While discussing rules and expectations with students in our high school law class, Brooke* made the point that just because people comply with a rule or expectation, it does not mean that the expectation is valuable. Another student chimed in that expectations without merit are a waste of time and another student took us in the direction of all the things students do to pretend they are following some rules.
It's not just students doing these things. We all do some of this I suspect. And it's not all bad, but unfortunately our increased proficiency to jump through hoops in education comes at the expense of our students.
Think about that for a minute.
The more time we spend focused on trivial tasks or getting hung up on the mundane, the less time we have for critical issues related to student learning.
All professions have their share of compliance issues. It makes sense that education would be similar. After all, there has to be some accounting for student learning, teacher job performance and our responsibility to meet the needs of our respective communities. On the other hand, what should we do when the compliance topics requiring so much of our energy have little to do with student learning?
What I am talking about are the unique things schools begin to value above all else. I remember a period when meeting a deadline was celebrated at staff meetings and not meeting them could mean your name was on a widely shared e-mail reminding everyone of your failure. In some school communities there seems to be a disproportionate amount of emphasis on posting learning targets and not actually developing meaningful ones. Some school leaders are placing too much value on teacher compliance in the form of record-keeping and collecting evidence that is, at best, loosely connected to student learning.
How do we get our schools (teachers and students) to move beyond compliance and into the arena of determining the best ways we can work together for student learning and professional growth?
Our student-led discussion about compliance in class reminded me of this valuable blog by Todd Finley from Edutopia. The blog lays out the research-based conclusion that teachers who engage students help students achieve more academic success, sense of belonging and the ability to persevere in tough situations. This may not be earth-shattering news to my readers, but think about the implications if we applied some of this reasoning to how we lead in our schools.
What if our schools were dedicated to teacher engagement and student engagement? (I know that some are - including my own school in some respects - and I hope you will comment below to share those success stories. We need them.)
The question, "Why is this important?" deserves an honest conversation for the things we emphasize in our schools. In my classroom I have sometimes failed to investigate whether my expectations and my lesson plans actually met their stated intentions. It happens from time to time and just as I expect from administrators leading a staff, I cannot keep plodding along not reaching my students simply because I have complied with some minimal expectation. I encourage my students to ask me why we do certain learning activities in class so we are constantly reminded of our learning objectives. I benefit from knowing that if I lose sight of what is important, my students have a way to nudge me in the right direction and we get back on course. Teachers do not always have constructive ways to voice concerns to administrators so we can stay on course. When there is a lack of teacher engagement with poorly designed professional development, staff meetings that only serve to fan out announcements or an increased emphasis on collecting evidence to show teacher effectiveness, students ultimately end up on the losing end in this culture of compliance.
Our school leaders need to stop and think about what we emphasize in our schools and also how we honor that emphasis through our interactions with students. A more meaningful school experience for teachers and students takes hard work and dedicated leadership. We also know it can be tempting to fall into completing checklists and moving on. One more thing done. Not much gained.
Wonderings (using the terminology wonderings, which is employed in teacher observations by my school administrators)
- How should the most important expectations be differentiated from the other business and emphasized for the school staff?
- What work needs to take place to shift the focus from compliance to a culture of learning in your school? What ideas do you have to improve the engagement level of the staff? Have you shared these ideas or do you have avenues to share them?
- What methods of motivation are effective in getting the school staff committed to working toward important school-wide and district-wide expectations?
No one remembers fondly the educator who expected students to blindly comply to constantly changing expectations. Likewise, we never hear about educators who retire and proudly claim it was their burning passion to be compliant that made their career special.
We need to be mindful of what makes teaching such a meaningful career and see to it that our school buildings reflect those values above all else.
*Name changed to respect privacy