Below is an article I co-wrote with two other educators about a year ago. It was rejected by Educational Leadership. I thought mid-summer might be a good time to get it out there for others to read and reflect on. Have a great start to the school year!
Seasons of Change
By honoring, empowering, and encouraging teachers, school leaders can promote a culture of continual growth and ensure all learners realize their true potential.
by Laurie Hittman, Mary Peters, and Matt Renwick
Relationships are the agents of change.
– Dr. Bruce Perry
Teacher morale is low. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, “half a million teachers move or leave education every year. The costs for this attrition on the U.S. is 2.2 billion dollars annually” (2014).
What is the cause? A number of factors contribute to this situation. First, student test scores are still being tied to teacher evaluations, despite the fact that assessment experts do not endorse this practice (NASSP, 2015). Second, the variety and severity of the mental health needs of today’s students is daunting. Teachers are not only instructors, but also serve as parents, advocates, and counselors. When you combine this reality with a reduction in resources and the expectation that all students meet grade level benchmarks, it is no surprise that teachers are feeling stressed.
Educators cannot solve all of the world’s problem. When expectations for teachers are unrealistic, a sense of despair can pervade throughout the school climate, like a sheet being spread over a bed. In our experiences as teachers, administrators, and consultants, we have found three ways in which the culture and climate of a school can be improved:
- Honor teachers’ personal and professional lives.
- Empower teachers to become school leaders.
- Encourage teachers to innovate in their practice.
In the next section, we will describe why these actions are effective and provide examples of this work within one elementary school.
1. Honor teachers’ personal and professional lives.
Recently, Mary found herself stranded in Cleveland when her flight was first delayed and then cancelled. The flight crew had logged too many hours and were required, by federal law, to end their work for the day. It occurred to her that educators (and those they serve) don’t have similar protections. School leaders have to attend to these issues of stress and workloads. People’s basic needs must be met before principals can build trust and develop relationships with and within the faculty.
Recognizing the school’s situation (high poverty levels, reduced resources), Matt connected with Laurie and Mary to facilitate a Courage and Renewal retreat called “Exploring the Seeds of True Self” for all school faculty on the first day back for teachers in August. Courage and Renewal retreats are based on the work of Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (Wiley, 1997, 2008). The premise of the book is simple: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p. 10). Seldom do educators take time to ask “who is the self that teaches?” (p. 4).
When the agenda was shared out, a few staff members were suspicious. “We’re not talking about literacy or mathematics?” asked one teacher. Even Mary and Laurie shared concerns about expecting all staff members to participate in this opportunity to reflect on why we went into education. Can we force reflection? It was decided that what we needed as a school community went beyond academics.
Our retreat was located in a local woodland shelter next to a lake. Hosting the retreat outside of our school removed any temptation for correcting papers or checking email. The location also provided a sense of peace. In our constantly connected world, the quiet was noticeable and welcomed. In addition, our woodland shelter provided the opportunity to evoke powerful metaphors to better understand the professional journeys.
Leaves of red, orange, and yellow floated to the ground outside as we settled into our chairs to start the retreat. Within the hall, chairs were circled around a small table. Rocks, a small bowl of water, and seeds sat upon it. The seeds would serve as our main metaphor for our time together that day. Metaphors serve to develop an understanding by “experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff and Johnson, 5). Laurie and Mary started the purpose for our time together by asking the faculty to connect the concept of a seed with our own lives. Here were a few of their offerings:
Seeds need the right conditions to grow.
A seed can grow into something much bigger than itself.
It is sometimes hard to predict what a seed will become.
The needs of their students as well as themselves were on their minds. This led into a written reflection activity about why each of them went into education in the first place. The staff placed themselves throughout the property, finding quiet spots to think and write by the nearby lake, on picnic tables, benches and even the grass.
The concept of school was no longer the constant within this experience. Our institution’s constraints were shed in favor of our personal and professional needs. For example, there was no limit on time during our opportunity to reflect, write, and think. We came back to the circle when ready, instead of a predetermined time listed on an agenda. Choice was a tenet of our renewal experience.
To create a space in which our ideas and feelings would be both honored and safe, touchstones were shared. Touchstones are similar to group norms or meeting guidelines to follow to ensure a safe dialogue. In groups of three (triads), each person had the opportunity to share why they went into education for five minutes. Everyone else listened and could not respond. Once each person in the triad spoke, only then could they ask each other questions and have a conversation. Listening without judgment or comment – a rarity in our connected world where responses are expected and silence is an offense. The respect shown by colleagues honored their personhood and who they might become as professionals. The participant evaluations were overwhelmingly positive.
2. Empower teachers to become school leaders.
Leaders cannot affect change by themselves. It’s a fool’s errand to go it alone. They have to employ their best and brightest within their organization to realize the mission and vision of their school.
Empowering teachers to be leaders within their learning community provides multiple benefits. First, they can experience a sense of ownership for their school because the decisions are made with their input. Teachers is positions of leadership carry more pride in how the school is run and perceived by others. Second, the principal has taken something off of his or her plate. He or she can attend to other matters that involve instruction. Finally, when a group is tasked with decision-making authority, the outcomes are generally as good as or better than what one person could make alone.
What does this look like in practice? Our school has adhered to the tenets of Regie Routman’s work around increasing knowledge about literacy and leadership throughout the entire building (2014, pg. 231). One practice we have applied from her work is using focus groups. These teams are focused on a schoolwide topic, including building business, behavior management, academic intervention, parent partnership, and instructional leadership. Teachers can select two focus groups they want to join. Matt makes the final decision to ensure balance in teacher placement.
Of special note is the separation of building business and instructional leadership. School leaders can attest to how nonacademic topics, such as scheduling parent-teacher conferences, can creep into staff meetings that should be designated primarily for professional learning. By assigning building business for a specific group, schools give the proper attention to pressing issues while still holding the available limited time sacred for a whole faculty. Matt strives to attend all focus group meetings, serving as the facilitator for instructional leadership and as a primary resource for the other team meetings. Agendas are sent out ahead of time to ensure communication about the different conversations are transparent and clear.
Education does not follow the changes in seasons as suggested by our calendar. Fall starts when school does. When the snow starts to fly, it is officially winter.
Matt’s school took a new approach for their time together for professional learning. Instead of having staff gatherings taking place in the library, each grade level team selected one month in which they hosted faculty meetings in one of their classrooms. Before getting started, the grade level teams was asked to share one thing that was going well for them. Materials or a write up were not expected – just have a brief conversation about what’s working for them and why.
What was shared was brief but profound. One grade level team highlighted how they use a graphic organizer to facilitate student reflection about their independent reading. Another team found a better way to communicate student learning with families. Allowing teachers’ idea to spread and take root in other environments can have big benefits.
Once teams shared, Matt presented the host teachers with a gift of appreciation continuing with the theme of seeds from the August retreat. The gifts were nominal: A bottle of water, a notebook and pen, or a candle. However, the meaning of the gift-giving was deep. The water represented an essential element for seeds to start. A notebook and a pen were tools to reflect and to document growth over time. The candle represented how educators can burn bright, but sometimes at their own expense. These metaphors were stated as the gifts were given.
Winter is also a time of dormancy, for seeds as well as for people. This season can be a good time to curl up with a book and read by the fire. Several teachers, both at Matt’s school and in within their district, elected to do a book study for The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. Mary and Laurie served as instructors so educators could receive university credit. Because it was sometimes difficult to get together with our busy lives, teachers used an online space, a Google+ Community, to post questions and share thinking. While this forum provided for quality conversations, it wasn’t the same. Subsequently, some teachers came together at a local coffee shop to talk about the book and what it meant to them as professionals and leaders.
3. Encourage teachers to innovate with their practice.
The definition of innovate, according to Merriam-Webster, is to “to do something in a new way; to have new ideas about how something can be done”. What is hidden within this definition is in order to innovate and do something in a new way, educators also have to give up past strategies. This is challenging because teachers personalize their practices. As Jim Burke notes, “Teaching is so public, so personal, so dangerous. You walk in each day, to each class, to begin that unit, that lesson, that activity as if for the first time because you have never taught that lesson to that class or this kid” (Intrator, 13). It takes courage to change as well as to teach.
One way to innovate as an organization is by developing shared beliefs. Also from the work of Regie Routman (2014, pg. 83), this process includes identifying what one currently believes about instruction, comparing these beliefs with what colleagues hold to be true, and then having a conversation about everyone’s responses to these beliefs. For the beliefs in which everyone came to agreement, the school faculty then owns them. They are expected to be applied into practice throughout the building. Examples of literacy beliefs Matt’s school owns include “Students need writing models in order to write well.”, and “Students need to see their teachers as writers.”
Areas where staff disagree are not seen as points for argument, but rather opportunities for conversation. Using a discussion protocol, similar to what staff used in the fall with Mary and Laurie at the Courage and Renewal retreat, the teachers took turns speaking and listening about why they agreed or disagreed with a statement about literacy. While they did not own these literacy beliefs, everyone walked away with a better understanding about why we are doing what we are doing. The conversation promoted empathy and modeled for everyone what it means to have the capacity for growth.
As the snow started to melt and the trees revealed their buds, sleds were replaced with basketballs and snow hats traded in for ball caps. Howe Elementary followed nature’s lead.
At the last staff meeting of the school year, the host teachers were presented with a small pot of soil. Inside was a seed not identified to the faculty. They ended their time as they began: By using the metaphor of seeds, and now growth, to understand themselves and their students as learners.
Growth happens minute-by-minute.
You may never know the impact you make on a student.
You might be surprised by the outcomes.
It was evident in their responses that the teachers viewed this season as a time of renewal and an opportunity to continuing growing, right up until the last day of the school year.
The goal with bringing in Mary and Laurie was to provoke a new way of thinking about our professional lives. Teachers needed to keep their sense of self-worth in the face of time constraints.
An example is when the school social worker at Howe decided to lead book clubs for teachers following this yearlong experience. She was inspired by the spring courage and renewal retreat that culminated Mary and Laurie’s book study. While continuing the conversations about the tenets of Palmer’s book in the same shelter we started, she realized that she didn’t want this to end. So she created her own context instead of allowing outside factors to determine it. Now some of the teachers meet every two weeks to discuss a book of their choosing during lunch and after school.
School leaders have to recognize that the needs of their staff sometimes extend beyond academics. They should understand how the dispositions of educators can be just as important as a professional training or classroom resources. Change is inevitable. By providing time to reflect and renew, along with empowering and encouraging leaders within a school, they sow seeds of opportunities and cultivate the right conditions for growth.
Alliance for Excellent Education (2014). “Teacher Attrition Costs United States Up to $2.2 Billion Annually, Says New Alliance Report”. Press Release. Available: http://all4ed.org/press/ teacher-attrition-costs-united-states-up-to-2-2-billion-annually-says-new-alliance-report/
Intrator, S. (2002). Stories of the Courage to Teach: Honoring the Teacher’s Heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
National Association of Secondary School Principals (n.d.). “Value-Added Measures in Teacher Evaluation”. Position Statement. Available: http://www.nassp.org/Content.aspx?topic=Val- ue_Added_Measures_in_Teacher_Evaluation
Palmer, P. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 10th Anniversary Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.