The Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

-by Krista Taylor

Seeking Courage

The day before winter break this year, I found myself pacing back and forth in the hallway outside of Sylvia’s classroom just before first bell, trying to muster up the courage to go in. I didn’t do it.

I returned to that same spot during my planning bell. This time I managed to get through the classroom door, but wound up just having some silly conversation about something random, and then exiting.

I tried again at lunch thinking surely that the third time would be the charm. I had no greater success.

The night before, I had resolved to have a Difficult Conversation. (see Jack’s post on this topic linked here)

A few days earlier I had popped into Sylvia’s classroom to ask a question, but in the brief time I was there, I had observed students in this class violating several of our basic Building-Wide Expectations. When I corrected them, they told me that they were allowed to do these things in this class.

It bothered me. Not because the students’ behavior was particularly disruptive. It wasn’t. (The rule-breaking in question was about dress code, headphones, and the food and drink policy.) It bothered me because our Building-Wide Expectations are supposed to be just that, “Building-Wide;” they are supposed to be “What We Do Here.”

It would have been easy to just ignore it. Ignoring it was especially tempting because Sylvia was someone who had regularly supported me, helped me out on many occasions, and someone I consider a friend. I wanted to choose what was easy.

Besides, correcting a fellow teacher isn’t even my job, is it? Isn’t that the work of an administrator? Co-workers are under no obligation to hold each other accountable to expectations. Right . . .

This was the argument I had tried to hide behind for days, but it just wasn’t sitting properly with me. How was I helping things by being privately irritated by the actions of someone I like and respect? How was I helping things by not addressing my concerns directly? By failing to do so, I was potentially setting my colleague up for being corrected by an administrator – how was that helpful to her?

Avoiding the Difficult Conversation certainly felt better for me, and likely for Sylvia as well, but was it really better? Was I really being supportive by not saying anything? Was I really being a friend? Was I advocating for the needs of students? Was I really doing my job? Ultimately I decided that I was not, because when it comes right down to it, I do believe that it’s the job of co-workers to hold each other accountable. I believe this, in part, because it is a component of what we agreed as a staff to do for one another back in August of 2013 when, together, we wrote our Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement.

Developing the Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

Each year, Gamble holds a two-day staff retreat during the summer. The retreat is a combination of professional development and team-building activities. Participation is purely voluntary and unpaid, yet almost our entire faculty attends. This is, in part, because each year, the retreat is led by Gamble staff and is structured around the specific needs of our building. However, I believe that the primary reason for the high-level of attendance is the tremendous commitment of our faculty to honing their craft and to developing our program.

At our retreat in 2013, we had to address the elephant in the room.

elephant

The 2012-2013 school year had been challenging. We were preparing for a significant expansion in our junior high – this meant that our existing junior high teams were being disbanded and reformed as new teams. Our ninth and tenth grade team was experiencing partial staff turn-over, and our high school program as a whole was exploring new ways to increase inclusion of students with disabilities. Add to all that the challenges of moving our entire program from one building to another across town, and it is little wonder that we were experiencing stress on a building-wide level. On virtually every team, teachers were angry with one-another. It felt almost like a contagion. Arguments were popping up in committee meetings. Regular “venting” sessions were happening behind closed doors. It didn’t feel good. Anxiety was high. Tempers were short. Frustration was increasing. We were talking about each other rather than to each other, and you could have cut the tension with a knife. Summer couldn’t come soon enough.

As a team-based school, there is very little that is ever done at Gamble by anyone operating in isolation, and this makes us heavily interdependent with one another. Team functionality is critical to our success and well-being as an institution. Part of the natural cycle of teaming is “Storming” – a period of time when conflict and discord emerges within groups. This is not a problem per se – conflict is often what moves us forward, and it can be a powerful part of the growth process. However, we were being profoundly impacted by the storming we were experiencing, and we had become a bit stuck. We needed help navigating through this storming phase.

The summer staff retreat seemed to be the right time and place to talk about our resident pachyderm. As a member of the retreat planning committee, I asked Jack to allow me to lead our staff through a problem-solving process. To this day, I have no idea why he trusted me enough to let me do this.

Once I had the go-ahead, I had to figure out how to guide our entire faculty through one giant, whole-group Difficult Conversation. There was no existing blueprint for this.

After significant reflection, I developed a plan that ensured each of the following:

  • Focus on solutions, not problems: Getting bogged down in identifying problems would only serve to distance us from one another and keep us focused on the negative.
  • Engage all participants in order to enhance buy-in: If we want people to implement change, they must believe in what they are being asked to do; this is easiest when they have had the opportunity to give input.
  • Find a path to consensus: In some situations, making decisions by majority vote is appropriate, but something like this requires that everyone is on board.
  • Provide enough time to allow for a thorough process: It is not helpful, and can be detrimental, to open up a sensitive topic without the resources of time and energy to see the conversation through to resolution.
  • Generate something substantive: It is not enough just to come up with good ideas; there must be some kind of visual repository or tangible product that is developed from those ideas. 

Here is the specific step-by-step process we used to help extricate ourselves from the whole-building storming we were experiencing.

Step 1.) Name the elephant. Like most schools, we have all kindsGSA slide 1 of rules and processes for helping students understand how to interact with one another, but we had nothing that guided our adults. This meant that when we were under stress, we had no protocols to turn to for assistance. We needed to create expectations for ourselves. The first step was simply to identify this as a need and as something that we would all benefit from developing.

Step 2.) Brainstorm. Each participant was asked to record on notecards three explicit actions or behaviors that they believed they needed or wanted from their colleagues.  GSA slide 2The provided prompt was, “What do you most want/need from your colleagues?” The specific process directions were to record up to 3 specific actions or behaviors, phrased positively, that each individual wanted from their colleagues. Each suggestion was to be written on a separate on a separate index card to allow for sorting in the next step.

Step 3.) Identify commonalities. All of the index cards were then collected, shuffled, and redistributed to small groups. Each group went throuGSA slide 3gh their stack of cards identifying responses that were similar, and determining the weight of each category based on the number of comments on that topic. This served several purposes. It gave participants the opportunity to anonymously see each other’s responses. It allowed common threads to begin to emerge. And, most importantly, it got everyone engaged in working collectively on the task.

Step 4.) Consolidate and find common language. Each group reported out and those things that had been identified as important to the majority of people became apparent based on the number of responses. We worked to ensure that individual voices were heard and honored, while still maintaining the value of seeking consensus from the group. We debated word choice. We argued about the importance of specific components. We touched on old, long-buried arguments, and, at times, we stepped on one another’s feelings. This part of the process felt much like tiptoeing through a minefield.

minefield

There was angry debate over the importance of including a statement about cultural differences. Several staff members felt that it was critical to have this explicitly stated, while others believed that it was implied in the components we had already agreed upon and was an unnecessary addition. This argument was indicative of the struggles we were experiencing. Of course a statement on cultural awareness was an appropriate thing to include in our agreement. With hindsight, I can’t believe that we were arguing over such a thing. It seems utterly ridiculous now, but at the time it was hotly contested.

As the facilitator, it was challenging to allow the discomfort to be felt and to use it as a catalyst, while not becoming side-tracked from the task, or allowing the work to devolve into a battle between competing agendas. I had to listen hard, carefully re-state, negotiate personalities and old conflicts, and keep pushing toward the goal of establishing shared expectations.

Step 5.) Create a tangible product. Somehow, we made it through – we clarified, we compromised, and we came up with the following statement to identify what was most critical to establishing and sustaining beneficial interactions with one another.

IMG_0439 (1)

“Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement for working collaboratively and supporting each other.  We will utilize effective communication, which is grounded in respectful and professional conversations.  We will strive for excellence while maintaining positive interactions and attitudes and providing each other with instructional support.  We will have empathy for each other, and be open to seeing and celebrating each other’s unique and different perspectives — including cultural ones. We will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions.”

 Implementation: So we have a Staff Agreement, now what?

 Developing our Staff Agreement was the easy part. Using it to actually guide how we interact is much harder.

This year, on that day before winter break, I never did get brave enough to start the discussion with Sylvia in person. I regret that. Instead I retreated to the safety of electronic communication, and I sent this.

Dear Sylvia,

I feel incredibly uncomfortable about having this difficult conversation.  In fact, I have lurked outside your classroom on 3 different occasions today just trying to get up the courage to address you in person, but I can’t do it.

Here is my concern. When I was in your classroom earlier this week, I saw several things, which are in violation of our school policies — hats, headphones, food that wasn’t a fruit or vegetable.  When I redirected your students, they indicated that this is something that is allowable in your classroom.  Can you help me to understand? Even though you and I don’t teach the same students, it’s really hard and frustrating to uphold the expectations in my classroom when others don’t do the same because it sends a message that the expectations really aren’t that important.

My intention is not to come across as hyper-critical, but rather to seek understanding and solutions. Please know that I stand on no pedestal here.  My classroom is not a perfect place; we are all “works in progress.”  I express my concerns to you based on the understanding that part of each of our jobs here is to push each other to get better at what we do.

I love working with you, and I love the ways you provide me with assistance and support.   I just didn’t feel like I could let this concern go un-discussed, and I apologize for not having the courage to do so in person.

I hope you have a wonderful break, and I look forward to seeing you next semester.

This was what I received in response:

Thank you for your candor, and you are always welcomed and invited to share your opinions and concerns with me.  I respect you and your opinions perhaps more than anyone else at this school.

Let me address your concerns although it really is just a matter of my shortcomings.

I do not allow headphones in my class, at least not normally.  On the day you were here, before your arrival, a student had asked if they could listen to headphones that day, and I said “Yes.”  Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I felt like on that particular day it was okay for them to carve out some space for themselves to review.

As far as hats go, the problem is that I generally do not notice them.  It is like someone’s shoes, or socks, or belt–they just don’t seem to register in my active attention.  When I do notice them, I ask them to be removed.

Food is another one I struggle with.  Since Cincinnati has a 53% teen poverty rate (the second highest in the United States), I feel like I never know if a student has eaten on any given day.  Even if the school provides them with breakfast and lunch, a student may not have eaten enough calories in a 24-hour period.  Because of these things, I am always hesitant as to what I should do.

Rest assured I appreciate your input.  Out of the 20 emails that were unopened when I logged into my Inbox, yours was the first I read.  I am taking your concerns to heart.

This wasn’t an easy exchange – they’re called “difficult conversations” for a reason. I felt a lingering sense of awkwardness in this relationship for months afterward, but it was an honest awkwardness. There was no hostile residue of unspoken concerns, nor was there any venting to others. (We all know what that sounds like, “You’ll never believe what I saw going on in so-and-so’s classroom!”) Ultimately, I may never know whether or not the issues were resolved, but that matters less to me than knowing that I directly expressed my concerns. Was it my job to address this? Some would say no. I don’t think it’s always clear, but I find myself guided by what Jack says about things like this: We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.”

That’s the goal, of course, to get better at what we do.   Sometimes helping each other to do this feels good. Sometimes it doesn’t. The staff agreement provides guidance regarding how it is we’re supposed to “empower each other to help us get better at what we do;” it gives us parameters to fall back on when we forget what it is we are supposed to do for one another.

The Staff Agreement reminds us that . . .

  • We need to talk to each other, not about each other
  • Rather than allowing colleagues to vent to us, we need to gently prompt them to address their concerns directly
  • Much of the time when feelings are hurt, it isn’t intentional
  • Our differences make us stronger, and better able to do our jobs
  • We have a responsibility to support each other and to maintain high expectations
  • When we focus on the positive, it improves the environment for each of us

We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.

These things are not easy to do. But they are the foundation of institutional integrity.

 

No Failure of Nerve

-by Jack M. Jose

Often we have used this blog to talk about our strengths – strategies we have used at Gamble Montessori that have resulted in a greater sense of student belonging, or increased learning. In this post, however, we examine a philosophy that seems at odds with our character as a student-centered Montessori blog. The book at the heart of this post, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman, challenged me like few other books have. I struggled with it, I denied its value, I argued its premise, while feeling a strong undertow of truth. In fact, even though it prompted strong and decisive action on my part, it may have been only in this week that I have come to fully understand its underlying message, and how it fully fits with what we do here.

This week (June 14, 2016), I had the pleasure of listening to and talking with Dr. Steve Perry. We had invited him to the Cincinnati Public Schools’ principal retreat for a shot of adrenaline and encouragement at the end of the year. We already knew his commitment to children. Dr. Perry received the honor of being featured in CNN’s Black in America series because of his success in his Hartford, Connecticut magnet school, Capital Prep. One measure of his success is that 100% of his predominantly minority and impoverished students have gone on to 4-year colleges, every year since 2006. He is a dynamic and engaging speaker, and an advocate for the potential of every child.

Jack with Dr. Steve Perry
Jack with Dr. Steve Perry at the 2016 Cincinnati Public Schools Principal Academy

During his presentation, he talked about times when he had to draw tough lines which could not be crossed by parents or teachers. I found myself drawn to him because he seemed to have great comfort and facility, and to even revel in drawing these hard lines. Lines that many of us are not comfortable drawing. Conversations few of us seek out. I suspect that I may be even less willing to draw these lines than the typical principal.

He seemed to particularly relish taking a righteous stand in consistent defense of the dress code. He exuberantly recounted exerting his authority against the wills of those teachers who wanted to wear jeans to school, “Are you kidding me?” he asked us facetiously, drawing laughter from the crowd of principals and assistant principals. Likewise, to the parent who suggested a special day when students, perhaps as a fundraiser, could come to school without their uniforms, “Are you nuts?” Laughter again, spurred on by his deadpan delivery. Perhaps we were all drawing the mental picture of having the occasion to ask those words of a parent – I am sure we each had a particular parent in mind – and then actually delivering them to her face. I laughed nervously, wondering why he would take a stand so strong the dress code, on a matter seemingly so trivial.

He admitted to finally relenting and explaining his seriousness to the parent. The dress code was so stringently enforced because he knew that some of his poorest students’ best clothes were their school uniform clothes. What message did he send if, in the interest of raising funds for whatever deserving cause, the rules designed to create a greater sense of dignity and equality for students could be discarded. “So her kid could wear her new jeans to school?” He paused for effect. “No.” And to the teachers, to whom he offered no explanation, the implication was that they should clearly know better than to send a message to children that teachers were granted privileges not given to the students, and were thus in some way above them. Or to suggest that less was asked of teachers in the classroom than was asked of the students. It is clear that this should not happen in a school where everyone is a learner.

I admit it was thrilling, inspiring even, to hear a principal speak so brashly. So forcefully. When the time is right, I hope I can muster the needed moxie. I wonder, what are the issues that are this serious? As the phrase goes, on what hills are we willing to die? Dress code, promotion, good instruction, respect, homework, safety?

I invite you to join me as I ask myself that question. On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Perry is famous and influential and controversial not just because he takes these stands, but because he has created successful schools in multiple places. He has done it his way, with confidence, and bravado. He has stepped on some toes along the way, and has been willing to offend those who he felt provided obstacles to his goals for the school. I do not seek to emulate him in this, or recommend that others do. I suspect even he doesn’t act that way all the time, as he also expressed a sincere personal commitment to learning from everyone he encounters. But there is evidence that it is important to take strong, non-negotiable stands on some things. Without clear boundaries, the student and the classroom and the school are left confused, their possibilities unfulfilled.

In sociologist Edwin H. Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve_, published posthumously, the author worked to summarize the findings of a life spent examining leadership.

Failure of Nerve

Three years ago I was asked to read this book as a vestry member – an elected leader in my church – by our newly hired Dean, Gail Greenwell. She meant it as a challenge to us, I believe, to be willing to do unpopular things in order to do what is right for the organization. Given that the nature of the advice in the book is that there are appropriate times to exclude people from your community, I eventually came to find irony in its selection as a book for a church that prides itself on inclusion. I read it, cover to cover, with notes and underlines and dog-ears up to the last page before the epilogue. It was a tough slog, being as it was stitched together by his editor and family members after his death (this is not necessarily a book recommendation!) and, just between us, I think I was the only person on the vestry to get through the whole thing. I suddenly find myself wondering which vestry members might actually read my blog. I guess I will find out Sunday!

In short, Friedman argues the need for boundaries, and lays the responsibility of the health of the organization squarely on the shoulders of the leader. First, though, he argues that the leader must embody the change. “If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them,” (page ix) and later, “what counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how.” (page 17)

Physician, heal thyself!

This is his challenging call to the leader: you only must transform yourself. This is far harder for a leader who prides himself on being inclusive and supportive, and who perseveres in the belief that each of us is capable of success.

In discussing a community as an organism, he suggests that a focus on empathy rather than responsibility can allow a “virus” to survive, and eventually consume the organism. He argues that the “virus” is the individual who has no ability to self-regulate, who is “by nature all take and no give.” While he gave the example of attempts to work out a “mutual accommodation” of Hitler prior to the onset of World War II, where various efforts were made to appease Hitler. One of these was the Munich pact, which handed a key portion of Czechoslovakia over to the dictator. A year later, the country did not exist, and the Germans invaded Poland. From Friedman’s book, a less dramatic example persists in my recollection, nearly four years after my first reading.

On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Friedman was a panelist at a convention, and the time came to take questions from the audience. His comments had elicited some strong feelings, and one woman crowded her way through the line, commandeered a microphone, and demanded to be heard. The decision fell to an organizer of the event, and he allowed the woman to speak. This was a failure of leadership, or a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, to allow her to speak simply because she was so passionate. She was permitted to impose herself on the entire organization, the entire convention. Not surprisingly, her comments did not bring up a new perspective, instead becoming a jeremiad against Mr. Friedman and other panelists. The whole process disrespected those who lined up according to the instructions, it insulted the panelists, it offered nothing new to the conversations and was instead a plea for the individuals to abandon their years of research and deeply held beliefs in order to accommodate her feelings.

There are parallels to this behavior in the classroom, PTO meeting, or the school office. We have seen the student or the parent who has decided that their immediate needs and strong feelings should take precedence over the schedule and the rules.

When should you take a stand? Certainly for matters of safety. For instance, a child who crosses a street out of the crosswalk deserves a strong response and quick correction. That behavior is not acceptable because it is not safe. This is not controversial.

However, what about the dress code? What about promotion and retention? What about crowding in line? What about civil discourse?

Each year, one or more parents schedule a meeting with me in the early summer to make the argument that their child should be promoted to the next grade, regardless of their academic achievement and effort. In almost all of these meetings, there are real – and sometimes heartbreaking – explanations of why that child did not complete the work at home and did not achieve promotion. We provide countless supports in the classroom. Students have differentiated work, reduced homework loads, support from the teacher and intervention specialist, after-school support, and on some teams “amnesty days” where old work can be turned in. Parents have unprecedented access to their child’s grades through an online gradebook system, we send home paper report cards 8 times a year, we have student-led conferences at least twice a year, the second time focused on students who are not thriving academically, along with open houses and multiple modes for parents to reach teachers.

I ask my teachers to do everything they can to assist students. We are all accountable for learning and promotion. However, at some point the student owns the responsibility for doing the work. If I were to yield in this conversation, it would disrespect their work and the work of other students, some of whom encountered their own personal heartbreaks and struggles during the year. Standards mean something.

To the parent of the child who makes a compelling and emotional appeal about the effect of non-promotion on their child: I understand. What you are saying is true. It is also true that the standards mean something. Effort means something. No child who works hard and makes progress will fail. Failure, however, to meet a given standard, is not the end of the story. It is a moment. We love the child the most when we say “you have not reached this high standard … yet. But you will.”

The disrespect of promoting a child who fell short of the standard because of a passionate plea of a loving parent would be one of the symptoms of the “virus”, and the effect on the system would be immediate and apparent. A student who sees someone trying less but still getting promoted, may seek an easier way out next year, and might feel that their hard work is not valued. They might resent the inconsistency and lose trust in the system. And the child herself would know that she had been given, not a gift, but a pass. This child would get the implicit message from her teachers, “we didn’t think you could do it.” Allowing this to happen would demonstrate a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, a failure of leadership.

In this regard, though, we understand that teachers are not students. Their stakes are higher. A failure by a teacher to meet the needs of a child, by being disrespectful to a student, by not challenging students fully, by physically invading their space or by failing to call them by their given names, is a different infraction. This must be met strenuously, and can’t so easily be forgiven. A teacher should never be the virus.

Not every line we draw at school is non-negotiable. Not every infraction requires the hardline response. At Gamble, promotion is one of those non-negotiables- there are clear expectations and you must meet them. For Dr. Perry in Hartford, the dress code was one (of many).

What are your non-negotiables? Comment with a time you made a hard stand on an issue.

Pigeon Key: A Glimpse Into the Heart and Soul of Education

-by Krista Taylor

“Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.”(Maria Montessori)

Imagine, if you will, forty-five 8th graders waiting for a plane to depart. A woman  asked if we were all “taking a vacation.”

airplane

It’s not a vacation,” exclaimed Sabelle, “it’s an EXPERIENCE!”

She couldn’t have said it better. The trip we take with our 8th graders each May to Pigeon Key, Florida is an experience. This year I had the opportunity to go on the trip for the first time, and I can only describe it as life-changing . . . for my students . . . and for me.

I have been on powerful multi-day field experiences with my students many times before, but nothing compares to this one.

It is so much more than a field trip. What is it exactly? It seems impossible to properly capture the magnitude of this trip – the awe and wonder, the beauty, the precious time.  So what is it?  Here’s my best answer.

It is an immersive marine biology study.

It is a hands-on exploration of human impact and the critical importance of conservation of our natural world.

It is a time for students to face personal challenges and to reflect on their growth.

It is an opportunity for students to develop and demonstrate leadership skills.

It is a rite of passage marking the conclusion of junior high and the readiness to move on to high school.

Perhaps Qualey’s words, taken from her journal, best capture what it is that students are seeking from this experience.

Hopefully I change on this trip to be a better person. I’m really trying to think positive, so I can come home with a new attitude and learn how to love myself.”

Over and over again, the most powerful moments for me were the opportunities to view the experiences on this trip through my students’ eyes and to witness their transformative power. The only way I can properly capture that is by sharing students’ written journal reflections and their spoken comments.

(Note: Although, there were 45 students on this trip, the majority of the student comments in this post were written by those in my “grading group.”  I believe that they are an accurate reflection of the thoughts and feelings of all the students.   While we generally use pseudonyms to protect students’ privacy, in order to be able to give them credit for their written work, names in this post have not been changed.)

Getting There

 For many of our students, this was their first experience on a plane. During the days leading up to the trip, they shared their fears about what could happen on the flight. As we settled into the aircraft on the morning of the trip, I could see the anxiety on their faces, even though most of them were trying to conceal it. Our group was split up, so many students were sitting with strangers. How I wished that I could be seated next to each of them – to provide reassurance and to watch their eyes grow wide as they went above the clouds for the first time.

The poem that Hadiyah wrote in her journal that evening best captures the worry, wonder, and exhilaration that so many of them experienced.

“Her hand was steady and safe

Replacing my mom and dad at the same time for small moments.

Rising turned the clouds into grass and the people into ants.

Laughter crowded the aisle way;

Familiar voices taunted my ears.

 

I awed as the sky never seemed to end.

Imagination flooding my mind —

It was impossible to pull my eyes away,

Ground like a hot wheel track beneath me,

Clouds casting giant shadows that I never noticed before.

 

The higher we went the more of a map I saw,

While voids of clouds all over

Making me feel like a drawing on a piece of paper.

The sky never seeming to end,

Glancing at my peers seeing their excitement and glee.

 

Time seemed to go slow

Stretching out every moment

The pain in my ears traveling to my head

What a lovely flight of mine

What a lovely time of mine”

 

hands

It is easy to minimize the level of challenge of a first flight, and the sense of pride that comes with conquering this fear. This is what Michael wrote about that experience, “When I got off the plane I felt a sense of accomplishment because it was my first time being on an airplane, and I conducted myself in a professional manner.”

Every time I looked at them on this first day, I felt as if my heart would simply burst with love. They were so open and vulnerable and tender. Such joy written on each of their faces. And finally, after 2 flights, a long bus ride, and a ferry trip, we arrived on Pigeon Key

On Pigeon Key    http://pigeonkey.net/contact/

PK_aerial_enews

Pigeon Key is a five-acre island accessible only by boat, which is dedicated to marine research, education, and the preservation of the history of the island.

The island truly feels remote — like getting away from it all. It is, figuratively and literally, “off the grid,” getting its water from a pipe that runs along 7-mile Bridge (Henry Flagler’s extension of the old Florida East Coast Railway) — and 95% of its electricity from a solar array, with the remaining 5% coming from on-island generators.

Without the distractions of traffic, commercialism, and electronic devices, students were able to experience the natural world in a way that they had never done before.

morning meetingSam wrote, “The United Leaders group went out to the dock and did morning meeting. It was so peaceful on the dock. When I felt peaceful I finally got the feeling of where I was. I saw the sun rise over the water and the palm trees making gentle waveing motions, I felt so excited to be in the place I am.”

Solo Time

Practicing “solo time” is a regular component of our Montessori philosophy. It requires students to spend a period of time in silence. While they are generally in proximity to one another during this time, they are not permitted to interact. They may draw, read, journal, reflect, etc., but they may not do work or sleep. While we typically conduct solo time in the classroom, being on Pigeon Key allowed the experience to be so much richer. Students who often grumble about disliking solo time were begging to be able to do it longer. Many of them recorded their experience in their journals.

solo HWNasiha: “I loved solo time because I got to look at the bright sky going down by the horizon. It was so beautiful. It made me feel so peaceful and calm. Usually I don’t like solo time because I never see the point, but now I like it because of the outside feel and the view.”

solo distance

 

Cornell: “The solo time was literally the best solo time I’ve ever had. Like at first I was worried but then something helped me out, and I could really focus. It’s like you never notice how beautiful everything is with all the negativity around America and humanity. During the solo time I got to see nautical beauty and worry about nothing. It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything. It was pretty cool too, like I wanted there to be more time.”

It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything.”

Learning Together

Hands-on work and real-world experiences are fundamental to Montessori education. The impact of learning this way was demonstrated profoundly on Pigeon Key.classroom

This was our classroom.

 

 

 

 

planktonWe learned about plankton, and then collected samples and examined them under microscopes.

 

 

 

 

jellyfishWe studied jellyfish, and then in the Cassiopeia Stress Lab activity, we explored how various types of water-changes impact these animals.

 

 

 

squid

 

We had presentations on squid and shark – followed by dissections of each.

shark Takko

My favorite lesson, however, was on species commonly found in tide pool areas of the Florida Keys. We then went tide-pooling and had close encounters at the touch tanks with the creatures we found. The students utterly transformed during this. They were so full of joy and delight. I loved seeing them this way.

tidepooling

Within minutes of wading in the water, all the students were eagerly engaged in turning over rocks, investigating, identifying, and handling what they found . . . and just having fun together. The air was full of cries of:  “Oooh look what I found.”

 “Wait, what’s this?!”

 “Look, that’s a big one!”

 “Oh my God what’s that?”

The kids were far more successful at finding things than I was, but Arianna helped me out.

“Hey Ms. Taylor, these are those anemones that grab onto you when you touch them!”

“What?!”

“Look, touch them. They grab onto your finger!”

“Whoa! How did you know they would do that?”

“We learned about it in our lesson yesterday!”

touch tanks 1

 

At the touch tank: Michael didn’t want to handle anything. Wtouch tanks 4hen I insisted, and held his hands while placing first a sea urchin and then a brittle sea star into them, he exclaimed, “I’m not even scared. . . Oh, yes, I am!”

 

 

 

While nocturnal tide-pooling, I overheard this priceless exchange between Destiny and Jermiah:

touch tanks 5

“I found a sea star!”

“No, WE found a sea star!”

“Well, I found it!”

“Well, I picked it up!”

 

Hadiyah described the impact of this lesson in her journal, “One thing that was a surprise for me was how fun the touch tank was. All the organisms were so cool. I wish I could have stayed with them forever.”

The Coral Reef

But snorkeling at Looe Key and Sombrero Reef were perhaps the most intense experiences of the entire trip. We had been preparing for this for months, but our work began in earnest with snorkeling practice on our first day on Pigeon Key. Although a few students were ready and willing to jump right in and use their snorkel gear, many others were not. We had a few non-swimmers, and some who had never been to the ocean before.

snorkeling lesson 2

Cornell was initially fearful just walking in the shallows – he held my hand, and we had to countdown from 10 and go underwater together in order to get him to get his head wet. The PK staff worked intensely with him and within 30 minutes we heard, “I’m doing it! I’m swimming!

snorkeling lesson 3Next, it was time to jump off the dock with snorkel, mask, and fins – demonstrate being horizontal with face in the water, and dive and clear a snorkel pipe. Cornell didn’t wait until the end of the group this time, and only needed a countdown from three. Off the dock he went. Thirty minutes earlier, he couldn’t swim and was nervous to wade!

PK snorkeling 3But snorkeling at the reefs brought another level of challenge. We took a boat out to the site, which is in the middle of the ocean – no land anywhere to be seen. The water was deeper, and even in the shallow areas, in order to protect the coral, we were not allowed to stand. However, once we put out faces in, we were immediately immersed in an underwater world of colorful life.

PK snorkeling 1

 

All but one of our 45 students made it into the water. While snorkeling at Looe Key, we saw several fairly large reef sharks. As a result, a number of students didn’t stay in the water for very long on that first day.

PK snorkeling shark

 

shark video

 

 

 

They were disappointed in themselves, and most of them set a goal to spend more time in the water the next day at Sombrero Reef. Almost all of them did this, and experienced the pride that comes with meeting a challenge you’ve set for yourself.

Michael: “Another very powerful part of this trip was when we went snorkeling because I was very scared to even get into the water. This really changed my view on deep waters and swimming near dangerous animals because I didn’t want to stay in the water for one second on the first day, but on the second day, I was aggravated I even had to get out!”

Alvin: “At Pigeon Key I overcame my fear of snorkeling with sharks. I am most proud of myselPK snorkeling 4f for being gritty in everything I did down in Pigeon Key. It made me realize that I have to be gritty in everything I do in my life.” 

 

 

 PK snorkeling 6

Cornell: “The trip also helped me understand the beauty of the world. Like seeing all those fish and coral. I got so much salt water in my mouth from laughing/smiling when I saw how amazing everything was. It was amazing to just look at it for minutes and sort of just see natural beauty. It’s so beautiful, you know? The world where it’s natural and protected.”

Hadiyah’s Snorkeling Poem once again manages to express the many thoughts and feelings that snorkeling at the reef elicited.

 “Fear crept up my spine

The water like a Gatorade blue

Acting like it had secrets to hide

The deepness threatening me

But under me, something filled with wonder

 

Jumping so quick I almost missed it

Switching snorkles as fast as people end relationships.

Drawing in excitement

Wanting to see everything I ever learned

Curiosity like a small child and a TV

 

Pain in my eyes and throat couldn’t stop me.

Not then, not ever

The type of beauty that could make a grown man cry

It gave a sense of courage.

A sense of passion.

 

Together one minute

Alone the next.

The pointing,

The tapping

The thank yous

 

It felt like days under there.

Permanently burned in my brain

Fragments never to be forgotten

Having new friends

And cherishing them, all in three hours.”

 Maria Montessori was right. True education “is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.” These lessons can’t be learned in the classroom.

Building Relationships

 On this trip, the students learned as much about themBeach 2selves, and each other, as they did about the world around them. They had opportunities to view themselves, and each other, in a new light. They had fun together, and as they did so, they saw themselves changing and growing, and they saw strengths in one another.

Zakeerah’s journal noted a typical adolescent concern, and the tender way her peers took care of her.

“I was worried that no one would want to sit next to me on the bus, and then Dorey took my face in her hands and said, ‘You are a smart and beautiful person.’ If I could have blushed I would have. Then Takko sat next to me on the bus.”

 Hadiyah: “I got to know Sam a lot more today. He is really chill and smart. I like that we are closer now. I already knew he was funny, just not THAT funny.”

Michael: “I was really skeptical about how I would fit in with the other 8th graders I didn’t really know. I think this experience really changed my outloBeach 3ok on a lot of things . . . This trip also helped me bond with a lot of my classmates, who I usually don’t talk to or haven’t really got a chance to know. I didn’t really take to heart not judging a book by its cover, but once I got to meet and bond with a lot of the other 8th graders in Pigeon Key, I felt like I had been lost because I could have found these people and talked to them earlier.”

 

And Qualey, who noted at the beginning of the trip that she hoped to learn to love herself, later wrote: “I don’t know, but today, I see myself changing in a good way, and I’m so proud of myself for growing up and trying to be a positive young lady.”

On this trip, I had the privilege of watching them grow up right before our eyes.

 Transitions

 We hold a rite of passage ceremony on our final night on the island. (This ceremony is a well-kept secret at Gamble. Older students, even older siblings, don’t share the details of this ritual with younger students.) As a part of this closing celebration, students receive packets of letter from teachers and family members – each letter acknowledging the student for the gifts the writer sees in them. They read these letters during their final solo time. It is incredibly powerful for them.

Michael: “It was very impactful for me when I read my letters from the teachers and my family because it showed how much others appreciate me, and I never really knew that so many people actually cared about me. That really lit up my day because I was already a bit mad because I didn’t want to go home.”

Closing Ceremony Poem Excerpts

 “I cried harder at each letter that filled my mind.

Before we were all blinded teenagers.

Thinking nobody cared,

Nobody could come close to understanding.

When everybody tried to.

                                                      (Hadiyah)

 

Teachers crying, students crying

Everyone crying because

They really care for

Each other. Some tears

Of joy, other tears of

Disappointment or sorrow.

 

We’re being set free

Like baby birds finally

Learning to fly. Uncomfortable

At first, but later confident

Because we have the tools

We need to succeed in life.”

                                               (Michael)

And There is Magic

 The Pigeon Key trip is an intense week full of many, many powerful experiences. Each of these moments swirled together spark sheer and absolute magic.

One evening as we were preparing for bed, Qualey looked up at me and asked, seemingly out of nowhere “Ms. Taylor, Do you think I’m going to be ready for high school next year?”

And my response: “Oh, Qualey, I know you’re going to be ready for high school next year,”

There were so many vulnerable and tender moments like this. It was an absolute honor to get to participate in and witness students’ transformation. It is experiences like these that make teaching worth all the challenges. It is why teachers do what we do. We get to stand beside children, and to serve as their guides.

The school year ended mere days after returning to Cincinnati, and our two-year time together came to an end. These students will move on to our high school program next year. I will miss them.

This is Hadiyah’s response to what she would tell future students.

“I will tell them that Pigeon Key is a miracle place, andsunset finally, that it was like a never-ending dream.”

I feel the same way.

 

 

**This trip is a monumental opportunity for our students, but as you can imagine, it is quite expensive.  The cost per student is $1,700.  With 70% of our students eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program, this amount is a significant hardship for many of our families.  This year, we were able to provide upwards of $12,000 in scholarships through contributions made to the Gamble Montessori Foundation; however, even with that support, only about half of our 8th graders were able to go on the trip.  My dream is that someday they will all get to go.  If you are interested in helping with this, I am more than happy to provide further information about how to donate, and about how financial aid decisions are made.  Feel free to contact me at taylorkrista70@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

-by Jack M. Jose

Years ago, after the last day of school, I was rushing to clean up my room and finishing items on my check-out sheet. I was trying diligently to accomplish the work that stood between me and my hard-earned summer. I was hot and tired, it felt like I had been battling my students for the last two weeks of school. I was ready to be finished.

Jerry walked into the room with a friend of his I had seen a couple of times. Jerry and I had battled all year. He seemed impervious to encouragement, scolding, poor grades, phone calls home, conferences, and other tactics I could manage in the early stages of my teaching career. He insisted on not doing much work outside of the classroom, and seemed satisfied with the mix of Ds and Fs on his report card.

“I’m out, Mr. Jose. I’m gone and you ain’t gonna see me again, I’m done with this place.” He waived a withdrawal paper in my direction. “Bye.”

In my frustration, and exhaustion, I dismissed him. “Well, go on then. What’s the difference, you weren’t doing much work anyway.”

His entire disposition changed, and his next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.” He gestured to his friend who followed him into the emptying hallways and out the front door of the building.

Now, this was not exactly a difficult conversation, in the sense of a conversation where an important message had to be delivered and understood. This was a simple, short impromptu exchange between a teacher and a student. The way that I screwed the conversation up is apparent in the re-telling, but very human in the moment. Here is what I missed, upon reflection: a student who I had struggled with all year, in whom I had invested hours of calls, meetings, papers getting corrected, and conversations at his desk and in the hallway, was looking forward to leaving the school where he struggled. Before he left, however, he stopped in to see me. I believed at first that he had shown up to tell me off, and so I sort of beat him to the punch. My response to him was, essentially, “Good riddance.” Only after time could I see that he was probably more eager to leave the school and be done than I was, and yet he went out of his way, up to my second floor classroom, to visit me. I see now that there is another, better interpretation of his visit. This young man, who struggled with school, and who had finished his last day and was in fact leaving the school for good, stuck around at the end of the day to come see me and to tell me he was leaving. It is apparent to me that quite possibly he appreciated my effort, and felt that we had forged a connection. I was worth sticking around for, on the last day of school.

Periodically, it becomes clear that a particular topic for the blog, or a particular skill or habit we practice at Gamble Montessori, was derived almost entirely from one particular book, (Or, as in the post “Giving an A”, one particular chapter of a book.) This post is similar. However, instead of being a memory of a book that helped in the past, this book arises both because it made an impact AND because it still has some wisdom to impart. That book is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Douglas; Patton, Bruce, and Heen, Sheila, 1999.)

One of my cousins confessed to me that he really didn’t ever enjoy coming to church, so he only came a couple times a year. We had just attended a holiday ceremony with our extended family and were walking out of the nave. He marveled aloud at how each time “the sermon seems to be talking to me, about me.” He stopped the act of loosening his tie and made eye contact with me. “It’s spooky. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was something to this church thing.”

That is how I feel about Difficult Conversations. It is downright discouraging to note that almost every word in the introduction about the need for this book – especially the unwillingness of people to have the hard conversations necessary to sustain their most vital relationships – seems to fit my ongoing situation, and me personally. It’s spooky.

DaringGreatly-EngagedFeedback-8x10
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown discusses the power of vulnerability – revealing your mistakes or flaws to make it okay for other people to show theirs. Vulnerability, paired with contribution, can be a pathway to powerful and life-altering conversations.

The work of teachers and administrators is fraught with difficult conversations, especially this time of the year. The student whose 4th quarter push fell short, the parent frustrated with a disciplinary action taken late in the year, questions about the evaluation of adults in the building, from paraprofessionals to the principal, all bring challenges to the professional’s judgment and integrity.

One reassurance I take from this book is the authors’ constant reminder that avoiding hard conversations is a common human coping strategy. Our jobs are hard, life is complicated, and things will eventually sort themselves out. So we all avoid.

Of course, I can’t detail most of the hard conversations I have, or the ones I haven’t had. Their intensity and their private nature is what makes them so hard to have, and makes them unfit for sharing here.

In outline, Difficult Conversations examines the ways that each hard discussion is like the others. While acknowledging that there are many different kinds of important hard conversations, each of those conversations have three definable conversations happening within them.

The “What Happened?” Conversation – this occurs when something important goes wrong, due to miscommunication or other factors, and the participants cannot discuss the issues below the surface that created the conflict. Some teachers’ relationships are so strained from past experiences that when they need to work together to accomplish a goal, they struggle to address each other. Even when something insignificant happens, they fail to communicate effectively, and cannot address the issue, instead retreating into blame, which solves nothing.

The Feelings Conversation – in conflict, especially in the professional world, we attempt to eliminate feelings to stay focused on “business.” However, these conversations are hard because they deal primarily with feelings, and failing to acknowledge and address them keeps the conflict alive even if the current issue seems resolved. Krista reminds me of this all the time. Often this is inseparable from the “What Happened” conversation, except that when the feelings, especially of disrespect, go unaddressed, the “What Happened” conversation can never get fully resolved.

The Identity Conversation – in every exchange, each individual is conscious of what their stance and the outcome reveal about them, the speaker. These conversations are often a challenge not because of their importance to the company or the relationship, but because they force us to confront and perhaps question a deeply held belief about ourselves. For instance, a teacher might not want to speak with me about their interaction with a student that led to a conflict with the student. A teacher who sees herself as a loving advocate for students might not want to face the suggestion that she mishandled the interaction with a student, or to learn that there is something to do to repair the relationship.

In these conversations, we consistently take a limited amount of knowledge, that portion derived from our own perspective and experience, and we draw all of our conclusions from that incomplete starting point. We also make judgments about the other person based on our past experience with them.

Our human tendency to misunderstand another’s actions, what is described in the book as the “first mistake” in judging others’ intentions, caused me to horribly bungle the interaction with Jerry on the last day of school. I believed I knew his intentions, and responded to that belief, rather than to his words. In doing so, I made a mistake that I can never repair. Fortunately, I can learn from my experiences, and not repeat the mistake. Well, not that PARTICULAR mistake!

His next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.”

Instead of having the “what happened” conversation at all, we both acted on emotions. I was reacting to my personal frustration and tiredness without regard to Jerry’s situation at all. Instead of addressing feelings, we left them below the surface of our words, sharp rocks just under the waters offshore. What if I had expressed just my feelings, “Jerry, I need to say that this news is so frustrating for me. I feel like I worked really hard with you this year, and that you are sort of throwing that away.” How differently would that exchange have gone? Finally, there is the identity conversation. I put Jerry in a place where he needed to show his friend he controlled the situation and that he did not need school. I put him there because in that moment, my view of myself as an effective teacher had been severely damaged.

Instead, I attacked. Stone, Patton, and Heen effectively address the common conversational misstep that always feels like an attack: the tendency to assign blame, typically to someone other than ourselves. This is not a type of conversation, it is a tendency to pre-litigate the situation in our heads, then have the whole conversation as if trying to prove that it was someone’s fault, rather than to determine the best way forward. As a teacher, it is a simple habit to assign blame to the student; as an administrator, to the teacher or student. This is a common cause of conflict between people in working relationships, especially between teachers and students. Perhaps you have seen a version of this conversation play out in your classroom: “You didn’t do the work correctly/completely.” “Well, you didn’t explain the assignment very clearly.” This creates conflict from the outset of the conversation, and is often resolved by the teacher “pulling rank,” and the unintended consequence is the student feeling like he is no longer in a cooperative environment, and is instead fighting against the assignment and the teacher.

Many of us chose teaching or education-related fields because we want to help others. I suspect this is why I commonly find others – and myself – making a special version of the blame mistake: blaming themselves. This can often lead to avoidance, meaning important conversations don’t happen at all.

Here is how that happens. A teacher fails to turn in an assignment, such as a printout of their grade distribution, at the end of the quarter. Instinctively, I think “that teacher usually does a really good job at handing things in on time, I must not have communicated very clearly.” Then I make a note for how to nudge them, perhaps by adding a friendly reminder in the bulletin, or mentioning it in the blog, hoping, perhaps in futility, that they will read it and amend their ways. I feel good because I gently reminded them, indirectly without blame or confrontation. Meanwhile, the teacher might remain blissfully unaware; either they have forgotten about the assignment, or they are too busy to complete it at this time (and probably too busy to closely review the bulletin or read the blog), or they thought they turned it in. In short, they are not benefiting from the lack of a conversation, and the work is not getting done.

That is the heart of these difficult conversations. In all of the places where the gears of the school are grinding instead of smoothly meshing, there is a challenging conversation to be had. In each, all three conversations – what happened, feelings, and identity – need to be acknowledged. The inclination to blame should be repressed.

Instead of blame, one should focus the conversation on “contribution” instead. Perhaps all of the aspects mentioned above are contributing factors – perhaps notification could have been clearer or more pervasive, and perhaps the teacher was very busy and deprioritized the important work of examining their quarterly grades. Focusing on contribution allows for the reality that inactions or mistakes often have multiple causes. Reality is messy. However, the work still needs to get done. In this case the hard conversation needs to be initiated by the person who recognizes the problem, and needs to be had promptly, preferably with neutral language. For instance, rather than addressing my concern passively through the bulletin, I might approach the teacher and say, “Good morning, my records indicate that you did not turn in your grade distribution at the end of this quarter.” This wording feels very different from “why didn’t you turn in …” which clearly (and perhaps inaccurately) assigns blame to the teacher. In this case, the teacher could identify the problem, and provide information. “That’s odd, I thought I sent it to you already. Did you see the email I sent entitled ‘Pesky B’s’? It seems like every class had a large percentage of B’s, which struck me as odd.”

Here is what I did:

  • I named the situation (you did not turn in your grade distribution)
  • I identified how it came to my attention (my records indicate)
  • I stripped blame from the statement while still naming the concern
  • I allowed for any possibility in the answer – seeking contribution, and allowing for the possibility that my records were flawed

Focusing on contribution allows me to have the conversation with the teacher without blaming, and without violating my “identity conversation” with myself – that I see myself as a fair and supportive teacher-leader, rather than a demanding principal. And in this case, the teacher was able to address the issue without blame, and point out that the work had been submitted in a format I was not expecting. Accountability was maintained, my opinion of the teacher was confirmed, and I did nothing to discount their professionalism.

Even as I recount successes and failures, it is clear that this book’s most powerful use is as a reference kept within arm’s length of your workstation, to be consulted whenever a hard conversation presents itself. If you are human, like me, this will often come in handy.

 

 

 

Welcome Back! — Helping Students Return After Suspension

-by Krista Taylor

Corey was returning to school after a three-day suspension. He had missed three days of instruction, was angry with his teachers for issuing the consequence, and was embarrassed by the problem that had occurred in front of his peers. Though this situation is far from a set-up for success, how he walks through the door of the classroom on that first day back will impact the rest of his school year. Too often, as teachers and administrators, we miss this critical moment for connection and problem-solving

In all school settings, student misbehavior – breaking the rules – is a daily occurrence. This runs the gamut from minor infractions such as dress code violations, chewing gum and off-task talking to more major incidents like disrespectful communication and verbal or physical conflict.

 I am often asked, “Why do they [students] behave like that?!” My answer is always, “Because it’s their job.” Or as Jack phrases it, “because they are adolescenting.”

What we both mean by these comments is that they are working it out – who they are, how they fit, what they believe in . . . and they are discovering the boundaries of what is acceptable in a variety of situations and with a variety of people. This is their work, and in the process of this work, they must successmake mistakes, for that is how learning occurs. For some, this learning comes harder than it does for others; their mistakes are bigger.

School is both a relatively safe environment in which to make these mistakes, as well as a place so full of rules that it is easy to find ways to break them. There are few other environments that have so many restrictions on behavior – no talking while you are working, restroom breaks are limited and only allowable with permission, lateness of even just a few seconds comes with a consequence, food consumption is limited to specific times and locations, etc. Where do we ever see adult environments that mirror this level of rigid expectation? Prison? I don’t mean this as a critique of schools – it is difficult, if not impossible, to manage a large group of adolescents in the absence of an abundance of rules – however this also creates a near-perfect storm: individuals hell-bent on boundary-pushing in a setting with a tremendous amount of boundaries!

So our adolescents, in the process of growing up, break our rules – in small ways and in large ones, and as their guides, we are charged with addressing and correcting their misbehavior. This runs the gamut from simply redirecting behavior to suspending a child from school.

While suspension should always be a weighty decision – there are few educational messages as strong as “You can’t be in my classroom right now” – it can be a powerful tool that allows for a cooling-off period, a space in which a student can regroup and school staff can consider how to best address the situation.

But the removal from school is just the beginning of the process, and, by my measure, it is not the most important component of the school response. Rather, what takes place when the student returns to school is the most critical factor.

Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager and consider this scenario:

You have made a mistake – a pretty big one. You have missed several days of school – and therefore have missed out on both the academic instruction and the social dynamic that has taken place in your absence. It is likely that your peers have some awareness of the situation and why you haven’t been at school. Your teachers or administrators have been in touch with your parents, who are pretty upset with you. Additionally, you probably feel, rationally or irrationally, that you have been mistreated. You are embarrassed, angry, and anxious, and now you have to return to school and face your peers, teachers, and administrators once more.

This is not a good set-up in which to have a fresh start, and yet a fresh start is exactly what we are hoping our students will experience.

At Gamble, we have established a Re-Entry Conference procedure to help ease the transition back to the classroom after a removal from school. It is intentionally a formal, and formulaic, process in an attempt to simultaneously address the misbehavior and set the student up for future success. This is a tricky tightrope to walk. To assist us in doing that successfully and efficiently, we use a structured form to guide the process. That form is linked here, and the accompanying process is outlined below. Each section correlates, in order, to a numbered step on the form.

The Goal

“To assist the student in smoothly returning to the school setting by reviewing the problem behavior, re-teaching expectations, and identifying any necessary supports”

This goal statement was a recent addition to the form. We included it at the top of the form because sometimes we get confused about what the goal of the conference is, and become overly caught up in discussing all the things the child had done wrong. This adds insult to injury and runs counter to the purpose of the conference. The reading of a goal statement is an important reminder that helps everyone to remain on track.

Strengths of the Student

This is perhaps the most important piece of the meeting. It is important for everyone in the room to remember what the student does well before moving on to the mistakes the student has made. The words that are shared in these moments establish a possibility to be lived into, and reinforce the inherent worth of the child.

This risk here, however, is in what I call the “Yeah, but . . . phenomenon.” The temptation to follow a compliment with a related criticism can be so strong. I recently had to quite literally bite my tongue when I realized that I was falling prey to this very thing. I was sitting in a re-entry conference with Lashawnda and her mother. Lashawnda had been removed from school for bullying. Her actions matched all 3 bullying criteria: continued over time, included a power imbalance, and demonstrated the intent to harm. This behavior was shocking coming from this particular student, and we sent the appropriately strong message that it would not be tolerated and that she couldn’t be part of our school community until she had a problem-solving conversation with her teachers and her parent.

As always, we began the meeting by describing her strengths. Her mother had tears running down her face as I described the powerful and positive leadership qualities that Lashawnda possesses. Midway through a sentence that sounded like, “Lashawnda has such tremendous gifts as a leader,” I realized that my next words were about to be, “which is why I am so very disappointed by the choices she has recently made.” I caught myself mere milliseconds before having these words tumble out of my mouth. I did need to address the behavior, but not yet, and not at the expense of undermining her strengths. The moment that I link her leadership strengths with the problem behavior, I inadvertently remove all the power from the positive feedback. I basically give her the messCoach Reed on positive feedbackage, “Well, not really,” and what she will remember is the criticism and not the compliment. This is true in teaching, in coaching, and in parenting. Reed Maltbie describes it thusly in his blog on coaching young people. (You can read more of his thoughts at www.coachreed.com)

Describing a student’s strengths may be the most important part of the meeting; don’t dilute it’s power by adding a “yeah, but . . . “

School Concerns

Once every person at the table has identified some of the student’s strengths, the meeting facilitator transitions to the second step of the process – describing why the student was removed from school.

NOW it’s time to talk about the problem behavior.   Remember that this is a re-teach moment, not a “bring’em down” moment. Be careful of double jeopardy; the consequence has already been served.

Because Gamble is a team-based school, re-entry conferences tend to include many staff people – often an entire teaching team as well as an administrator. This is important to ensure a singular voice and clear and consistent communication, but it risks making the student feel teamed-up on. Resist the urge to pile on a lengthy list of infractions, or having multiple adults provide essentially the same negative message. Choose words carefully, focus on the impact of the misbehavior and on teaching how the situation could have been handled better.

Keep in mind that the student does not have to agree with you in order for your point to be heard. You are not obligated to convince the student that the behavior was a serious problem. It is, of course, ideal if the student is able to take responsibility for the situation and seek to make amends; however this does not always occur.   Trying to force the issue is akin to trying to make a finicky toddler eat a disliked food. All you will wind up doing is engaging in an unwinnable control battle, and while it can be tempting to belabor your point until a student appears to agree with you, this is similar to obligating students to apologize. They will do it if they sense it is required, but that does not make it genuine or valuable.

Remember the goal of the conference is to help the child return to school – creating a deeper divide is counteractive to your purpose. Speak your truth. The student does not have to share in it for your words to be impactful.  As with all forms of education, you are planting seeds. Even if those seeds don’t find immediate purchase, trust that they have been received and will, at the least, lay the groundwork for future growth.

Parent Concerns

Allow the parent(s) to share any concerns they might have. Be prepared that this might include a critique of how school staff handled the situation. Fight against the natural inclination to be defensive. You’ve had your turn. Offer clarification when warranted, but just as you and the student do not need to agree on an interpretation of the situation, neither do you and the parent.

It is also possible that the parent will share the same concerns as school staff. Here, too, it is important to not revisit school concerns and “gang up on” the student. Allow the parents’ concerns to stand separately.

Student Concerns

This is the student’s turn to speak. Although it is where you hope to hear the student take responsibility for the misbehavior, this may or may not occur. Depending on the student’s response, the same potential pitfalls exist that arise during the parent concern part of the meeting. Often students do not choose to express any concerns. Encourage them to contribute – this is a potential moment of self-advocacy, and students’ comments may lead to the best problem-solving strategies, as there is no one at the table who has better insight into the situation than the student himself.

 Action Plan

if you do what you've always

The next part of the meeting is spent looking at what each party can do differently to help the student to make better choices going forward.

The order remains the same: first school staff identifies available supports from which the student might benefit, and explores how to put them in place; then the parent identifies ways in which they can assist the student in making improvements, and lastly the student is asked to provide strategies she or he can use to prevent the same situation from occurring again.

Bringing it all together

The final element of the conference brings the conversation full-circle. The form states, “Summarize action plan and strengths of the student in a way that encourages the student to succeed moving forward.” It provides for a revisiting of the student’s strengths coupled with the identified action plan to allow for an optimistic vision of the student’s success in the future.

For Corey, this meeting was revealing. During the conversation, Corey’s mom noted that she needed to be more involved in her son’s schooling, Corey shared that he often felt targeted for his behaviors, and his teachers set up a process where Corey identified a trusted adult to whom he could turn to for assistance when he had behaved inappropriately.

At the end of this discussion, Corey, his mother, and school staff were all on the same page, and all parties were ready for him to return to the classroom in a positive manner.

The Reality

Re-entry conferences are not a magic elixir, and, like most things, they take time and effort. Behavioral change is a lengthy process, especially for our neediest students. These re-entry conferences are a way to heal the rift that occurred with the misbehavior and the ensuing consequence, help the student transition successfully back into the classroom community, and provide an opportunity to reteach the correct behavior and the classroom expectations. It’s not an easy process, but it is powerful and worth the time and energy it entails.

Differentiation: The Latest Great Debate

-by Krista Taylor

Educational pedagogy can be as faddish as the fashion industry – what is de rigueur one year, can become passé just as quickly. We are all looking for the perfect teaching methodology that works for every student, every time.

Of course, such a utopian ideal doesn’t exist, and can’t ever exist, because education is about people, and people will never fit into a one-size-fits-all model because people are messy.

Differentiation is the latest practice to run the risk of having the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.differentiation sign

Recently in Education Week, James Delisle boldly titled his article, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” He wrote, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke.”[1]

Whoops . . . the bathwater and the baby!

Delisle primarily critiques differentiation on two grounds: the difficulty for teachers (or as he notes, impossibility) of implementing differentiation practices, and a concern that heterogeneous student groupings (the structure on which differentiation is based) does a disservice to all students.

There is some merit to his first claim. Effective differentiation is hard, hard work. It is true that planning differentiated lessons and assignments is like preparing multiple lessons for each class, and I agree that it may be a near impossible task for a teacher operating alone. Co-teaching and teaming structures are an important way to make the task feasible.

Differentiation is made easier in a co-teaching model. Co-teachers are able to share the extra work that comes with differentiation, and differentiation practices maximize the benefits of co-teaching. Other forms of teaming can also lighten the differentiation burden through collaboration and the sharing of lessons and materials.

I find Delisle’s second claim more worrying as it touches on fairness and equity in education. The homogenous groupings he proposes are more commonly called “tracking.” In non-education parlance, this means grouping students of similar abilities together – often identified as “honors,” “grade-level,” and “remedial” tracks. This implies that the only measure of a student’s ability is an academic one, and that students benefit when they are surrounded by others most like them in terms of academic skill.

This is backward progress. Studies have established that students placed in lower-track programs do not perform as well as students in mixed-ability settings.[2] Neuroscience has proven that the brain is malleable, that high expectations yield high outcomes, and that knowledge is developed through repeated practice and challenging content. In light of this, it is particularly concerning that lower-track classes are disproportionately composed of students of color and low-income students, while higher-tracked classes tend to be made up of predominately white or Asian, middle-class students.[3] In this way, our educational system mirrors, and reinforces, the inequity seen in our society as a whole. As educators, we are fundamentally charged with helping to level the playing field for our students, not contributing to the uphill battle. If we know that tracked programming yields poor outcomes, and potentially serves to maintain the racially-linked economic disparity so prevalent in this country, we simply must not do it. First, do no harm.

But what about the accelerated students? The argument that differentiation disservices high-functioning students holds no water. When differentiation practices are fully implemented, they are used to expand the learning of these students in the same way that they support the learning of struggling students. Sometimes this means that homogenous groupings are used within a heterogeneous classroom to allow accelerated students to work together. Sometimes it means that extension work is assigned, or that the highest level of an assignment incorporates greater amounts of complexity, or that lesson content is compacted and taught separately to this group so they can move more quickly. There is no singular differentiation strategy, but the idea that it is only effective for low-level students is an erroneous one.

However, none of this gets to the real heart of the issue. Exposing our students on a daily basis to people who are different from themselves is perhaps the greatest society-changing influence we can have. Our biggest work is to guide our students into becoming noble citizens; we must provide them with constant opportunities to see all the gifts (not just the academic ones) that each individual possesses. When looking through the Gamble Moments books, it is remarkable how many of those powerful stories involve students interacting with others who have greater challenges. It is in these moments that we see the greatest growth in our students; not having these opportunities would be a tragic loss for all students – equally detrimental to our high-achieving students as to our struggling learners.

So if we reject tracking as an acceptable mode, and, after all, “separate but equal” was thrown out as an appropriate option in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, we are left with the conundrum of how to educate students with a disparate range of skills, abilities, and experiences within the same classroom. This is not something that is going to go away, and it is a reality in the vast majority of classrooms across the country. We must embrace differentiation as a strategy to meet the many needs of our students.

Differentiation is the means through which students with a broad-range of learning needs can benefit from a diverse classroom environment while simultaneously making academic gains. We have already established that it is not a panacea; however it is the best strategy teachers have for making instruction accessible to all.differentiation chartThere are many ways to differentiate, and, like all instructional practices, it takes time to develop expertise. Speaking from my personal experience, developing differentiation techniques was my number one professional aspiration for years. After three years of actively pushing myself in this area, I finally felt like I had achieved the goals I had set for myself in my initial vision, but, of course, by then, my goals had changed and evolved — the more work I did, the more work I saw that I had yet to do! As Carol Ann Tomlinson writes in “Differentiation Does, In Fact, Work,” “The pursuit of expertise in teaching is a career-long endeavor. They [Teachers] aren’t sprinters expecting quick success, so much as marathoners in the race for the long haul.[4]

Getting started, or doing more, with differentiation can feel like a daunting task. It is important to keep in mind that differentiation is not a goal in and of itself, rather meeting students’ needs is the goal, and differentiation is the vehicle. So begin with planning.

There are many ways to differentiate – differentiated expectations, differentiated instruction, differentiated assignments, and differentiated assessments. Add to this the ideas of differentiating based on complexity of task (vertical differentiation), and differentiation based on method of demonstrating proficiency, often called choice work or menus (horizontal differentiation), and suddenly, every lesson can begin to look like a Meyers-Briggs personality-type chart! But don’t despair – most lessons don’t require differentiation of every type, and some lessons don’t need to be differentiated at all. It’s important to start with planning.

The Planning Pyramid is a good place to begin – thinking about what components of the standard all students must learn, most students must learn, and some students must learn.planning pyramid

From there, you can design instruction and assessments that will help your students achieve the expectations you have established for them. Assessments are designed based on the expectations for each group.

Many teachers will decide that this type of vertical differentiation is the most important way to implement differentiation simply because meeting the needs of struggling and accelerated learners is such a challenging task.

However, horizontal differentiation can be equally enriching to differentiating with menusa classroom environment. We know that students perform best when they enjoy the task and when they are able to exert some autonomy over it. Choice work allows for creativity and self-selection in the classroom. There are many resources available to help teachers add these components to their classrooms.

There are as many ways to differentiate as there are classrooms. There is no single right way, and it may never be perfect, but in the absence of the elusive, perfect strategy, we must embrace differentiation as a technique that is right for students.

It is not something that we can implement all at once. Begin by taking the next step. Perhaps that means planning one lesson that includes differentiated assignments, or perhaps it means designing a long-range project which includes many of the components of differentiation.

Here are some examples of differentiation that I have incorporated into my own practice. They are each a work-in-progress, and each evolved through collaboration with my co-teachers.

In today’s classrooms, differentiation is not so much an instructional option, as it is an ethical responsibility. The vast majority of classrooms represent diverse communities of learners – this is a critical component to the growth and development of students as they become conscientious citizens of the world, and yet it creates unprecedented academic challenges.

So throw out the bathwater, but keep the baby. Differentiation is very hard work, and teachers need more help in order to be able to implement it more fully. We need more co-teaching pairs, more opportunities for teaming and collaboration, more teacher training, and more resources that have valuable differentiation options embedded within them. In addition, we must push back against the message that every student should cross the same bar at the sadifferentiation cartoonme time, and replace it with the idea that every student must be pushed forward in their individual learning.

You will get no argument from me about the challenges that differentiation entails, but meeting these challenges while respecting the dignity of each learner is, in my mind, a moral imperative. No one can tackle it all at once, but we each must find a place to begin or to grow. It’s no different from what we ask of our students.

 

[1] Delisle, James R. “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” Education Week 34.15 (2015): 28+. Print.

[2] Welner, Kevin. “The Bottom Line on Student Tracking.” The Washington Post(2013): n. pag. Print.

[3] Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. N.p., 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

[4] Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. p. 26, 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

 

Co-Teaching: A Story of Arranged Marriage

-by Krista Taylor

When we hear of marriage proposals, we often get misty eyed, imagining someone down on one knee, holding an expensive piece of jewelry, and eloquently making declarations of true love.

Only one of my marriage proposals has been like this. The other three were arranged marriages, and rather than occurring on the beach, or, better yet, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, these proposals took place in an administrator’s office. The most recent one sounded like this, “Next year we’ll have a new team of young teachers; since you are more experienced, I need you to join them as a co-teaching inclusionist.”

See? It definitely left something to be desired in the romance department.

Most schools include a variety of teaming structures, and there are few educators who don’t serve on at least one type of team in their building. However, co-teaching is it’s own special form of teaming relationship.

It really is a lot like an arranged marriage. Two adults are responsible for a group of children – a little bit like a family unit. Co-teachers spend a lot of time together –during the school day and in time spent planning together outside of school hours. Co-teachers share classroom living space, and co-teachers are dependent on each other to share the responsibilities of the team. Like a marriage, co-teachers must learn to work together, and to tolerate each other’s idiosyncrasies.

What Is Co-Teaching

Co-teaching is defined as two teachers who co-plan, co-instruct, and co-assess academic content provided to a single group of students at the same time. Most often, but not always, co-teaching pairs are comprised of a general education teacher and an intervention specialist (special education teacher).

In this model, co-teaching is a means of providing special education support within the general education setting. This is aligned with the goal of increasing access to rigorous curriculum, and with the provision of instruction in the Least Restrictive Environment. These are lofty goals, and the work isn’t easy.

“The biggest challenge for educators is in deciding to share the role that has traditionally been individual: to share the goals, decisions, classroom instruction, responsibility for students, assessment of student learning, problem solving, and classroom management. The teachers must begin to think of it as our class.”  (Ripley, in Cramer, 2006)

not easy

Why Co-Teach?

Like marriage, there are many benefits to co-teaching for both the adults and children involved.

The pairing of a general education teacher and a special educator brings together two critical skill sets for effective classroom functioning.

While not set in stone, typically the general educator is the content knowledge expert, has experience with whole-group classroom management, possesses knowledge of student backgrounds, and is familiar with expected pacing guideline.

The special educator tends to have expertise in knowledge of the learning process, individualization of instruction, understanding of legal issues and required paperwork, and maintains a focus on learning for mastery.

Specific benefits for students include:

  • Establishment of a respect for differences
  • Creation of a sense of belonging
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Increased attention
  • Provision of peer-models
  • Development of broader friendships

Specific benefits for teachers include:

  • Enhanced instructional knowledge base
  • Collaborative problem solving
  • Shared responsibility
  • Increased grouping options
  • Engaged Teamwork
  • Heightened creativity
  • Ability to provide individualized instruction

Models of co-teaching modelsCo-Teaching

There are six basic models of co-teaching. Each model has specific benefits and rationales for implementation. The determination of which model to use depends on the standard being taught, your goals for your lesson, and the needs of your students.

The Primary 3 Models

Team Teaching

This is often the model that people picture when co-teaching is discussed. In team teaching, two teachers partner to share the same instruction for a single group of students. This model is best used when there is a clear benefit to having two people provide content – examples include: two ways to solve a math problem, instruction which is enhanced by two different perspectives, lessons involving compare and contrast, etc. While it is tempting to over-rely on this method because it is fun to teach with another adult, it should only be used when having two teachers providing the instruction enhances student learning.

Parallel Teaching

In parallel teaching, each teacher provides instruction to approximately half of the students. The resulting reduction in student:teacher ratio provides the powerful benefit of small-group instruction for all students. Additionally these groups can be carefully constructed to best facilitate differentiated instruction. There are times when parallel teaching is best done using heterogeneous groupings (an example of this is small-group discussion), and other times when it is best used for homogenous groupings (for example — new content instruction provided at different levels of complexity).

Station Teaching

Having two teachers present in the classroom enhances the benefits of station teaching. It allows for 2 teacher-led stations, or for 1 teacher to lead a station while the other teacher monitors on-task behavior and supports station transitions.

The Supporting 3 Models

Alternate Teaching:

In this model, one teacher provides instruction to the group, while the other teacher works with a smaller group to provide pre-teaching, re-teaching, or remediation. The intention of this model is that the pull-out group instruction is brief, and is carefully timed to allow for the least impact due to missed content. Once the support has been provided, the students return to the whole-group setting.

One Teach: One Collect Data

While this model may be most frequently used to prepare for special education paperwork, this does not have to be the case. There is tremendous value in all kinds of data collection – including data collection of effective teaching practices. When co-teaching partnerships are grounded in trust and collaboration, they are the perfect relationships in which to collect and analyze potentially hard truths about instructional practices.

One Teach: One Assist

This model is the most frequently used, and the least effective for student learning. While it is often the place where co-teaching teams begin their practice, it should be moved away from as soon as possible. It can be a helpful model to use while teachers learn how to blend their work, since it allows both teachers to learn each others’ teaching styles, expectations, and routines and procedures. It also provides time for the special educator to develop comfort with the instructed content, and for the general educator to learn effective strategies for working with students with disabilities.

“Ms. Taylor, you must be the smartest teacher because you teach both math and language arts.”

Those are words, spoken by a general education student, that I will treasure forever — not because of the reference to being “the smartest,” but because it so clearly demonstrated that, to my students, I am a content teacher – not someone who just helps out in the classroom, not the “IEP teacher,” or the teacher of “those students,” but, quite simply, one of the math teachers and one of the language arts teachers. Along with the acceptance of the special education teacher as just another classroom teacher, comes the mirror belief that the students who receive special education services are just regular members of the classroom community. There is no doubt in my mind that both of these pieces are the direct result of the implementation of co-teaching models in the classrooms I serve.

Getting Started with Co-Teaching

While the benefits of co-teaching are profound, there are many common pitfalls.

collaboration cartoon

Like a marriage, effective co-teaching takes time and effort. Sharing your livelihood with someone else requires the development of trust. In strong co-teaching partnerships, instruction is so fluid that teachers can often finish each others’ sentences, and an observer in the classroom might not be able to recognize which teacher carries which job title, but this ideal does not happen overnight. Co-teaching teams should expect three years of teaming before the model reaches full implementation. There are some ways to make this happen more smoothly.

  • Co-plan – I cannot state this strongly enough: It is not co-teaching, if you are not co-planning
  • Work with administration to establish common planning time for co-teaching pairs
  • Present a united front
    • Put both teachers names on the door, on assignments, and in parent communication
    • When referencing the class, identify both educators as its teachers
    • If possible, allow both teachers equal access to the electronic grade book
    • Establish shared expectations and procedures
  • Share the load. This includes:
    • Planning
    • Creating materials
    • Providing accommodations and modifications
    • Grading
    • Parent phone calls
    • Classroom set-up
  • Don’t try to go too fast
    • Start with baby steps and then challenge yourselves to extend your practice
    • When challenges present themselves, don’t give up! Problem solve and make an adjustment in practice.

Good luck! “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“CUES Cast” Center for Urban Educational Studies

The Hamilton County Center for Urban Educational Studies explores best practices for teachers working in urban environments, especially in the greater Cincinnati / Hamilton County area.  Their mission is to provide support and resources to teachers searching to improve outcomes for their students.

Krista and I were honored to be interviewed for the UrbanESC podcast this April, where we had a chance to talk about the great work being done at Gamble Montessori every day, and to advocate for socio-emotional learning for all students as a way to equip them with the tools necessary to exhibit grit while also demonstrating grace and courtesy.

We are thankful to Paul Smith and Jason Haap for inviting us on their program, and asking thoughtful questions about the work we – and so many others – find profoundly fulfilling. We encourage you to follow this link to the podcast, then respond here: react, comment, question – we would love to hear from you.

What important questions did not get asked? What details did we leave out?

Here is the direct address of the podcast:  http://www.urbanesc.org/2016/04/04/angels-and-superheroes/

 

Lead by Helping Others Lead

-by Jack M. Jose

Getting suggestions has never been a problem for a school administrator. When I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal, I noticed a significant change in how people started sentences when they spoke to me. Instead of offering me congratulations or encouragement, parents and friends were offering me … advice. Suddenly “You should …” became a common conversational opening. When I was a teacher I did not field many suggestions about what to do in my classroom. But now that I had completed 15 years of teaching, and my second post-Bachelor’s degree, and had been selected by a group of teachers, community members, and others to lead a school, I was clearly always in need of one more unsolicited idea. Principals, apparently, exude the impression that they are grasping for suggestions, and need input on every step, from the most mundane idea to ideas that would completely transform the nature of the school. Among suggestions I received: “You should paint that curb yellow,” “You should secretly rank your students and report that to colleges,” “You should do away with the bell schedule,” and “You should require everyone to get two credits of home economics.” Often suggestions are helpfully couched with evidence of dubious merit, usually stated “Like they did in my high school.”

Lead by Helping Others Lead

Of course, I am exaggerating the nature of the suggestions and (somewhat less so) their frequency. In fact, deftly handling suggestions is an important part of the work of any leader. The best leaders involve a wide array of individuals in the act of molding all aspects of the school, and find ways to let others lead.

More than a decade ago, prior to moving to Gamble, I was involved in discussions surrounding the reorganization of a public school in Cincinnati with an eye toward creating a teacher-led school. The goal was to create a system whereby teachers would collectively make the key decisions about the school – program structure, schedule, disciplinary decisions – and the administrator would serve largely to assist in making those decisions happen using his (my newly-acquired) administrative status. (Only now does it occur to me to have been something of a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, perhaps I was seen to be collaborative; on the other hand, perhaps I was perceived as potentially a weak administrator. I choose to go with the first understanding.) I know that when I was a teacher working daily with other trusted, hard-working teachers, constantly acting with the best interests of the students in mind, this seemed a logical conclusion in the evolution of schools. Who better to make the decisions than those of us closest to the “front lines”?

Well, the pie-in-the-sky hope did not come to fruition. And since then, time and again, the structure in CPS schools – and almost everywhere else – has remained largely static and hierarchical. There is a principal, one individual making the final call on the entire range of decisions; size and budget permitting, there may be one or more assistant principals; finally, there are teacher leaders, both in name and stipend, and in energy and spirit.

Though that particular effort to create a teacher-led school was unsuccessful, the concept itself is not misguided or even ill-fated. In fact, any school can be a teacher-led school, provided the administrator is willing to let it happen. Below are suggestions for a controlled, thoughtful way that an administrator can share authority with teachers. These are all strategies that have been applied regularly, albeit imperfectly, at Gamble Montessori. The first hurdle in utilizing these suggestions is having an administrator who wishes to involve teachers directly in the process of decision-making and responsibility-taking.

Sharing responsibility and decision-making with teachers, parents, and students is not a novel concept in education. Nor is it a new thought in any business model to involve front-line employees in making the most important decisions. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses this sharing of the work and decision-making as the difference between mere management and true leadership. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, in The Art of Possibility, call it “Leading from any Chair,” and describe this as the most important aspect of leadership. In the end, it creates not just a better product, but a shared sense of accomplishment and ownership.

Listening to suggestions:

First, a leader must find an intentional way to elicit input from others involved in the task. Listening to suggestions is best exemplified by Zander’s own example, wherein he encourages the musicians in his orchestra to provide suggestions on how the music should be played. Those who are closest to the situation are in the best position to understand the problems and the changes that need to be made to affect the best outcome.

This does not mean taking every suggestion and implementing it, or even promising to implement it. It does mean that you have to develop facility for handling suggestions in a way that ensures they get fair treatment. Sometimes this means allowing a teacher to take leadership on an initiative that they have championed, and sometimes this means referring the idea to a relevant committee that is in position to make the suggested change.

Sharing responsibility:

To be most effective, a manager must not only listen to suggestions, but must create structures to implement important ideas and changes in a regular manner. At Gamble Montessori, there are few aspects of the structure and daily running of the school that have happened without the tacit approval, and sometimes the explicit approval, of a majority of the staff. This can be accomplished anywhere with a couple simple steps.

First, create committees to achieve certain goals or accomplish work that needs to be done during the school year. Though not an exhaustive list, three examples of this at Gamble, and at many schools, are:

  • Graduation committee, created to plan and implement the annual commencement ceremony;
  • Positive school culture committee, responsible for overseeing instruction around fair implementation of the school’s rules and policies for students, and the effectiveness of a particular approach;
  • Communications committee, responsible for maintaining the school’s website and social media presence.

Second, create a governing structure where the principal is a critical component, but not the only one. An example of this is an instructional leadership team (ILT). In Cincinnati Public Schools an ILT has a defined composition and roles that require a certain percentage of teachers, parent membership, and the presence of the principal to create a quorum. Such a structure similar to an ILT at any school could be used to make a wide variety of decisions. The wider the changes they are empowered to make within boundaries, the better. These should not be minor decisions; this committee is not best used to decide when the school play should happen (that is a job for a sub-committee). The ILT should be used to make substantial decisions such as setting the focus of annual improvement efforts, and monitoring the success of teams and individuals in achieving the goals that were decided upon.

However, the simple creation of a governing structure is not the goal. A leader must commit to giving those structures the space they need to do their work effectively. That means allowing the committee to structure the work that comes out of it – including the Principal’s work. I occasionally lament that our ILT exists to create my to-do list, but it is an empty complaint. I understand that to lead by example, I have to be willing to allow the decisions of the group to become my work. I must also enforce decisions when they become the work of the group.

Establishing priorities:

One replicable way that we have become transparently teacher-led is in collectively establishing priorities for key decisions. There are many “hidden decisions” that get made in the daily process of running a school, or any business. Every phone call handled by a secretary or returned by a teacher helps set a tone for the school (ask Zappos or Wondermade Marshmallows about the importance of good customer service.) Grading decisions made daily by individual teachers have large impacts on student success and outward signs of student success like grade point averages, which in turn affect college acceptances. Even though these decisions are powerful for individuals and their sense of connection to the school, they are made away from the public eye, in the privacy of our classrooms or dining rooms. These are the kinds of actions for which there must be a framework that establishes priorities. Not everything on a teacher’s to-do list can be the most important thing.

Another example of hidden decision-making comes when we schedule students. With only 7 classes in a school day, over two semesters, a course choice in high school has ripple effects for everything that happens afterward. I became aware of this early on, when the school was small enough that I did the scheduling by hand each July. Where a class fell in the school day impacted the ability of the student to take (or not take) other elective classes, or determined whether a team could have common planning time during the day. Several years ago I listed the factors that drove course selection and decision-making during scheduling, and I challenged our ILT to prioritize these factors. Earlier this year we revisited the process.

We used our leadership structure to involve everyone in determining our scheduling priorities by defining key terms, and taking an initial list back to our constituencies. We came back together with questions and suggestions for all of the scheduling factors. An example of the items that might run up against each other during scheduling, are “expanded elective choices,” “reduce class sizes,” and “access to remediation.” We then decided on a voting structure, created ballots, and voted as a staff, creating a final prioritized list. This list will guide those of us who schedule students as we make decisions, allowing us to do it independently and in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the school.

This process is time-consuming. It took us a couple of weeks. However, the result is well worth it. Ultimately everyone got to weigh in on our school’s scheduling priorities, and collectively we made a decision that will guide many behind-the-scenes decisions made by administrative staff while scheduling individual students and classes.

When you become a leader, you are going to get suggestions. Creating a shared responsibility system for handling suggestions is going to help everyone feel empowered and supported in making everyday decisions, and it will determine whether you are successful.

Collaboration: The Tale of a Team

-by Krista Taylor

 

Late one summer night, my teaching partner and I were working frantically at my dining room table. The school year was long over, but as part of my summer work, I had agreed to restructure a major assignment. I had four days to go from a big idea to a finalized document.

I called Beau seeking sympathy. His response was priceless: “Let me help you with that. We have different strengths; it’s what we do. We’re a team.”

Beau had no obligation to assist me, but we are a team, and that’s a powerful concept.

collaboration

Collaboration is a critical component of the successful functioning of modern education. Teaching in isolation behind a closed classroom door is no longer an effective model. The demands of accountability, increased rigor, and meeting the needs of each student, require teachers to work together.

Collaboration is not just a buzzword. Documented gains result from well-conducted collaboration.

“The low-income districts and schools that have demonstrated the greatest improvement in student outcomes are generally characterized by deep collaboration between administrators and teachers.”  (Anrig, Greg. “Why Collaboration is Vital to Creating Effective Schools.” The Washington Post. May 2, 2013.)

While there are many forms of collaboration, the longest term, and perhaps most impactful, collaboration comes through teaming.

Gamble is a “team-based school.” We have all kinds of teams: departmental teams, vertical teams, co-teaching teams, building leadership teams, grade-level teams, and community teams that share a common group of students.

And while two (or more) heads are better than one, effective teaming is neither a simple nor an easy process. Simply being part of a team is not the same as collaborating. True collaboration, true teaming, is working together to effect change.

Bruce Tuckman identified a common process that teams cycle through as they become highly functional. It is important to note that these stages are not a linear progression; rather, teams can regularly revisit any of the stages, often triggered by a change or disruption.

Stage 1: Forming.

This is often thought of as a honeymoon period. Individuals are just getting to know each other, and there is little conflict.

When Beau, Kim, and I first became a team, the beginning was easy. Since I was the most experienced member of the team, they mostly just agreed with me. I had to remember to push them to share their ideas and opinions.

 Stage 2: Storming.

Stress increases, arguments arise, and things become more difficult.

My team experienced this when we revamped our grading policy. What began as a philosophical conversation, rapidly developed into a significant conflict. Kim wanted a complete overhaul. Beau was resistant. I served as a mediator between the two. At one point, the conversation grew so hot that Beau had to take a walk to cool off. We ended our discussion that day with no resolution.  The next morning, each of them had drafted a conciliatory plan based on the other person’s perspective. The argument continued, but they had both shifted to arguing for the very thing that they had been against! As soon as I pointed this out, we laughed, and got down to the business of over-hauling our policy.

 Stage 3: Norming. In this stage, cooperation and a focus on task and purpose is apparent.

Once we got rolling as a team, we met weekly to hash out the details of the upcoming week –where each person would be each bell, with which group of students, what content was being taught, and who was responsible for what.  This became routine – a norm. We couldn’t function without it, but with this process in place, we were a well-oiled machine.

 Stage 4: Performing.  This is the optimal level of functioning, and occurs when teams utilize each member’s strengths to work toward shared goals. The above example of Beau’s selflessness in assisting with my summer work was a powerful example of performing. We were a team – we looked out for, and depended on, each other.

 Collaboration is not easy, and, contrary to common belief, it doesn’t save time. Functional teaming takes significant time and energy; however, when teams are willing to work together, the results are better than when individuals work alone, and, as noted in The Washington Post, it is critical to tackling our most challenging issues in education.