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.    

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. 

Learning From Each Other

I really enjoy our district-wide professional development days as they provide us with an awesome opportunity to connect with educators from across our district and to connect them to each other. Taking the advice of Shelly Burgess and Beth Hoef, “People are less likely to tear down a culture that they have helped build,” we invited teachers and curriculum leaders from all of our school sites to join a planning group with our district leadership team for the days this year. As we work to be clear in what we hold in common across our eighteen schools and what is a school or classroom level decision on how that looks, creating a district-wide plan for professional development that meets the needs of over five-hundred teachers and leaders is a challenge. We want it to be relevant to each classroom and each staff member’s personal journey, incorporate choice, and model great instructional practice. Building in time for seeing and doing with time to reflect, practice, plan, and engage in professional discourse were key to what we all agreed were the next steps for all our staff. 

After our first meeting, the team realized the challenge of giving all staff tools to move along a continuum of doing activities that empower learners to creating classrooms that are entirely learner driven to turning those classrooms into whole schools that are learner empowered. One thing that was really important to the group was more time to see the work in action and time to connect with other staff. As a group, we felt our staff understands our why of creating more equitable outcomes for all learners that go well beyond graduation from high school. It was time to dig deep on how to plan for and what learner driven instruction looks like in practice.  We would meet each week, send them back to schools to get feedback, and then evolve the idea until it is something we could put into practice. It has been amazing to get input and learn from our educators in this group and for them to connect back to all teachers. This has led to some healthy professional discourse on the how and what of the work we are trying to do and how to get all five hundred teachers invested in the process.

Our groups ended up targeting specific work for each grade band that was different. Elementary and intermediate spent time in small groups working on knowing our standards well enough ourselves to teach them to learners and empower them to take ownership of mastery of those standards within cross-curricular projects. All of our site visits have shown us that standards are an essential part of the work, but they do not have to be only understood and driven by the teacher. The learners can take ownership of the outcomes when they know what is expected of them and can do it in ways that reflect their interests. For our high schools, they felt a big picture approach was needed, which meant hearing from a learner panel of students in one of our sixth through eighth grade flexible learning communities and then having small group discussions on the big picture of what school could be.   

We wanted our teachers to know that how the standards are mastered in your classroom is about knowing yourself and your learners well enough to shift the learner experience wherever and whenever possible to be authentic with high levels of content mastery, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and, most importantly, creating a sense of belonging to the group. We are pushing our teachers to realize that they get to decide on the instructional methods used in their classrooms and schools, which won’t look the same across our district. We trust them as professionals to make those decisions as they know their learners best. Each of these groups also then spent time in collaborative groups working together on breaking down an existing project to be able to understand how and where it becomes learner driven. We wrapped up the first part of the morning asking them to use a similar format on their own lesson and unit plans. Where could they be making shifts toward learner driven, authentic experiences every day?

As part of the opening in one of the groups, we asked them to answer this question with educators from other schools, “What will you make, build, or do with learners this year that they will be talking about in 10 years?” Most of those answers were around larger community-based experiences instead of daily classroom instruction. We followed the discussion with the question, “What will you make, do, or build tomorrow that learners will still be talking about in 10 years?”  We are hopeful that our teachers will use some of what they learned that day to have that question drive more of what we do.

Our staff also need to see this kind of work in action and what better way to learn than from each other. So, the second part of the morning was a choice of over twenty classrooms across our district where our own staff were willing to model learner driven practice in their classrooms. The staff shared what their daily practice is and other staff were able to watch, learn, and give feedback. The participants learned a ton about how to do this work from educators that may teach down the street from them who have already tried new ways of connecting to learners with both successes and many opportunities to learn how they would do things differently. The presenters got feedback on their practice and answered questions for the participants that allowed them to reflect on what they do and why they do it. This was the email we sent to those who were brave enough to go first, “We have asked each of you as we know you are trying new things, having some success with learners, and find joy in your work. We will have the groups be small (hopefully around 25) of teachers from across our district in the sessions. We are hoping you will model a lesson, talk about how you incorporate learner driven skills in new ways, and how you got started with making a shift. It is not expected to be anything that is “perfect” or a “show”. It is meant for you to share your experience with others and encourage them to try new things in the way you have.” We got some great feedback from both participants and presenters about the power of the experience. Some of the sessions went off without a hitch and others did not go exactly as planned, but every one of them provided staff with an opportunity to connect and learn from each other.  

We asked each building leadership team to build in time for reflection, discussion, and planning at the school sites.  We know how essential that time to think about what you learned and then collaborate with colleagues is to create space for a change of practice.  These shifts take a continuous conversation with time to think and time to plan. Finding more time is always a challenge in education, but we want to keep the learning and the learner experience at the forefront by helping staff to find the time where we can.  Teachers need to know we support them in trying new things knowing they may fail with opportunities for coaching and collaboration to know how to go back and try again. We get a lot of feedback that we need to make more time for processing and planning. We are working on new ideas to try some creative things  within our schedules for next school year to help. In the meantime, we need to continue the push and the conversation wherever and whenever it can happen.  

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Targeted professional development puts teachers in the best shape to use the power of the weapon every day to empower our learners and therefore make our world a better place to be. 

What made me better

When I reflect on my skills as a teacher throughout my career, I can think of examples of what I did well and a million things I would have done differently.  I am teaching a class at a local university this semester and know confidently that I am a better teacher now than I was when I was in the classroom. The opportunity to see other teachers in action in my leadership role for the last several years is what has made me better.  I get to speak to educators and learners all the time about what is working well in their classrooms and what they would like to see grow. It includes spending time in many classrooms where we and others are getting it right and learners can articulate the process of their learning in order to create great things. 

Professional development that is connected to a vision of our work with meaningful processing time to reflect is how we push teachers to move from single projects to true learner driven practice.  We take a lot of teachers and teams on site visits to schools in our area and across our country who are already doing the kind of work we are trying to do to see it in action. It is hard to find a large comprehensive system that is there yet, so we are often at small charters of specialty programs that are offshoots of schools.  The visits are always amazing as we are able to interact with teachers and learners and see learner driven practice, but often the most important part of the time is the meal after the visit or the long trip home where we can talk about what we saw, process, and plan for what parts we can implement within our system. The goal is not to replicate but to figure out how to ask the right reflective questions of ourselves and one another to tie what we saw to our personal passions and interests and figure out how to bring all of that together to shift the learner experience.

We also spend a lot of our time talking about how this is the kind of learning experience ALL learners should have.  It should not be reserved for some kids in special programs or special schools. The visits with the deep discussions are often the leverage point that takes an educator from trying a few things to a true shift of practice that is more inclusive.  It helps them to be more collaborative as they are often on these visits with other staff from across our district that they might not already know having a shared experience . The power in seeing some things we are already doing well and celebrating those helps us to not be overwhelmed when looking for ways to grow.  The key is to make the time, take the staff who are ready to take some bold steps, and then follow up with them multiple times throughout the year so they have support to keep going with the work.   

On a recent site visit, I took a chance and messaged some of the teachers to join us off-site after the formal conference to continue our learning.  Fortunately, they were willing to take the opportunity to discuss their work with us over dinner. It was an impactful experience to listen to teachers that have been doing this work for some time engage in professional discourse about grading, telling their story and standards.  The teachers were open about their own growth over time and how our staff could take pieces of what they saw back to our schools to create a more equitable opportunities for all learners through empowerment. We went back to the site the next day with a new lens on what to look for in learner and teacher observations that we could do instead of being lost in the surface things like the physical set-up.  Things that may have looked idealistic the day before now looked possible. The modeling of professional discourse created space for our team to do the same and ask some great questions about how we can do this work and how it does not have to look the same across all our schools.  Encouraging staff to push boundaries and challenge one another’s thinking is how we look at someone else’s professional practice and find a way to make it our own.

A few things we discover each time we do a site visit became apparent:

  • This work is messy.  It takes deep dialogue on what is right for learners and how to give up control in a way that is not always natural for teachers.  
  • Change is uncomfortable and unpredictable, but easier with the proper support.  People tend to say, “Change is hard.” There was a great article from the Harvard Business Review in January of 2008 that explained why that phrase becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that permits us not to try.  We have to be able to think bigger than that.  
  • We need to get more comfortable with professional discourse and open discussion about where we are now and where we can go that may push our thinking.
  • Teachers have to connect their own passion to their work in schools.  When it is authentic to the teachers, it becomes authentic with the learners.
  • Our teachers need to see the work in action often and learn how to get and give productive feedback.
  • The standards are always embedded in innovative, learner driven work.  They just aren’t always owned solely by the teacher.  
  • Many times, the teacher in a learner driven classroom finds joy in their work.

We have evolved our district wide professional development to hopefully reflect all of these.  Our teachers will have time in small groups to learn their standards well enough to empower learners to take ownership of mastery of those standards within cross-curricular projects.  Staff will then have the opportunity to sign up to see another teacher modeling classroom practice that is learner driven. They will be our own internal site visits. We will use structured protocols to get and give feedback at each site to ensure we are using the time for genuine collaboration as we know that is what drives teacher practice.  We can’t make more time than we have, so we use the protocols from The School Reform Initiative as a way to restructure the time and make sure it is used for purposeful feedback and collaboration. 

Our teachers hosting visits that day have been invited to participate for the first round as they are already trying new things, having success with learner empowerment and finding joy in their work.  It is not expected that anything that is “perfect” or a “show”.  It is meant for one teacher to share their experience and encourage others to try new things with an open dialogue about how and what supports they will need. Our goal is that our teachers engage with one another to see what’s possible, work together to get there for every learner and find joy in the work.