Decisions, Decisions … Determining How to Decide

“I just really want my Team Leaders to decide and tell me what to do.”

Evan’s statement hit me like a ton of bricks.  He had just asked me a question about fee payment and student participation in field experiences. Instead of answering, I had turned his question back on him, asking for his opinion on the issue.

His response felt so familiar, except this time I was on the other end of the exchange.  His words reminded me eerily of my own statement to Jack many years ago in a similar situation, “Please just tell me what to do, and I will go do it.”

Evan didn’t want to give input.  He wanted to be provided with a clear directive.  I had hesitated in my response, thinking that I needed to gather information and take peoples’ opinions into account.

No, I didn’t.  This wasn’t a complex issue.  It was a bit tricky because our past practice didn’t match our stated policy, but we had a policy.  I could issue a directive, and, as Evan had gently noted, that was my job.

So, I did what he asked. I made a decision aligned with our policy and shared it with all members of the team.  Done.  Handled.

But when it rains, it pours, and within a week of this exchange I found myself in a second, very similar decision-making situation.

This time, I was separately approached by both the art teacher and the agricultural education teacher asking for assistance with management of my students during their classes.  I readily provided suggestions, but with their large class sizes, I knew that what they really needed was a second set of hands.  Because I lead a team that includes a paraprofessional, I was in a position to offer this help.

The quickest and easiest solution was to respond to these requests for help by offering the use of Minet, our paraprofessional, during these two classes; however, I was concerned.  There are a lot of other specialist teachers in our building who also work with my students.  Were they having similar challenges?  Should I solve the problem that was right in front of me, or should I dig deeper to see what else might be out there?  I was worried that there were teachers who were similarly frustrated, but who had not thought to ask for support.

In addition, while I serve as the team leader, there are seven teachers who are impacted by the use of our paraprofessional.  To assign her to work in another classroom meant a loss of her support for these teachers during their planning time.  Should I involve these teachers in the decision? Did I need to gather their input before moving forward?

A brief conversation with Jack helped me to conceptualize what I needed to do.

Really this issue involved two decisions:

  • Assigning Minet to support elective classes during our team planning time
  • Building a schedule to best support these elective classes

For the first, I decided that, like in the fees and field experiences situation, I did not need input from my team before offering up the assistance of our paraprofessional in elective classes.  The primary function of any school staff person is to support students.

I felt confident that assigning our paraprofessional to help support behavioral stabilization of our students was the right decision, even though it would result in the teachers on my team losing some assistance.  In addition, it was aligned with building policy and past practice.  While gathering input from the team could serve to reinforce and garner support for my thinking, it also could lead to unnecessary debate, and it would certainly cost everyone precious time. This seemed like a needless muddying of the waters, so I made this decision unilaterally.

However, in looking at how to build a schedule to allow Minet to best support elective classrooms I felt like I made a nearly opposite decision.  Rather than cleanly deciding, I sent the issue back to the specialist team, and I asked them to guide me in how to best assign the use of this support. In this case, I explicitly asked for input and debate when I had intentionally chosen not to do this exact thing with my team just moments before.

In a single situation, I was implying that team input both mattered and didn’t matter. On the one hand, with my team, I was operating in alignment with my frequently stated concern, “Don’t make us debate it among ourselves,” while, simultaneously, I was asking the specialist team to do exactly that, to debate it among themselves.

I felt strongly that in each circumstance the decision I made was the correct one. But why? What made the difference?

I was certain that is all made sense somehow, and yet it also seemed to make no sense at all.

I was reminded of a conversation on social media in response to my recent post exploring leadership. The discussion was really between Jack and his former principal and mentor, Bob Suess, but since it was conducted on my Facebook page, I was privy to it.

Bob, in his wisdom, said this, “A leadership model that informs leaders of the correct approach to every possible issue in every possible situation … doesn’t and never will exist.” While I know the inherent truth in this statement, I found it to be both frustrating and relieving, in equal measure.

If the leadership answer key doesn’t exist, then I can stop spending so much energy searching for it; however if it doesn’t exist then I will also remain eternally unsure relative to what to do when.

But Bob didn’t leave me hanging, he also said this, “With all the variables, one might recommend that, given a+b+c+ . . +h, one should most likely choose approach or strategy m, r, or z, but leadership cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. Leaders must always draw upon their own professional and personal knowledge, observations, and understanding to select the approach the best fits that particular situation.”

I know that what he wanted me to take away from this statement is that every situation is unique and there is never a singular right answer that fits every instance. But he also threw me a lifeline in referencing that while there may not be a formula, there may be patterns, and a series of most-likely, best-fit options.

So I went back and examined the leadership decisions I had recently made and explored my own thinking relative to each.

I was able to make a unilateral decision regarding the fee payment-field experience issue because we had a policy. I found my written record of this policy in our minutes, and I acted in accordance with it. It wasn’t the warmest, fuzziest feel-good response to the issue, but it was clear and clean. Why would I waste people’s time gathering input, when we had already established policy?

Similarly, I was able to offer the use of our paraprofessional without collecting input from the team because the decision had a clear answer that aligned with our building value of putting the needs of students first, and we had implemented a similar procedure in the past.

I asked myself why I didn’t feel the same level of clarity about simply assigning our paraprofessional to the teachers who had asked for assistance. I realized that it was because I felt like I didn’t have all the information. There were potential missing pieces related to what may have been unspoken needs from other teachers in the building.  This is why I sent it back to the specialist team for further review.

Based on this self-reflection, I began constructing a series of questions to ask myself when working toward a decision.

  • Do I have all the necessary information?
  • Do I have the authority to make the decision?
  • Is my proposed solution aligned with institutional values and practices?
  • Is my proposed solution a clear, best solution?

I threaded this mental exploration together with information from Conversational Capacity and A Failure of Nerve, (which Jack and I have written about previously here and here) and ultimately, I developed this flowchart, which I have dubbed a Decision-Making Tree.

Decision-Making Flowchart. Click to enlarge.

Decision making is hard.  There are often many variables and a variety of solutions, each with a separate set of pros and cons.

While, I am aware that any tool like this runs the risk of making the complex task of decision-making seem like a simplistic process, I also am a strong believer in clear processes.  The more frequently we can use process and procedure to guide us, the more efficient we will be in our work and the less often we will be caught up in personalized conflict.

In addition, a clear process can help propel us to action.  It can take courage to pull the trigger on making a decision.  It’s always easier to have someone else do this for us – after all, then we cannot be held solely accountable for the outcome of the decision.  It often feels better to decide by majority vote or by consensus because that creates shared responsibility, but this does not always yield a better result. In light of this, leaders are charged with making clear, executive decisions when appropriate.

On the flowchart, if the answers to all the questions in the left-column are “yes,” then the leader is in a position to unilaterally go ahead and make a decision. Doing so may feel uncomfortable, or even downright scary, but ultimately this saves everyone in the institution both time and potential discord.

These types of unilateral decisions also create a kind of psychological safety in an institution, as they lend clarity to responsibilities and expectations, and indicate what the non-negotiables are. In education, we often talk about the importance of establishing boundaries for children.  This is no less true for adults. We all need to clearly understand what is expected of us and what the procedures and values of the organization are.

Similarly, it is important to share expectations around how a decision will be made.  Will it be made unilaterally by a leader informed by input from others?  Will it be made by a vote from a decision-making body?  Does it require consensus from an entire group?  In Conversational Capacity, Craig Weber discusses the importance of knowing this prior to beginning discussion on an issue.

Regardless of how the decision will ultimately be made, it is often, although not always, necessary to gather input from a variety of sources. Weber reinforces the importance of engaging in challenging conversations through the implementation of both curiosity (actively asking questions about potential opposing views) and candor (clearly and directly stating thoughts and concerns).

I, like many others, am prone to focus exclusively on the merits of my own proposed solutions and neglect to intentionally seek out the thoughts of those in opposition.  Having a piece built into the flowchart that focuses on requesting feedback from those likely to be opposed, as well as those likely to be in agreement, serves as an important reminder for me to take this step when necessary, even if it yields discomfort in the discussion.

If Weber’s contribution to the flowchart is the importance of hearing all relevant arguments.  Friedman’s is in the potential perils of consensus. In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman expresses concerns about consensus weakening the value systems of institutions by requiring compromise.  His argument is that the process of seeking consensus requires the finding of a middle ground. This necessarily pulls people away from the more powerful higher ground, and allows those misaligned with institutional values to control the conversation.  Friedman calls this “sandbagging.”

Consensus can certainly be a powerful decision-making tool; however, in light of Friedman’s arguments, I suggest that consensus be used infrequently and only for issues that address cultural shifts for the institution as a whole.  If a leader is seeking consensus because it feels good and avoids a conflictual outcome, this is likely not a powerful enough reason to implement this strategy.

Weber expresses concerns about the potential perils of consensus-seeking as well: “Remember, balanced dialogue is not about talking until everyone on the team reaches agreement; it’s about helping the person making the decision make the most informed and effective choice possible. … Once you have enough information on the table to help the decision maker make an informed choice, move on to the next issue.” (172-173)

Regardless of how a decision is made, once it is determined, it needs to be implemented.  But be prepared.  It is nearly guaranteed that a decision, once made, will be questioned by those it impacts. Perhaps this questioning and challenge is part of the human condition. While it is true that not all decisions are good ones, this cannot be determined until a period of implementation has occurred.

For this reason, Jack asked me to embed a stop sign in the flowchart.  (He won’t admit it, but I think it’s there for me.  I have a propensity to question every decision, and to actively seek flaws in any plan. I’m certain that I challenge him far more than he appreciates.) Jack wanted this symbol to serve as a reminder of firmness of intent – a resistance to wavering under challenge.

In thinking about my own tendencies, I considered what message I need to hear that would be resolute against weakening resolve, but would also honor my voice. I identified three important components to an effective response to challenge:

  • A clear articulation of the decision
  • A summary of the most important rationales leading to the decision
  • An indication that the decision could be revisited after a given time if it proved to be problematic

Decision making is often both difficult and complicated.  And yet leaders are required to make myriad decisions every day.  While I know that Bob is correct in saying that there is no answer key and there is no singular right way, having tools to guide us can make things simpler.

In some ways, perhaps Bob and I are saying much the same thing. In his closing remarks, he noted that ultimately a leader must, “move the institution and its members in the right direction, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. Only by looking back over a longer period of time does one ever fully appreciate the distance travelled. I always liked the analogy of the organizational leader as the individual walking next to an elephant and guiding its direction by gently tapping it with a stick.”

This sounds very much like what Jack calls, “playing The Long Game” – gradually getting that institutional elephant to move in the direction one wants it to go. I, too, am invested in shepherding the elephant, but I’m near certain that it will move more quickly, and with less duress, if there is a well-defined path, and if the guiding prods are clear and consistent.

There may be no answer key, but there are some answers, and there are strategies to support these responses.  Examining how to make decisions under what type of conditions can make the monumental task of decision making easier.

“That Thing Where You Tell Us What We’re Good At”

At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.

Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

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They All Failed The Test. What Do I Do?

Dear Young Teacher,

The other day you asked me an important question, and I gave you a bad half-answer (or no answer at all, really.) Please accept my apology, and allow me to fully answer your question.

You asked me, essentially: “More than half of my students failed my test, what should I do?” You also gave me some additional information. It seemed important in the moment, and it sounded persuasive, or perhaps it was meant to bias me in one direction. You said, “they had enough time to study, “and you added that “they did not complete their work,” etc. I think I knew what you wanted me to say. And I choked.

Perhaps you offered that additional information about their lack of preparation as prevention against the scariest possible answer, which meant undoing tomorrow’s lesson plan, and starting from scratch.

More likely, you were speaking as you have heard your own teachers speak in the past. You wanted to send the same message you received as a student: hard work is important; the grade you got is the grade you earned.

And maybe your question was, “Am I teaching poorly? Am I doing a bad job?”

There is a right answer, actually several, and I did not give it, or any of them.

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The 7 Gateways: The Search for Meaning and Purpose

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

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

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

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

As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.

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

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Senior Project

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

-by Jack M. Jose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An exploration of the psychology of monogamy.

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

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

The mentors have included the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A student demonstrates how he modified his audio system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*Student’s name used with permission.

How to Lead: More Questions Than Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daring Greatly

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

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

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

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

Brown describes healthy organizational cultures as places where:

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

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

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Conversational Capacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Failure of Nerve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Synthesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

click image to enlarge

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

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

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

 

 

 

What Is Teacher Leadership?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s give it a boost.

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

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

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

But this is not a hopeless situation.

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

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

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

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

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

What can you do about this?

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

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

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

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

Seek informal mentors

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

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

 

Intentionally mentor others

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

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

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

 

Join or create a formal mentoring program

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

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

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

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

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

 

Work with your team to create PLCs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Individual or paired skill building

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

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

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

Perhaps your school has seen recent examples of this?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Become a leader.

 

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

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

 

You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Back to School: The Prepared Environment

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

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

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

Back to School that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Begin with one of these spaces.

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

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

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

A place for everything and everything in its place

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

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

 

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

 

Materials to support classroom procedures

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

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

 

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

 

Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion

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

A beautifully set morning meeting table includes all necessary supplies.

 

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

 

Nontraditional student work areas

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Your students are worth it.  So are you.

 

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

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

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

 

Creating Change: Yes, We Can!

An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.

 My students made that happen, and they did so much more.

As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes.  Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.

But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …

And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.

Read more