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.
originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17
by Krista Taylor
Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.
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.
Originally published May 16, 2016. Updated June 2, 2017.
It is commencement season, and our Facebook feeds and conversations with friends are filled with celebrations: hard-won degrees earned, and lifelong goals met. It is a joyous time of year.
Every commencement is special, but some years and in some locations, there is magic. In 2014 Gamble Montessori senior Michael Tucker reached a personal milestone as he crossed the stage and received his diploma. Michael was not just graduating from high school. He was confined to a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy – or at least he had been. Though this was his situation during his entire time at Gamble, he had expressed to his teacher and mother that he wanted to walk across the stage at graduation. For more than a year, he regularly left school twice a week to get physical therapy that was at times painful for him, but he had a goal. He had knee surgery to extend his tendons so he could stand upright enough to walk, and he engaged in extensive recovery therapy. He even started walking to different places around the classroom, practicing the commencement walk tirelessly.
On commencement day, we had a lift available to get him on and off the stage. This was a precaution, in case fatigue or the excitement got in the way of his plans. At our rehearsal he stumbled a bit, but assured us through sign language and his determined look that he would be fine for the big event. That afternoon, when his name was called, he started confidently across the stage … and did exactly what he said he would, walking independently toward me to get his diploma. Michael’s mother reported that, behind her, another woman exclaimed loudly, “It’s a miracle!” Certainly it was. We were crying at the celebration of a goal visibly achieved through hard work and pain over an extended time. It was better than a miracle: it was a hard-won victory.
This celebration of personal and individual triumph is, of course, why we were crying and applauding for every child. For each graduate, the obstacles are very real, if not as dramatic or as visible.
Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar. There is no more powerful reminder of the importance of a teacher’s work, and the value of our time spent in conversations with students about quality of work and matters of integrity and timeliness. I remind my students that this particular ceremony is an important gateway into society. Their diplomas, already earned, wield the real power to their post-secondary future. The ceremony, however, remains an emotional symbolic transition into adulthood.
The photos and stories in our Facebook feed reveal that, over time, every school develops its own traditions and ways of taking care of the important business of sending students out into the world. Some have mechanical, no-nonsense commencement ceremonies, appropriate especially for schools with large graduating classes, while others have developed odd traditions, like the Smith College Diploma Circle, where students are handed someone else’s diploma and seek their own in a method described here: http://www.smith.edu/events/commencement_traditions.php . Almost all feature a speech by a student in the class, a dignitary or two, and representatives of the Board that oversees the school. Many feature music by the school’s choir, band, or orchestra, perhaps performing the processional and/or recessional.
In the spring of 2010, Gamble Montessori, in just our fifth year of formal existence, celebrated our first commencement, and faced a bit of a challenge. The Board of Education provided an outline of required events in a certain sequence (pledge of allegiance, conferring of diplomas, etc.) but these were not a graduation ceremony in themselves. There was no personality there, no recognition of what made us unique. So we turned to ourselves –a graduation committee consisting of teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, students and myself – to create an event worthy of our students.
Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar.
For our first commencement, Janice Dale, a paraprofessional who had worked with our students for years, and who our students intermittently addressed as Mrs. Dale and “Grandma,” offered a bold proposal: in addition to focusing on the achievements and development of the individuals, we would have a series of 3 commencements that would served to place Gamble appropriately in the timeline of public Montessori schools. Our school was the 7th public Montessori school in the Cincinnati Public Schools system, and the second high school. There is no public Montessori system like it anywhere in the world, but we often took it for granted. She wanted to give our faculty, students, and families a remarkable gift. She suggested we should honor those who made our school possible, in order to remind ourselves how we were special. More importantly, with Mrs. Dale’s help, we made sure that our commencement was a space for our students to celebrate their individual talents, whether it was reciting poetry, dancing, or singing.
[Author’s note: We followed her plan. Our first 3 years we honored: the beginnings of Montessori in Cincinnati including those who worked to create the first public Montessori elementary schools here, then the more recent past including those who broadened the number of Montessori elementary openings in Cincinnati, and finally we recognized those individuals who were directly responsible for the creation of Gamble Montessori 12 years after the opening of the first public Montessori high school, Clark Montessori.]
Commencement is best when the focus is a celebration of students’ talents and interests, and those define the ceremony to make it unique. It is crucial to honor the individual student, and to honor each and every individual. Just as a conscientious teacher builds choice into classwork and tailors assignments to match the strengths and interests of individual students, a conscientious administrator understands that to truly celebrate community, we must celebrate each of our individuals at commencement. We understand that when we share the responsibility and share the limelight, we make our community stronger. For this reason, students can be entrusted with several opportunities to make the ceremony theirs.:
Allow students to pick their student speaker, instead of having this determined by a GPA or by a committee. Many believe the valedictorian to be the student with the best grades at the completion of school, and that this person is required / entitled to give the main student speech at commencement. However, the accurate definition of valedictorian is less specific, simply the student chosen to give the main address at commencement. Rather than a formula or a committee deciding, our seniors choose this person internally. Often, as it was in 2017, students will choose the valedictorian, as this person has typically exemplified herself as a capable student who responds well to adversity and can be depended on to deliver a strong speech.
Allow seniors to invite to the keynote speaker of their choice. Given enough lead time, local politicians and activists, and even celebrities, are honored to be asked to speak at a commencement. Our students have historically chosen favorite teachers from their younger years at Gamble. This year they chose two current teachers to share the responsibility. In each case, they have selected teachers who were storytellers and who both loved and frustrated them.
Allow students to choose their graduation gown color from one of the school colors, instead of assigning them by gender. It creates an attractive and varied group picture, and avoids the discomfort and frustration that can come from mandating gown colors.
Have student videos featuring pictures and quotes, or even baby pictures. Another option is to have posters featuring seniors’ favorite photos of themselves. Finding a different way to honor the students, rather than merely having their name read aloud the moment they cross the stage, makes for a more engaging ceremony for the crowd of family members who might only know one of the graduates and will be pleased to see their familiar face in more than one place.
Allow students to choose which talented students will display their artistry at commencement. In five short years we have had singers, a praise dancer, and poetry readings. In 2017, our own band was able, for the first time, to perform Pomp and Circumstance.
Allow students the chance to – tastefully and within appropriate boundaries – decorate some part of their gown or mortarboard.
In 2014 students asked if they could decorate their mortarboards, those flat-topped square hats that graduates wear. The traditionalists among us initially rejected the idea, but again, respect for the individual won out. We quickly created three simple rules for the mortarboard decoration and a new tradition was born: it had to be two-dimensional, it had to fit completely on the board, and it had to be school appropriate. What followed were dozens of decorations that compared their journey from kindergarten to commencement to a popular video game, touted their college choices and majors, and touchingly celebrated their friendships.
Certain parts of the ceremony have remained steadfastly the same, in place to make sure we honor each student individually. First, we remind our families early in the ceremony how important it is that we honor each student fully, but within the time provided. Many of our students have invited distant family relatives to this milestone ceremony, and they take the occasion of commencement to loudly exclaim their pride and love. Rather than suggest that it is not appropriate to applaud and cheer loudly (of course it is! This is a time of celebration!), we remind our parents that the child being introduced after their child is equally deserving of praise and applause. Then, as a cushion, we have built in a little extra time for each student. When a child’s name is called, she steps onto the stage to shake my hand, accept her diploma, get our picture taken together, and shake the hands of the Board member and other dignitaries. Rather than immediately calling the next name and being frustrated by continuing applause, we allow the student their full moment, only calling the next name when she reaches the top of the stairs to descend at the other side of the stage.
Gamble’s graduation has never been interrupted by cheering extending into another student’s introduction, or marred by silence as a graduate’s name was called and his small family’s applause was lost in the crowd and reaches of the conference center. Each year our families have honored every graduate, and demonstrated the sense of community we seek to instill in each of our students.
One year, the students asked Tara to sing a solo with the choir. She worked with the teacher to select the appropriate song, “Dare to Dream” by John Legend. Weeks of practice got her fully prepared, vocally, for commencement. Nothing had prepared her emotionally for singing in front of such a large crowd and – more importantly – singing to friends she was just starting to realize she might not ever see all together again. We cried with Tara as she stumbled through her solo, singing a prayer of hope as a gift to her classmates: “Hold on when hope is gone / Race may not belong to the swift or the strong / It’s given to the ones who can endure for long / I know we care.”
One year we laughed as teacher Jason Banks pulled the microphone free from the podium, jumped off the stage, and urged the graduates to leave their seats and sit Montessori-style in a circle on the floor. He reminded them of their marine biology study in Pigeon Key, Florida, and their whitewater rafting trip where they woke up to 4 inches of fresh snow. He prompted them with, “Always leave a place …” and they finished, “Better than you found it!” Then he read them key excerpts from Oh! The Places You’ll Go.
The best commencements are the ones where the crowd can feel just a little bit lost, but each student feels completely found.
Between our rehearsal and the actual ceremony, some time is carved out for students to be in community with one another. One year teacher Josh Vogt used the opportunity to read a short story to the seniors, one that challenged them to think about their relationships with one another an with the community. This year we used that time to open our gratitude box, filled over the past several years from various ceremonies around gratitude, and reflect on the people and circumstances that helped get us to this point. What is important is that you can take a minute to be, again, one last time, in community.
Each year, as we gather for graduation practice, I remind my students that commencement is an important ritual, yes, but also just a grand show. The hard work has been done. They have earned their diplomas with nights of hard work and days of concentration. They have raised and spent hundreds of dollars, and invested thousands of hours over 12 or more years of their lives. The big work of their lives so far has been completed, and everyone has gathered to honor them. They have earned this celebration, and we are so proud of them.
This is the time to pay close attention to each other, be patient, and be in love with the moment and with our students. We follow the child, hit our marks, and let the miracles happen.
This week I was preparing a post about difficult conversations. I was reviewing some of the articles and books I have read about challenging conversations, and thinking back on the many times I have had to deliver hard news to a student’s family, or to a friend or an employee, or someone who is both. The topics at Angels and Superheroes are charted out weeks in advance. Our spreadsheet includes some ideas of what should be covered in the post. I had some ideas about what I wanted to say regarding the difficult conversations I often have to schedule and implement.
And then, serendipitously, someone who is both an employee and a friend came to me to have a difficult conversation. Or, more accurately, to deliver some hard news. Sometimes the situation comes to you.
He is a talented and bright young teacher. I interviewed him for the district several years ago, and walked away impressed, wishing I had a spot for him on my roster. I was devastated when, just a couple short weeks later, a spot opened up and I called human resources only to learn that he had been placed at another school. I kept in touch, and ran into him at social justice events, becoming more convinced over time that he would be an asset to the school. I periodically brought him up in conversations as “the one who got away.” Last spring, when we again had an opening, he transferred to our school. He turned out to be everything that I hoped he would be, and in some ways more.
In just his first year in the building he has taken on some leadership roles, and built a strong rapport with students and staff. Behind the scenes he operates with integrity, including helping facilitate difficult “elephant in the room” discussions, and brings insight to math and science instruction in the school. As for our Montessori approach, he just understands it. In the second semester when I stopped in to observe his classroom one day, he asked the class, “Who is our ambassador today?” When it was determined the designated student was absent, another student quickly volunteered and came over to me as he continued his lesson. She quietly welcomed me to the class, gave me a copy of a handout they were working on, told me the main point of the day’s lesson, and suggested places I could sit. She checked on me at each transition. This teacher had built leadership and community into his classroom process.
I identified very closely with him, perhaps because I saw an approach similar to mine. He was open to feedback, and eager to learn. I walked out of observations and discussions with him wondering what I could give to him to help him progress, wondering if perhaps I had anything to offer. Of course principals do not have favorite teachers, just as teachers do not have favorite students. But we know that in each group there are a few who make the day flow more smoothly, and who operate independently. They seem to put more in than they need out of the system.
Then he scheduled this meeting with me.
I was not worried about it at all. We had consulted closely on his intersession planning for several weeks, going back and forth with the CPS legal team and facilities department to ultimately decide that it would be unwise to build a climbing wall outdoors on school property. More recently we had spoken to back off of an outdoor climbing plan, and as he requested to add a second Gamble Moment to our annual Gamble Moments book.
In my office last week, the look on his face was grave. “Mr. Jose, this is not an easy thing to say.”
I knew it right then. He was leaving. My heart sank. I know my feelings escaped onto my face because he reacted. I’m not certain, but as I remember it, the next words out of his mouth were, “I’m sorry.” That was my confirmation of why he needed to talk.
He was leaving me.
Sure, I know, he was leaving the school, he was leaving the students, he was leaving all of us, but I became intensely aware that I was taking the news very personally. The rest of the conversation was important, perhaps crucial, but the news was all delivered in the set-up, the look on his face, and his apology.
He was leaving me.
Teachers leave buildings all the time. Teachers leave teaching too. In a recent NPR article, Linda Hammond, the President and CEO of the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, cited the national attrition rate – out of teaching – as 8%. The Shanker Institute, a nonprofit educational research group, asserted in this 2015 article that the “mover” and “leaver” rates were about 8% each, nationally, resulting in a combined typical rate of 16% attrition. Krista talks more powerfully about teacher burnout here.
Gamble Montessori had a bad year. As of the publication of this post, seven teachers are leaving the school, which is 18% of our 39 full-time teachers. Last year that number was better – we had five teachers leave, or 12%. (I want to rationalize even further: We have three itinerant academic teachers and an itinerant band director, if calculated in, this would push our rate this year to 16%. However, this is merely rationalization.) Two other teachers met with me during the year to discuss leaving; other possibilities they were pursuing in their personal lives could potentially pull them away. One went so far as to fill out a resignation paper from the district. However, both saw those prospects dim and are currently scheduled to return next year.
But why do teachers leave? Hammond provided two reasons. “[T]he first reason is lack of administrative support. The second one is concerns about the way accountability pressures in the No Child Left Behind era created pressure to teach to the test, burdensome sanctions and the loss of autonomy in the classroom.” Okay, I can deal with that. One of those reasons is in my control.
Jennifer Duffield, co-founder of Dancing Moose Montessori School in West Valley City, UT was pretty direct in her recent talk at the American Montessori Society (AMS) National Conference. In her words to administrators she said, simply, “The bad news is, we’re the problem. The good news is, we can also be the solution.” She stated that 63% of teachers who had negative feedback about administrators left, and 93% with positive feedback stayed.
Her data, like Hammond’s, points to a persistent 7% who leave despite positive feelings about administration.
It doesn’t take data, or an AMS presentation, for me to blame myself when a teacher leaves. Sometimes the reason presented is wholly unrelated to me, such as moving out of town following a marriage, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow a dream job. And to be certain, some of those who move on do so as a mutual parting of ways, perhaps after losing their zest for teaching, or exhibiting the same struggles with relationships or deadlines year after year. Nonetheless, I take each resignation or move personally.
As the leader of the school, I identify personally with each win or loss. This can be literal, like our first ever win with each of our athletics teams, or figurative, like the arrival and departure of staff. Our academic scores flood me with a range of emotions, despite my disparagement of using those scores to evaluate me, the school, the teachers, and our students. Each departure – or even rumor of a possible departure – sets off inside of me a volley of soul-searching and self-questioning. “What did I do wrong? How could I have better supported him/her? Was it something I said or did? Something I did NOT say or do?” And the list of reasons never seems to involve me. It is either a wedding, moving to be nearer to family, retirement, a dream job opportunity or similar reasons. However, I am certain that this is just people being polite to me. I queried him the same way I asked others: is there something I could have done better?
So what can be done about it? Duffield’s approach was straightforward: buy them coffee. Well, it was more complicated than that. She provided a host of solutions for the principal:
Focus on teacher growth and well being
Take more of the blame, and less of the credit
Protect them from district initiatives and unimportant tasks
Create an interdependent community where they have the resources to share problem-solving responsibilities
Listen to them, and give them what they need (which is, sometimes, coffee)
Have hard conversations, where you are nice, but tough [she used the word “nice,” but other authors and presenters, including Krista, and Patricia Jennings, would improve this suggestion by saying we should be “kind” but tough]
These rules describe the support that teachers need from their principals, and are not just rules for conversations. They seem to lay the groundwork for only the positive, growth-focused conversations, or for moments of praise and co-working to solve problems. Yet, because they help set the basis for building community, they actually help with all conversations. This includes hard conversations, like corrective feedback on observations, and addressing when someone falls short of our expectations. These can be uncomfortable. I used to flee from these conversations. Now sometimes I not only don’t avoid them, but I sort of relish them. I see each as a challenge and evidence of my growth, and a chance to use what I learned in reading Conversational Capacity. If I get a report that an adult in the school has spoken inappropriately to a student, or questioned another adult’s decision openly in front of others, I get the familiar rush of blood to my head. It would be easy to nod and promptly forget the report. Instead, now, I still give the nod, and a non-committal sound, then I seek the best way to address the issue directly. Sometimes the right answer is to say to the teacher in front of me, who has just complained about a colleague, “And what did they say when you addressed this with them?” If they did not have the conversation, which is often the case, I offer to help them structure the conversation, and offer my assistance for feedback if the meeting does not go as planned. Or if they have tried conversation and it did not work, instead of avoidance, I stride intentionally into the conversation. It is this recent practice that helped me be ready when my teacher sat down in my office and said, “This is hard.”
So I listened. He explained about a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with friends on a way to help impoverished students. It had been a dream of theirs, but a grant meant that his friends could afford to pay him, at least for a year. This was his passion, and he could be paid to follow it.
In response, I told him, honestly, how sad I was to hear this. I explained his value to me personally, and to the team, and how I had figured him into plans moving forward at the school. I stated – bluntly, I thought – that while I would be happy to hear if he changed his mind, I was not trying to change his mind. I was simply expressing the facts. I reassured him that he was doing the right thing by pursuing his dream and that if he chose to return, I would endeavor to find a place for him at our school, because it was better with him here. No one should ever be given any message different than that.
Personally, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I didn’t see it coming. And I told him so. I just named the feeling. But in expressing that to him, and remaining focused on what he needed – support, reassurance, and the confidence that he could have a place to return if his dream could not be realized – I had the difficult conversation the right way. Most importantly, I did not waiver from my philosophy of supporting the person in front of me. The school is important, but not more important than any of the people in it.
At Gamble, we take time in our staff meetings for acknowledgements. This is the time we structure to build community by thanking others or pointing out good work they have done to help us individually or as a school. At Monday’s staff meeting, when it was time for acknowledgements, my teacher who was leaving spoke up. “I’d like to acknowledge Jack. We had a hard conversation last week, and he was extremely understanding and supportive. I really appreciate that.” This weekend, as I sought his permission to use the story for this blog, he added, “Still feeling that way too. Appreciate your grace.”
There was a time when this was not the conversation I would have. One year, my second as principal, a promising young teacher approached me and asked permission to leave. She had a chance to move to our sister school, where she indicated she had dreamed of teaching. The timing was very late, and she had to ask me because the internal transfer rounds were over, and a transfer would require permission from both principals. I considered the calendar, and the difficulty involved in getting a teacher into the vacancy in time for opening day, let alone one as promising as her. I prevented her move. I held my ground even after Krista came to me and strongly advocated for supporting the individual over the institution. I was doing what was best for the school, I felt, and certainly what was best for me.
I have come to believe that I was wrong.
This decision was, I believe, subconsciously held against me by the teacher for the rest of her tenure at our school. She once even said as much as we were discussing a different issue. I had broken the relationship in order to do what I believed was best for the school, and I had ultimately benefitted nothing. She stayed a few more years, and proved that my belief in her promise was well-placed. She developed a strong teaching presence and structured a highly functional classroom, working closely with other adults to meet the needs of students. When another opportunity came to leave, however, she took it. But really, she had left years before, and I wonder if perhaps she could have been a better teacher somewhere else, or perhaps she would have seen the grass was not greener and returned. Neither of us will ever know. I am certain that she is gone from our school forever.
Maybe this other young teacher, the one I supported instead of blocking, will come back. There is precedent for that at our school. Maybe he won’t. Ultimately, I am proud that I supported him in the ways I could.
I can’t fully change the fact that I feel like he, and the others, are leaving me. ME, personally. I can, however, take steps to help all of my teachers feel more supported, and to take the action I can to support them in their roles and in their careers, even if that means letting them go.
Last week, my students and I were out of the building on a field experience. As our speaker wrapped up, he called on one final student who had his hand-raised. The student said, “I’d like to acknowledge you for taking the time to talk to us today and for answering all our questions.”
Acknowledgments are a regular practice at Gamble, and I typically ask students to provide acknowledgments for our hosts at the conclusion of our field experiences. This time, I had forgotten. But Peter had not.
When Carissa, who was sitting next to me, heard Peter’s unprompted acknowledgment, she turned to me, smiling, and whispered, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”
She didn’t know it, but her statement was akin to throwing me a lifeline. You see, it was just two days before spring break, and I was running from the specter of teacher burnout and losing ground fast. It was a race to the finish to see which would break first – the school year, or me.
Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” (Mirriam-Webster)
Teacher burnout is described in many ways, but I found this list of warning signs to be particularly helpful.
Exhaustion – a fatigue so deep that there’s no way to “turn it off”
Extreme graveness –Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing
Anxiety – The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more
Being overwhelmed – Questioning how you can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate
Seeking —Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm
Isolation –Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability
The stress and exhaustion of teaching is well documented. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 46% of teachers experience high levels of daily stress. This is on par with nurses, and tops the list of surveyed occupations.
Another indicator of stress and exhaustion is the statistic that 43% of teachers sleep an average of six or fewer hours a night. It’s little wonder then that “sleep” was the number one response my colleagues provided in answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about spring break?”
This continual stress and exhaustion leads to burnout, but teacher burnout is more than just a problem for individual teachers and schools. It is so pervasive that it has profound impacts on the profession as a whole.
NPR cites the following concerning statistics: 
8% of teachers leave the field each year; only one-third of this attrition is due to retirement
50% of the teaching profession turns over every 7 years
40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
Enrollment in teacher-training programs has fallen 35% in the past five years; a loss of 240,000 teachers
What exactly is it that causes such high levels of stress in teaching? Those who are not in the field of education are often stymied by this. “Seven hour school days and all major holidays and summers off,” they reason. “What’s so stressful about that?”
However, the difference between the working hours obligated by the contract (as described above) and the fulfillment of the contractual requirements of the job (as described below) is profound. I used to count my work hours each week, but after spending a year consistently tallying 65-70 hour weeks, I stopped counting. It was too overwhelming. And I’m not different from any of my colleagues. All of us work a tremendous number of hours beyond our contractual obligation. Some of this is expected. No one goes into teaching actually believing that the work will be contained within school hours, but how does a contracted thirty-five hour week balloon into seventy hours of work?
Let’s begin with the school day. For me, five of the seven hours each day are spent actively teaching. I am fortunate to have two “planning bells” each day; however one of these is used every day for different variations of team meetings, and the other one is almost always consumed by parent conferences or other meetings. On average, I have one bell (50 minutes) a week that I can actually use to plan.
During my half hour lunch, I open my classroom to students who need help with their work, or who are just seeking a calmer and quieter option than the cafeteria. I eat and work. Sometimes I forget to eat.
I have meetings after school every day with the exception of Fridays, and the third Thursday of the month. These meetings run for 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I have back-to-back after-school meetings.
All of the remaining requirements of teaching must occur outside of the time already listed above. These requirements include:
My friends in business can’t understand. They ask me why I don’t just delegate some of this work. “Delegate?!” I laugh. “To whom??” Teachers are at the bottom of food chain; most of us have no one to whom to delegate. (I am fortunate to have a paraprofessional on my team; however she is shared by seven teachers, so her time is spread very thin.)
There are additional stressors beyond those of limited time as well. Some commonly cited external factors are:
Lack of resources
Test score pressure
Changing assessments and expectations
Lack of parental involvement
Ever-increasing paperwork requirements
It’s not a mystery why fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to become teachers. Those who do choose to enter the field of education join dedicated veteran teachers in seeing teaching as more than just a job. For most, teaching is a calling or a purpose.
Anything that is seen not just as a profession, but as a vocation, a mission, a passion, and a purpose requires an internal fire to fuel it. And all fires run the risk of being extinguished.
There is precious little fire-feeding oxygen left in American education, and this is showing up in extraordinarily high rates of burnout and teacher turnover.
So what can we do about it?
When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – “Teacher, heal thyself!”
“5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout”
“6 Signs of, and Solutions for, Teacher Burnout”
“7 Self-Care Strategies”
“10 Steps to Avoiding Teacher Burnout”
And my personal favorite …
“25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout”
Because that’s just what a stressed-out and overwhelmed teacher needs – 25 more things to add to her to-do list. Number 2 on that list, by the way, is “Smile.”
The message that these types of articles are sending is that burnout is a failure of the teacher to properly take care of herself.
I would be remiss if I failed to note that each of the suggestions on all of those lists are good ways to encourage people to take care of themselves, and they place the locus of control with the teacher, which is empowering. My issue, however, is two-fold: these articles attempt to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and they ask the teacher whose internal fire is dying to re-kindle her own flame, when she is likely the person least able to do this.
Let’s start with the problem. I am often told that I “shouldn’t work so hard.” That’s a nice platitude, but I find it profoundly frustrating because when I ask which part of my job requirements I should fail to complete, or complete with marginal quality, in order to save myself some time, I never get an answer.
I often say that the greatest challenge of teaching should be educating the students in our classrooms. That’s a hard job all by itself for a wide-variety of reasons. When it is made harder by policies, inefficiencies, and bureaucracy, we have done everyone involved a grave disservice. I have previously written about the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed on teachers by educational legislation here and here.
A friend of mine who has studied organizational management had this to say regarding teacher burnout, “I think with what we are asking of teachers the question is, ‘How could teachers not be burned out, and how can all of us (administrators, community members, school boards) help to combat this?’”
And that’s just it. If education is important to our society, then teachers must be deemed important as well, and all of us must help to solve the societal problem of teacher burnout. Our children need good teachers, and good teachers work very hard. Keeping them in the profession is a shared responsibility.
Some action steps:
Vote for school levies, even if you don’t have a child in school – resources, especially as related to staffing (the greatest single expense), are key.
Speak out against the school reform madness – especially if you are a parent in an affluent school district.
Don’t participate in teacher or school bashing, or allow others to do the same – the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s teacher and school. The narrative that America has a preponderance of bad teachers and bad schools is simply not upheld by data.
Demand that your local school board set decent wages for teachers, and that they provide appropriate cost of living increases.
Support your child’s teacher – give the benefit of the doubt, encourage your child to develop independence, and nurture his or her self-advocacy skills before getting involved in potential school conflicts (see The Gift of Failure)
Acknowledge teachers for the positive work that they do – better yet share these acknowledgments with administrators. Parents with complaints readily share their concerns with administration; positive comments should be shared as well.
Don’t tell a teacher to “take time for herself – sleep, exercise, meditate, invite a friend for lunch, smile” unless you’re willing to help take something off her plate that allows her to do that.
If you know a teacher, ask how you can help – anyone can cut, collate, staple, hole punch.
Say thank you – again and again and again. This is why we do what we do.
I remain hopeful that those things can make a difference, but I don’t have much faith that the epidemic of teacher burnout will change soon. The anti-education “school reform” movement is powerful. It will take time to weaken its death grip on the throat of public schools.
But in the interim, all is not lost. Who better to support burning out teachers than those who know the industry the best – teachers. We are all on fire, but we burn with different levels of brightness at different times. We can each use our spark to help kindle the dwindling embers of another’s fire. A wise teacher I know said, “When we become a true community of educators in our building and in larger society, I find that I am not the island.”
Catherine McTamaney writes about this same thing in her book, A Delicate Task. “Teaching is hard. [We] are asked to give up so much of ourselves, to make ourselves humble and lowly before the child, to be servants, to be scientists, to be saints … but there are others on the path with us. We can lean on each other. We can walk in each other’s footsteps. Sometimes we’re at the front of the path. Sometimes we’re following another traveler. Sometimes we’re resting … Sometimes we’re so far ahead or behind that we can’t even see each other anymore. But we’re not alone. We are each other’s navigational stars.”
To be “each other’s navigational stars,” we have to be connected to one another, and we have to pay attention to one another. While I believe that all teachers can help each other to combat burnout, my interpretation is that this work should fall most heavily on veteran teachers, mentor teachers, building leadership, and administration.
In supporting each other, we must not simply be content to provide inspiration. We must work to create environments that make teaching easier without sacrificing the best interests of our students. Here are some of the in-building supports that teachers say help them to be more resilient.
Leadership that is supportive and non-punitive
Having someone willing to slow down and listen when they have a concern
The provision of more time to allow for planning and collaboration
Work that is equitably shared by everyone
Meeting time spent to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness in the classroom, not to create additional work
Follow-through: being able to trust that what was agreed upon will occur
Celebration of successes
Acknowledgment of good work
In my role as team leader, I’ve recently initiated a process to try and help with some of this. For each of the last two quarters, I’ve met one-on-one with every member of my team. To prepare for our meetings I’ve asked them to consider their responses to four questions.
What are three things you want to brag about from this quarter?
What is your current burning issue?
How can I help?
What I can do to be more effective in my role as team leader?
We’ve had some rich conversations, and I’ve gotten to know each of them better, but my great hope is that I’ve helped them to see the value in what they do, and to examine how they can keep improving.
The hardest question is always “What are three things you want to brag about?” At just about every conference, I hear, “I can’t think of three.” My response? “Yes, you can. Think harder.” And they do.
Asking them to identify a burning issue is the same thing as saying, “What do you most want to improve?” – except somehow it feels more approachable.
“How can I help?” is my favorite of the four questions. I’ve learned that it is much more powerful than its more common counterpart, “Let me know if I can help.” The latter provides an option to decline by omission; the former does not. If I ask about a burning issue and then don’t seek ways to help, I am essentially saying, “I see you struggling. Best of luck to you!”
The final question is purely selfish. I simply want to know how to get better at what I do.
I have only just begun this process, so I cannot say how effective it will prove to be in the long run, but I’ve gotten short-term positive feedback. Recently, I offered the opportunity to correspond via email if scheduling meetings took too much precious time. In response to this, one of my colleagues said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to give up the deliciousness of that meeting with you.” While I can’t say whether or not our meeting was “delicious,” we did have a powerful dialogue.
No single strategy will suffice to fix the great challenges and stressors in education. Teachers must remember, sometimes through the fog and the haze of exhaustion, that it’s really all about the students. The students are the most powerful motivators and sustainers of all. I, like many teachers, keep a file full of notes like this one.
We must remind ourselves, and each other, every day if necessary, that the work we do matters.
As Carissa said, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”
If you are getting this in your email, thank you for being one of our almost 200 subscribers. We are excited to be on this journey with you. Our recent reader survey revealed that many of you not only read the articles regularly, but you also forward and discuss them with friends and co-workers. We are grateful that we are able to create something you find valuable enough to share.
This has been a tremendous experience, and a big challenge. When we embarked on this process, we saw it as a way to aggregate and celebrate the work we have done with our friends and co-workers at Gamble Montessori and in Cincinnati. We also had a bigger, and more secret dream. A dream that is now coming true.
We have signed a contract with the publisher Rowman & Littlefield to write a book with the working title, Angels and Superheroes: Teaching the Whole Child in an Era of Accountability.
The process has been fascinating. Encouraged by friends and readers, and our own belief in our student-centered approach to education, we embarked on this voyage in October of 2014. At a break in a conference where we were presenting, the idea of a book surfaced, as a way to catalogue the important ways that Gamble didn’t seem to be just another school. Then 15 months ago we started the blog. We had a notion that these two works were related, but we initially wrote short blog posts on what we knew and what we believed. Just two professional educators, spitting in the wind. More than 60 posts and nearly 400,000 views later, we are drafting a book.
With advice from a small cadre of wise friends who have published books of their own, we quietly submitted sample chapters and a prospectus to an “A-list” of education publishers who we thought would be receptive to our work, and who we saw as prominent publishers. We were excited to hear positive feedback from Corwin and ASCD, along with a handful of rejection letters. “Thank you for your interest in ____ Publishing.” It was one of these rejection letters, soon after we sent out our prospectuses, that directed us to a company we did not know well, Rowman & Littlefield. We redrafted our work to each set of suggestions from ASCD, Corwin, and Rowman. Ultimately, R&L provided the most enthusiasm and support for our work. The contract landed in our emails on the day we were flying to San Diego to present at the American Montessori Society annual conference. That weekend was a whirlwind of emotions – anxiety about our presentation and the upcoming work, time with prominent Montessori educators – and the excitement of a dream coming true.
With this new work ahead of us, finishing this book by December 2017, we need to make some changes with the blog. To this point we have been writing a new entry each week, averaging almost 2,500 words for each one. Between us, we were writing the equivalent of a chapter a month over a wide range of topics. Now that we are under contract to write actual chapters (to an actual book!), we have revised our publishing schedule. Starting in April, we will begin to alternate new material with pre-published posts. “Classic A&S.” We will curate the older posts, selecting them to appear at an appropriate or significant time for each. We will work in some way to identify to the reader which are pre-published by incorporating a short introduction explaining this.
We are also working to make some other changes to the website to make it easier to search and navigate, and to increase the number of subscribers with some rewards and useful resources, keeping all of our content available to current subscribers.
As we said before, we are excited to be on this journey with you. Many of you are friends, family, and like-family, who have been traveling with us for some time. Your support and encouragement means the world to us. We continue to believe that none of us are angels or superheroes. That, in fact, we are just dedicated people who work hard as a community to find the best way to teach each child who walks through our door. Together we can accomplish a lot. Teachers, parents, students, administrators, entrepreneurs, paraprofessionals – inspiring each other, learning from each other, challenging each other to be the best we can be.
Perhaps, in thinking about it this way, we are ALL angels and superheroes.
“For me, the United Leaders way of thinking has made me see the world in a new light. I’m much more gritty than before and much more willing to be brave and courageous and to try new things.” – Adalira
This was a student’s response to the prompt, “How do the ideas of grit and growth mindset impact you?” I expected to hear words about perseverance, grit, and optimism. References to courage and bravery surprised me.
Courage. And bravery.
Courage and bravery don’t always look like martyrs facing down veritable lions or tigers. Sometimes they look like an adolescent working on a math problem.
When Shauna arrived at Gamble, two and a half years ago, it was hard for us to believe that she had not already been identified with a learning disability. Her educational needs were profound, and her faith in herself had been severely impacted by years of academic difficulty. Math was the most challenging subject for her, and she often coped with this by putting her head down, refusing to do work, demonstrating resistance to instruction, and sometimes even crying in class.
It is hard, perhaps impossible, for a student to learn when she is this disengaged.
But a few weeks ago, during my Algebra class, I overheard Shauna say something that once would have seemed nearly miraculous. She was working on a math problem with a peer when I heard her say the words: “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes. It says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this,”
Getting to witness a student’s blossoming self-confidence is an extraordinary event – one deeply rooted in the concepts of grit and growth mindset – and it doesn’t happen overnight.
Dweck’s research has been so rapidly and widely embraced by the education community that it seems silly now, just six years after that training, to speak of it as revolutionary. But when Mindset was published in 2007, it was a radical concept.
Dweck proposes the notion that intelligence is not fixed. Rather, she argues that intelligence can be increased through the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. These neural pathways are generated through repeated practice, or perseverance, in a task.
Dweck refers to this shift in cognitive understanding as “the power of yet” as opposed to “the tyranny of now.” Learning and development, she argues, are not a binary system. It isn’t an “I can” versus an “I can’t” proposition. Rather it is an ever-evolving continuum, and we need to shift our language to reflect what one is learning to do, or what one can “not yet” do.
Clearly, having a growth mindset is of value to all learners, so how can teachers and parents help to develop this attribute in children? Dweck says that the key for developing a growth mindset is to focus on effort, use of strategies, and progress. This is a shift from the traditional focus on achievement or on “being smart,” which Dweck claims leads to the development of what she calls “a fixed mindset” – the notion of an unchangeable level of cognitive ability.
Dweck argues quite convincingly, providing data to support her claim, that students who are regularly fed either the fixed mindset language of “being just not good at that” or, conversely, that of “being so good at that,” develop a near-paralyzing fear of failure. In the binary system of can and can’t do, when faced with a challenge, or when confronting error, students who have a fixed mindset tend to do one of three things – avoid the task, compare themselves to someone who has performed worse than themselves, or cheat. These students have been taught that their success stems directly from their innate intelligence or a lack thereof.
It is easy to accept that implying to children that they simply aren’t good at something is problematic. It is more challenging to understand that it is equally damaging to buoy self-esteem by noting mental acuity.
“You’re so smart,” may sound like positive reinforcement, but unfortunately, this belief has a dark shadow correlate. The covert message is that if success is due to natural intelligence, then any lack of success must be due to a lack of intelligence. And if intelligence is intrinsic, so too must be lack of intelligence. So every time a well-meaning teacher, parent, or coach praises a child for being smart, or talented, or athletic, they are unwittingly reinforcing the belief that these “gifts” are outside of the child’s control, and that therefore, when the child next experiences failure, that too is out of his or her control. If success and failure are outside of a child’s locus of control, then there is no reason to exert effort – either success comes easily, or one might as well not even try. For those with a fixed mindset, failure is a debilitating event.
However, students who demonstrate a “growth mindset” – an understanding that their success is dependent on their effort, and that learning and skill development are the reward for their investment of time and energy– prove just that. These students are functioning with a mentality of “I can’t do it yet,” not “I can’t do it at all.” These students are able to persevere through challenge without giving up, and as a result their performance improves. This is what leads to that blossoming self-confidence.
A few weeks ago, Shauna was working with a partner on a math assignment. The two were deeply and joyfully engaged in the task at hand – working with the slope-intercept form of linear equations. It was on this day that I was privileged to overhear Shauna’s words, “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes, it says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this.”
No one walking into my classroom would have seen anything particularly noteworthy, but that’s because they would only see the snapshot of that particular day, and not the movie reel of the last few years.
The important piece here is not whether or not Shauna was correct in her mathematical thinking; the important piece is that she exhibited the self-confidence to challenge a peer’s thinking, indicate a replacement solution, and provide reasoning to support her answer.
This was an act of courage and bravery.
And I believe it was a direct result of a focus on growth mindset in the classroom.
Much of Dweck’s insight focuses on language choices, and there are many options available on the internet of student-friendly versions of replacement language used for encouraging a growth mindset. Here is the version my team uses.
When we first introduced this concept, the students snickered; we snickered. It seemed strange and stilted to say things like, “I’m going to train my brain,” or “Mistakes help me improve,” but we were surprised by how readily students embraced this shift. It has now become completely commonplace to hear students use these phrases to encourage themselves or others. Just the other day, I heard Dalya, who was struggling to grasp point-slope formula, mutter under her breath, “This is hard. I don’t get this.” Moments later, I watched her take a deep breath, and quietly say to herself, “This may take some time and effort.” I witnessed her emerging courage and bravery– the creation of growth mindset in action.
If Dweck’s work revolutionized our understanding of learning, Angela Duckworth’s related philosophy on the importance of “grit,” shared via a TED talk in 2013 served as a rapid-propulsion catalyst for getting these paired concepts into the public eye.
Duckworth’s research indicated that what she dubbed “grit” – a combination of perseverance and passion – is the number one indicator of future success. This flew in the face of the commonly understood importance of intelligence and talent, and thus, fit neatly hand-in-glove with Dweck’s work on growth mindset.
The concept of “grit” exploded in education circles and rapidly became a mandatory buzzword. It stands to reason that teachers would naturally embrace this concept. The ability to cultivate student perseverance as a way to increase success provides hope for struggling students, and a construct through which we can understand the importance of increasing engagement and stamina in children.
Duckworth directly credits Dweck with having the best insight into how teachers can instill growth mindset, and by extension, grit, in their students.
In Mindset, Dweck outlines three strategies commonly implemented by students with a growth mindset when they approach a challenging task – essentially helping them to develop Duckworth’s concept of “grit.”
Keep trying (sustained effort)
Attempt a new strategy
Ask for help
But the ultimate question remains – how can teachers instruct and reinforce these practices? And how can we avoid inadvertently setting students up for more failure and frustration by implying that they just simply have to “try harder?”
To answer that, I think there is a third critical piece of research – The infamous marshmallow study.
This study, conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Walter Mischel at Stanford University, examined the correlation between a child’s ability to delay gratification and better long-term life outcomes. In the study, young children were presented with a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel) and told that if they waited and didn’t eat the marshmallow, they would ultimately be given two marshmallows. The results indicated a strong relationship between the ability to delay gratification (not eat the marshmallow) and higher SAT scores, greater academic achievement, and lower BMI indexes in adulthood.
Since self-control seems to be an underpinning factor in both delaying gratification and persevering through challenge, Duckworth’s grit work is arguably related to Mischel’s marshmallow study. However, it is a replication and extension of Mischel’s experiment that I think reveals the key missing piece. (I first learned of this new research through this article written by my friend and high school classmate, Andrew Sokatch.)
In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester recreated the marshmallow study with an additional variable – trust. This version of the study included two sets of tests. Children were first given a box of used crayons and told that if they could wait to begin coloring, these crayons would be replaced with a box of brand-new crayons. After the required time length, half of the children who waited were given the promised new crayons, and half of the children were told that a mistake had been made and no new crayons existed. Then, like the original study, children were provided a marshmallow and told that if they could wait, they would be given two. The children who had been rewarded with the new crayons were able to wait a significantly longer period of time to earn the second marshmallow than were the children who had waited on new crayons, only to receive nothing.
I believe that this provides important insight into the work of Dweck and Duckworth. We know that poverty is a critical factor in the academic challenges that many students face. We know that poverty often brings with it instability and inconsistency –the archenemies of trust. If we accept that the development of grit and a growth mindset are tremendous indicators of success, and we connect that to an ability to exert self-control, then we can readily see the direct connection in a student’s ability to trust in the environment, and in the adults in charge of that environment, with a student’s ability to succeed. And we then know where it is we have to begin. With trust.
When I began teaching growth mindset about five years ago, I hoped that concepts like “perseverance,” “strong-mindedness,” and “asking for help” would become common parlance among my students. But I never would have guessed that courage and bravery would be part of that. Grit and growth mindset are avenues to success, but what I didn’t yet understand when I introduced this idea was that before students can even begin down this path, they have to be able risk error. They have to be able to trust.
Learning is a risky endeavor. Learning requires mistakes – sometimes public ones. To learn, we must have courage, and we must be brave. For many students, it is much easier to avoid potential failure, to hide, to give up – the antithesis of grit — than it is to take the risk of making a mistake in order to learn and grow, in order to succeed.
Learning is an act of courage. My students remind me of this every day:
“Growth mindset has affected me strongly. I have struggled with many things that no person my age should go through. By powering through it, it has changed me in ways I didn’t know I could change. I have changed into a better person, and a very strong-minded one.” – Caden
“Grit means to keep trying – like in math we are knowledgeable to answer the questions given, and we all encourage each other to do better. I get gritty in language arts and in math because all of the hard problem in math and all the essays we have to do, but as a result, it pushes me farther, and I am determined to be successful because of my teachers. My teachers show us step by step to make us understand, and when I learn something new, I get excited and want to do more. [It] gave me a lot of courage to change and do new things.” — Dahlia
As teachers, our very first task it to get our students to trust us. And the more unstable and inconsistent students’ previous experiences have been, the more difficult it will be to establish trust. There is no substitute, and there are no shortcuts. The only way to establish trust is to uphold your promises, create a safe space, and to keep showing up again and again and again. Students have to believe that you’ll follow through on what you say, that mistakes are okay (and even encouraged), and that you will be there for them on both the good and the bad days.
Trust is a bit of a magic elixir, for once students trust, they can exhibit courage and be brave. They can risk making mistakes. They can face challenges and not lose faith – the essence of grit.
Shauna’s transformation into a “gritty” student did not occur overnight, and it would be inaccurate to say that it is complete, but it is remarkable. Over the course of two years, and through tremendous amounts of coaxing, modification of assignments, and a focus on growth mindset, Shauna has been able to conquer her fear of failure in math – to have courage and to be brave. This, in turn, has allowed her to learn. It would be inaccurate to tell you that she has become a brilliant math student. She remains the most challenged learner in my math classroom, and she still has days where she simply gives up, but these are becoming fewer and farther between. More often than not, she is one of the students with their hand raised ready to answer a question, and sometimes now, she is the student begging to be able to show the class how to work through a given problem.
When students can be brave and risk failure long enough to witness their own success, they can then begin to believe in their own ability to succeed– to persevere and “be gritty,” to develop a growth mindset. And we know that growth mindset leads to greater success. And hasn’t that been the goal all along?
Developing growth mindset and grit is a process. There is no such thing as, “Make Every Kid Gritty in These 6 Easy Steps That Will Work the First Time!”
However, there are some strategies that can help students develop growth mindset.
Directly instruct the concepts of growth mindset and grit.
Change your language to reinforce effort, not intelligence. I found this was easy to do for students experiencing challenges, but quite difficult for students who were demonstrating high-performance.
Find ways to incorporate student-friendly language shifts in the classroom, and encourage students to embrace them.
Normalize mistakes. I often tell my students, “If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning.” Or as Dweck says, “So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, ‘Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!’”
Don’t get so caught up in looking for proficiency that you miss growth – and don’t let your students do this either. Deliberately draw attention to their gains, and remind them that this is a direct result of their effort and engagement.
 Dweck, Carol. “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Carol Dweck: The Power of Believing That You Can Improve | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve>.
 Duckworth, Angela Lee. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” Angela Lee Duckworth: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Apr. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance>.
 Sokatch, Andy. “On Not Eating the Marshmallow: It’s Not (just) the Kids; It’s the Context.”Medium. N.p., 01 May 2016. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://medium.com/@asokatch/on-not-eating-the-marshmallow-its-not-just-the-kids-its-the-context-2687855c4fd1#.ftqr96ahm>.
 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. London: Robinson, an Imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2017. Print.
This is a continuation of a previous post. Part I can be viewed here.
During the second quarter of this school year, my teaching partners and I led our students in an intensive exploration of the concepts of racial bias and institutional racism. The impetus for this work emerged from a combination of concerns about what we saw happening in our country at large, and being aware of a microcosm of the same occurring within our school. We opened the dialogue through a series of seminar discussions. A more detailed account of these initial pieces is provided in Part 1 of this post, as linked above.
Throughout the time that we were seminaring on the issue of implicit racial bias, students were also engaging in novel discussions and assignments on After Tupac and D. Foster – a coming of age story about three African-American girls growing up in Queens in the mid-1990s.
Students were making connections between the novel and their own lives, as well as connections to the greater societal issues around them. It was at the end of one particularly provocative and rich discussion, where students had explored the motifs of stereotype, injustice, inequity, judgement, and racism, that Beau and I hit on the idea for our culminating group project.
Our work together in development of this task was a beautiful example of co-teaching at its best. Beau and I bounced ideas back and forth, and then worked through determining how to best structure each piece, so it would be accessible to all learners. (A copy of the complete student work packet is available here.)
We were so delighted with how the project developed through our collaborative work that on the day we introduced the task, we were practically shimmering with excitement. We hoped to convey this glee to our students, but, while a few reflected our enthusiasm, the majority of them looked back at us with expressions that clearly said, “I’m sorry, you want us to do what?!” They recognized the complexity and rigor of the task ahead, and the challenges that inherently arise through group work, and they were understandably apprehensive. Yet, we remained confident that we could support them in being successful with this challenging assignment.
The final two weeks of the quarter were dedicated to working on the project and groups predictably cycled through the various stages that come with any major task – excitement, anxiety, frustration, despair, pride, and relief. It was an intense time.
The project began with a creative representation of theme in the novel. Each group had to craft a theme for the novel based on the motif of racism. They then had to identify four scenes in the text which supported their theme, select a compelling quotation, provide reasoning for how this related to their theme, depict the scene, and construct a storyboard containing all these pieces.
They selected quotes like these:
“Cops always trying to bring a brother down. I’m coming from the park just now, trying to get home. I’m running down the street, and this cop just stopped me talking about ‘where you running from?’ I said, ‘I’m not running from I’m running to. Some days I’m thinking why God gave me these legs to run if it’s gonna mean getting stopped by some cop every time I try to do so.”
“’Brother in a suit is just a brother in a suit,’ he said. ‘His black head still sticking out his neck hole.’”
Students then created illustrations like these to represent the events of the novel.
Students were then required to connect their theme to the concepts explored in our seminar pieces (our supplemental texts): implicit bias in schools, stop and frisk policies, the Black Lives Matter movement, police relations with communities of color, and perceptions of race relations. None of these are easy or simple concepts.
They took the theme they had identified from the novel and expanded it outward to where they saw it represented in the real-world. Once again, they had to find evidence in the form of a direct quotation from one of the supplemental texts, and then develop reasoning to link that quotation to their theme.
The final component of the project was, perhaps, the most emotionally challenging. Students conducted an online search for images which reflected the topics they had discussed through both the novel and the supplemental texts. Many of them were shocked by what they saw.
As one student was searching for photographs, she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t use this picture; it’s too upsetting!”
My response was, “I told you that these images might make us uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s important that we feel uncomfortable.”
Finally, each of these components was assembled into a comprehensive display.
As the projects began to be completed, students and teachers alike witnessed the tremendous power in the work.
Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, came to see how things were progressing. Josh has done considerable work on the concept of social justice, so his feedback was particularly valuable to us. He spent nearly an entire bell with us, looking at every group’s work and asking probing questions of our students.
When I spoke with him later that evening, his response was profound. He acknowledged the depth of the exploration. He shared that he wished he had been able to spend the entire quarter working on this unit with us, and he requested that I take photos and video of the project exhibition the following day, so he could share it with others doing this work around the country.
As a teacher, I was deeply touched by this praise, but I knew that it wasn’t me who most needed to hear it.
The following morning we prepared for the gallery walk of the completed projects. The tone in the room was a combination of anxiety and pride. Beau and I explained the structural and behavioral expectations of this task. Among other things, we asked that students remain silent during this activity. I clarified that the reason we set this expectation was to honor both their tremendous amount of effort and to be respectful of the seriousness of the subject matter. I also shared with them what Josh had said – that he was so moved by the work that he had been brought to tears, that he was proud that they had accepted the challenge to tackle this topic, that he found the work of such quality that he wanted to share it with others around the country.
An outside expert’s view of their work carried so much more weight than directions given by the same teachers they hear day after day.
Even with the reinforcement of Josh’s words, I anticipated having to repeatedly enforce the expectation of silence.
Once more the students surprised me. There was no need for any kind of redirection. For nearly an hour, as they viewed each other’s projects, they were silent. There was hardly any sound at all beyond the shuffling of feet as students moved between displays. They carefully examined each project, taking notes as directed. In all honesty, I have never experienced anything quite like it before. The tone was nothing short of reverent. So much so, that at the end of our time, several students expressed disappointment that they had to go to their elective classes, rather than spend more time looking at the projects. Here is a short video clip chronicling the gallery walk.
Later that afternoon, we concluded our project experience with a final seminar discussion. We focused on two primary questions:
How does the issue of racial bias impact us as a nation, as a community, as individuals?
How might we as a nation, as a community, as individuals address this?
The conversation vacillated between hopeful and hopeless.
An 8th grade boy optimistically indicated that he believed things were going to get better. As evidence, he proudly specified the work that we had been doing as a class, and Mr. Vogt’s intention to share it with others who were working on the same issues nationally.
One young woman angrily noted, “We can talk about it, and we can do things, but it won’t make any difference because of all the racist people who won’t change. You have to want to change in order to change, and they don’t even care.”
And then we talked about Change Innovation Theory – the idea that change is led by Innovators and Early Adopters, and it develops into a movement that grows such that the wave of the majority will do the work of influencing a resistant minority.
And with that, the bell rang and we ran out of time.
The issues addressed through this project are difficult ones. They are hard realities, but we do our students – of all colors and backgrounds – a disservice if we don’t being these concerns to the forefront and provide our students with ways to explore them.
For my students the conversation has only just begun, and the real work of change has yet to be started, but I am proud to teach Innovators and Early Adopters. They will change the world, and I hope that they will start with our school.