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.

They All Failed The Test. What Do I Do?

Dear Young Teacher,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more

The 7 Gateways: The Search for Meaning and Purpose

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

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

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

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

As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.

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

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Back to School: The Prepared Environment

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

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

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

Back to School that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Begin with one of these spaces.

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

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

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

A place for everything and everything in its place

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

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

 

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

 

Materials to support classroom procedures

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

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

 

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

 

Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion

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

A beautifully set morning meeting table includes all necessary supplies.

 

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

 

Nontraditional student work areas

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Your students are worth it.  So are you.

 

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

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

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

 

Creating Change: Yes, We Can!

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting Uncomfortable — Let’s Talk About Race In The Classroom

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.

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What is this “Montessori Thing” and Secondary Montessori

*This post was originally published as two separate posts in January of 2016.  Because both posts address the origins and philosophy of Montessori practice, we wanted to republish them together.

 Anyone connected to education today has heard the following espoused as best practices:

  • Project-Based Learning
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Social-Emotional Learning
  • Use of Manipulatives and Hands-On Activities
  • Real-World Experiences
  • Rigor
  • High Expectations

These are cutting-age, modern instructional practices, right?

Wrong.

Maria Montessori first began developing and implementing these techniques in the early 20th century.

Maria Montessori

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How Do You Measure a Year?

By Krista Taylor

It happens every year, so one would think I would be used to it by now.  The school-year seems to move along, as slow as molasses, at times feeling somewhat interminable. And then, suddenly, it’s over. This catches me entirely off-guard.  And I’m not ready.

The curriculum has been taught, the tests have been administered, the paperwork is complete, the culminating projects are finished, and yet I am still not ready.

I’m not ready to let them go.  I’m not ready to say good-bye.

I am not ready to have my 8th graders move on to high school. And even though my 7th graders will return to me next year, I’m not ready to spend 12 weeks apart from them.

I know that sounds ridiculous.  It probably is ridiculous. But I don’t transition well.  Every year it takes me a week or longer after the end of the school year to complete the check-out process that somehow every other teacher manages to get done by the last day.  But I’m not ready.

However, this year, exactly one week before the end of the year, I looked around the circle at the faces of my students during morning meeting, and I suddenly realized that whether or not I was ready, my students were.

The seventh graders, who had entered our building in the fall looking for all the world like little lost lambs, were ready to assume the mantle of leadership.

And the eighth graders had become so strong, self-assured, and independent that they were ready to tackle the new demands and challenges of high school.

How had this leadership emerged?  It felt abrupt when I suddenly saw it staring back at me in black and white during that morning meeting, but I knew that it wasn’t.  I knew that their leadership had been cultivated and nurtured over time and through great dedication and diligence.  But how?  What exactly were the critical components that allowed that transformation to happen?

As I tend to do, when I saw them with new eyes that morning, I acknowledged it.  I told my 7th graders that I had just realized that they were ready – ready to fill the 8th graders’ shoes, ready to lead our community next year.  And I asked them how they had learned to do this.  Their response did not surprise me, but it did delight me.  They said, “The eighth graders taught us.”

And, of course, that is how it had happened.  This is peer transmission of culture, and it is a powerful thing.

Being social and engaging in peer relationships is the primary motivating force of the adolescent.  As a result, they can teach each other far more powerfully than any lesson presented by an adult.  This is why peer pressure is such a powerful phenomenon.

Teen-agers desperately want to fit in, to belong.  They crave this social inclusion, and while adults often fear its power to lead children astray, peer pressure can be positively channeled to guide students toward valorization as well.

“Teens join peer groups in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their families and grow more independent … When most people think of the phrase ‘peer pressure,’ images of underage teens participating in destructive behavior spring to mind. But most people overlook positive examples of peer pressure, including situations where friends push teens to grow in beneficial ways.”[1]

Students can reach each other more deeply than any adult ever could.  Who better to teach them how to be leaders than their peers?  This is the rich benefit of multi-age grouping in a classroom.  Older students model expectations for younger students, and this results in powerful learning.

Multi-age groupings, like those seen in Montessori classrooms among others, readily allow the transmission of classroom culture to occur through peer relationships.  And my students’ recognition of this was what I found so remarkable on that day when I looked around morning meeting and suddenly recognized their transformation.

Multi-age classrooms are a fundamental component of the Montessori model, but this philosophy is beginning to reach traditional education as well.  A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, “Multiage education … puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.”[2]

This is exactly how it happens.

This mentoring, leadership, and collaboration is very intentionally constructed in the Montessori middle school classroom.  At the beginning of the year, the eighth graders are asked to take on all the leadership roles.  They are expected to model what positive leadership looks like in our classrooms.  We overtly identify and discuss this – honoring the role of the eighth grade leaders. We also note that over the course of the year, the seventh graders will be provided with increasing opportunities to fulfill these duties, so that by the following year, they will be prepared to do the modeling for incoming students.

Initially, however, the eighth graders are given all the classroom leadership responsibilities such as: running morning meeting, helping new students manage a checklist of assignments, and reinforcing behavioral expectations.

Additionally, the language of leadership pervades our discussions with students. The poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart is displayed in each of our classrooms, and we use this as a tool to identify what leadership is.  On a near daily basis, we say things like, “I need a couple of leaders,” “Where are my leaders?” “Can I get some leader volunteers?” or “It doesn’t matter where we are, we always behave like leaders.” Leadership is always referenced as an expectation for all, not just a quality that a few motivated students will demonstrate.

This is why student reinforcement is so critical. Every classroom has students who are internally motivated to lead and are responsive to teacher mentoring. Sometimes we call these students the “good kids” or “the bright ones” or “teachers’ pets.” A shift in classroom climate occurs, however, when all students are expected to demonstrate leadership, and I suspect that this can only be accomplished through positive peer pressure.

At Gamble, peer leadership modeling begins in earnest with the closing ceremony at fall camp.  Camp happens early in the school year — within the first three weeks.  The 7th graders are brand new to us, and their official initiation to the community occurs on the final night of the fall camping experience.

This ceremony is entirely planned by the eighth graders.  In our community, it never fails that year after year, the eighth graders want to initiate the seventh graders by identifying and labeling their character strengths.  This practice was begun with our first group of students, and each year it is handed down as tradition.  This is a powerful example of peer transmission of culture.

So, invariably, just days before camp, a large group of eighth graders spend their lunchtime in my room frantically preparing certificates with individual names and character strength labels.

Listening to them discuss what they have observed in their seventh grade peers is so sweet.  It sounds something like this:

“What about Dahlia, what’s her strength?”

“She’s talkative.”

“Oh yeah, she is.  But that sounds kind of bad.  How can we make it good?”

“I don’t know.  Outgoing?”

“Yeah, that’s good.  What about Ramon?”

“Ramon, I don’t know.  He’s so quiet.  I hardly even notice him.  Ms. Taylor, what is Ramon’s character strength?”

“Hmmmmm … sounds like you need to observe him a little more.  Do you think you can do that and then come back tomorrow and have a character strength for him?”

“Yeah, we can do that.”

This work of identifying character strengths requires them to do multiple things.   They must review the various character strengths, intentionally observe their new classmates, and see them in a positive light.  What an incredible way to begin leading a group of new students.

This type of leadership is a responsibility, an expectation, and an obligation, but it is also so much more.  Because it is done by students year after year, it is seen as an honor, as something to be earned and entrusted with.

When treated this way, leadership becomes a somewhat revered role.  I believe this is why I typically have so many students willing to take on leadership tasks, even when they know that it usually involves additional work. All I have to do is ask, “I need a couple of leader volunteers.  Who’s willing to help?”  And every time, many, many hands go up.  It is an honor to be called on to complete these tasks, and the work is viewed not as a menial job, but as a responsibility to be assumed for the good of the group.

I giggled this spring upon overhearing the following exchange between two young ladies.  We were outside taking a break from the stressors of standardized testing, and Aaliyah began picking up pieces of trash.  Mi’Neasia looked at her and said, “What are you doing that for?”  Aaliyah’s response made me so proud.  “You know Ms. Taylor’s going to make us do it in a minute, so we might as well get started.”

Let’s be clear, no one likes to pick up trash.  But Aaliyah knew that “Leaving a Place Better Than We Found It” was part of what we always did as leaders, and she viewed it as an obligation.  She took the initiative before being asked, and then transmitted this expectation to a peer.

I am certain that if I, as the teacher, solely dictated the requirement of completing these types of extra jobs, I would be met with complaining and resistance, but when peers model diligent completion of the work, the entire experience shifts positively.

Of course, leadership doesn’t develop exclusively as a result of peer modeling.  There must also be opportunities for leadership development built into the curriculum, but I do not believe that we would get nearly the same results without the benefit of students leading the way.

And like all growth, leadership doesn’t develop in one neatly-graphable, continuous line, and it isn’t developed overnight, or even over a few weeks. Although I was startled by my sudden recognition during morning meeting that the students sitting before me had become leaders, there was really nothing sudden about it. My students had been working on leadership all year, and it was the consistent guidance and direction of their eighth grade peers that had steered them toward that readiness. They recognized this and were able to articulate it.

Each year, while the eighth graders are in Pigeon Key, Florida engaged in an intensive marine biology study that serves as our culminating middle school experience, the seventh graders prepare a celebration to honor them.  It is a bit of a mirror image of the fall camp ceremony, and serves to pass the torch of leadership.

This year, as part of the ceremony they planned, they wrote this:

“Dear 8th graders,  It’s been a long year with everyone.  A lot of things have changed with improved grades, behavior, and leadership skills.  It’s been a big transition throughout the year.  Everyone has shown growth tremendously, and I would like to thank the 8th graders for showing me the path to be an 8th grade leader.  Everyone will be missed.”

And this.

“I know not only 7th graders improved, but you did as well.  You were once in the same position as us, now look where you’re at.  You were such a big help to us because you taught us how to be the 8th grade leaders you are today.  We will miss every, single one of you, and hopefully you’ll miss us too.  Most importantly, as you go to the 9th grade, just remember that you’ll always be UL leaders.  P.S. Try not to make Ms. Taylor too emotional when you leave.”

They were ready to move on, and they recognized this in themselves, and in each other.

Just one week after that culminating moment, we said good-bye.  The seventh graders headed off into another long summer break, and the eighth graders did the same, prepared to engage in an entirely different academic adventure upon their return.

They had come so far, and, while they often tease me about being “too emotional,” I know that they, too, felt the bittersweet pang of farewell. For a full ten minutes after the bell rang on that last day of school, my teaching partners and I had students clustered around us for hugs and final words.

Lisa, who ended the year with beautiful grades, threw her arms around me, as I whispered in her ear, “You’ve worked so hard. Remember that first quarter conference when you had to tell your mom that you were failing? Just look at you now!” She burst into tears and hugged me even tighter.

Derek, an 8th grader, who was incredibly immature when he arrived at Gamble and who spent the better part of a year being the class clown, stood tall and gave me a tight hug, as he said proudly and confidently, “You know I’m gonna miss you next year in the 9th grade.”

And Astrid, a painfully shy 7th grader who has finally begun to find her place and her voice in our community. As is her way, she waited patiently and silently for her hug until all the more boisterous students had gotten a turn. I looked into her eyes, and saw such longing for recognition there. I told her what I know to be true: “You will be such a powerful leader for our new students next year. You know all the quiet ones? The ones who are so afraid to come to high school? You’re in charge of them next year, okay?” She silently nodded as her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me good-bye.

And even Andrew, who had a very difficult year and will be repeating the seventh grade, waited for his hug, and then shoved a crumpled post-it note in my hand saying gruffly, “Read that.” It said, “Thanks for helping me do better and have grit. I will miss you these three months.”

I was almost certainly “too emotional” when they left.  Because I was not ready.  But they were. They were ready to move on to the next level of challenge, and that is what matters. That is how you measure a year.

 

[1] “Peer Pressure.”Teenagers and Peer Pressure – Causes and Effects. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.

 

[2] Miller, Stuart. “Inside a Multiage Classroom.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 May 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.

 

The Seven Gateways: The Longing for Silence and Solitude

It was the witching hour at fall camp. That tricky time that happens each day as the afternoon activity wraps up, dinner preparation must begin, and the canoeing group, which necessarily includes the bulk of teachers and chaperones, hasn’t yet returned to the campground. What this all means is too many wound-up students and not enough adult hands to go around.

I had just led our afternoon activity of a serious Olympic Games competition. This consisted of multiple activities such as wheelbarrow races, leapfrog races, football tosses, and one-legged stands. You know, all the famous Olympic sports.

 

Hilarity had ensued as student less-than-gracefully leap-frogged over each other and attempted to distract each other from standing stock-still on one leg for an unfathomable amount of time. The event culminated in a raucous Olympic medal ceremony replete with extremely off-key anthem singing.

And, this year, there had been a little thunder thrown in for good measure – just to help keep everyone calm.

And thus the witching hour began with 25 hyped-up adolescents and me. I needed to get them settled and working on their packets, so I could begin overseeing dinner crew, but I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to manage the transition.

I must have felt really desperate because I threw all caution to the wind and tried something new – all the while being absolutely certain that there was no way it would work.

I put on my best serious and quiet “Montessori voice” — not an easy feat on the third day of camp right after the Olympic games and just before an impending thunderstorm – and I said, “Do you guys remember last week when I told you about The Silence Game?”

Maria Montessori designed The Silence Game in her work with young children. She asked the children to be quiet, to “create silence,” and then she waited across the room from them and called their names individually in a barely audible voice. When a child heard his name called, he would walk across the room as quietly as possible and sit down silently.

I had introduced this concept to my students the previous week as the foundation of the practice of solo time that we use in the Montessori adolescent classroom. So in the controlled chaos of the moments just following our Olympic games, I told my students that we were going to play this game. I asked them to create silence, and when I tapped them on the shoulder they were to silently walk over to the pavilion area, have a seat, and begin working on their assignment packets.

I really did not think it was going to work.

But it did. This cluster of pubescent energy that differed little from a litter of puppies, closed their eyes and stilled. As I quietly moved among them, tapping them on the shoulder, they remained silent and practically floated, one at a time, toward the pavilion.

I very nearly giggled in my astonishment at the game’s success. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

In The Soul of Education, Rachel Kessler identifies the yearning of silence and solitude as one of the seven gateways to the adolescent soul.

“The longing for silence and solitude, often an ambivalent domain, is fraught with both fear and urgent need. As a respite from the tyranny of ‘busyness’ and noise, silence may be a realm of reflection, of calm or fertile chaos, an avenue of stillness and rest for some, prayer and contemplation for others.”

Montessori used The Silence Game to help young children develop focus and concentration as she asked them to remain silent for gradually longer increments of time.

In the busyness and constant engagement of today’s world, children need this opportunity to practice silence even more than they did during Montessori’s time. A recent study conducted by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds to eight seconds. To put this into perspective, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. [1]

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimuli such that, for many of us, silence and stillness are uncomfortable. We are easily bored and seek out the next engaging thing, often through ready access to mobile devices.

And yet there is plenty of evidence that our brains need this silence and solitude. Spending time in silence:

  • Relieves stress and tension
  • Replenishes mental resources
  • Allows the brain to access its default mode leading to deep and creative thinking
  • Helps regenerate brain cells [2]

Classrooms are busy places. There is little time or opportunity to rest, and yet neuroscience is discovering that the rewards of silence are great.

In the secondary Montessori classroom, Kessler’s concept of an adolescent longing for silence and solitude is combined with Montessori’s philosophy that the child can be taught to focus by being asked to practice silence for increasing periods of time. We call this work “solo time.”

Solo time consists of a period of time lasting anywhere from ten minutes to forty-five minutes. Some schools practice solo time daily; other schools do it once a week. During solo time, students must engage in a silent, independent activity. Choices often include coloring, journaling, reading, sketching, puzzles, Play-Doh, Legos or other building material, or just sitting in meditative silence.

 

 

 

When the concept is first introduced, many students take immediate joy in participating in solo time, but quite a few students, and even some adults, actively dislike it. They find it hard to remain still, they are bored, and they are drawn to whisper to their peers, move around the classroom, or otherwise meet their need for greater stimulation. At the beginning of the year, after each of the first few times we “do solo,” we discuss, as a class, what this experience was like. Many students describe how challenging it is for them to be still and to refrain from interaction with others. Some require behavioral redirection to be able to comply with these seemingly simple expectations.

Over time, however, almost all students develop enjoyment for this quiet time.

Solo time is especially powerful when it is conducted outside. Sometimes, we are able to do this on school grounds; however, we also hold outdoor solo time during our overnight field experiences.   Our most profound of these experiences is the 8th grade culminating trip to Pigeon Key, Florida. Solo time on Pigeon Key is especially transcendent because it feels so remote from “the real world,” and thus really provides the opportunity for deep silence and solitude. Students are powerfully affected by experiencing solo time in this setting, and they beg to do it more often and for longer periods of time.

 

Last year after the solo time on the first night on the island, Cavin wrote this in his journal.

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

His words are especially profound because he had been battling depression all year, and had spent some time in the hospital due to suicidal ideation. What greater gift could we give him then an opportunity, even if just for a few minutes, “to worry about nothing?”

Solo time is just one way of embedding a practice of silence and solitude into the classroom.

It is all too easy to get caught up in all the things that need to be done in the limited time we are with our students. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we have five hours each day or just a single fifty-minute bell, the time is never enough. It’s hard to consider giving up any of this precious time to something as simple as silence.

And in the adolescent classroom, it can be equally hard to imagine that our students are actually going to cooperate in this. After all, the need for socialization is one of the critical hallmarks of the adolescent being. It is embedded in their very nature to interact nearly constantly with each other.

However, Kessler describes this gateway as a longing for silence and solitude. While on the surface, it may not be something students prioritize, they have a deep need for it.

In a similar vein, classroom mindfulness practices are growing and gaining national attention. A number of programs, such as Mindful Schools and CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators) have sprung up both as a means to train teachers to bring these practices into the classroom, and as a strategy to support teachers in coping with the stressors and demands of their job.

Public schools in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewherehave implemented the use of mindfulness both as a daily practice and as a way to help students calm down when they are engaged in conflict or misbehavior.

These programs are seeing powerful outcomes related to both reduced discipline and increased achievement. While there has not been a tremendous amount of research conducted on the impact of meditation on the developing brain, initial studies demonstrate some important benefits.

  • Increased attention
  • Improved grades
  • Better attendance
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Greater self-control
  • Enhanced social-emotional skills[3]

Mindfulness practices come at little to no cost, seem to have no negative impact, and have the potential for significant positive gains. Mindfulness is gaining ground as a structure that may be of great benefit to schools, teachers, and students, but why hasn’t this ancient concept been adopted sooner and more quickly in classrooms around the country?

I can only try and answer that question based on my own experience. I have been trained in bringing mindfulness practices into the classroom three times. Yes, I said three times. The first time I received this training was in 1999. Right. Eighteen years ago. I later completed two different mindfulness programs, in 2014 and in 2016, respectively. And yet I still have not implemented a mindfulness practice in my classroom.

Why not?

Because it’s scary.

Imagine telling 30 adolescents to close their eyes, sit silently, and focus on their breath. Okay, admittedly, it doesn’t sound so scary when it’s written out like that, but in the moment it feels like the critical balance between control and chaos could be tipped at any moment. All it would take is for one student to say something goofy, or make a weird noise, or expose the practice as a sham, and suddenly, the whole class would be disrupted, and you would spend the remainder of the time trying to regain control of the group.

This is every teacher’s nightmare, but I have to admit I’ve never had this happen.

Each time I’ve dabbled in meditation in the classroom, it’s been incredibly well-received by students. Some students really appreciate it, and even ask for it. Most tolerate it without complaint, and none has ever been disruptive.

And yet, I still don’t have a developed mindfulness practice. #teachergoals2018

For now, we do solo time every week, and more frequently when we are on multi-day field experiences.

If, like me, you don’t feel ready to jump full-force onto the mindfulness bandwagon, there are many other ways, of bringing silent reflection into the classroom – including the establishment of a structured solo time.

CARE recommends implementing the following strategies as a way to get started:

  • Calmer Transitions
  • Take 5
  • Use of a “Quiet Corner” or “Peace Corner.”
  • Mindful Walking and Centering

Each of these is described more fully here. 

Despite their very social and talkative nature, students really do long for silence and solitude.

 

As their guides, it is our responsibility to help them find time and space for this.

 

 

[1] McSpadden, Kevin. “Science: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish.”Time. Time, 14 May 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

[2] Gregoire, Carolyn. “Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

[3] Walton, Alice G. “Science Shows Meditation Benefits Children’s Brains And Behavior.”Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 24 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

Lead Change by Changing

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The Barrow sisters arrived at Gamble as a group three years ago, although they were in separate grades. Bright and engaged and outspoken in class, they were nonetheless a task to manage there, and an absolute disruption when together in the hallway. If one of them got upset about a bad grade or an argument with a friend, the three responded as a unit, storming down the hall, feeding into each other’s anger. When any one of them was angry, I saw them collectively as Pig Pen, only instead of a cloud of dust, they hurricaned down the hall in a frenzy of frustration and anger. One morning they had been brought to the office by Mr. Sinden. Well, he got them near the office, anyway. They kept talking themselves out of actually entering – one would say okay, and then another would initiate another complaint and they would collapse again into angry pacing and threats. After twenty long minutes, we settled that matter and returned them to class. One at a time throughout the morning they each ended up at the office again, having been removed from class for misbehavior.

Something was going on. I pulled Alicia, the oldest, into the hallway. “What’s going on?” She started to talk about how her teacher removed her from class for nothing.

“No, what is going ON?” I emphasized the last word to suggest bigger dealings, and pointed out that she and her sisters had separately and collectively been removed from class multiple times, and we still were not at lunch time. “Nothing,” she started. “It’s just that …” She paused, and I waited until she spoke again. When she stopped talking several minutes later, she had revealed that the sisters had been separated the previous night in an effort to find warm places to sleep, and still one of them had ended up in another sister’s house where the electricity was off. They were cold and tired, and glad to be back in each other’s company, until they learned that a friend had made some disgusting allegations about the youngest sister on Facebook. They were eager to settle the score as a group, in person, but were trying to not get in trouble for doing it at school.

Several among my staff expressed frustration that I had not simply sent the girls home on suspension at the first incident. I had cause to suspend them, in a strict reading of the rules. However, if I had done that, I would not have learned about their collective situation. They would have not gotten any instruction for several days, and school would have remained an adversary rather than an opportunity for these students.

I learned a lot that day, and from similar experiences before that. Over time I have learned to look at unusual misbehavior as a sign of larger concerns, as Krista explained in a post that student behavior really reveals hidden issues. I have learned to ascribe charitable explanations to the misbehavior – not as an excuse for the child, but as a way to understand the child. Besides, it never hurts in a relationship with a student to inquire about her life beyond the walls of the school. Simply asking, “Are you alright? Your actions here do not seem like you,” sends a student a message of caring and concern and tells her that you understand her best self, even if she is not feeling like her best self at the moment.

This is significantly better than asking, “What is wrong with you, don’t you know how to behave?”

CPS High School principals created their own Harvard / CPS / Grit logo mashup to mark their training summer 2015.
CPS High School principals created their own Harvard / CPS / Grit logo mashup to mark their training summer 2015.

In the summer of 2015, Cincinnati Public High School Principals participated in the Harvard program “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership.” http://www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/program/improving-schools-art-leadership

In the program, we explored many different facets of school leadership, taking classes from some of the leading researchers, teachers, and school leaders in education today. At first I believed the common message was the declared theme of the conference: every child can learn. A passionate argument was made time and again about the power of the leader to send this message about every student, and a recognition that education professionals take every lost student as a personal challenge. I found myself already primed by my experience and my beliefs to fully embrace this message. They were preaching to the choir.

Soon though, I realized a subtle but more powerful message had been intentionally woven through our courses: In order for an organization to change, the leader must change. This “change” was not the simplistic one-size-fits-all “fire the principal of the underperforming school.” (That was, actually, one of the three turnaround models provided by the State of Ohio under the School Improvement Grant, as developed under the No Child Left Behind legislation. Seriously. “Replace the principal” was an entire strategy.) No, in order for an organization to change, the leader must be willing to change himself or herself.

The first giveaway was our introduction to the book Immunity to Change, by Harvard School of Education Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Dr. Kegan walked us through the process they developed to identify hidden motivators that undermine our efforts to be our best selves. In the process, you set a particular goal and outline the steps to achieve that goal. Then you examine your behaviors that work against your goal. Finally, you investigate your choices to see what competing commitments you have – what is important to you that prevents you from doing the things that need to be done to reach your goal. Then you take steps to eliminate or disempower those competing commitments. You can see a brief explanation of the process here. This process explained how to take what was hidden in yourself and make it plain. Again, it prepared you to make a change in your organization by making change within yourself.

I was content to see this as a way for working through my habitual procrastination, but nothing more than that. A salve for a problem familiar to many. I stubbornly clung to my belief that I did not really need to change so much as I needed to learn a few good systems. (And I believe a few good systems can truly help!)

Other readings and experiences grew out of the Harvard experience. Soon thereafter I had the pleasure of listening to and then meeting Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity. His suggestions for creating teams that could function at a high level – teams that could learn from each other and speak about uncomfortable ideas and resolve problems effectively – involved the same sort of work. The team was not expected to work on a new set of procedures or go through a particular set of stages (that will happen anyway, as you can see here), but instead it was expected that the leader would conduct himself in a way to bring about new conversations. Through his or her efforts guiding the conversation, the team would remain in the conversational sweet spot between what he Weber described as “minimizing” and “winning”. That is, in the zone between wanting to avoid the conversation at all costs, and wanting to get your way and appear right at all costs. He explains that we all lean toward one of those conversational mistakes, and those tendencies work to prevent a team from solving problems.

 

<—– minimize —————(sweet spot)——————–win—–>

 

Fortunately, through the individual’s vigilance and self-discipline, there is a way to intentionally keep the group in the sweet spot, where they are discussing key issues, raising problems, proposing solutions, and working together toward the same goal. It is not a system or a checklist, as much as some would hope for that. There is a time to back off and let a solution happen, and there is a time to push an idea forward.  But these are not “minimizing” or “winning”. These skills can be learned. It is a discipline.

Once again, the message is that as a leader, I must learn how to do this in order to be what the team needs. I recognize in myself the tendencies to minimize. My same skills that help me to be a careful observer of my students also can prevent me from addressing concerns I have with actions taken by a student or a staff member. I often fail to take immediate action on important items. I most likely do this because I want to avoid conflict. As a minimizer, this means I must learn to push myself to be more assertive and to embrace the possibility of conflict in order to accomplish what needs to be done.

Once again, I am being pushed to change the organization by changing myself.

In Conversational Capacity, Craig made reference to something called the “ladder of inference”. I encountered the ladder again in Peter Senge’s Schools That Learn. Peter Senge is the author of the bestselling systems-thinking book The Fifth Discipline. It is a staple in management courses at universities around the world. Schools That Learn is a version of the book specifically geared towards educators and schools.

The ladder of inference, pictured below, is a helpful way to envision any person’s mental processing mistakes about a situation.

The ladder of inference.
The ladder of inference.

Unlike most mental models provided in trainings, this is not a set of steps to take to reach a desired conclusion. It is, more accurately, a guide on how people get things wrong in a personal interaction. It’s an anti-instruction chart. It’s a map of what your mind does whether you want it to or not.

Weber gives this example:

Consider the experience of two men visiting Chicago for the first time. Traveling together to attend a meeting, they land at O’Hare airport and share a taxi into town. Arriving early, they decide to wander the streets together and explore the downtown area. An hour later, as they walk into their meeting, the woman who summoned them to Chicago knowing it’s their first visit, asks them a question, “What did you think of the city?”

“It’s a dump,” exclaims one.

“It’s beautiful,” raves the other.

One question we might ask is, “Who is right?” But that’s not the most interesting line of inquiry.

In any given situation, such as a visit to a new city, there is a lot of directly observable data. Focusing on restaurants means perhaps overlooking the parks, and people-watching could mean attempting to figure out their profession by focusing on their clothing, or noting the cultural and racial diversity, or looking for people who otherwise stand out to you. There is a lot to see. You cannot possibly see it all. So the men in the example started selecting right from the minute they entered the taxi, and continued during their walk.  So they moved from “reality and facts” to “selected reality.”

From the limited observable data they collected, their unique background experiences – their cultural, educational, and experiential backgrounds – filtered what they saw without their knowledge. So they moved from “selected reality” to “interpreted reality.” Without their knowing it, the men had taken the same tour at the same time, and had reached completely different conclusions based on their personal interpretations.

In this case, it was their vocations that helped create their interpretations of what they saw. The first man was a police officer, the second an architect. The first saw a dump, with evidence of crime all over the place based largely on his training and experience. The second saw beautiful architecture in many different styles and eras, and neighborhoods that reflected the eras in which they were built, again based largely on his training and experience.

Our vocational training is one of many powerful filters that comprise our ladders of inference.

Or, as Weber phrases it, the ladder forces us to ask, all the time, “what else is your mind doing without your permission?” This is an important question for educators to ask themselves all the time as we deal with students, parents, and each other.

With the Barrow sisters, it would have been easy to conclude, “Those girls are out of control.” It would have required no work on my part. There would have been general support for the decision. I could see the misbehavior and assume they do not know how to behave, or that they meant ill will toward Mr. Sinden or me. That ladder is an easy one to climb when we see a student not following clear directions from an adult.

Frustratingly, in a school, there is often a perverse sort of pressure on teachers to view students in just this way: as intentional disruptors who do not want to do well in school. This may be my greatest frustration as a principal. In a vocation where we should be trained to support and nurture students, the urge to punish and suspend a student is oddly fostered and encouraged among some teachers. I ask this question: shouldn’t the vocational training of educators take us in the opposite direction? Shouldn’t we always be giving students the benefit of the doubt? The answer is simple.

Yes we should.

And it is intensely frustrating to know that I am at times criticized for doing just that.

A couple of years ago, Cincinnati experienced a particularly cold winter and a stretch of single digit (Fahrenheit) morning temperatures. One of these mornings I was standing next to another adult in the hallway outside the cafeteria when Donte arrived, late, and headed into the cafeteria for breakfast. School had started 15 minutes earlier, and Donte lived within walking distance. He was chronically tardy. He was wearing a zip-up windbreaker over a hoodie which, I saw as I got closer, was pulled on over a second hoodie. My colleague commented aloud on Donte’s tardiness, and implied a conclusion that he was not really trying to get to school. I’ve made similar comments to and about students as well, but today I approached focused on a second set of observations. “Donte, it is super cold out there, are you warm enough?” He shivered his response, “I’m okay Mr. Jose.”

“You must sure love school to get here on a day like this.”

“I do, Mr. Jose.” He reconsidered, “Well, most of it anyway.”

As educators, we must be aware of how we move up the ladder of inference. It is very easy to misjudge another person’s actions, especially as we have more and more interactions with them over time. It is easy to get it wrong, as I did one particular day, when my student suddenly left my class without permission. I was certain that she was intent on skipping, and I rather publicly wrote her a Saturday school discipline form in front of my class. I soon learned that she had run out to help a teacher who had spilled something in the hallway.

Our classrooms have 28 or more students in them, we see 5 classes over the course of the day, we interact with more students and teachers in the hall … how do we possibly manage everyone in a world rife with opportunities to misunderstand? The answer is, we manage ourselves. We have to manage how we collect information, and how we process it, and what we do with it.

In interpersonal interactions, you must guard against climbing your own ladder of inference. One way to do this by always offering the benefit of the doubt. (We even build this last piece of advice into our Staff Agreement.)

Our staff agreement, final draft

How does that work? Practice. You can do it by yourself, and you can do it with a partner. When a student breaks a rule for the umpteenth time, imagine a variety of possible reasons why that just happened. At Gamble, students sometimes come into the office and shout a request to the office staff as soon as they get through the door. I could suggest, as some have, that this reflects “poor home training.” One could just as easily attribute this to an eagerness to return to class, or a lack of experience interacting with adults, or just above-average adolescent ebullience. Practicing the act of imagining charitable explanations for misbehavior opens the door to new understandings for all student behavior.

With the Barrow sisters, my choice helped set them up for success. Each of them has made the honor roll at least once in the intervening two years, and this year, when circumstances turned difficult for their family, they appropriately sought out the school’s support.

So how can you avoid climbing the ladder of inference?

  1. Observe the scene as fully as you can – look at the child or adult and gather facts
  2. Ask questions to get the other person’s perspective, take notes if necessary
  3. Ask what it is the other person was hoping to accomplish with their actions
  4. Fully explain your own perspective, then intentionally ask, “What am I missing?”
  5. Be willing to abandon your first interpretation of the situation

This is not to say that every action has a charitable explanation. It is wrong, however, to start from the assumption that the person you are dealing with intended to do harm.