Creating the Schools We Need: Teachers and Principals Pushing and Supporting Each Other

I often find myself in conversations with teachers, instructional coaches, leadership teams and principals where the discussion of a “problem” rather quickly leads to an acknowledgement of “what needs to happen” which is quickly followed by the list of reasons that “it can’t be done”.

Example: Teachers in a PLC are reviewing the results of a recent assessment and identify that some students have not mastered this skill. There is agreement that the skill is important to students’ future learning and additional time and instructional strategies should to be provided. Someone announces that the PACING GUIDE says we must move on and the date of the STATE TEST is approaching. Conversation often ends here with teachers feeling defeated that they didn’t do what they know their students need.

Example: A meeting of school principals is exploring student achievement and goal setting. The need for teachers to collaborate in vertical settings to best serve students is identified. Someone announces that teachers won’t commit to investing that time outside the school day and we can’t schedule a way for it to happen within the school day. Conversation often ends here with administrators feeling un-empowered.

I must admit that as my years advance (aging), my patience at these points wanes. My frustration rises when I see capable adults stopped from using the critical thinking and creative capacities that I am sure they possess. Recently I was in a PLC where teachers discussed the value that would be gained by teachers conferring with the reading specialist who worked with some of their students. That thought was being dropped as PLC time with the specialist wasn’t scheduled. When I suggested that one of the four grade level teachers could go cover the specialist’s group while she met with the other three members, they agreed to try it. (My thought: Do you really need to bring a consultant to the school to think of that possibility?) It appears to me that thinking is being blinded by the boxes in which many educators are operating.

In a recent ASCD blog ,Karen Chenoweth writes about the need to create a culture of intellectual inquiry. She describes the need for teachers to have expertise and a willingness to apply scientific method: beginning with a theory, making a prediction, testing, observing, and modifying the theory. I have written in an earlier blog that coaches need to support the dual role of teachers: expert implementers and the creators of new solutions.

Administrators need to communicate that teachers are in a creative problem-solving role. Teaching isn’t about implementing the decisions made by someone else. Chenoweth relates a teacher to a baker working to get a common result, not by following a recipe, but always having to experiment to find the right combination…”experimenting, evaluating results against a clear standard, and making adjustments when the results are subpar or if conditions change.”

I’m currently consulting with an administrative team designing a new high-school and looking to gain new student outcomes with different organizational, instructional, and learning strategies. As they prepare to interview and hire staff, I’m stressing that they will not be able to find the people who know how to do what’s needed. They need to seek people who are interested in learning and creating the way. They should open the school with a continuous improvement culture in place.

When teachers are stopped by the pacing guide as in the example above, I frequently use the following response:

So teachers on your grade level believe that designing a plan to alter the guide’s schedule is what’s best for students. You checked with the next grade level teachers and they confirmed your thinking. You took your plan to the principal and she said, “No”. Of course they never went to the principal. I often call the principal to the meeting at that time and have yet to hear a “no.”

What does staff development look like that moves beyond preparing teachers to be successful in the schools they are in to preparing them to create the schools we need? What professional development opportunities need to be provided for school leaders so that they can build school environments where teacher creativity is continuously challenging the status quo workings of the school?

I had an insight last week in the middle of facilitating a conference for elementary principals. I was describing that they should be looking in classrooms for students to be active, collaborative, and constructing as they worked goal -directed on solving authentic problems. I went back to that slide at the end of my presentation and suggested that was the same thing to look for when teachers are engaged in professional development, PLCs, and instructional coaching.

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