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.
The Shorter Version
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. 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.
We all bring something unique
to the table. Schools need to
foster an environment where
failure has a new meaning.
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.
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 into 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.
My ideas outlined below 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 threeWe 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 & TrustObserving 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.
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.
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|
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.
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.
We become what we honor.
PD should match up with a coherent vision
Leadership does not need the
weight of planning PD on
their shoulders. Get teaching
staff involved early and often.
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 competitionDuh, 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 budget cuts 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 matterI 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.
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?