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Cultivating the Student Growth Mindset

The article below was written in collaboration with FreshGrade. It is an administrative companion piece to an upcoming eBook I wrote on instructional strategies for developing self-directed learners. Click here to read my conversation with Dr. Rod Berger via Scholastic’s Administrator blog for the article. And stay tuned for more information on the free eBook!

Leadership Strategies For Building the Mindset Around Student Growth | Matt Renwick

In 2006, Dr. Carol Dweck published the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She has studied people’s attitudes toward learning for some time. Her work revolves around comparing fixed mindset (mistakes are indicators of failure; intelligence is fixed) and growth mindset (mistakes are opportunities for learning; intelligence can be developed). Her research made an impact on the educational landscape. Many teachers and school leaders started proclaiming that they were “growth mindset oriented.” A fixed mindset was the enemy. If a student became discouraged, the objective was to praise their effort and encourage them to persist within the adverse situation.

Fast forward ten years to the present day. Growth mindset has become a part of education’s lexicon. However, this has not lead to widespread improvement in student dispositions toward learning. There are a few reasons. First, Dweck believes teachers and parents often misuse her research when interacting with kids (Barshay, 2015). Specifically, teachers praise effort but are not as effective in offering feedback to improve performance. Also, adults would claim they use a growth mindset, but their actions promoted a fixed mindset. In addition, Dweck has revisited her work since it first came to the educational forefront. One area that has been revised is the strict dichotomy between fixed vs. growth mindset. “Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too” (Dweck, 2016).

As one school leader to another, I ask you: If Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the area of psychology and learning, can revise her current thinking, what is stopping our teachers and us from the doing the same? Her example gives us permission to question our current strategies in how we empower students, engage parents, and enable educators in our respective buildings. This article will describe the better practices in education that encourage student growth, the challenges to expect in this instructional change and the indicators of success. We will focus on four areas of consideration for facilitating this change: Cultivating the conditions for success; Clarity above all; Feedback, feedback, feedback; Authentic work for a real audience. To be clear, this is not a prescription for success. Rather, it is one pathway your leadership team might take to promote a growth mindset in all of your learners, teachers and students.

Cultivating the Conditions for Success

Before a school can move forward toward developing a collective growth mindset, the educators have to assess current reality. People need to understand that everyone has room to grow and should strive to become better. I like the verb “cultivate” instead of create. It evokes imagery of a gardener, tending their soil in preparation for a growing season. Amendments such as fertilizer and compost are added to help ensure a healthy harvest. Weeds are removed so the garden can flourish. To follow the metaphor, the level of health of a school’s soil is largely comprised of the trust colleagues have for each other as well. Trust does not happen naturally; it too has to be cultivated with intentional leadership acts.

One activity I have facilitated with teachers is allowing them to share their concerns regarding the past. Teachers write a statement which articulates their issues on a small piece of paper. A sentence stem, such as “In the past, I felt…” helps get people started. The school leader can model this first, sharing out loud any grievance they might have kept welled up until that moment. Educators appreciate it when leaders demonstrate what is asked of them. It conveys honesty and makes ourselves more transparent. Once teachers have an opportunity to share their personal concerns verbally, everyone puts their note in an empty suitcase. Then the principal closes it up and announces, “I appreciate your feedback. These concerns are mine now. I will do my best to address them in future conversations with everyone.” Staff will feel listened to, acknowledged, and more ready to move forward. Principals can take this one step further and categorize the concerns by themes. This will provide focus and allow school leaders to prioritize staff concerns and effectively address them. (Thank you to my superintendent Luke Francois for sharing this idea with me.)

Once major concerns have been heard, a second step toward cultivating the conditions for success is developing collective commitments. These are like norms, created as a faculty that serves as guidelines for professional conversations. A difference between collective commitments and norms is the former is directly connected with the mission and vision of the school, more like principles. To get started, leaders provide different professional articles for faculty to read ahead of time. Each article should speak to one of the school’s or district’s initiatives for the school year. Encourage teachers to closely read the text of their choice with a pen in hand and be ready for a conversation with colleagues. Doing some reading ahead of time will prepare everyone for more productive dialogue. Assumptions are not made about any educator’s background knowledge. Once teachers have read and discussed the content, the entire faculty can develop collective commitments. A consensus strategy such as “Fist to Five” can help ensure faculty buy-in. The alignment between mission, vision, and collective commitments ensures goal alignment.

Essential to the success of this work is having the time, resources, and training to engage in it. To capture more time, a number of schools and districts have gone to early student release once a week. This time is then allocated for teacher teams to look at student work and results, and adjust their instruction to meet students’ needs better. Educators’ mindsets start to bend toward student learning results instead of only instruction. Professional resources and training should be a school priority. Within this conditions, teachers can start to emerge as leaders. The autonomy provided within the commitments and goals of the school treats teachers like the professionals that they are. This type of environment can lead to a necessary level of trust that allows all school members to start taking risks in their personal learning endeavors.

Clarity Above All

The work that educators engage in to develop their mission, vision statements, collective commitments, and building goals aren’t worth the paper they are printed on if they do not translate into action. Clarity about our work is achieved when there is complete alignment between the more abstract artifacts previously mentioned and the concrete actions of teachers and leaders in classrooms. We know we are on the right pathway when the assessment results reveal student growth over time and achievement of essential learning objectives.

One of the best ways to achieve clarity in our work is by looking at the types of assessments and the priority placed on each. Assessments in school generally fall into three areas: formative, interim, and summative. Formative assessments include helping students understand the criteria for success, offering and receiving feedback, and providing students with opportunities to improve on their work through reflection and self-assessment. Interim, or benchmark, assessments are more summative in nature. They serve as checkpoints in a student’s learning progression toward essential understandings and skills. Summative assessments, such as exams, quizzes, and projects, help teachers and students gauge what was learned and at what level of understanding.

If a school directs the majority of their focus on summative assessments, then teachers’ mindsets become more concerned about the results of student learning versus the process students took to get there. Summative assessments are fixed; once you take the test, or place a score on student work, the learning stops. In an educational world hyper focused on end results and ensuring all students succeed, it is little surprise that a growth mindset can be so fleeting in classrooms. Teachers and students are clear about the purpose, but the purpose may not lead to deeper learning in these situations.

To address this situation, school leaders have to shift their mindsets by placing a greater priority on students and teachers capturing, reflecting on, and sharing formative assessment results. In my prior school, we did this by selecting six weeklong windows during the school year in which each student would upload a writing artifact into their digital portfolios. We used FreshGrade to house and share out students’ best work. Before each window, teachers would identify the learning targets to be addressed and then prepare instruction to guide students to achieve them. The fruits of their labor – informative texts generated by the students independently – was showcased within FreshGrade’s web-based portfolio system. In addition, families and colleagues could see growth over time in each student’s writing from fall to spring. To ensure that this process remained formative, teachers were expected to confer with each student while they uploaded their work, asking questions such as, “Why did you select this piece?”, “What did you do well in your writing? And “What do you think you need to work on for next time?”. Within a portfolio system, students start to see learning as a dynamic process instead of a static event. Clarity is evident in what the students produce and how they grow.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

I list this element of formative assessment three times because it is so important for developing a collective mindset around student growth. Feedback is any information that helps to guide or affirm student work and offers pathways for improving upon it. Feedback is also the information a teacher receives from a student in response to their instruction. Examples include written and verbal comments and reflective questions that focus a student’s attention to their process. NonExamples of feedback include grades and test scores (summative assessments). To be sure, not all feedback is created equal. If students are unable to use the comments and questions to further their learning, it renders the teacher’s efforts as ineffective. “The most important things about feedback is what the students do with it” (Wiliam, 2016). Therefore, it is critical that teachers receive training on how to best provide and use feedback in the classroom.

The best feedback for developing a growth mindset can be categorized into two areas: Descriptive and prescriptive (Kroog, Hess, & Ruiz-Primo, 2016). Descriptive feedback is objective commentary about the student’s work. The language should be specific and revolve around the attributes of the content, skill or strategy. Descriptive feedback should acknowledge the student as the learner, allowing him or her to own their learning by connecting what they accomplished with their efforts. An example of feedback on a piece of writing might be, “Kyle, when you used sensory details in this story, I could visualize the scene.” This type of feedback gives students a window into their current reality. It also offers an opportunity to celebrate what’s going well. Conversely, prescriptive feedback provides students with a pathway for improvement. It can be a direct suggestion or a thoughtful question. Following the same example, a teacher might want Kyle to expand on his descriptions by asking, “What other senses might you include in this description of the forest?” Of course, all of this feedback is only as effective as the level of clarity conveyed to understand the criteria for success (Hattie, Fisher, & Frey, 2016).

As school leaders, we can promote these better practices during professional learning days and in the classroom. For all staff training, teachers can watch examples of other teachers using feedback in effective ways. The Teaching Channel offers hundreds of videos of real teachers in action, with dozens depicting effective feedback and formative assessment strategies. Teachers can also read related articles together, such as the ones cited in this section, and have professional conversations about the information. Once teachers have enough background knowledge about the nature of effective feedback, school leaders can model this skill when conducting instructional walks in classrooms. These walks are 15-20 minute classroom visits documented with descriptive and prescriptive feedback. Instructional walks are formative in nature, and should not be considered part of the evaluation process. With instructional walks, we are “looking first for the teacher’s strengths, noticing where support is needed, and also discerning instructional patterns across the school” (Routman, 2014, p. 198). I use a paper notebook and a pen, write what I observe, and then have a brief conversation with the teacher about what I observed. Before I leave the classroom, I offer positive affirmation of the day’s instruction to build and maintain teacher-principal trust. This process models for teachers how they might interact with their students, as well as how students might interact with each other in the form of peer feedback.

While what we say and do not say is critical for student growth, the best type of feedback comes from the students. It is in our interactions with kids where we can glean all types of information and adjust our instruction to meet their needs. This student-teacher interaction is dependent on the quality of the relationships in the classroom. That leads us into our last section on the importance of authenticity and audience in our daily work in schools.

Real Work for an Authentic Audience

If the only person that regularly sees student work is their teacher, we deprive our kids of opportunities to make their voices be heard. Bringing in an authentic audience for student learning increases motivation, raises the stakes in a positive way and facilitates the celebration of everyone’s efforts and accomplishments. Coupled with learning tasks that closely resemble what one might experience in everyday life, students will see that their work is important not only to them but others as well.

Preparing students to accomplish real work for an authentic audience does not necessarily mean teachers have to develop elaborate projects that take weeks at a time to accomplish. One of the easiest ways to facilitate this is by utilizing a digital portfolio to publish student work (mentioned previously). This is what many professionals do in their occupations: Maintaining a professional website that highlights their skills and abilities. The audience for student portfolios – families and other teachers – can respond to what students publish in the form of comments. Teachers can educate parents about how to offer better feedback by modeling it within the digital portfolio ecosystem. School leaders can offer after school sessions for families to learn the technology and how to comment on student work.

While celebrating student work is an essential component of building trust, we also need to honor the process that students took to get to the point of proficiency. That is why I advocate that students and teachers maintain growth portfolios in addition to best work portfolios previously described. Growth portfolios document the progress students are making as learners as well as the processes they used to make the progress. These types of portfolios are more teacher-directed, especially when monitoring progress with digital tools. However, there is no reason students should not be an integral part of this assessment process. One possibility is for every student to have a blog. Suggested blogging tools include Kidblog, Edublogs, and WordPress. Students can use these online journaling forums to post first drafts on topics of choice and expressing their thinking regarding interests or content areas. Teachers can show students how to comment on each other’s blogs effectively. This practice promotes a growth mindset because it says, “We are all learners here.” Competition is reduced, and mistake-making is recognized because of the visible and collaborative nature of blogging. An audience that consists of peers and families might be all that is needed for shining a broader light on the real work students do in school.

Conclusion

After almost a decade in school administration, I have come to believe that our actions as leaders make the biggest difference in the learning lives of students and teachers. We model the learning process by being learners ourselves. This includes co-creating an environment that sets everyone up for success, being clear about our goals and what excellence looks like, offering feedback in a productive manner, and providing an authentic audience for our work. A growth mindset is more about what we do rather than anything we might say. We develop this mindset by living out our beliefs in our everyday actions. When a faculty’s collective disposition moves from “We have a growth mindset.” to “This is how we do things here.”, a school can become a true learning community.

References

Barshay, J. (2015). Growth mindset guru Carol Dweck says teachers and parents often use her research incorrectly. The Hechinger Report.

Dweck, C. (2016). Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’ Education Week. 35(5), pp. 20, 24.

Hattie, J., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2016). Do They Hear You? Educational Leadership. 73(7), 16-21.

Kroog, H., Hess, K. K., & Ruiz-Primo, M. A. (2016). The 2 Es. Educational Leadership. 73(7), 22-25.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiliam, D. (2016). The Secret of Effective Feedback. Educational Leadership. 73(7), 10-15.

What I'm Thinking

End the Electoral College

Today I posted the following message on Twitter:

Reflecting on that tweet, I felt it was a bit too Pollyanna-ish. Frankly, I did not speak the truth about the realities of our presidential election procedures.

I followed up with a short post on Facebook:

All “teachable moments” aside, it is time to get rid of the Electoral College. We now have two presidents (Bush, Trump) in this century who did not win the popular vote but nonetheless were elected due to the Electoral College. This is not “the will of the people”, but function following form. With today’s technologies, there is little reason not to go with a popular vote for president (like we do with every other elected position). The Electoral College is an antiquated construct, even resisted by some of our founding fathers such as James Madison, that needs to be retired.

I am not a history major, but my undersanding for the rationale for the Electoral College was created within the context of the 18th century. There were concerns that, due to the fact that not all U.S. citizens could vote, a true election for President was not possible without an Electoral College. Makes sense…200 years ago. Don’t get me started with the fact that women couldn’t vote until 1920. #embarrassing

Consider this: I am not asking for the United States to move from the standard system to the metric system for universal measurement. I am simply suggesting that the Electoral College has far outlasted its purpose. Imagine if there was no such thing as a “swing state” anymore. How could CNN survive? More importantly, I believe that many people feel disaffected about our presidential election. In a state that historical votes Red or Blue, the will of the majority is what matters. A person’s vote may not. They would not be wrong. If I supported a Democratic candidate in Mississippi or a Republican candidate in New York, my vote would not have counted. Why is this not more alarming for people in the U.S.?

We are smarter than this: We need to end this outdated process for determining our country’s leadership.

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Digital Student Portfolios: An Interview with Trevor Mattea and New Books Network

In August I spoke with Trevor Mattea about my first book on digital portfolios. Below is the summary of our conversation. Click here for a link to the podcast. Enjoy!

Most of the time, school performance is not like performance in other arenas. In music, we want people to play something for us. In sports, we want people to show us our skills. Performance in school is filtered through test scores and letter grades. When we ask students how they are doing in reading, we do not expect them to actually read to us or share their thoughts on a recent books they have finished. We expect to learn them to tell us a reading level or point to wherever they are on a rubric. But what does that mean? Have we lost sight of the actual value of the things we are attempting to measure and quantify? What if we looked at school work the way we attend practices, games, and recitals?

In Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment, Matt Renwick, outlines the rationale for portfolio work in the twenty first century, including how portfolios can motivate and empower students, provide evidence for report cards and school conferences, guide the instruction of teachers, and share school language with families.

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What is Metacognition? How Do We Teach It? An Education Week podcast and response

I recently participated in an Education Week/BAM Radio interview with Larry Ferlazzo, Teresa Diaz and Laura Robb. The topic for our short podcast was metacognition.

bamradionetwork_2016-sep-24

Click here to listen to the podcast, and read on for my written response on the topic of metacognition.

Metacognition is defined as “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes”. Education leader Dr. Linda Darling Hammond describes metacognition more succinctly as “thinking about our own thinking”. The ability to be self-aware and to reflect upon our mental processes is a critical skill that should be taught and reinforced in schools today. When we are intentional about being metacognitive, we are more likely to clear up misconceptions, understand how we operate as a person, and make smarter decisions about the future. However, with how fast paced education seems to be considering all of the curriculum to teach and the standards to cover, teachers can feel overwhelmed to take even more time for this.

This should be a concern of teachers. Metacognition is important beyond the schoolhouse. Questioning and reflecting about our experiences is a cornerstone of becoming a lifelong learner. Consider the most recent presidential election and everything that led up to it. From what I read, most people who made public comments online about the race spoke in absolute terms: “Trump is a narcissist.” “Hillary is a liar.” I did not comment on how true these statements might be when I read them on social media. Yet I did wonder how informed each person who made the statements was about the issues. What types of questions might have been asked to help a person become more aware of what they were saying and why? Would the online conversation have led to moments of reflection? If the questions were not asked, was that the best decision? Critical thinking usually leads to smarter decisions.  

When we teach students to facilitate a deeper discourse about their lives using metacognition, we help make the world a better place. Insults are replaced with questions. Criticisms are couched in appreciative observations. People live their lives more informed and more open to the possibilities. As an educator, I cannot imagine better outcomes for our students.

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Getting Started with Action Research

I wrote this article for the Stenhouse blog. I am reposting it here as it was. Enjoy!

Getting Started with Action Research
Matt Renwick

We recently facilitated action research for twenty of our district teachers. They came from all areas in grades K–12. The course was led by Dr. Beth Giles and Dr. Mark Dziedzic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teachers met one evening a month to explore their driving questions, set up action plans, collect and organize data, and prepare their work for an inquiry showcase this spring. Here are some of the questions that were specific to literacy, and what we learned.

What happens when we provide choice in reading and learning?

Three teachers investigated this tenet of engagement. A second-grade teacher conducted Genius Hour at the end of the day, a time in which students could tinker and make things of their choosing. A third-grade teacher allowed her students to decide how their classroom should look and feel regarding furniture and resources. A reading interventionist embedded choice within her instruction, including letting the students select one book a month to keep.

What they found out was that choice affected each student in different ways. For example, the reading interventionist discovered that if a student’s basic needs were not being met, he or she had a hard time progressing. She countered this reality by bringing families into school to engage in literacy activities, such as building bookshelves. The third-grade teacher realized that some students liked working with peers regularly, whereas others needed quiet time to read and write. The second-grade teacher found that, for one student in particular, a half hour of tinkering every day led to a reduction in office referrals by 70 percent from fall to spring. Providing choice in school helped teachers better understand their students and adjust their instruction.

What happens when students are taught to ask questions and reflect about their reading?

A fourth- and fifth-grade teacher working with multiple curriculums in a split classroom realized that addressing the needs of a wide variety of learners was a tall order. Therefore, she wanted to find out if teaching her students to ask their own questions of the books they read and to reflect on their thinking in authentic ways through reading journals would lead to more independence.

She modeled these skills and strategies with her own reading. Gradually, she released the responsibility of questioning and reflecting to the students. Data she gathered were anecdotal and powerful. Students not only kept reflections of their own reading, they also noted what their peers were reading. Recommendations for what to read next led to students creating “Want to Read” lists in their journals. Also, students emulated how their teacher talked in their book discussions. This teacher later noted that she was looking forward to working with next year’s fifth graders in the fall.

What happens when teachers reveal themselves as learners?

A secondary reading interventionist was frustrated with her past students’ inability to exit her program in a timely manner. She decided to focus on how her language might promote a growth mind-set in her most reluctant readers and writers. First, she wrote in front of her students about the struggles she was having as a teacher and as a parent. These were day-to-day ordeals—ordinary issues she was sharing publicly. Students were also asked to write about their struggles. Few initially took her up on it. But as the teacher continued to model a growth mind-set, more students followed her lead.

Because the teacher was so open about her own learning, students felt safe in her classroom to take risks. They started to shed their rough exteriors, revealing frustrations about classes and their home lives. This led to exploring literature that students could personally relate to, populated with characters and settings in which they could reside. Pretty soon, her students were coming to her with improved progress reports to share and celebrate. A few kids exited her reading intervention earlier than anticipated but didn’t want to leave. This teacher eventually published her action research in the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal.

What happens when we let kids read?

A fifth-grade teacher and I teamed up to provide her students with a lot of texts to read, and we decreased the reading requirements placed upon them. I would come in once a month with a box full of high-interest books and do a quick blurb about each one. The teacher also used her allocated funds to enhance the classroom library. She taught the students how to have a conversation with peers and frequently conferred with students about their reading and goals. Her work derived from the research by Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston, highlighted in a Stenhouse blog post four years ago.

My role as coresearcher was to survey the students once a month using a tool developed by Ivey and Johnston. What we learned was that every student was different. Their reading lives varied from month to month. One student who proclaimed “I hate reading!” in February was excited about a new series he discovered in March. Other students also became more honest about reading in school. “I am SO glad to be done with my reading contract, so I can read whatever I want.” This type of data was more powerful than any screener or test score. Reading lives look more like a heartbeat than a straight line. Readers—kids and adults—have their ups and downs.

In observing these teachers’ journeys, I have discovered new truths about principalship. Just as students need to be engaged in their learning, teachers have to be engaged in their work. Not merely busy or working collegially with staff, but really engaged. We need to trust in their professionalism. We need to provide teachers the room to ask questions and grow. We need to honor the process as much as the outcomes. We need to celebrate both their mistakes and their successes, always striving to become better every day as professionals. Letting go of some control as a school leader is hard. Yet when we do, teachers are able to be the leaders of their own learning.

Tips for Getting Started in Action Research
If you are a teacher…

  • Ask yourself, “Why do I want to engage in action research?” If you can identify the purpose for this work in your professional life, it will motivate you to get started.
  • Do your homework on action research to build a knowledge base about the topic. Excellent resources include Living the Questions by Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Power (Stenhouse, 2012) and The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey (Corwin, 2014).
  • Develop a community of professionals who also want to engage in action research. You can leverage the power of the group to persuade your principal to support this initiative as part of the professional development plan. If you cannot collaborate in person, check out online communities related to classroom research, such as The Teachers Guild.
  • Find a question that you want to explore and that is embedded within your current practice. This wondering should relate to your professional learning goals and offer artifacts that can serve as evidence for your evaluation system.
  • Include your students in your action research as much as possible. They will become a great source of information as you study the impact of your work on their learning. They will also come to see you as a learner, which enhances the entire classroom community.

If you are an administrator…

  • Be deliberate when considering action research as a possible professional learning experience. The phrase action research can scare off some teachers who might otherwise be interested in this approach. Start small, maybe offering it as a voluntary course beyond the school day for graduate credit or pay.
  • Connect with outside organizations that can facilitate a course instead of trying to host it yourself. There is vulnerability involved in action research. The more we can have others lead the initiative, the more likely teachers will be willing to open up and take risks in their pursuits of becoming better practitioners.
  • Conduct action research yourself. I did this, using the resource The Action Research Guidebook by Richard Sagor (Corwin, 2012). The author offers several examples of a principal engaging in professional inquiry at a schoolwide level. I would share my findings and reflections in staff newsletters and at meetings. The message you send is the same one teacher-researchers convey to their students: We are all learners here.
  • Prepare a multiyear plan for facilitating action research in your school or district. Teacher questions seemed to lead to more questions during the school year. At the inquiry showcase, teachers were already asking if they could conduct action research again. “I feel like I just discovered my question,” noted one teacher.
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Seasons of Change

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

Theory and Practice

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:

  1. Honor teachers’ personal and professional lives.
  2. Empower teachers to become school leaders.
  3. 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.

Fall

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.

Winter

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.

Spring

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

References

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.