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.    

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.