Standing in the Gap

Standing in the gap is a biblical term that refers to someone standing in the gap of a wall that has been breached and needs to be filled to protect from enemies. For our learners, their usual wall of protection certainly has a gap now, and many of them will need us to stand in it for and with them. This time of COVID-19, schools closing their physical walls, and social distancing is scary for everyone. It creates uncertainty about our world that is unsettling and is filled with anxiety for many people, but especially for those with previous mental health concerns.  

I have seen many posts on social media and have heard from close friends and family that this last week was hard for them. The reality of our current situation, which once seemed novel, is starting to feel very real. People are beginning to know someone personally who is ill, which makes it all even more real and frightening. The level of fear and isolation can be really dangerous for people, especially for our learners who rely heavily on their support system at school. We did our first two suicide risk assessments last week based on comments learners made on an online platform or in a video conference. Finding ways to support our learners’ emotional well-being is always important, but it has taken on a whole new meaning now.  

We had the opportunity to have Hakeem Rahim for our opening day speaker for all staff a few years ago. He shared his story of realizing at seventeen that he has bipolar disorder while he was attending Harvard University after being named the first African-American male valedictorian at his high school. His message for us that day was about how important it is to remove the stigma of having a mental health issue and to be open to talking about it. He shared a message of hope to move beyond our lowest lows and find a way forward. In a speech he gave for the National Alliance for Mental Illness, he said, “If we can intentionally say I accept what I am going through. If we can say that because I’ve accepted what I am going through, there’s absolutely no shame, and there’s absolutely no more hiding. If we can understand that acceptance builds a space for possibility and if we understand that if we are diagnosed with a mental illness, there is hope, we have won, and we have been transformed…… You must believe that somebody out there believes in you even when you do not believe in yourself. ” 

I have been thinking about his message a lot this week as things started to feel more grim. It is so important to find connections to others and believe that there is somebody out there who believes in you. I have seen the amazing ways our educators are showing learners they believe in them and deepening their relationships over our last two weeks of distance learning. They are finding new and exciting ways to check-in and make sure our learners are okay. Teachers are hosting class meetings, online recess, dance parties, and spirit weeks as well as driving through neighborhoods to show signs and wave to our learners. Our elementary teachers are sharing stories of video lunches where suddenly the whole family was there having lunch with the teacher. They are sharing stories of the connections being made between learners and their own families as they are all at home and sometimes end up on the video chats as well. They are writing notes of support and encouragement and sharing messages of hope. Our goal when we went to distance learning was to continue to provide some of the consistency of school while trying new ways of learning and making sure our learners continued building strong relationships with staff. In many cases, this time has bonded our learners and teachers in new ways, which is encouraging.   

Our counselors, social workers, school psychologists, educational assistants, and secretaries are also connecting with either learners or staff every day. Our teachers need us to support them as much as our learners do. This transition has been a challenge for everyone, and we have teachers working harder than ever to be sure learners have what they need. This week, our lead school psychologist is running a mindfulness class for our teachers that have expressed they are struggling. Our building substitutes are still working to be sure teachers have support if they need to take time due to physical illness or just need time to regroup. It has become a shared experience for staff, learners, and families wherein we are all learning to appreciate one another a little more. In an opening circle for a class, one learner wrote, “I give a shout-out to all our teachers for teaching us the best they could and staying calm during an unexpected problem.” That learner just stood in the gap for a teacher who may have needed it.  

We also have our Hope Squads starting to learn how to do their outreach online to create space for learners to support other learners. Most people share their stories of how and why they are struggling if you happen to catch them in a moment in time when it seems right for them. We have to be sure we are intentionally creating many, many chances for connections between us all in order to be sure that when someone is ready to share their story, someone else is there to listen and support them with the right help.  

Our families are feeling it too and are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Many of them are worried about the financial impact of all of this or have been laid off because of it and are learning to be a distance learning teacher at the same time. It has been a challenge to make the transition in my own house with my husband and I both working from home and trying to keep our children engaged in learning. I am thankful to the number of teachers who have offered us support but have been okay when we needed to say no thanks and just take a break from things for a short while. They have stood in our gap over the last two weeks in a powerful way that I truly appreciate.  

This time is challenging for all of us, and the longer it goes on, the harder it may be to hold on to hope and positivity. It is time for all of us to stand in the gap for others when we can and ask for others to stand in our gap when we can’t. I am grateful someone was listening when two learners reached out with suicidal thoughts so we could get them the help they needed, but it was also a reminder of how much our outreach to check on one another matters right now. There are so many beautiful ways in which our communities have come together during this crisis. We have people volunteering to deliver meals, doing blood drives, donating medical supplies, sewing masks, creating engaging lessons both on and off-line to keep learners engaged, finding ways to support local businesses, and honoring the recommendations to stay home whenever possible. The physical distance between us can unify us in a new way, but we need to be open to talking about our challenges and relying on others to stand in our gap until we are ready to stand in our own again.   

This is the Twitter content I’m here for..

For my first year of teaching, I was the only self-contained teacher for students with significant emotional/behavioral disabilities in a middle school.  Our classroom was located at the end of a long hallway at the back of the building with few other classrooms nearby. I was on my own most of the time with a large class of really disconnected learners with little time or reason to collaborate with my colleagues.  There were four of us that started that year in similar programs each at different schools. I was the only one who didn’t quit before the second semester. My learners and I had an amazing year, but they were tough, and it wasn’t always easy to figure out what to do all on my own.  I was missing the opportunity to network with other teachers, share ideas, celebrate successes, and occasionally vent about a challenging day. I gave that feedback to my director, and we moved my program the next year to another building where two of us in one location working together.  We spent that year working on how to be more inclusionary and collaborative within our special education team and between our regular education and special education staff. Although I still served a similar population of learners who had historically been unsuccessful in school and started the year in a fully self-contained placement, it was a lot easier as I had a team of colleagues working together to best serve and empower them.  

Since then, I have always made creating a professional network a priority for me as an educator.  I have had opportunities to co-teach with content specialists and related service providers that have made me a better teacher.  We shared a vision for what we wanted for our learners and were not trying to do our work in isolation. Once I moved into a leadership role, continuing to have a strong network was essential.  Leadership jobs are far more lonely than most people think. You are often the only principal in the building or the sole coordinator for that subject in a district. Having a network of other professionals who do similar roles in other districts or communities has been such an asset to my work and has made me even better as I get to listen to the excellent ideas of others or share some of what we do in our district.  We are starting to take that a step further and do some cross-district programming with other districts in our area. We are all trying to do the same work- to create opportunities for all learners that mean that they are ready to live life on their own terms when they finish public school. Why we try to do that work independently does not really make any sense. We have joined or created some new collaborative networks with other districts in our area that are powerful and are giving us the chance to share ideas and resources in a whole new way.  

In recent years, my online networks have become a great source of inspiration.  I never quite understood the power of Twitter until a few years ago. Now, I would struggle without it.  My ability to connect with other people doing work from a similar lens across our country and our world helps me every day.  I get tons of ideas on which blogs to read, which resources others are accessing, and new ways to create authentic learning experiences for all learners.  In a class I teach at a local university for pre-service teachers, one of the assignments I gave was to get networked. I gave them a list of people to choose from to follow online.  They had to reflect on why that collaboration can be so impactful as an educator. It was an interesting discussion when we got back to class on who they agreed with and who they did not. I encouraged them to consider following someone who had opposing views to their own as I often follow people who present a different perspective than mine. It helps me to grow when my ideas get challenged. Either I am ready to defend my belief because I really stand behind it, or the new perspective helps me to shape the belief into a new version of itself.  While my core beliefs never change, I get a new lens on an idea that gives me a chance to reflect. That constant support and challenge of an online community, which I have found on Twitter, allows me opportunities to think and grow all the time.   

I am seeing a new kind of connection and networking on Twitter that has been absolutely amazing.  We now have teachers across our district collaborating on authentic, learner-driven projects via Twitter.  It has been so fantastic to watch a kindergarten class connect to another kindergarten class in another school around a project or a way to increase our involvement with our greater community.  We have a class of high school students working with a class of second graders turning their comics into movies. They wrote a letter to the high school students that said, “We heard that you know how to make movies. Will you help us turn our stories into movies?  We can’t do it alone- we need your help.” How incredible is it that young learners will have the model of our high school students in understanding plot and theme and that our high school students will get to practice what they have learned about those same ideas by teaching them to others? Another class of third and fourth graders has “contracted” math students at one of our high schools to make them a cart for their coffee business after seeing them build real furniture out of scale models for their math class on Twitter.  The power of becoming collaborative across grade levels and schools is incredible, and it can come from something as simple as a Twitter post about the cool work you are doing in class.  

I am not 100% sure if it started with him, but Rex Chapman often posts inspirational things he sees on Twitter with the tagline, “This is the Twitter content I’m here for.”  The videos he posts are often stories of kindness or examples of humanity that are touching. The Twitter content I’m here for is the power of connection between classrooms, schools, district, leaders and learners as well as my opportunities to see, learn and grow.  That content makes the work we do together more real and far more impactful on our entire community.  

What if….

A question I have regularly been asked since I entered district-wide leadership is, “What if…?” You can always tell how someone is feeling by what comes after “What if…?” I used to get a lot of “What if you came into my classroom and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be in the curriculum?” or “What if you came into my classroom when it was noisy and loud?” I’ve shared with staff who ask that it would be tough for me to know what was happening in the class or why unless I asked learners these questions:

  • What are you working on?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • How will you know when you hit mastery?

When learners can answer those questions, they usually have opportunities to take ownership of the process of their learning at some point during the instruction. Our time in classrooms needs to be spent making sure our learners always know what they should be doing, but even more importantly they should know why. This may mean there are times when the teacher is doing whole group instruction, and the learners know why. It may mean that the learners are all working on prototypes of a super cool project, and the learners know why. Sometimes it means the class is taking a mindful minute or in a community-building circle, and the learners know why. 

We now have many teachers asking a new kind of “What if…?” They are starting to ask things like “What if my learners took their learning outside the walls of our school?” “What if my learners go well beyond the standards for the grade level?” “What if I had learners run businesses and take their work public by connecting to a community agency or a local business?” “What if I took extra time at the beginning of the year, semester, or week to focus on my relationships with learners while creating a community in our classroom instead of focusing on content?” That one is my favorite question as we know how essential it is for everyone that our learners have meaningful relationships with one another and with staff, which takes time. In a community where the relationships are well-developed, the learners and the teachers are more likely to take risks that result in a deeper understanding of content.  

We have a flexible learning community at one of our intermediate schools that is an incredible example of what happens if you ask a new kind of “What if” and get a lot of support to try new things. We have over one hundred twenty learners in grades six through eight who spend their time with four core teachers and a variety of support staff in one large classroom for all of their core instruction. The teachers within the community are amazing educators who are always willing to take risks and create deep and meaningful relationships with learners that are inspiring. They presented at the 10th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning with some of their learners on how important it is to have relationships and community before you introduce content. I get to speak to learners in this community often, which is always a great experience for me as they can always answer what they are doing and why. Each time I am in the room and look around at the beautifully organized chaos, I reflect on the power of the fully inclusive community they have created.  

They serve learners with significant special needs who were previously placed in restrictive placements, learners who have had involvement with the juvenile justice system, learners who are identified as Gifted and Talented, and everyone in between. We have had some of their learners present at our leadership meetings, to our high school staff, and at our public meetings to inform our community about the work we are doing in our schools. Each time, they speak with such confidence about their community and the power of the authentic, cross-curricular work they do within it. Their community hosts many visitors from within and outside our school district. Each time the learners are able to share something about a high-level project they are working on either on their own or with others that is meaningful to them and created a deep understanding of a standard.  

I recently asked the teachers to send me some testimonials from learners to share with our school board and our broader community. What they wrote was personal and so powerful. I’ve read them many times now and each time am blown away by the impact we get to have on the lives of young people with the work we do each day. Here are a few things they shared:

“I feel there is a lot more room for your own personality. You have three grade levels and over 100 people but you are able to find someone with the same interests to make you feel unique but also cared about. The teachers run the classroom to know that bullies are not allowed and differences are embraced. We have students with many characteristics and struggles, including students from other countries, but you wouldn’t know it. Everyone feels welcome. It’s a great place for people who are different, like me, because I feel like I can be myself and still be cared about. We are a great classroom full of many different people that make us so great.”

“I do more of my work than I ever did before. I also have a better handle on my emotions. I think this is because of the relationships that I have built with the teachers. Because I have been with my teachers for so long now, they really know me and I really know them. I am not perfect and still get into trouble sometimes, but I am much better.”

“My favorite project to work on NHD (National History Day) because I was super passionate about my project which made it way easier get information about it because it wasn’t something boring that was assigned to me. I had choices in what I wanted to learn. Also it made it easier to present because you will feel proud about your creation.”  

The school has moved this year from one of these learning communities to four with a plan to continue to grow. I get to support the teachers and leaders who have created this amazing community as well as the others who are trying to create more learning opportunities like this one. I always want to be sure I recognize the amazing work of our teachers and find ways to continue to help them grow, which has also shifted my own “What if…” questions to one big one. “What if we ensured that every learner has the same experience as the learners in this community with the right support for the leaders and teachers?” We are starting to see many pockets of success similar to this one across our district and can’t wait to continue to support more by asking all kinds of “What ifs.”  

Is Your Mind in the Moment?

“True happiness comes from bringing all your attention to whatever you are doing right now.” -Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is happening around us. We are a mindfulness district, which means that all of our teachers have been trained in the practices and teach mindfulness lessons to learners through either the classroom teacher or the school counselor. Our goal is always to be sure our learners have a wide variety of tools to use to regulate their emotions and learn how to be fully present. Many of our teachers use a mindful minute to center the energy in the room before they begin a lesson or an activity. They have access to tools like breathing balls and chimes to use in classrooms. In addition, many of our elementary classrooms have Peace Corners. It is a space within the classroom filled with mindfulness and sensory tools with QR codes to short videos that teach how to use each tool so that learners can independently take a break as they need one. Many of our learners are now able to go to the Peace Corner, self-regulate, and return to class activities very quickly. It sends the message to them that we all need a break sometimes, and it is okay to take one when you need it to get recentered and ready to learn or collaborate with others.

We offered mindfulness retreats to our teachers last year on a few Saturdays to help them learn self-care strategies and often use mindfulness tools to start staff meetings. We always want to be modeling with adults what we want for learners in classrooms. We try hard to have our leaders in our schools with our teachers and learners as often as possible, so we only meet as a whole team (Principals, Assistant Principals, District leaders, and instructional coaches) once a month for about two hours during the school year. We used to try and cram as much information into those meetings as possible, jumping from one topic to the next each month. This year, we are trying to model iteration and reflection, so we switched the meetings to be an opening with some new learning, usually from learners or teachers talking to us about their experience in our schools. We spend the rest of the time in collaborative groups reviewing the professional development plans that are embedded in our school improvement plans to make sure we are continually reflecting on what support our teachers and learners may need. The teams add elements to the plans based on ideas from other leaders or from the time we use to reflect on their new learning.

Frequently, our leaders are running out of the meetings at the end as they need to get back and do lunch duty or have teacher and parent meetings. Schools are really, really busy places, and often the leader needs to be reminded to take time out of that busy day to connect to people and make time to be truly present with them. We ask our teachers to use their time to foster relationships with learners and create classrooms that are authentic communities. As the leader, do we do that enough with staff? I am working on putting down the laptop or the phone when someone comes to talk to me so I can give them my full attention, but it is a work in progress for me. We are all always trying to do so many things at once; we sometimes forget to be mindful of the interaction that is right in front of us. It may be the moment when a colleague, friend, family members, or learner needed to connect, and our distractions may have us missing those crucial moments. It takes practice and reminders for me to be sure I’m staying in the moment and not too quick to move on to the next thing or check my latest notification on my phone or computer.

We recently had the opportunity to participate in the first session of a new leadership series from Youth Frontiers called Geometry of a Leader. Our principals, assistant principals, and some district leaders came together to learn, listen, and practice being present with one another. We spent time reflecting on how we could be more present with all the people in our lives, including our staff and learners. It was a very powerful few hours of practicing our listening skills with one another and listening to some beautiful live music from one of their staff musicians. We took the time to be connected to one another and made commitments to what we will take back to our schools. We talked about mindfulness, its importance in leadership, and left with four keys to presence:

  1. Turn your body towards the person.
  2. Make and keep good eye contact.
  3. Listen to understand.
  4. Give the person your full attention.

To some people, it may sound silly that we need reminders to do these things when engaging with someone, but I certainly do. “Do you have a minute?” is something I get asked many, many times each day. I am not 100% sure how everyone else defines a minute as often I am needed for much longer than that, but my new commitment to others is to say no when I really don’t have the time with a promise to follow-up when I do. It is when I try to squeeze in the time for someone when I am in the middle of something else that I am the least present. I need to be mindful of that all the time.

Many of our leaders have sent feedback on how much they enjoyed the retreat, how they have started to use the four keys, and the impact that is having on their relationships with staff. Principals need time to learn and reflect just like everyone else. We are excited to see how the next two retreats on humility and courage influence our leaders and help them grow their skills. Presence, humility, and courage are such vital skills in leadership that help us to focus on who we are as well as what we do.

“If we don’t take the time to be human with each other, our humanity will fade away.” Our retreat leader repeated that phrase several times, and it stuck with me. Human connection is so essential in the work we do in schools. We know it should drive everything that happens in classrooms, but we also need to be sure it drives how we lead and what we model each day.

All Hands on Deck

“Building innovative organizations will take all of us working together. This is not about a “top down” or “bottom up” approach as much as it is about “all hands on deck.” And it is possible.” I love this quote by George Couros from The Innovator’s Mindset as it speaks to the work we are trying to do as an organization. We currently have pockets of innovation happening all across our eighteen schools and are working to understand how to scale that work across every classroom and school with the help of everyone involved. It really does take all hands on deck focussed around the same vision, a culture that celebrates those already doing new things, and one that encourages others to learn together to start to try.   

It is usually easy to know how people feel about something and what they need if you ask them. Recently, we invited in a panel of teachers who are starting to do more learner-centered, project-based learning to share why they do what they do and what support they need from their leaders at the school and district level to feel successful. What they shared was inspirational and also gave me a lot to think about.

We first asked them to describe a time this year where they felt successful with a project or with trying something new in the classroom. They talked a lot about the high level of engagement with projects and how, with multiple opportunities to succeed, all the learners did so. They spoke of the doubts they felt at the start and how their confidence and the confidence of the learners grew throughout the experience. They each described how they were a part of building something with their learners that produced a high level of understanding of a key concept. The excitement on each teacher’s face as they described their relationships with learners, the authentic work they produced together, and collaborating with other teachers was awesome.

Each teacher identified time as the main challenge, which was not surprising and something that we are all always working on. Our current schedule at our secondary schools is not very learner-centered, so we have created some flexible scheduling options and pilots for next fall that we hope will better support cross-curricular creation in classrooms. At our elementary schools, we have been able to add some non-student days to the calendar for our next school year that are specifically for teachers to plan with one another. We can’t make more time in a day, but we are certainly trying to be as smart as possible about how we use it so we can best serve our learners and support our teachers. 

Professional learning opportunities in and out of our district were what they saw as key to a shift of practice. They named a class we offer after school for teachers on deeper learning, an internal site visit to another classroom that we do on district-wide professional development days or an external site visit to another district as the most powerful professional development they have had. We’ve worked to make our professional learning for teachers model what we want for learners in classrooms, so the feedback that it does was encouraging. We are now trying to plan more opportunities in the summer to continue to support that work, which will keep us very busy this summer, but we’re excited that we have so many teachers wanting to continue to learn together.

A critical element for each teacher was that we stick with the work we are doing now to embed the deeper learning competencies across all our schools with the freedom to implement them in a way that best meets the needs of the teachers and learners in each school. They felt strongly that this work is meaningful to them and is creating space to empower learners, so they asked us to make sure we stay the course. We are working on our next five-year strategic plan for teaching and learning that changes the language from College and Career Readiness to Life Success through College and Career Readiness. We also are proposing a goal that is not based on a test score, but instead on creating authentic learning experiences using the deeper learning competencies with public demonstrations of learning and measures on how our learners feel about school. We want our teachers and our community to know that is the work we are committed to for at least the next five years as we know it takes time and consistency to make a shift of practice a reality.  

The next thing the teachers asked us for was to be sure we are meeting people where they are and providing differentiated support for each teacher to help them grow. This is the one that has me thinking a lot. We have added layers of support this year with external coaches from a school that has been doing project-based work for a long time and have started to use a human Likert scale to let people know it is okay to be where they are as long as they are continuing to grow in their practice. We have built in more collaboration among teachers from across our district during our district-wide professional development days and asked teachers to take a leadership role in planning and delivering learning opportunities on those days. We have optional book studies with really open discussions led by all of our staff. Is all of that enough to help people feel safe to start to try and continue to grow? Are we creating enough opportunities for teachers to learn from one another to make sure it is all hands on deck?

Lastly, they asked us to make sure we recognize and celebrate when they try something new, whether or not it was successful. One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, “I never lose. Either I win or I learn.” That is how we want our teachers and learners to feel with everything they attempt. We selected five teachers to be on this panel, but could have chosen many, many more. It is exciting to see how many bright spots we have in each school. We will continue to push everyone with the right support to be sure they can and do try new things.

One of the teachers shared a story that was particularly inspirational to me. She talked about how she felt extremely burnt out at the end of last school year and had started to doubt education as a choice for her. She went on a site visit to a school doing project-based learning, took one of our after school courses, and decided to give it a try. She teaches five and six-year-olds who wanted to learn about careers in our community. They made a box city to represent what they had learned and worked in teams based on the career they chose. They then presented their box city to family and community members in a public showcase night. She said, “It wasn’t like we had them memorize what to say. They did it themselves and could really talk about what they had learned naturally. It didn’t have to be perfect; we just had to try.” She shared how highly engaged the learners were and how excited they are to start their next project. I asked her how her burnout was feeling now. With a huge smile on her face, she said, “Burnout is gone!”

As we build a culture that supports trying new things, developing deep and meaningful relationships with our learners, and exploring teacher and student passions, we want every teacher to feel so inspired. When they do, with the right support from us, imagine what happens for every learner.    

Telling Our Story

Everyone is an expert on education as everyone went to school and many people have children in schools. However, school is starting to look different in pockets across our nation as well as all across our school district. School was created on a factory model that has not seen a significant change in many, many years, and has created equity gaps, especially for black and brown learners and those with disabilities. The needed skills for success in our current world are different than what was required for the industrial era and continue to change all the time, but school is not always designed to teach the needed skills. In our district, classrooms are becoming deeper learning experiences that are founded in creating a sense of belonging through the relationships we make with our learners. Teachers and students are discovering their passions and getting the opportunity to explore them through cross-curricular projects with public demonstrations of learning that receive feedback from peers, community members, and families. We needed to find a way to communicate this shift in our practice to our greater community, document our progress, and provide clarity for all staff on our why as some of our schools are further along in our deeper learning work than others.

As we started to learn how to best tell our story, I read a great blog post from IDEO. In it, Jen Massaro shares five tips for storytellers. The first one is to determine the big idea. We needed to be able to define what equity means and how the implementation of the deeper learning competencies is what we hold in common to achieve equity. However, this may look different at each of our eighteen schools based on the needs of the learners in that community. We often think about equity in terms of outcomes and gaps, but equity at its core is not about measuring the outcomes. If we wait until we see the results of standardized tests, graduation rates, and discipline data, it is too late. Equity is about giving every learner the same opportunity at the start and not making assumptions about their abilities based on what we know about learners from their backgrounds or the labels we use in schools. We create equitable opportunities when we believe in every learner and know them well enough to create authentic learning that is connected to our greater community and driven by their passions and interests. When that is EVERY learner’s experience in school, we don’t create equity gaps. That is the big idea of our story.

Jen’s next tip is to get outside your comfort zone. My work provides me many opportunities to learn new skills, but I had no idea how many I would learn when we started working with the Urban Misfit Ventures. We were looking for a partner to tell our story that is driven by purpose and community, which is exactly what the Misfits embody. They started the company as an opportunity to connect to their passions and create, which is exactly the experience we want for our learners in schools and makes our partnership a great fit. They are interested in our shift of practice and tell us all the time that they wish high school would have given them the chance to explore their interests through projects. We have learned about storyboarding, editing, guiding interviews, directing, how much teachers are not used to being on film, and how challenging it can be to get small children to articulate what they are thinking in a few sentences or less. Fortunately, they are patient with us and believe in many chances to iterate as we try to capture each school’s story in less than seven minutes.    

As IDEO storyteller Neil Stevenson says, “Storytelling is like sculpting, where you carve away to reveal something beautiful.” Becoming a sculptor is next. It took us many tries and the opportunity to learn how to be film critics to keep carving away at the interviews and the footage until we found the beauty. As district leaders, we get to see and know the inspiring work our staff and learners do every day, but capturing that in a short video was a challenge. Every interview and piece of footage is meaningful, so deciding what to keep and what to cut has been tough.  

The fourth tip, empathize with your audience, is one that is really important to us. We have made some concerted efforts to listen to our learners more often. When we do, they tell us the same two things that they want and need from us in school. They will regularly tell us that they want to be known. Being known verses being seen is a powerful concept to think about and is especially important as our world becomes more virtual and less connected to one another. Learners and their families want to feel deeply connected to their school and be known for who they are and what they have to offer to our world. The other thing they usually say is that they want school to be interesting, which does not mean learners do whatever they want. It means that school helps them to discover their interests and inspires them to solve problems. Their connections to each other and feeling inspired are what change the learner experience and create equity.  

The last tip is to practice, practice, practice, which is true of anything you want to do well. Over the next couple of years, we will be making a video of each of our schools, so they each have the chance to tell their story of equitable opportunity through deeper learning. We have grown a lot since we started making our first video, which is exciting to see. It is also why it is so important to continue telling our story over and over again. It gets clearer each time we do, and the learner experiences get deeper, more connected, and more meaningful with each iteration. Capturing our story as we go helps us to see where we have been and how much progress we have made in a short time. We are also using the videos to connect our schools to share the great work going on at each, which can be a challenge in a large district.  

We don’t have it all figured out, yet, as it is a feat to scale change in a public school district of eighteen schools. However, we have found some things that are working really well to humanize education and change the learner experience that we are proud of and want to share. Here is the video that tells our current story at Franklin Elementary West Allis, WI, with more and more to come for our learners.

One Step to the Right

I read a great blog post by Mandy Froehlich called Three Ways Resentment Impacted My Engagement as a Teacher. She felt disengaged by education at one point partially due to resentment. She felt resentment towards herself, other teachers, and especially people with different jobs within the organization. She shares how she learned to move past it to a healthy place. “The biggest favor that I did for myself in this area was to let go of the resentment and begin working on who I wanted to be. I could sit back and see if it would happen to me or I could make tiny changes that would eventually add up to bigger ones. I had to understand that someone else’s success or talent did not diminish my own. On the contrary, keeping those people close enhanced any growth that I was trying to accomplish.”  

I always enjoy reading Mandy’s blog as she is very real about many of the struggles we all share, but this post really resonated with me given the work I get to do with and for our teachers. As a district, we are dedicated to providing equitable opportunities for all learners by embedding the Deeper Learning competencies across all disciplines in a way that makes the learning authentic and personal to the learner and the teacher. Part of my job is to guide our professional development plan to make that happen and, within that, create a space for people to feel good about where they are in their practice so they can best learn from others in and out of our district. We want our teachers to recognize what they already do well and learn how to make a shift of practice that will better empower our learners and close the opportunity gaps that currently exist.  

While we have committed to holding the deeper learning competencies in common across all eighteen schools, a school’s or teacher’s pathway to get there is based on their learners and their school community. Our goal is that each of our eighteen schools will become a deeper learning school within the next three to five years wherein the learners can be self-directed and connected to our greater community as the wall-to-wall, every day experience. We want all eight thousand of our learners to feel a sense of belonging that makes them want to contribute and create while becoming problem solvers, collaborators, and communicators who can demonstrate their high levels of content mastery through authentic learning experiences. Clearly, this is a massive task that requires a lot of professional development, reflection, and growth by everyone in our organization. It also takes time and focus, which is why we have set that goal over multiple years and developed processes and systems to support school teams as they work to figure it all out. It is also why we are careful to add tools and resources when the evidence tells us they are needed versus introducing any new initiatives.  

We now have many teachers across our district accomplishing learner-driven, authentic, cross-curricular experiences in really profound ways. This work is creating access, especially for learner groups that have been historically marginalized, to close the opportunity gaps frequently created in schools. It takes a careful balance to celebrate those early adopters and ask them to share their stories with others who are just starting to do the work without creating the resentment Mandy spoke about in her post. We have more and more teachers ready to share their journey and present at our professional development days each time they get the chance. It is incredible to see how many of our teachers are feeling the confidence it takes to try things, grow, and share, but it also starts to become self-doubt for some who are not there yet. We don’t want them resenting others who are simply further along in the process. We want everyone to do exactly what Mandy said, to make tiny changes that eventually lead to large ones by getting to see a colleague who happens to be one or several steps farther along in the work of becoming a deeper learning classroom. 

As a district leadership team, we work with teachers from each of our eighteen school sites to get input on where teachers are and what they need from us next for professional development. We hope that this helps our staff not to resent the jobs we hold and better understand that our jobs as district-wide leaders are about supporting learners and teachers. We will spend some time at our next professional development day sharing how innovation through embedding the competencies leads to equitable opportunities for all with our secondary teachers as the feedback we received from this group helped us to see that that part of our work is not clear yet. They understand we want to create equity for all learners and that we want our classrooms to be authentic and innovative, but they do not yet see the connection between the two. What we thought we were going to do on that day is really different than where we started, which is better as it means we have listened to what our teachers need and adjusted the plan to meet those needs just like we ask them to do with learners every day. 

The feedback was also an opportunity for me to reflect. I needed to realize that while I live and breathe equity, inclusion, and learner empowerment work every day through my social media feeds, books I read, my professional network, the podcasts I hear, and the conferences I attend, not everyone else has the same level of exposure. It was unfair to expect that all our teachers, some of whom have not yet had the same opportunities through professional development to see those connections, are ready to take the next steps. I am grateful that we have created a space where teachers felt comfortable being honest with us about what they need. It gives us the chance to clarify that it is not equity or deeper learning it is equity through deeper learning. When every learner has strong relationships with staff and sees meaning in the learning, we have created a pathway to equitable opportunities.  

We use a human Likert scale to help our leaders and our teachers in our professional development planning group see where they are now and how they are moving. We stand next to signs that say “starting to understand deeper learning as a pathway to equity”, “doing deeper learning activities as a pathway to equity”, “an equitable deeper learning classroom”, or “an equitable deeper learning school”. The language has evolved to be more explicit about our purpose each time we ask people to place themselves on the scale down a hallway or across a room. It puts a visual to the idea that it is perfectly fine to be somewhere on the continuum as long as you are on it and always moving one step the right by trying small things that turn into big things with the confidence to know we will support you as you try. We need to continue to make it clear that we expect all teachers are connecting to learners on a deep level and creating authentic learning experiences that provide opportunities to demonstrate rigorous skills in content mastery, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and self-direction. We also need to continue to provide as many professional development opportunities as possible for teachers to learn how to do that so that they don’t feel resentment towards anyone who may know more right now. 

We have worked hard to shift some language from “the” district to “our” district. We are in this together and want people to know that and feel a sense of belonging to our why that makes it more comfortable to learn from a teacher in another school or at another grade level. I appreciate this quote by Dennis Waitley, “Success is not a pie with a limited number of pieces. The success of others has very little bearing on your success. You and everyone you know can become successful without anyone suffering setbacks, harm, or downturns.” We all need to concentrate on the small things we can learn from one another that make us one step better instead of waiting for the grand moment when everything will change. If we wait too long for that to happen, we will miss the thousands of chances we had to take the small steps that can help us feel successful in our work no matter what anyone else is doing.