Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Too scared to fail

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. 

Dedication: To my friends at lunch who said the first version was too long. Thank you. I have chosen to include many topics here that are also related to my discussions within my fellowship about teaching in general, not just in our school district. This blog in no way is intended to reflect solely on our school or our school district.  

It's been seven months since we talked about building a dynamic culture of learning within our school.

Seven months.

We started the school year talking about the value of taking risks and finding new ways to maximize our talent. Teachers discussed elevating our teaching to new heights with collaboration and fresh approaches to learning. Our professional development that day was centered on student success. It was refreshing. My fire to teach, which had dimmed after a round of lay-offs and a few years of a weak teacher evaluation process, was re-kindled. Excited and liberated because my school district seemed focused on nurturing a new culture of learning, I adjusted my attitude and got on board.

I found this sign in rural Michigan and it reminds 
me that we all bring something unique to the table. 
Schools need to foster an environment where people 
can be themselves and where failure has a new meaning.
Focusing on building relationships with students and trying new strategies would help my students and I needed to shake things up anyway. My best days in the classroom always involved taking risks and making the time to connect with students (Read my blog post about connecting with students).

Our professional development was an invitation for me to take 14 years of experience, find that spirited rookie teacher I was and mesh the two. On top of all of that, this new approach gave me permission to experiment and fail. More than ever, I was looking forward to a fun school year.

It turns out that my attitude adjustment has saved me this school year because nothing around me has changed.

My enthusiasm is intact and I remain eager to engage my students and colleagues. More importantly, my students are benefiting as I try to find new ways to help them grow a passion for learning. I am happy to report that I have successfully failed at rates closer to my first year of teaching and I laugh more than ever.

When I reflect about my dissatisfaction and the underlying frustration expressed by many of my colleagues, the common denominators are the increased importance of poor teacher evaluations and feeling voiceless when it comes to addressing our struggles. In essence, we are mute.

How in the hell did it become so scary to fail? 

How many teachers are struggling in silence and what impact does that have on students? 

My professional satisfaction was stagnant because I was not equipped to adapt in an educational world that would keep score. My important work was being reduced to a collection of arbitrary measures dumped into a data bank and computed with magic formulas. Things like student grades, test scores (some of them not even based on the classes I taught) and improving my bottom 30 - whatever that means - took on real importance. In this new system, we could classify teachers - in effect creating a system with winners and losers. In the end, the data spit out department rankings and the lowest ranked teachers were laid off in my school district. I am not certain our administrators understood how the evaluation process and their struggles making it work was eroding our confidence. We never talked about how we felt and the pressure people were under.

I am among many teachers who are frustrated about our teacher evaluation process despite my highly effective rating. From the time we started keeping score, it seemed like we were becoming worried and consumed with the wrong things. Achieving a high score would identify my "value" to students, but actually getting the best scores seemed more like a shell game. One year I lost. The next year I won. I changed nothing. My professional experience became pretty uninspiring once the students cleared out and classes were dismissed. For the first time in my career, I was getting bored.

Failure is a lot of things, but let's not forget how boring failure makes everything around you.

This chronic fear of failure was well underway before anyone realized how destructive it would be to our morale. We began focusing on "data centers" as we simultaneously failed to actually use data to inform our teaching practice. We were "recording interventions" and collecting artifacts and e-mails in order to have sufficient "evidence" for our 10-minute performance review in June. At the expense of using our talent to work together, we were developing pre-tests to re-affirm improvement that was inevitable. Teachers began doing a bunch of prescribed things, not really knowing how much any of it matters for student learning. Somehow, we slipped into a culture that rewarded teachers who could prove their value. The "evidence required" to support what good teaching is became more important than simply valuing good teachers.

That's a small part of what being too scared to fail looks like. Needless to say my school did not follow through on the "culture of learning" movement started in September, but I did. A growth mind-set and re-thinking my approach to pedagogy has been energizing. Professionally, my frustration with misguided priorities still exists, but I have chosen to start changing our school culture from inside my classroom first. My boredom with the status quo is mildly entertaining to me now as long as I keep it at a safe distance. My classroom, this blog, my photography and my family keep me isolated from a profession I would otherwise struggle to recognize.

Even though the cards are stacked against teachers to take risks and collaborate, I refuse to give in to a culture of compliance. My expectations belong to me and I am mindful that being excited about learning is contagious. A few of us have created a voluntary PLC on our own time as a response to our situation. We have been soul-searching, trying to find a challenge we can tackle that will help students. We are excited to use our expertise for something constructive.

I have come up with ideas for educators and building leaders to push back against the status quo. My ideas are inspired by the failures and successes I experience in my job.  My advice to teachers and administrators who may not even be aware that their staff is too scared to fail is pretty simple really.

Jump, cover or build - you can't do all three

We got into education to make a difference and tackle challenges. Finding new ways to do that makes our profession fulfilling. Helping others and sharing in the growth of others is unbelievably gratifying. Please keep that in mind. Teachers and administrators need this growth as much as students.

Do you contribute to a culture where the staff that uses their talents to build relationships and foster a dynamic culture of learning?  Are you so focused on meeting arbitrary compliance mandates that people lose sight of more important goals?

A trained circus animal can jump through hoops, but it takes creativity and encouragement to take a risk and build something special. If we are consumed with covering our asses for fear that we may get caught in a round of "gotcha" then teachers will lose the interest and energy to do more and be more. Support your staff so they know they have the professional freedom to do great things without having to be fearful. We understand the value in playing it safe, but at some point safe has a cost too.

Your call, but realize that over the course of time, you will get what you emphasize.

Mentorship & Trust 

Observing teaching can be like sitting at your kitchen table and watching the wind howl outside. Even though you cannot see the wind or feel it, there are clues that reveal the strength of the wind - leaves blowing around, trees swaying and the absence of birds. In a 30 or 45 minute teacher observation, teachers are hopeful that the observer can make sense of the learning taking place in a snap shot and evaluate appropriately. Save the fireworks for the Fourth of July. This is everyday important teaching and we need to know you get it.

Do teachers a favor and do more than watch a lesson. Get on the teachers level and have real conversations about teaching - not just that day's lesson, but the big picture. If you fail to understand what's in my heart and how my experiences have helped shape me as a learner then you fail to grasp who I am as a professional. In the absence of a meaningful context for your observation, we simply have to hope for the best.

This same line of reasoning goes for an instance when administrators need to have a difficult conversation with a teacher about a parent or student concern. If you don't know me - really know me - then I am left wondering if you can understand my position. As much as you can, step into our world and offer guidance. Your investment in helping teachers is critical and should be a top priority.

Ostrich leaders promote fear

Photo by Donarreiskoffer
There's a myth that an ostrich will bury his head in the sand to avoid conflict. While this is not true, an ostrich can run more than 30 miles per hour and that comes in handy when avoiding challenging scenarios.

Don't run away from conflict and challenges. Find a way to use conflict to fuel constructive action. Be creative. Sometimes change is so damn slow because ostrich leaders have run so fast to escape problems that they forget problems even exist. Productive, passionate and talented professionals despise it when we are ignored. We would rather be shut down with reasoning we do not agree with than to have our concerns ignored. Avoiding risks at all costs tells us that a leader does not have the capacity to change.

One of my coaches used to say, "When I stop demanding more of you, that's bad news because I have stopped believing in you." While I think that is a crappy thing to say to an adolescent, my message to you is in the same vein - when you stop hearing from your staff, beware that they may be doubting your ability to lead in tough times. "Riding it out" becomes the norm when struggles are set aside for later. Especially when later really means never.

Share Excellence

Value all
Teachers enjoy celebrating the accomplishments of our colleagues. Professionals are not worried about favoritism, especially when it does not exist. Just like our classrooms, you lead a staff bringing different gifts to the table. If a leader is unable to see the value in each member of their staff then it's time to re-visit your days in the classroom.

People's achievements and attempts at something worthy should be recognized. Teachers are inspired by the successes of their colleagues and we will thrive in an environment that celebrates our ambition to make a difference for others. We will grow in a culture where new ideas and creative initiatives are supported. Acknowledging a job well done, privately or publicly, goes a long way.

If our professional development matches up with a vision, please recognize our colleagues who are leading the way and living that vision. (If we lack a vision, that's a whole different matter) We need to see how professional development initiatives make a difference for students. We want to be inspired by our colleagues who go do things honoring our shared mission.

We become what we honor.

That reminds me,
Leadership does not need the weight of 
planning PD on their shoulders. Get teaching 
staff involved early and often. 

PD should match up with a coherent vision

While we can get something of value from any learning experience it is nice if there is a demonstrated purpose for our PD and meetings. Granted, some teachers are difficult to please, but if you fail to invite teachers into the planning for PD, good luck.

Without teacher insight you will need luck, unless your expectation is merely attendance. Decades of staff meetings have proven administrators can get bodies in chairs. Do you want to get hearts and minds present also? Talk to your staff about these things and seek their ideas. Do something different if it's stale. If you 're not sure if it is stale, it is. Or you could just ask.

Collaboration beats competition

Duh, I know. But keep reading because you may be fostering a divisive and competitive environment without even knowing it.

If you intentionally foster a competitive approach to the teaching profession you have failed your staff and most importantly, your students will pay the price. The value of learning has nothing to do with competition and our teachers will not reach their full potential without collaboration and a shared sense of purpose to our students.

You may justify competition with any metaphor you like, but based on the flawed teacher evaluation process that exists in many schools and "data" that lacks merit, you are kidding yourself if you think professional educators will improve with flashbacks to their high school track and field days. Teachers do not train with competition in mind. Rather, we aspire to grow and improve with student learning in mind.

You have a choice to make when it comes to the culture you create around competition among teachers. Address the staffs concerns about competition and show teachers you support collaboration. In other words, make your stance known. Or you can do nothing.

And doing nothing is a choice.

(Newsflash: If budgets and layoffs are even a remote possibility, you better make handling this topic a priority if you hope to have a healthy work environment.)

The heart of the matter

I know what the legislation says and I read your last e-mail about meeting a deadline, but what's in your heart? What do you value as a leader? Compliance will always be a part of the work world and that makes sense. Your most passionate and dedicated teachers will be more motivated if they know why you chose to be an educator. Knowing your vision for our school culture and why it is important to you can unify our staff.

A teacher can thrive with an administration team they trust, working alongside people they know care about our profession and us individually. Having values and convictions about the value of our profession should be communicated to us often.

Teachers want to be led, not managed.

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.

See more of my ideas related to employee engagement HERE - Compliance is not Engagement  and  HERE - Employee Engagement Surveys.  

Also, Here - Teacher Growth and Performance Evaluations - an Oxymoron?

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