Thursday, October 1, 2015

Compliance is not engagement

The issues raised in this blog are not specifically motivated by the policies within my own school or within my district. I write about many topics that are often related to discussions with educators who do not work in my school district. This blog in no way is intended to reflect solely on any specific leaders or my place of employment. 

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.)

Adam Fletcher’s definition of engagement applies to teachers in their work with school leaders and principals: "Students [insert, Teacher for Students] are engaged when they are attracted to their work, persist despite challenges and obstacles, and take visible delight in accomplishing their work." (Finley references this definition in his blog) 

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)

  1. How should the most important expectations be differentiated from the other business and emphasized for the school staff? 
  2. 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?  
  3. What methods of motivation are effective in getting the school staff committed to working toward important school-wide and district-wide expectations? 
[Please share your ideas and results in the comments below or reach out to me privately]

Engagement requires more energy, expertise and talent than compliance. We know that the engagement of the teaching staff is critical to student success. We cannot afford to expend too much talent (teacher and student talent) in an effort to meet half-baked expectations and silly requirements.

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

DISCLAIMER: This blog includes ideas and topics serving as a composite of issues from various sources. The issues raised in this blog are not specifically or solely motivated by the policies within the author's own school district.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher at Fenton High School in Michigan since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. He has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011 and he loves to travel. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students grow their passion for learning. Gregory is a member of the Michigan Education Voice Fellowship.


  1. Well spoken. In my years working with curriculum I ran into some interesting performance instruments. One was called Minimum Performance Objectives. It was very heavy on memorizing specific facts. Connectivity of facts was irrelevant that essentially made the measuring standards irrelevant. Engagement was minimal as well. I was delighted to see this train wreck moved out of the way. Engaging students requires risk takers. Some school systems are simply not equipped to take those risks. Others move with boldness. It is difficult but the rewards are worth the risk.

  2. Thank you for sharing your insight. Engaging teachers also requires risk-takers and I think the benefits far outweigh the status quo.

  3. Having spent a third of my life on a school board reviewing, adhering to and questioning policies and rationales I have to wonder who these people are who write the Revised School Code and other instructional material that rules the educational world. The Department of Education and the Legislature could use some direction from the trenches!

  4. Nick, I couldn't agree more. It makes sense that a school might need compliance (like the need to take attendance everyday...which was one my previous district struggled with) in order to be effective administrators and record keepers. However, you are so right when you say that teachers need to be engaged just as much...if not more... than the students. Students can have an off day/week and it can have little impact on their overall learning and growth, but an off day or week for a teacher can mean a huge loss to many students. It can also start a trend of taking the easy way out. I've seen educators pushing boundaries, engaging students, taking risks and never get recognized by their admins and sometimes they are punished. I've also seen those who do little in this regard receive acclaim and awards from admin... they have obedient students, never send students to the office or just play in the "good 'ole boys" club. It takes a truly remarkable educator to continue to take risks and grow in such an environment. I guess what amazes me is that those teachers still exist and persist... and are doing amazing things despite the lack of supportive conditions. Imagine what we could do if we fixed that problem??!!??!!