guarantee that the replacement question will prove more fruitful?

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A student demonstrates how he modified his audio system.

The senior team of teachers provides academic support in classes with a curriculum that overlaps some of the same ideas that students are exploring. Students writing about race find readings in psychology class that work as evidence for their research. (On the playground at lunch, older students will inevitably respond to statements about a person’s race with the quote, “Race is a social construct!”) Additionally, standard research format is taught and reinforced. One of our 2016 graduates, Syirra Roberts, reported to me that her freshman psychology teacher pulled her aside after three weeks of class and asked which high school Syirra had attended. Her test scores and classroom responses revealed a deep understanding of the topics being discussed, and her professor asked her to pass on his respect to her high school psychology teacher.

In thinking about Mary’s zeal for her topic when she delivered her speech, one could argue she put up a good show for her final grade. Was that passion real? My conversation with her occurred more than a year after graduation. Students often will tell the “whole truth” after a year away, feeling no need to dissemble in order to get a good grade or not hurt someone’s feelings. I think the answer is this: Embedded among Mary’s responses was this invitation extended to me: “If you haven’t ventured into answering the questions you have about where your food comes from (or if you don’t have questions but don’t consider yourself to be someone who knows much about the food industry) I highly encourage you to do so.  It is something that is so important and there are so many things that people don’t know that they should.” The passion is real. A year later, Mary has become an advocate for others to learn more about the food process.

I learned how to take advice … and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas.

This could just be an extended research paper, except for Senior Project Night. Each spring, mid-May, the seniors do not merely turn in the work to a teacher to anticipate a grade. Instead, they present their work to the community. Spread throughout the gym, library, and some adjacent classrooms, each senior commandeers a table and displays his or her work. There are required elements: a visual presentation showing what they learned, a research paper, a persuasive component, a spoken summary of their work along with the ability to respond to questions about their topic, and a service requirement. Students often display some of the reference material they cited, especially books they bought. Students are required to produce something that demonstrates a deeper understanding of what they have learned.  Sometimes it is a pamphlet providing important information about their topic, or it is information about a dog the student adopted and nursed back to health at a local shelter or in their own home.

The seniors’ parents are present, as are their mentors. Nearly the entire faculty drops by, as do parents from past years, and parents of younger students who are curious about the event. Dozens of students, especially juniors, make a point of attending. These guests are invited to not only sign in at each table, but also to offer feedback; this feedback then helps form a portion of the student’s final assessment.

This brings us back to that night. Students in their formal clothes, young men pulling at their collars and adjusting their ties, young ladies in dresses too formal for the typical school day. All nervously walking through the rooms, gathering the last of their materials, moving tables into place, calling a favorite aunt to give last-minute parking advice. And then it is show time.

Our seniors present their work in charts and graphs, pamphlets, tri-fold boards and every conceivable format. One year a student dressed in a yellow haz-mat suit, emerging sweaty but proud at the end of the evening. Students bring old tires and photographs. There is music and laughter, and quiet discussions as adults are confronted with the difficult topics tackled by their children. These questions have included the following:

  • Why is it that exotic dance/neo-burlesque, which is one of the top forms of entertainment in the world, is looked at as a degrading and/or a morally reprehensible profession for the women working in it?
  • When should transgender children transition socially and physically?
  • How does a mother’s age, mental state and lifestyle choices while pregnant affect how a baby develops in the first 6-8 weeks of life?
  • Is the death penalty an ethical punishment that reflects society’s views?
  • Why is it that people are unfairly treated based on the stigma of HIV/Aids?
  • Is ISIS really following Islamic Ideology?
  • Why do humans feel the need to be in a monogamous relationship?

Mary’s final presentation table included a crock pot of vegetarian chili (which was delicious and indistinguishable from traditional meat chili), a video of her presenting her findings, and a second video of “man on the street interviews” in downtown Cincinnati.

That’s right, the same girl who stepped behind her mother when it was time to meet her potential new principal, had gained the confidence to stop strangers on the street, ask them questions about the food they ate, and to provide on-the-spot answers while being videotaped. And here, on Senior Project Night, she confidently answered questions from every person who approached her table.

There is a moment during each Senior Project Night where I find myself drawn away from the tables and the students. I stand silent at a distance in each place our students are presenting; first in the gym, then in the library, and then in the large classroom. I allow myself to examine the whole scene in front of me as one picture. I take a long, deep breath. In this hive of activity, I hold each student momentarily in my gaze. I remember their arrival as timid 7th graders, or perhaps as anxious and wary high schoolers. I reflect on their struggles, and I note that, without exception, this night is a victory for each of them. Tonight they display the work that has been for them the hardest thing they ever imagined doing. Many admit to not believing they could do it at all. Here they are, each of them. Beautiful, proud, accomplished. I stop to see them as they are in this moment, resplendent and triumphant.

I often call moments like these “the teacher’s real payday,” and these are enough to fill the soul.

 

*Student’s name used with permission.

Neuroscience – Or How Teachers Become Tigers

This post was originally published in March of 2016.  

-by Krista Taylor

Saber-Tooth-TigerIt’s first bell Monday morning, and one of my students seems to have forgotten the procedures. Typically students enter my classroom, quickly settle, and begin working on the posted assignment, but on this day, Jason was out of his seat talking loudly with a peer.

“Jason, please have a seat and get started on the warm-up.”

“WHY YOU ALWAYS GOT SOMETHIN’ TO SAY TO ME?!?!”

Whoa. What just happened? I thought I was issuing a firm but respectful redirection, but Jason’s brain just perceived me as a saber-toothed tiger in the wilderness.

Humans are remarkable specimens of evolution. While our highly developed, pre-frontal cortex is uniquely human, our brains also retain the vestigial remains of our evolutionary ancestors, which have helped us to survive as a species.

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We are necessarily pre-disposed to scan our environment for threats – in essence, to seek out problems. This not only causes us to focus on the negative, it also requires us to determine whether to address concerns through the rational thought of the pre-frontal cortex, or through the “flight-or-fight” response of the reptilian brain. This determination is the job of the amygdala.

The problem is that the amygdala cannot always differentiate between imminent threats to life and limb — like a saber-toothed tiger, and modern day streScreen Shot 2016-02-21 at 8.46.38 PMssors — like tight deadlines, traffic jams, or teacher redirection. A stressed brain is flooded with chemicals in order to be physiologically and psychologically prepared for “fight or flight.”

People experiencing chronic stress have essentially had their brains hijacked. The increase in stress essentially places the brain on high-alert, causing it to potentially over-react to every concern. (Learn more here)

Unfortunately, chronic stress is far too common for many students in urban school settings. As educators, we must keep in mind that some of our students don’t know where they’re going to sleep that night, or how they are getting their next me#5al. They may rarely get enough rest due to caring for younger siblings, or simply being afraid to go to sleep at night. They may experience anxiety about not having appropriate school supplies, or the “right” clothes to wear. We often never know what it takes for our students to show up at school each day.

It is little wonder that chronically stressed children may respond to a simple redirection by shutting down or becoming disrespectful, disruptive, or even aggressive.  Their brains are flooded with stress hormones, which cause the unwitting teacher to suddenly become the saber-toothed tiger in the forest.

However, there are few situations in our modern-world where fleeing a situation, or responding to it with aggression, is in our best interest. Calming the amygdala is critical to the brain’s ability to resume executive functioning. A relaxed amygdala directs information to the pre-frontal cortex, so we can think clearly and make good decisions. This is true for adults and students alike. A calm classroom environment is essential for pre-disposing the brain for learning. The suggestions below can be helpful for establishing a classroom climate, which helps mitigate the impact of a stressed-out brain.

  • Be clear and explicit in what you want students to do
  • Use positive framing to correct behavior
  • Depersonalize correction, using anonymous, group correction wherever possible
  • Keep individual correction private
  • Regularly provide precise praise
    • Praise releases dopamine which improves learning and memory; conversely, criticism makes it harder to focus and learn
    • Use DLP – Describe what the student did, Label the action (helpful, generous, patient, industrious, etc), then provide Praise
    • Repeated praise reinforces positive behavior by strengthening neural pathways (In this same way, repeated criticism reinforces negative behavior)
  • Teach optimism, and provide regular opportunities to help students note what is going well
  • Provide instruction in mindfulness strategies
    • Taking a few deep breaths
    • Mental counting
    • Focusing on an image or a meaningful phrase
    • Practicing meditation
  • Don’t take student misbehavior personally; this will help you to stay calm and objective

These techniques help students to get their brains in the best possible state for learning to occur. Without them, all the time and energy a teacher spends crafting beautiful lesson plans may be wasted – no one can learn when there is a perceived saber-toothed tiger in the classroom!

How to Lead: More Questions Than Answers

When I first became a parent, I had so many questions and so much self-doubt.  Every decision seemed so important and so fraught with risk.  What exactly should I be doing when, and why?  So like any good student, I went looking for the definitive text book on parenting.

There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there.  Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to parent.

“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”

It did not take long to discover that while there were what some would call “answers” to be found in these books, these often directly conflicted with one another.

“Feed your baby on demand” vs. “Acclimate your baby to a feeding schedule.”

“Sleep with your baby” vs. “Never, ever sleep with your baby.”

“Practice ‘baby-wearing’” vs. “Put your baby down, so he gets used to entertaining himself.”

“Pick up a crying baby” vs. “Let your baby ‘cry it out.’”

The list goes on and on.  My quest for the “Baby Care Answer Key” proved to be both endlessly frustrating and futile.  It took me ten months to finally give up on finding it.  By then I was exhausted, but I settled on the following advice.

  • Listen to your baby
  • Trust your judgement
  • You know more than you think you do

Not a very precise set of guidelines, but my children are currently ages 17 and 13, and so far, it doesn’t appear that I have ruined them for life.  Can we agree that counts as some semblance of success?

Thankfully, I no longer have the raising of babies to worry about.  However, throughout my career as an educator, I have found myself consistently drawn toward leadership.  And when I reflect on my development as a leader, and how I have approached this growth, it eerily resembles what becoming a parent felt like.

As a team leader, I feel responsible for the success and health of my team in much the same way that I felt about raising my children.  And I feel the weight and worry of potential mistakes in much the same way as well.

Every decision seems so important and so fraught with risk.  What exactly should I be doing when, and why?  So like any good student, I have been looking for the definitive text book on leadership.

There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there.  Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to lead.

“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”

But, of course, just like books on parenting, books on leadership all seem to have different, and sometimes conflicting, advice.

Should leaders strive to hear all voices and work toward consensus, or identify clear goals and push others to achieve them?

Does effective team building happen through activities that help people like and trust one another, or through the struggle and conflict of putting challenging ideas on the table?

Do institutions function best when they are run as top-down or bottom-up?

The answer to all of these questions appears to be, “yes,” … depending on who you ask.

I have read many books about leadership, and each one seems to have its own take on the subject, leaving me with no clear answers.  However, these three books stand out as being the most influential for me.

  • Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
  • Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber
  • A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman

They are presented here in the order in which I read them.  This is notable, as this mirrors the level of personal challenge that I found within them.

Brené Brown’s work was the most accessible for me, as in many ways she “speaks my language.”  Craig Weber pushed me to deeper self-reflection and to identifying my growth edge. Edwin Friedman challenged seemingly everything that I thought I knew to be true about good leadership, and in some ways turned it upside down.

It is not possible to fully explore the depth of each of these author’s work here; however, I have attempted to capture some of the most salient points.

Daring Greatly

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines a leader as, “anyone who holds him- or her- self accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” (185) She indicates that this potential should be channeled into cultivating positive change, or what she dubs, “Minding the Gap.” She defines this as working toward reducing the difference between the Aspirational Values of an institution – those values that we espouse and that represent our best intentions – and the Practiced Values of an institution – how we actually think, behave, and feel.

Brown recognizes that working toward this alignment is a challenging, and potentially uncomfortable, task.  She notes that true leadership is scarce because being uncomfortable is a job requirement of the role.  She writes, “If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.” (211)

Fortunately, although the work may be uncomfortable, Brown provides some insights into how to support teams in the challenges of growth and learning.  She describes this as an inherently vulnerable process, as to learn and grow, one must be willing to risk failure.  She also examines the critical role of constructive feedback, noting that people are “desperate” for feedback that inspires growth and engagement. (198)

Accepting feedback, growing, learning, and changing are all risky business.  In order for people to be willing to take on these risks, they must be supported by healthy organizations.

Brown describes healthy organizational cultures as places where:

  • Empathy is a valued asset
  • Accountability is an expectation rather than an exception
  • The need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control

In the absence of this type of safe space, people will disengage in order to protect themselves – they will stop showing up, stop contributing, and stop caring.  This disengagement is a form of institutional crisis.  To support leaders in avoiding this scenario, Brown provides this “Leadership Manifesto” for guidance.

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Conversational Capacity

In Conversational Capacity,  (which I’ve written about previously here) Craig Weber agrees with Brown’s assertion that leadership requires discomfort.  He, too, focuses on the importance of managing the human side of teams, but he defines the most critical aspect of this as the development of what he calls conversational capacity.  He defines this as “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15)

From his perspective, a healthy institutional culture “embraces productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously,” and is “strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints and challenging questions.” (19)  Weber asserts that it is only through the intentional cultivation of conversational capacity that this can occur, and it is the leader’s responsibility to develop this within the team.

Weber identifies a continuum of responses to challenges, such that minimizing (or low candor) behaviors exist at one end of this spectrum while winning (or low curiosity) behaviors exist at the other.  He indicates that the way to develop conversational capacity, or work toward the “sweet spot” found in the center of the continuum, is to work against one’s natural tendency to “minimize” or to “win” in the face of challenging issues.

He notes that when conversational capacity is not well-developed:

  • We remain silent when we should speak up
  • We argue when we should cooperate
  • We downplay our concerns when we should blurt them out (27)

Like Brown, Weber notes that in the absence of conversational capacity, we are risking institutional crisis.

To examine the various ways this crisis can appear, Jack synthesized Weber’s “sweet spot” continuum with the related Heat-Light balance described in Meeting Wise  by Boudett and City (which Jack has previously written about here).

Jack created this graphic which examines the ways in which being unbalanced relative to minimizing, winning, heat, and chill can lead to passive-aggression, direct aggression, sabotage, and shut down – each of which are damaging to institutions and pull teams out of the “sweet spot” or the “light” in which effective and positive change can occur.

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A Failure of Nerve

Although both Brown and Weber note the importance of leadership for the health of an institution, neither writes in as strong language about this as Friedman does in A Failure of Nerve (which Jack has previously written about here.)

Friedman asserts that when institutions are not functioning well, it is always due to a failure of nerve among its leaders.(2) He describes this “nerve” as self-differentiation –  or having clarity about one’s own goals, as demonstrated through a focus on strength rather than pathology, challenge rather than comfort, and taking definitive stands rather than seeking consensus.

He boldly claims that leaders must not be “peace-mongers,” who attempt to “regulate their institutions through love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.”(12)  He states that working toward consensus leads to sandbagging and sabotage by team members who are not aligned with the leader’s identified goals.

In accordance with this, he suggests that the way to change institutions is to work with the motivated members of that institution rather than focusing on the recalcitrant members.  He indicates that by orienting one’s focus toward those who are not in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals, and attempting to get them on board through seeking compromise and consensus, the institution itself becomes weaker.

Friedman suggests that the way to strength is to consistently engage members of an institutional community who operate in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals. By shifting to a focus on strength, rather than weakness, recalcitrant members who want to remain a part of the institution have to adapt to the established community, rather than requiring the institution to adjust to the expectations of the recalcitrant members.

Friedman believes that a lack of self-differentiation among leadership, or in other words confusion around the goals, culture, and expectations of an institution, leads to systemic anxiety.  And that this anxiety causes reactivity – both in terms of intense emotionality and dogged passivity – among its members.

Counter to the common understanding of job stress, Friedman believes that it is not unrelieved hard work that is the root cause of burnout, but rather it is chronic, systemic anxiety that is to blame.

Once again, he identifies self-differentiation of leadership as the antidote for chronic anxiety.  He calls on leaders to be both present and non-anxious relative to the challenges of their institutions.  Noting that while it is easy to be non-present and non-anxious, or conversely, present and anxious, in the face of difficulty, he instead prescribes that leaders become “transformers,” who allow the current of adversity to run through them without getting zapped.  They reduce the anxiety of the institution by the nature of their own presence, by their self-differentiation, as defined above.

Friedman explores leadership through a lens that at first glance seems different from anyone else.  However, like Weber, he identifies continuums and the need to find the center between the extremes, and like Brown, he focuses on the importance of establishing a safe, institutional space, which he defines as one that is resistant to anxiety.

Friedman prescribes perhaps the most difficult solution, indicating that self-differentiation is demonstrated through finding the balance between these ten indicators or “tensions” during times of institutional crisis.

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Synthesis

Each of the above texts focuses on the inherent challenges of leadership and the difficulty of leading well.  Each delineates the risks to an institution in the absence of effective leadership.  Each indicates that the difference between success and failure lies in the hands of an institution’s leaders.  That is a heavy responsibility to bear.

Brown charges leaders with gently guiding others to “dare greatly.” Weber challenges leaders to work to build “conversational capacity” in themselves and others.  And Friedman insists that leaders tackle the difficulty of “self-differentiation.”

While none of these books provided me with the clear, definitive, and, dare I say, easy, answers that I have been seeking, each elucidates pitfalls of leadership and provides suggested remedies.  Each has informed the way in which I lead.

Like in parenting, I have come to the devastating conclusion that there are no simple solutions, and that there’s no singular right way.

Like in parenting, I’ve come to believe that the following is true:

  • Listen to your team (Weber)
  • Trust your judgement (Friedman)
  • You know more than you think you do (Brown)

So based on that, this summer I spent some time constructing my own model of what I believe to be the fundamental components of good leadership. In my model, each of the bottom layers serves as the foundation for the ones above it, and each is a prerequisite for the success of the subsequent layers.

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I’d like to assert that if these six components are implemented with fidelity, leadership will be easy and all will be well within an institution.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.

As Jack frequently reminds me, “We work with people, and people are messy.”  Every team has its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and needs.  Every situation is different, and requires a unique response.  Although I desperately long for the formula that says, “If x happens, then do y,” and to have that formula elicit a successful outcome every time, this is a utopian ideal that is not rooted in reality.

Leadership is hard, and I have become convinced that it is more about process than it is about product.  So I will continue reading books, asking question, mulling things over, and muddling through the messy morass of team development and institutional health.  Currently, I have more questions than answers; perhaps someday, the angel of experience will bless me with more answers than questions.

 

 

 

What Is Teacher Leadership?

Change is hard. All sorts of change. Not just the pumpkin spice flavored everything showing up in bakeries and coffee shops each fall – though that is also difficult – but change in general.

A new route to school. A child graduated and off to college. A new evaluation system.

All of these changes make life subtly different. However, even when the changes make life incrementally better, the changes themselves can be hard.

Perhaps you have read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, or one of dozens of other recent best-selling books about making significant changes in your life. These books focus on the impressive power of habit to make or break your efforts to excel in what you do. While the power of habit is a sort of current in the ocean of your life, these books insist that you can make changes that seem to force the tide your way.

However, there may still be an undercurrent which is not always flowing in the intended direction.

In the summer of 2015, I had the good fortune to take a class taught by Robert Kegan, co-author of Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. The premise behind this course and his life-changing book is that people have a natural defense against making changes. It is not just that people do not like or even want to make change, it is that their mind conspires against that change in important ways.

How powerful is this immunity to change? Perhaps as powerful as the body’s own immune system. A survey of heart patients directed to make life-saving changes in their diet and exercise revealed that only one in seven successfully did so.

One in seven. 14%. Life-saving change.

So this year in your classroom likely started off with some big promises for yourself. More timely return of graded work? More comments, fewer final scores? Fewer discipline referrals? A ratio of positive to corrective comments of 4:1?

In Cincinnati Public School we are already headed into our fourth week of instruction as this Labor Day weekend winds down. Now is the time when that habit can either take hold or it can die a neglected, lonely death.

Let’s give it a boost.

Teachers and principals must accept the responsibility for changing themselves, and must be open to that change. After all, your self is the part most directly in your own control. No matter how much one complains, organizations and societies do not simply reform themselves to meet the needs of those who raise concerns.

Everyone exhibits what Robert Kegan and his co-author Lisa Laskow Lahey named an “immunity to change”, where they unconsciously try to preserve the status quo, even if they are outwardly unhappy with it.

Kegan asserts that “[c]ollectivities – work teams, leadership groups, departmental units, whole organizations – also unknowingly protect themselves from making the very changes they most desire.”[1] It is precisely this tendency in groups, and in individuals, that leaders must learn to defend against. If even the most sought-after change a person wants to make, such as losing weight to avoid dying of heart disease, is subject to a fierce defense from internal self-sabotage, then something as superficial as your new grading policy does not stand a chance.

But this is not a hopeless situation.

The most important step here is to make internal adaptations to defeat the immunity. Teachers who wish to change their classroom, their school, or even to affect a specific change in the habits and practices of an individual student, must determine their place in the current set of habits, and make intentional change.

Then we must identify what it is we are doing that stands in the way of the thing we want to do. That is, you must identify your hidden competing commitments.

Perhaps you have made one of the commitments above, but you find yourself taking on several new challenges as the year starts. Suddenly your ability to make comments on every paper the way you planned is encroached upon by the time you are spending on your new projects.

Why do you do this? Why do you take on so many projects? Maybe you want to be seen as helpful, and a leader in the school. This is a noble goal, and a common one.

So, maybe your hidden commitment to be helpful to everyone is now in competition with your commitment to better serve your students’ progress with commentary on their papers.

What can you do about this?

Well, you have already taken a difficult step, you have identified the hidden competing commitment. Now decipher why that commitment is in competition. What are the big assumptions that lie beneath your willingness to overcommit? Perhaps you believe that if you stop being valuable to others, you will lose your role in the school, or lose your peers’ respect? Or perhaps by not getting things done, and telling people no, you will appear to be superficial and worried only about yourself.

Teachers tell their students every day to be ready, willing, and able to change themselves. This act of self-reinvention is scary, and the teacher must be willing to lead and model this change. If you have identified your commitment, what you are doing instead, the hidden competing commitment, and the big assumptions, you have all the information you need to make the significant change.

And now you must enlist those around you to help you make that change. This interdependence is important because in order to make substantive change, we must empower each other to help us get better at what we do. We cannot do it all by ourselves.

Teachers understand the unique needs, challenges, and fears of the profession in a way that no one else can. Who better to offer advice and support to a teacher, than a teacher? Who better to offer correction and redirection? A peer can offer advice without it being evaluative. A peer can offer advice from the perspective of having the same demands on their own time and energy. A trusted peer can listen to fears and flaws without judgement, and help balance the stresses of personal and professional life. There are many formal and informal ways for teachers to step up and provide for each other the leadership that is needed in any situation.

Seek informal mentors

One teacher, wary of placing additional stress on others, and not wanting to be seen as bothersome for asking too many questions, “adopted” a set of informal mentors. If she saw someone who had a strength in organization, she observed them closely, sometimes asking specific questions about their rationale for doing things a certain way, other times merely co-opting a certain structure or behavior that seemed effective.

Another teacher, struggling with the weight of the many roles he had taken on in the school, purposely went to the principal to ask for advice on being organized. This particular tactic, seeking out mentorship from other leaders including administration, can serve multiple purposes. First, it alerts administration to the teacher’s desire for self-improvement. Second, the leader likely has some good advice on managing the tasks and the work, which can be incorporated to lighten the burden. Third, it allows for informal conversations to reveal which work is most valued and to build the relationships that help form any successful community.

 

Intentionally mentor others

Draw one person under your wing by letting them know you are available for questions, asking direct questions about specific aspects of the work, and getting involved in their teaching. Show them around the building. Advocate for them to get preferable lunch times or a more favorable schedule.

Perhaps more importantly, offer to help with a specific task. Are they grading an assignment? Offer to do half. Share a rubric or a procedure for how this work gets handled efficiently in another classroom.

The reality is that mentorship creates teamwork, and teamwork has an indescribably powerful effect on one’s work efficacy and overall feeling of satisfaction. Working with them side by side – to hang curtains, or sort out schoolbooks, or to move a heavy desk when the custodian is difficult to locate – helps make everyone’s load lighter.

 

Join or create a formal mentoring program

One teacher leader strongly advocated to create a mentoring process that would do three things: provide guidance on the basic pieces of working in the building, assist with understanding the processes used for handling a variety of situations, and include a deep sharing of the school culture. 

After weeks of discussing potential approaches to this work and looking for viable models for how to do it, school representatives met with Brian Cundiff, Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s, a prominent local pizza chain to discuss their “Onboarding” process.

LaRosa’s makes pizza. Gamble Montessori educates children. What could possibly be learned?

As it turns out, quite a lot. LaRosa’s had developed a thoughtful process for ensuring that every employee understood what the company was about. A number of statements stood out during that meeting. Mr. Cundiff emphasized that the employer has a responsibility to grow team members, and you need to train every person in your system in order to ensure maintenance of the culture you are trying to establish. Additionally, the best teachers are your peers. The person taking orders at the table next to you is able to provide support, modeling, and even polite correction in a way that a manager cannot.  Finally, in order to articulate what needs to be communicated about your culture, look back at your vision statement and be a storyteller.

At Gamble, we made sure to include scheduled 1:1 check-ins between the mentor and mentee allow for the pair to problem-solve concerns and for the veteran to provide encouragement and support. Intentionally setting aside time for this work means that a new teacher does not have to feel as if they are imposing when they ask a question that is complicated to answer.  It removes the stigma of being the one who asks too many questions, or the feeling of responsibility for having “wasted” someone else’s time. This is time well spent.

 

Work with your team to create PLCs

At every school, there are additional ways for teachers to take on leadership with or without the support of administration. School teams regularly form professional learning communities, or PLCs, as described over dozens of years by Richard DuFour. The work of this PLC can be called many things, such as a 90 day plan or a turnaround plan, and can be incorporated in personal or professional growth plans, school One Plans, or nationally required improvement plans associated with Title I grants.

Whatever it is called, the true goal of a PLC is to identify a common problem directly related to student learning and solve it as a team. The process to work toward change, and hold one another publicly accountable for it, is exhaustively described in other resources, but it merits a quick summary here.

The team identifies an area related to student learning outcomes where the results are poor, inconsistent with other scores across the building or some larger area, or simply could be better. This could relate to test scores, embodiment of the school’s core values, or visible indicators of academic success such as grades.

Then the team drills down to find the details. What exactly is the measure of these suboptimal results?

Research is the crucial next step. This is where PLCs differ from typical team solutions. Often teams of teachers get together to solve a problem and the depth of their knowledge comes from their own experience. It may sound like, “At my old school we …” This is an attractive song, like sirens on the rocky shores. Do not be lured in.

Past practice does not mean best practice. Even the most veteran teacher finds their knowledge limited by their own narrow scope of professional experience. Seeking outside sources for ideas, including books, scholarly articles in professional publications, and even reading teaching blogs by teachers in the same subject or age band, allows the team to discuss and evaluate a wide array of possible solutions.

Armed with new knowledge, the team reviews possibilities and decides on a way forward. Then they collectively implement it for the indicated period of time. This typically provides for a midyear check-in to evaluate progress, and an end-of-year final review.

If the intervention worked, the team keeps it and adds it to their repertoire. They may even seek to apply this approach to other subjects, classes, or situations if it is readily transferrable.

Or maybe the team does not solve anything. Maybe the data reveals that they did not impact the problem. This is information too. Sometimes the strategy the team believed was most likely to impact the problem has no effect at all. This too is data, and “no effect” is not failure. The only failure is not to try something different in order to impact the outcome.

Teams that use the PLC approach do not solve all of their problems all at once. They do, however, solve their most pressing problem. More importantly, perhaps, they solve the problem together, and build capacity and resources for solving future problems together. This provides a rich and satisfying work experience and improves outcomes.

 

Individual or paired skill building

Another way teachers can gain the competencies they need to feel successful is through individual or paired skill building and self-study. Recently, I saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure is On. I found the presentation eye-opening. Knowing that Krista was intentionally seeking out ways to develop herself professionally, I suggested that we read the book together. We carved out time to read the book, discuss it, and to implement the ideas.

Craig’s premise is that a critical factor for teams is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.”

He describes this as being in the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that, “[w]hile it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.”[2]

Perhaps your school has seen recent examples of this?

Krista and I worked on these ideas together over the course of the year, applying the ideas to specific situations in our own leadership and in the building and thinking about how to improve our own practices to match the advice in the book. Along the way, we reached out to Craig, the author, and engaged him in our discussion, even providing him some material he said was useful for his follow-up book.

There were mixed results, as happens in the implementation of new practices and the development of new skills. The important part was that they were engaged in a professional practice of intentional improvement.

 

Today, teacher burnout is an existential threat to public schools. In Kansas they are having trouble hiring enough teachers because of the triple-whammy of retirement, working age teachers leaving the profession, and low salaries failing to attract new teachers. It is tempting to think that tucking into a fetal position in your classroom is the answer. Or to believe that what the new teacher down the hall really needs is a good laugh and a distraction from his work so he won’t appear so bothered.

This type of thinking suggests that if you can just spend enough time distracted from your work, then somehow work will be better. That is demonstrably untrue.

What this really does is leave the work undone, to be completed in less time, likely in a rush, and with less attention to quality. This means that lesson plans, feedback on grading, and ultimately student academic growth is set aside in the service of buoying a teacher’s mood.

That is an upside down view of the role of schools.

What really makes people feel better at work is a sense that they are accomplishing the work with a high level of skill, and that they are achieving results. Even if it is very hard work, and time consuming, positive outcomes for students are a powerful mood booster.

The solution to better job satisfaction for all, then, is to take a leadership role in the school and help pick up one of the important pieces of the larger work. Share the load with someone. Work at their side. Gain the capacity to do more, and to do the existing work more effectively.

Become a leader.

 

[1] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 87.

[2] Craig Weber, Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is on (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), 15.

 

What We Do Here

-Originally posted January 4, 2016 by Jack M. Jose

“Here” is Gamble Montessori High School.

Early in the 2013-2014 school year, my walkie-talkie crackled to life with an urgent call to a classroom. In the hall I passed a girl, new to our school, who was yelling threats and trying to break free from the grip of our security assistant. I could not immediately tell who she was threatening.

One of the adults who had been present in the hall when the incident started, Roberto A., started to tell me the story by expressing his amazement. “Jack, I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life.” He related that the new student was convinced that someone was looking at her “wrong”. Offended, she stood up and started shouting at Michalia, a student who had been at Gamble since 7th grade. The shouting is what prompted him to enter the room and to call for me on the walkie. Michalia stood up and shouted back “I don’t have any beef with you.” As Roberto moved closer, the new student punched Michalia, who took one step back and said, “Somebody better get her. Somebody needs to tell her that’s not what we do here.”

“That’s not what we do here.” This is a most remarkable response to being punched. Many people would say that being hit would excuse Michalia if she chose to fight. I know that once upon a time, Michalia would have fought for less. I know that she felt immense social pressure to solve the problem by fighting, and that each year a small number of students make the other choice when in a similar situation. I also know that many times, parents defend and even encourage this response. That’s why her decision was hard.

Michalia resisted all of this, and accepted – trusted – that the adults in the school would act on her behalf and she did not need to fight. In doing this she was also showing tremendous grace toward her antagonist.

“Somebody better get her. Somebody needs to tell her that’s not what we do here.”

Read more

You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

This post was originally published on 9/19/16; however it reflects the commonality of our fall camp experience each year.  This year our camping trip takes place the weeks of 8/28 and 9/5.  In order for every student to participate, we are actively seeking donations for student scholarships.  If you are interested in helping, please contact me at taylokr@cps-k12.org

 

We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.

What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?

Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously.  Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.

I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.

Read more

Back to School: The Prepared Environment

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year …”

If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.

Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever.  I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”

Back to School that is.

Ahhh, back to school.  A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike.  Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th.  Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.

We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.

This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares.  These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc.  In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!

Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year.  Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:

Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,

Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,

Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,

Even the air was redolent with exuberance —  full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.

This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:

The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,

The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,

The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,

The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.

That classroom was waiting for you.  Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.

It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:

“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school?  I’m the VP of our union.  Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts.  Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”

“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.

“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.

I have always been a fiercely proud union member.  I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career.  But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.

To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state.  I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with.  I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.

What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.

I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared.  A classroom where materials are still in boxes.  A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.

A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.

Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.

Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this.  Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways.  Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.

There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits.  A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom.[1]  Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom.[2]  This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.

The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.[3]

Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low.  Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space.  Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.[4]

Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier.  The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.

Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.

And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.

Is this fair?  No, of course not.  But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us.  Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom.  Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours.  Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.

As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space:  5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design.  It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.

The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.

As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”

I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space.  Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”[5]

Consider your classroom.  Which corner do you want to start with?

Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went.  Is there an area in your room that felt congested?  Or cluttered?  A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends?  Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.

Begin with one of these spaces.

Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options.  If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.

There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional.  Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.

(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)

A place for everything and everything in its place

If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.

A student supply center. This teacher has two sets of these –each one assigned for use by 4 tables of students.

 

A simple way to provide easy access to colored pencils. A student job can be ensuring correct placement of pencils at the end of each day.

 

Materials to support classroom procedures

If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.

A structure for documenting, problem-solving, and holding students accountable for being tardy to class.

 

Classroom jobs support students in being responsible for care of the environment. Clear routines and procedures are essential for this to function well.

 

Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion

If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.

A beautifully set morning meeting table includes all necessary supplies.

 

Clearly defined morning meeting leadership roles with individual clipboards for ease of use.

 

Nontraditional student work areas

If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.

The creation of beautiful reading nooks emphasizes the joy that can be found in reading for pleasure.

 

Here is a different type of reading corner. In both photos, notice the lighting elements.

 

Many students like the option of working on the floor as it allows them greater movement and more choices of position.

 

A standard table can easily be converted to a floor work space by removing a portion of the legs.

 

Students may discover work spaces that you had never even considered!

 

There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning.  However, to do so takes significant time.  Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.

So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom.  Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year.  Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space.  (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)

But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure.  Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead.  Quite frankly, so are most teachers.  It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.

Your students are worth it.  So are you.

 

[1] Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Carter, Dwight, Gary Sebach, and Mark White.What’s In Your Space?Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2016.