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.

The Systemic Problem of Teacher Burnout

Last week, my students and I were out of the building on a field experience. As our speaker wrapped up, he called on one final student who had his hand-raised. The student said, “I’d like to acknowledge you for taking the time to talk to us today and for answering all our questions.”

Acknowledgments are a regular practice at Gamble, and I typically ask students to provide acknowledgments for our hosts at the conclusion of our field experiences.  This time, I had forgotten.  But Peter had not.

When Carissa, who was sitting next to me, heard Peter’s unprompted acknowledgment, she turned to me, smiling, and whispered, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

She didn’t know it, but her statement was akin to throwing me a lifeline. You see, it was just two days before spring break, and I was running from the specter of teacher burnout and losing ground fast. It was a race to the finish to see which would break first – the school year, or me.

Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” (Mirriam-Webster)

Teacher burnout is described in many ways, but I found this list of warning signs to be particularly helpful.[1]

  • Exhaustion – a fatigue so deep that there’s no way to “turn it off”
  • Extreme graveness –Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing
  • Anxiety – The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more
  • Being overwhelmed – Questioning how you can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate
  • Seeking —Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm
  • Isolation –Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability

The stress and exhaustion of teaching is well documented. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 46% of teachers experience high levels of daily stress. This is on par with nurses, and tops the list of surveyed occupations.[2]

Another indicator of stress and exhaustion is the statistic that 43% of teachers sleep an average of six or fewer hours a night.[3] It’s little wonder then that “sleep” was the number one response my colleagues provided in answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about spring break?”

This continual stress and exhaustion leads to burnout, but teacher burnout is more than just a problem for individual teachers and schools. It is so pervasive that it has profound impacts on the profession as a whole.

NPR cites the following concerning statistics: [4]

  • 8% of teachers leave the field each year; only one-third of this attrition is due to retirement
  • 50% of the teaching profession turns over every 7 years
  • 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
  • Enrollment in teacher-training programs has fallen 35% in the past five years; a loss of 240,000 teachers

What exactly is it that causes such high levels of stress in teaching? Those who are not in the field of education are often stymied by this. “Seven hour school days and all major holidays and summers off,” they reason. “What’s so stressful about that?”

However, the difference between the working hours obligated by the contract (as described above) and the fulfillment of the contractual requirements of the job (as described below) is profound. I used to count my work hours each week, but after spending a year consistently tallying 65-70 hour weeks, I stopped counting. It was too overwhelming. And I’m not different from any of my colleagues. All of us work a tremendous number of hours beyond our contractual obligation. Some of this is expected. No one goes into teaching actually believing that the work will be contained within school hours, but how does a contracted thirty-five hour week balloon into seventy hours of work?

Let’s begin with the school day. For me, five of the seven hours each day are spent actively teaching. I am fortunate to have two “planning bells” each day; however one of these is used every day for different variations of team meetings, and the other one is almost always consumed by parent conferences or other meetings. On average, I have one bell (50 minutes) a week that I can actually use to plan.

During my half hour lunch, I open my classroom to students who need help with their work, or who are just seeking a calmer and quieter option than the cafeteria. I eat and work. Sometimes I forget to eat.

I have meetings after school every day with the exception of Fridays, and the third Thursday of the month. These meetings run for 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I have back-to-back after-school meetings.

All of the remaining requirements of teaching must occur outside of the time already listed above. These requirements include:

  • Designing curriculum
  • Writing lesson plans
  • Creating materials
  • Preparing the classroom
  • Grading student work
  • Entering grades
  • Discipline logging
  • Making parent phone calls
  • Completing paperwork (SLOs, IEPs, ETRs, 504s, WEPs, 90 Day Plans, … )
  • Copying
  • Stapling
  • Hole punching …

My friends in business can’t understand. They ask me why I don’t just delegate some of this work. “Delegate?!” I laugh. “To whom??” Teachers are at the bottom of food chain; most of us have no one to whom to delegate. (I am fortunate to have a paraprofessional on my team; however she is shared by seven teachers, so her time is spread very thin.)

There are additional stressors beyond those of limited time as well. Some commonly cited external factors are:[5]

  • Lack of resources
  • Low pay
  • Test score pressure
  • Changing assessments and expectations
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Ever-increasing paperwork requirements

It’s not a mystery why fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to become teachers. Those who do choose to enter the field of education join dedicated veteran teachers in seeing teaching as more than just a job. For most, teaching is a calling or a purpose.

Anything that is seen not just as a profession, but as a vocation, a mission, a passion, and a purpose requires an internal fire to fuel it. And all fires run the risk of being extinguished.

There is precious little fire-feeding oxygen left in American education, and this is showing up in extraordinarily high rates of burnout and teacher turnover.

So what can we do about it?

When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – “Teacher, heal thyself!”

“5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout”

“6 Signs of, and Solutions for, Teacher Burnout”

“7 Self-Care Strategies”

“10 Steps to Avoiding Teacher Burnout”

And my personal favorite …

25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout”

Because that’s just what a stressed-out and overwhelmed teacher needs – 25 more things to add to her to-do list. Number 2 on that list, by the way, is “Smile.”

The message that these types of articles are sending is that burnout is a failure of the teacher to properly take care of herself.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that each of the suggestions on all of those lists are good ways to encourage people to take care of themselves, and they place the locus of control with the teacher, which is empowering. My issue, however, is two-fold: these articles attempt to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and they ask the teacher whose internal fire is dying to re-kindle her own flame, when she is likely the person least able to do this.

Let’s start with the problem. I am often told that I “shouldn’t work so hard.” That’s a nice platitude, but I find it profoundly frustrating because when I ask which part of my job requirements I should fail to complete, or complete with marginal quality, in order to save myself some time, I never get an answer.

I often say that the greatest challenge of teaching should be educating the students in our classrooms. That’s a hard job all by itself for a wide-variety of reasons. When it is made harder by policies, inefficiencies, and bureaucracy, we have done everyone involved a grave disservice. I have previously written about the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed on teachers by educational legislation here and here.

A friend of mine who has studied organizational management had this to say regarding teacher burnout, “I think with what we are asking of teachers the question is, ‘How could teachers not be burned out, and how can all of us (administrators, community members, school boards) help to combat this?’”

And that’s just it. If education is important to our society, then teachers must be deemed important as well, and all of us must help to solve the societal problem of teacher burnout. Our children need good teachers, and good teachers work very hard. Keeping them in the profession is a shared responsibility.

Some action steps:

  • Vote for school levies, even if you don’t have a child in school – resources, especially as related to staffing (the greatest single expense), are key.
  • Speak out against the school reform madness – especially if you are a parent in an affluent school district.
  • Don’t participate in teacher or school bashing, or allow others to do the same – the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s teacher and school. The narrative that America has a preponderance of bad teachers and bad schools is simply not upheld by data.
  • Demand that your local school board set decent wages for teachers, and that they provide appropriate cost of living increases.
  • Support your child’s teacher – give the benefit of the doubt, encourage your child to develop independence, and nurture his or her self-advocacy skills before getting involved in potential school conflicts (see The Gift of Failure)
  • Acknowledge teachers for the positive work that they do – better yet share these acknowledgments with administrators. Parents with complaints readily share their concerns with administration; positive comments should be shared as well.
  • Don’t tell a teacher to “take time for herself – sleep, exercise, meditate, invite a friend for lunch, smile” unless you’re willing to help take something off her plate that allows her to do that.
  • If you know a teacher, ask how you can help – anyone can cut, collate, staple, hole punch.
  • Say thank you – again and again and again. This is why we do what we do.

I remain hopeful that those things can make a difference, but I don’t have much faith that the epidemic of teacher burnout will change soon. The anti-education “school reform” movement is powerful. It will take time to weaken its death grip on the throat of public schools.

But in the interim, all is not lost. Who better to support burning out teachers than those who know the industry the best – teachers. We are all on fire, but we burn with different levels of brightness at different times. We can each use our spark to help kindle the dwindling embers of another’s fire. A wise teacher I know said, “When we become a true community of educators in our building and in larger society, I find that I am not the island.”

Catherine McTamaney writes about this same thing in her book, A Delicate Task. “Teaching is hard. [We] are asked to give up so much of ourselves, to make ourselves humble and lowly before the child, to be servants, to be scientists, to be saints … but there are others on the path with us. We can lean on each other. We can walk in each other’s footsteps. Sometimes we’re at the front of the path. Sometimes we’re following another traveler. Sometimes we’re resting … Sometimes we’re so far ahead or behind that we can’t even see each other anymore. But we’re not alone. We are each other’s navigational stars.”[6]

To be “each other’s navigational stars,” we have to be connected to one another, and we have to pay attention to one another. While I believe that all teachers can help each other to combat burnout, my interpretation is that this work should fall most heavily on veteran teachers, mentor teachers, building leadership, and administration.

In supporting each other, we must not simply be content to provide inspiration. We must work to create environments that make teaching easier without sacrificing the best interests of our students. Here are some of the in-building supports that teachers say help them to be more resilient.

  • Leadership that is supportive and non-punitive
  • Having someone willing to slow down and listen when they have a concern
  • The provision of more time to allow for planning and collaboration
  • Work that is equitably shared by everyone
  • Meeting time spent to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness in the classroom, not to create additional work
  • Good communication
  • Consistent expectations
  • Follow-through: being able to trust that what was agreed upon will occur
  • Celebration of successes
  • Acknowledgment of good work

In my role as team leader, I’ve recently initiated a process to try and help with some of this. For each of the last two quarters, I’ve met one-on-one with every member of my team. To prepare for our meetings I’ve asked them to consider their responses to four questions.

  • What are three things you want to brag about from this quarter?
  • What is your current burning issue?
  • How can I help?
  • What I can do to be more effective in my role as team leader?

We’ve had some rich conversations, and I’ve gotten to know each of them better, but my great hope is that I’ve helped them to see the value in what they do, and to examine how they can keep improving.

The hardest question is always “What are three things you want to brag about?” At just about every conference, I hear, “I can’t think of three.” My response? “Yes, you can. Think harder.” And they do.

Asking them to identify a burning issue is the same thing as saying, “What do you most want to improve?” – except somehow it feels more approachable.

How can I help?”  is my favorite of the four questions. I’ve learned that it is much more powerful than its more common counterpart, “Let me know if I can help.” The latter provides an option to decline by omission; the former does not. If I ask about a burning issue and then don’t seek ways to help, I am essentially saying, “I see you struggling. Best of luck to you!”

The final question is purely selfish. I simply want to know how to get better at what I do.

I have only just begun this process, so I cannot say how effective it will prove to be in the long run, but I’ve gotten short-term positive feedback. Recently, I offered the opportunity to correspond via email if scheduling meetings took too much precious time. In response to this, one of my colleagues said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to give up the deliciousness of that meeting with you.” While I can’t say whether or not our meeting was “delicious,” we did have a powerful dialogue.

No single strategy will suffice to fix the great challenges and stressors in education. Teachers must remember, sometimes through the fog and the haze of exhaustion, that it’s really all about the students. The students are the most powerful motivators and sustainers of all. I, like many teachers, keep a file full of notes like this one.

We must remind ourselves, and each other, every day if necessary, that the work we do matters.

As Carissa said, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

Hold on to those lifelines. Write them down. Remember them, and help each other to see them.  Keep those fires burning.

 

 

[1] Pillars, Wendi. “Six Signs Of—and Solutions For—Teacher Burnout.” Education Week Teacher. N.p., 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[2] Turner, Cory. “Teachers Are Stressed, And That Should Stress Us All.” NPR. NPR, 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[3] Stuart, Dave, Jr. “Not Getting Enough Sleep? Tired Teachers Aren’t Usually the Best Teachers.” NEA Today. National Education Association, 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

[4] Westervelt, Eric. “Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It’s Time To Address The National Teacher Shortage.” NPR. NPR, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[5] “Surviving Teacher Burnout.” NEA Today. N.p., 01 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[6] Edd, Catherine Mctamaney. Delicate Task: Teaching and Learning on a Montessori Path. Place of Publication Not Identified: IUniverse Com, 2012. Print. p.xv.

 

Hate PD? Try Voluntary Piloting.

-by Krista Taylor

Teacher professional development has a reputation for being notoriously poor.

voluntary piloting can't get enough

So often it is a top-down approach that is out of touch with the challenges of being in a classroom. But what if teachers took control of that and turned it on its head? What if teachers determined how they needed to grow and develop, and worked together to do so?

In 2013, during the after-graduation faculty celebration, my colleague, Josh, and I began discussing some of the concerns we had about our instruction. As the party wound down, and we began making our way to our cars to go home, we came to a powerful realization. Both of us had prioritized developing differentiation practices in our classrooms. Both of us were struggling with it. Both of us were frustrated with our perceived lack of progress. This discussion caused us to quite literally stop in our tracks. We spent the next hour standing on a street corner problem-solving how we could make the work easier and find greater success.

At Gamble, one of our long-time frustrations as a building has been how to support students to rise to the rigors of college preparatory, honors-level academics in an urban, public school where 70% of our students are eligible for the federal free lunch program. Like many urban, public schools, our students often come to us with below-grade level skills, poorly developed work habits, and a lack of academic buy-in. All too often, this combination of high expectations and low skills results in students with failing grades. How do we maintain high academic rigor for all students while also meeting students (especially our most-challenged ones) where they are? Is this not the crux of the conflict in most classrooms?

Although I teach 7th and 8th graders and Josh teaches 11th and 12th graders, we realized that we had both been working independently on finding solutions to this same struggle, and we extrapolated that there were likely others invested in the same work in other areas of our building.

We envisioned becoming a Montessori Secondary School where all learners are welcomed in classrooms, and where differentiation is so much a part of our instruction that it is no longer note-worthy to students. And classrooms where teachers are comfortable with meeting learners where they are and developing their skills, regardless of where that left them in proximity to standardized-test passage.

We had been unable to find a way to do this individually, but we thought we might be able to do it better with the support of each other and any other colleagues who might be interested in joining us.   We approached Jack (our principal) with the idea of launching a voluntary differentiation pilot program in our building, and, after hashing out some of the details, we were given permission to broach this topic with our faculty and to elicit support from the staff of CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program).

We began by issuing this open invitation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 6.12.45 PM
To enlarge, click image

Additionally, we personally invited those who we felt would be most receptive. For example, Josh directly approached the intervention specialist on his team with whom he regularly collaborated, and I requested that both members of my newly-formed team join me in working on this.

Some people asked if they could earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for their participation. We took this request back to Jack who readily agreed to arrange this. A few other details were hashed out – how we would re-initiate the conversation in the fall, when we would schedule the first meeting, and what that agenda would look like.

Thus, from what started as a casual, street-corner discussion, a pilot project was born.

So, that’s it, right? Open the door to collaboration, the masses will come running, definitive answers will be found, and all will be well with the world. Well, no, not exactly.

Our group of volunteers met at the start of the year to establish what we wanted to accomplish together. Originally there were ten of us, but after this first meeting, we were reduced to just seven through self-selection. Initially this small number of participants felt very disappointing – where were the hoards of teachers flocking together to improve their practice? That was definitely what I had envisioned. However, in hindsight, I am convinced that our small size was one of the most critical components of our success. Joining our pilot was purely voluntary, and this ensured that only people willing to commit to doing this work in a positive and forward-thinking way joined our group. Those who didn’t share our vision opted out. This meant that while we didn’t have the numbers that I had anticipated, we also didn’t have the uncommitted, disengaged participants that I had worried about.

There is a large body of evidence suggesting that the way to shift institutional practices is to begin with the people with whom you have immediate buy-in. From their success, you will sway most others. This premise is known as the Diffusion Innovation Model and was initially purported by Everett Rogers in 1962. A large body of research supports Rogers’ theory that the spreading of new products or ideas is based on four factors: the innovation itself, human capital, time, and communication. After initiation by the “innovators,” the concept readily spreads to “early adopters” who ultimately influence the “early majority.” It is not necessary to address resistors, or the “late majority and laggards”, until there is a ground-swell of people on board who can carry them along.

voluntary piloting DOI
Left to Right: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards

Because our group was made up of volunteers who chose to work together in this way (our innovators and early adopters), we were free to develop into whatever it was that we believed would work for us. Although we were all teachers in the same building, we didn’t all work closely with one another on a regular basis. Our group represented a variety of grade levels and departments in our building – 7th and 8th grade, 11th and 12th grade, social studies, language arts, math, science, special education, and music. As a result, it was important that we developed clear expectations of our work together. The parameters that we established at our initial meeting were:

  • we would meet once a month
  • we would honor each other’s time by keeping meetings as close to an hour in length as possible
  • we would value our time together by committing to attend meetings
  • our focus would be on classroom differentiation as a means of growing all learners
  • we would conduct focused, non-evaluative observations of each other to improve our practice – we called these “Friendly Feedback Observations.”

In the beginning, we shared our successes and our challenges. We quickly discovered that we were already doing a lot. Just stating differentiation as an intention at our initial meeting in September had motivated each of us to work toward furthering our practice in this area. Some of our reported successes were small in-roads: providing read-aloud options on a more consistent basis, using a wider variety of instructional groupings, or allowing students with prior piano experience to branch out into guitar exploration during music class. And some of our successes were quite significant: providing weekly checklists/work plans that were uniquely targeted to students’ needs, or individualizing assessments such that each student received different questions on a physics test. But we had our share of noteworthy challenges too, and we still had a long way to go to develop what we wanted to see in our classrooms.

We noted that our challenges clustered into four areas: differentiation of assessments, differentiation of assignments, differentiation of instruction, and differentiation of expectations. By looking at it this way, we quickly realized that we were putting the cart before the horse by starting with the products (the assessments and assignments) rather than the students (the expectations).

Through our conversations, we also recognized that we were all struggling with feeling comfortable with meeting students where they were and moving them forward along a continuum, even if they didn’t ultimately reach the grade-level outcome. For all our nose-thumbing, anti-testing bravado, we felt pretty nervous about championing the idea that not all students learn the same thing at the same time and reach the same place, and somewhat blindly trusting that this wouldn’t have terrible repercussions on our standardized test scores.

It was critical to have each other to bounce ideas off of and to ensure that we were maintaining appropriate expectations coupled with appropriate supports for all of our students. Together we were able to do what none of us had been able to satisfactorily do alone. We noted gains – even incremental ones – we dug deep into what best practice could look like, and collectively, we had more courage to take risks.

And while each month, we celebrated our successes; we also took a hard look at our challenges. Halfway through that first year, we remained dissatisfied by the number of students earning failing grades. How could this be? We had worked so hard! How could all of our efforts still have not been enough to support students? Josh and Matt had further developed their co-teaching model providing additional interventions to struggling learners. Beau was regularly differentiating assignments into three levels to support all students in accessing the general education curriculum. Kim was creating five different student checklists every week in order to allow for individually targeted assignments. Steve had spent hours developing a differentiated science unit. How were our students still falling short of our expectations? What were appropriate expectations? How would we know when we reached them?

Fortunately, Barb Scholtz, CMStep Practicum Director, was supporting and challenging us in our reflective practice. When this concern came up, she simply looked at us, and with this simple question, re-committed us to our mission. She asked, “Well, are they learning?” When we answered with a confident, “Yes,” her response was, “Then, how can they be failing?”

It sounds simple, right? If they are learning, if they are progressing, then that’s all we can ask of them, right? But what about standards-based grading? What about content mastery? What about pre-requisite skills?

Nothing in education is simple. We know about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which notes that learning occurs just beyond the level of what students can do independently.

voluntary piloting zpd

We know about isolating the difficulty, or focusing on a new skill without adding in additional complexities.

And, perhaps, most importantly, we know our students. We know, as professionals, and as people who interact with them every day, what we can expect from them and how far we can push them. So, yes, if they are learning, they can’t possibly be failing. But too many of them were. What were we doing wrong?

So, back to the drawing board we went to try to find answers to our many complex questions. How can we inspire students to show what they know? How do we instill a work ethic in our students? What about the wooly beast of homework? How are our students’ developmental needs and socio-economic status related to each of these issues?

We turned to research to guide us. We looked at best practices in grading policies, strategies to improve rates of homework completion, and use of student self-evaluation tools.

We also invited one another into our classrooms for what we deemed “Friendly Feedback Observations.” We asked each other, as trusted professionals, to observe specific concerns in our practice and to provide both critical and supportive feedback. This not only elicited targeted suggestions for improvement, it also allowed us to see what we were each doing really well, and what techniques we could borrow to improve our own instruction.

We adjusted and enhanced our teaching practices again and again. Each of us did that a little differently. Each of us discovered inroads. None of us got it exactly right. But all of us made progress.

What I know for sure is that because of the commitment I made by joining this group, I pushed myself harder. When we began, differentiation was something that happened sometimes in my classroom, and, as a result, it was something that was somewhat uncomfortable for my students. Today, the vast majority of assignments are differentiated, and students expect this and discuss it openly. Those conversations sound like this:

“Is this assignment differentiated?”

“Do I have the right level?”

“Can I try Developing, and if it’s too hard can I move down to Discovering?”

“Do you think I should do Adventuring today?”

“I’d like you to try the Enrichment level. I think it will be more interesting to you as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.”

Differentiation is fluid, frequent, and has become the norm for my students. There is no stigma of cleverly-titled tracking groups like “Bluebirds” and “Robins.” Rather, each day, each student works at his or her instructional level for that particular concept in that particular moment.

This shift took three years, and it wasn’t just my classroom that was profoundly impacted by the work of our pilot group. Each of the participants experienced significant changes in practice, and throughout the course of the past three years, we have continued to review the research, implement shifts, examine our own data, and repeat this cycle again and again.

Have we found all the answers? No, not yet. Probably, not ever. But that’s not really the point. Our work with differentiation has grown so much. Those of us in that original pilot group have achieved our original vision of classrooms where differentiation has become a norm. We now, of course, have bigger hopes and dreams for ourselves. Meanwhile, other members of our faculty have followed our lead, and differentiation strategies are being implemented at different levels throughout our building.

But more importantly, through our research and discussions, we are challenging each other, and through our implementation of things we’ve discussed, we are improving our practice. And, more than that, we are supporting each other and helping each other hold fast to the dream of inspiring our students and guiding them to develop into well-rounded and educated adults. Isn’t that why each of us entered this field in the first place? And, in this intense time in education, it is so easy to lose that focus. But, through collaboration with each other, we can hang on to this lofty ideal.

You can begin building this spirit of professional collaboration and growth in your building, too. Our group was dedicated to increasing differentiation practices, but any professional issue could serve as a focus for a similar discussion forum.

Here are what we’ve found to be the necessary components to making a program like this effective:

  • Grab the bull by the horns: whatever is the greatest challenge or frustration in your building or classroom, tackle that. Go ahead and look it in the eyes, and begin seeking solutions.
  • Begin by making it voluntary; there is no room for naysayers. Keep in mind that some people may need a personal invitation, but no begging. The people who decline your invitation are not ready to be part of the first-wave of your pilot.
  • Develop your objectives and procedures together. Focus on what you want from each other. What are your shared goals? How can you best support each other in achieving them? What limits and boundaries do people need to have respected? Along these same lines, any changes need to be approved by the group before being acted upon.
  • Hold structured meetings as a way to honor everyone’s time and energy. Avoid allowing this group to become a de facto lunch break or happy hour. Value the work to be done.
  • Resist the temptation to spend time complaining – while your group may not have a designated leader, you do need a facilitator who will lead the group toward the generation of solutions, and away from the slippery slope of negativity.
  • Brainstorm together – there’s no reason why people should be working on the same things in isolation. Do it together, and you’ll be more successful and more energized.
  • But don’t just brainstorm. Implement. Even if that means taking one baby step at a time. And, pick each other up when you fall. Because sometimes the ideas that sounded so great in theory, weren’t so great in reality. It’s easy to get discouraged, so be cheerleaders for each other.
  • Hold each other accountable for implementation. But remember, the goal is progress, not perfection. We used our Friendly Feedback Observations for this, but there are other ways.
  • Keep going. As you move forward, others will witness your success, and your influence will spread.

We have all been in those mandatory professional development workshops about which there are so many sarcastic memes.

voluntary piloting life and death

We’ve all rolled our eyes as yet another flash-in-the-pan initiative is rolled out with great pomp and circumstance.

voluntary piloting flash

We’ve all sat through umpteen meetings where concerning data is shared along with a plethora of quick-fix solutions, few of which seem realistic to implement in our classrooms.

voluntary pilot Oprah3

While these types of trainings are likely to continue, you need not allow them to dictate your professional growth. Think about what you want to work on in your classroom. Seek out like-minded educators in your building, and set aside time to work on this together. Dig deep. Find strategies that are feasible. Try them out. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. And repeat this process.

This work leads to powerful, uplifting, and beneficial professional growth. All you have to do is decide what you want to work on, find others who want to work on that, too, and get started.

CMStep — Transformation of the Teacher

-by Krista Taylor

“The real preparation for education is the study of one’s self. The training of the teacher is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character; it is a preparation of the spirit.”  –Maria Montessori, Absorbent Mind 

During each of the past three summers, I have spent several weeks working as an assistant teacher for CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program — a Secondary Montessori teacher training program.) My friends wonder why on Earth I would want to spend precious weeks of summer in this way. It’s a fair question. CMStep classes run from eight in the morning until six in the evening, and I usually bring several hours of work home with me each night as well. It requires intense effort, not much like summer at all.

But being involved with CMStep restores, reinvigorates, and re-inspires me like nothing else because I get to witness “the transformation of the teacher” — or what Montessori called, “preparation of the spirit” — on an incredibly personal and powerful level. It is a privilege and an honor to have the opportunity to watch this process unfold for the adult learners in the course. It is really quite magical.image

This summer, when I came home from my first day of helping with the Curriculum Development course, my husband, Blake, greeted me as he always does, “How was your day?”

My day had been fine, but I was deeply concerned about how I was going to support one of the students in my guide group (Each adult learner is provided with a CMStep “guide” or teacher, who provides individualized support. Some guides are, like me, assistant instructors who are in turn “guided” and supervised by full instructors.)

Elizabeth was in an incredibly challenging situation. She was hired to teach math and science at a private Montessori school that is in the first year of building an adolescent program, but she had just found out that due to enrollment issues, she would have to teach language arts and social studies as well. Since her program hadn’t had a middle school before, there weren’t any identified standards or curricula, nor did she really have any materials or pacing guidelines. And on top of that, she had just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. She had no teacher training, no student teaching, no education coursework, and she was charged with essentially developing an entire adolescent program alone. And, oh, yeah, her school started in two weeks.

Blake is also a teacher (although not a Montessorian), so we regularly “talk shop.” On this day though, he had little to offer me. “Wow. That’s hard. I can’t even imagine. It’s a good thing she’s taking this class.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I replied, but I wasn’t convinced. I was remembering Elizabeth’s big eyes and the anxiety I heard in her voice as she talked about trying to tackle all that was in front of her. Quite honestly, I didn’t know how she was going to do it either.

It is not easy to become a credentialed Secondary I (grades 7-8) and Secondary II (grades 9-12) Montessori teacher. There are currently only two AMS (American Montessori Society) programs that offer these credentials – CMStep, and Houston Montessori Center. As a result, teachers come from all over to participate in this program.  While most come from various parts of the United States, we have had adult learners from Puerto Rico, Canada, and even Slovenia. It is a teacher training institution that is growing by leaps and bounds.

Marta Donahoe is the visionary behind CMStep and also the founder of Clark Montessori High School (the first public secondary Montessori school in the nation). She developed CMStep initially to serve as a training center for Clark teachers. The first CMStep cohort of teachers began coursework during the summer of 2004 with just eight full-time participants. This summer, cohort 12 had forty-two enrolled adult learners.

The CMStep credentialing process is spread out over three years. It includes two summers of coursework and a practicum phase that generally begins after the first summer. The practicum phase includes three classroom observations by CMStep staff, two long-weekend workshops called “intensives,” and a year-long research project.

I learned the hard way that these classes should not be confused with typical professional development. My first set of classes started a mere two days after my hire date at Gamble, and Jack asked me if I could make myself available to take the training. I wanted to make a good impression, and I figured a couple weeks spent at a hotel or convention center watching speakers with PowerPoints while being provided with coffee, doughnuts, and boxed lunches, couldn’t be too painful. So I quickly arranged childcare and signed up for the course.

My first clue that I was entering into something different was discovering upon enrollment that there was required pre-reading — two books and a stack of articles.image I had only two days to prepare; fortunately, I had already read one of the books. While the pre-reading was the first surprise, it was definitely not the last. CMStep is a far cry from traditional PD. It is, in fact, graduate level coursework compressed into one- and two-week timeframes. Not only was there pre-reading, there was also homework – lots of homework – and not a lecturer or PowerPoint in sight. And forget the doughnuts and boxed lunches – this was a different kind of training. CMStep work involves a tremendous amount of reading, deep self-reflection, academic planning, and community building.

Each course focuses on a different aspect of the expectations of a Secondary Montessori teacher. The classes are listed in order and briefly outlined here – see the CMStep website for more information

First Summer Courses

  • Montessori Philosophy — taught by Marta Donahoe and Katie Keller Wood, CMStep’s current co-directors, this course is a heavy reading course which submerses participants in the richness and depth of Montessori pedagogy and the needs of the adolescent.
  • Introduction to Curriculum – focuses on the 6-9 (grades 1-3) and 9-12 (grades 4-6) Montessori classrooms and materials, as these are the building blocks to an adolescent program
  • Erdkinder – Maria Montessori spoke of adolescents as Erdkinder (Earth’s Children), and she believed that they are best served through hands-on work in the natural world. The Erdkinder course is a 5 day overnight experience that models this type of experience. Participants delve deep into the concepts of stewardship and community building.
  • Curriculum Development – This is the first of the three “product-heavy” courses. In this two-week class, participants must craft the major components for a Montessori “cycle of study” – most commonly understood as a quarter’s worth of instructional content which is tied together by an over-arching theme.

Second Summer Courses

  • Pedagogy of Place – The first of the second summer courses focuses on the importance of well-constructed real-world experiences in the Montessori classroom. Adult learners participate in a neighborhood study (or “urban Erdkinder”) while simultaneously designing all parts of a comprehensive field study experience for their own students.
  • Structure and Organization – This final course asks participants to examine their “problems of practice,” and to develop 12 products, structures, or organizational systems that are rooted in Montessori philosophy, to help address these problems.

Two on-line courses, Montessori Overview and Mindfulness Fundamentals, are also required for credentialing.

Although I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I began my CMStep journey, I never once looked back, or found myself pining for the days of doughnuts, boxed lunches, and Powerpoints. This professional development was unbelievably challenging and fatiguing, but it was so much more powerful and so much more immediately useable than typical teacher trainings.image

I can quite honestly say that the CMStep program is the best educational coursework I have ever experienced, including both my undergraduate and graduate classes. It is powerful on a number of levels: the instructed content is of excellent quality, each course models the best practices of an adolescent classroom, the required work is based on real-classroom needs as determined by the individual adult learner, and the intensity of the work coupled with an intentional crafting of community results in the development of a profound connection among learners. All of this taken together is what leads toward transformation of the teacher. This is where the magic lies.

But magic doesn’t happen all at once. I met one-on-one with Elizabeth nearly daily during our two weeks together. She told me the same things each day: she was overwhelmed by the work — without an education background, she didn’t have any schema for how to tackle the tasks — and she had so much to do to get her classroom and curriculum ready that she was considering leaving the CMStep program and heading home. I tried to encourage her and give her the information she needed without overwhelming her further, but every evening after dismissal I worried about her. Despite her anxiety and my concerns, each morning, I would wake up to an inbox full of beautifully crafted work from her. When I commented on this, she simply said, “Yes, but I’m doing the easiest pieces first.”

One day, she sat down next to me and said, “I have to do the Lesson Plan assignments, and I don’t know what a lesson plan looks like; I’ve never seen one before.” We talked about requirements and formatting options. I wasn’t sure I had been clear enough, but the next morning I had an email titled, “My Very First Lesson Plan,” and it was lovely. We continued this way until just two days before the end of the course. Elizabeth’s demeanor was unchanged despite the incredible progress she had made in a week and a half. All she had left to complete was the project assignment and two weeks of student checklists. Admittedly, these are both huge tasks.

I knew why she found these pieces so intimidating. They were the parts she most desperately needed. Every time we spoke, she discussed her powerful need to know exactly what she would be doing with her students. These final components would make at least some of this concrete, and that is what would help her the most. Because of this, not knowing how to begin was extremely intimidating. She was just 48 hours from completing the first summer’s coursework, and she was still feeling so overwhelmed that quitting seemed like a viable option.

That night she sent me her completed project assignment – beautiful, as always. The next morning, I held my breath as I opened her checklist email. As I scrolled through page after page of student checklists that included well-constructed assignments differentiated by choice and by level for all four subject areas for two full weeks, my eyes filled with tears. She had done it! Not only had she finished all the required tasks for her CMStep coursework, she had given herself what she needed most – a clear step-by-step plan of what she was going to teach in her classroom during the first two weeks of school, and a structure that she could use to plan for the remainder of the year.

When she arrived at class that day, she looked like an entirely different person. Her eyes sparkled, and, for the first time, she was smiling. She had proven to herself that she could indeed do this, and she was nothing short of transformed. I should have known better than to worry so much. This happens every summer – we just have to remember to “Trust the Process,” it is designed to elicit transformation.

Elizabeth’s situation was notably unique; most of our adult learners are not facing so many challenges all at once, but the work is intense for each of them. This intensity is an important part of the transformation. I tell them that, as their guide, my job is to push them past their perceived limits. Certainly, this yields better work, but, beyond that, it shows them what they are capable of. Walking the line between supporting them in extending themselves and pushing them too far can be challenging.

As adults, we are not used to receiving critical feedback, and we are certainly rarely asked to re-do tasks. Both of these things are prevalent in CMStep, and this is a humbling experience.image I try to remember my own sensitivity about this when I was the adult learner, rather than the guide. (I, too, had to redo many assignments, and I, too, bristled in response.) Every summer, I learn a great deal from Barb Scholtz, one of my mentor teachers and CMStep’s Practicum Director. She reminds me to make gentle suggestions couched in phrases like, “Consider…” or “You may wish to . . .”  This careful feedback invites and counsels rather than demands, and it helps CMStep students push themselves to generate exemplary work.

Lee, a teacher at an established Montessori school in British Columbia, Canada is a phenomenal example of what happens in the pressure cooker of high expectations and gentle pushing. Like most, he struggled in the initial days with being asked to revise and redo his work, but by the second week, he had found his groove, and his work was phenomenal. Here is part of his reflection at the end of course: “At first, it was fairly evident that I felt overwhelmed. But then I quickly realized that my guide was truly there to help and support me, which lifted my spirits. Once I began to submit component work and receive feedback, I felt better and better with each passing day. The feedback was kind, illuminating, and constructive, but worded in a way that filled me with a sense of ease. This in turn increased my motivation to produce quality work, and to make the adaptations and edits.” THIS is CMStep – incredibly high expectations and workload coupled with nurturing support. And Lee’s process is what always happens with each adult learner. This is the transformative magic.

And what’s happening alongside, and in the background, of all of this work, is the cohesion of a group of Montessori teachers from around the country, and even the world, who are experiencing all of this together, and transforming together, and supporting each other together, and developing an incredibly powerful community together. When they leave CMStep and return to their school buildings, they will do these same things in their classrooms of adolescents.

Brandt Smith, another one of my mentors and a long-time CMStep instructor, said it best, “They may not remember ANY of the details, but do you know what every one of them knows? They know the taste of Community. Like a perfectly ripe peach or their first taste of ice cream, they KNOW the taste of Community! imageAnd from now on, everywhere they go, they’ll recognize the taste when it crops up. They’ll catch little whiffs of it, and they’ll follow their noses to try and find it! They may not recognize its absence, at least not right away. But when they start to interact with a group of people who support each other and care about each other – they’ll KNOW on a deep, personal level – they’ll recognize that taste and they choose to be a part of it because they know it’s a part of who they are. And they’ll rediscover their own gifts as they grow and contribute to that Community! THAT’S what they leave here with! And the World will be a better place because of that!”

And that’s the other part of the magic. The building of community that is created in CMStep is taken back to classrooms and to schools. This magic spreads from teachers to students, and slowly and over time, perhaps we can begin to change the world – one teacher, one classroom, one community at a time.

 

 

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.

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“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.