A few weeks ago, I was walking through one of our high school hallways at the bell change. As teenage bodies spilled out of doorways and began making their way to their next class, I was quickly surrounded by former students looking for hugs. After wrapping my arms around the first two or three, I heard an approaching student ask, “Can I get one, too?” I laughed and replied, “Of course. You belong to me.” This was immediately followed by a deep voice coming from down the hallway, “What about me? Do I belong to you, too?” I looked to see who the speaker was and saw Malcolm, a senior football star, who I had taught four years earlier in the eighth grade. “Yes, absolutely,” I began to respond, when I was interrupted by a different voice coming from the other direction, “I get one first. I belonged to her before you did.” Ethan, another senior, was right. I had taught him in the seventh grade. He had, indeed, belonged to me first.
They all belong to me. I suspect that most teachers feel this way about their students. After all, we spend time with them every day for most of a year, or in the case of Montessori teachers, for two or even three years. Our students belong to us because we know who they are.
And knowing who they are is critical for understanding what they need from us. What they need from us in order to make academic gains. What they need from us in order to develop personal responsibility and leadership skills. And what they need from us in order to get through difficult situations or interactions.
Being aware of the importance of knowing my students left me in a quagmire, however, at an important moment in my career.
Despite the zero-tolerance position taken by many educators, smart phones are not the enemy of education. However, incomplete or thoughtless smart phone policies can create tremendous division between teachers, administrators, and students, and even conflict among teachers.
The solution is not
… eliminate cell phones from the school, or
… eliminate phone restrictions entirely.
Smart phones can be windows into the world for our students. They can open new vistas of direct communication with experts from around the corner, or with other students from around the world. But smart phones create problems in schools and in the development of adolescents, and for these reasons educators must be intentional in their approach to setting policies.
That was a student’s response when I told my Algebra class about an upcoming test. My first reaction was to be flabbergasted. “What do you mean is it for a grade? It’s a test. Of course it’s for a grade!” But then suddenly I understood.
“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 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 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.
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?”
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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/.
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.
During breakfast, on the final morning of leadership camp, I noticed a chaperone from another group standing near our tables. After a few moments, she walked over and said something to several of my students. By their reactions, I could clearly tell that the conversation was disciplinary in nature.
My first response was to be defensive. My students know how to behave when we’re out of the building. I hadn’t observed any misbehavior. Why was she redirecting them?
Camp Kern runs multiple school programs simultaneously – a leadership program for middle school students and an environmental program for upper elementary students. As is the case every year, there was a second group at camp while we were there. Invariably the other group is always much larger than ours, comprised of younger children, and made up of predominately white students.
My students are adolescents and predominately students of color.