Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The last bell of the day

Finding your voice in a stagnant culture

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. 

In my new role as the administrator for summer school I asked one of my students *Tanner, "What's your favorite part of school?"

The 13-year-old boy stopped jumping over a hand railing for the three seconds it took to answer.

"The last bell of the day," he responded with a dead stare.

And with that, he jetted back to class, leaping to touch every banner hanging in the hallway.

A desk I found at summer school begs the question,
"Why continue your search for career satisfaction 
despite your lack of influence on a dwindling 
school culture?" 
I expected this boy who failed multiple classes would say gym or lunch. I naively figured he might call out his favorite teacher or say something about the girls in art class. But Tanner had something else in mind and the way he answered my question, serious and without hesitation, made a profound impression.

His words hung in the air.

"The last bell of the day."

A simple response from a boy who told me middle school was a place for good students, not him. He said he was smart enough (and his test scores this summer support that finding), but he just quit caring. With a slight grin, Tanner told me that it doesn't matter because he will probably transfer to another school next year.

All of this got me thinking about how we deal with people who fall out of touch with school and may feel that they do not belong. What about when that sentiment about not wanting to be at school is shared by teachers or staff members?

The school culture should support adults as well as students

At times I have felt professionally isolated and believed that if I left the profession I would not be missed. From time to time I have even thought that my absence would go largely unnoticed by school leaders in my building. Sometimes my frustration had to do mostly with me, but like many teachers my sense of belonging is strongly correlated to the culture of the building where I teach. For the most part, I have felt less control and influence on our building culture in recent years and it has pushed me in new directions.

Unlike Tanner, transferring to a new building or a new position is unlikely for teachers so how can we make the most of a challenging school environment?

Framing the culture challenge  

We should be mindful of a couple important questions as we examine school culture. Keeping these questions in mind can help frame the challenges existing in your school culture.

  • Do school leaders in struggling environments want to know the truth about how teachers feel about the culture of the school? Is your boss challenged by the same constraints a struggling teacher may feel?  
  • What can you do as a professional when you work in a culture where there is an unwillingness to face tough questions about employee satisfaction and professional empowerment?
  • How should you balance maintaining your sanity at work with a growing sense of wanting to change the culture for the better? 

Here is my advice for educators seeking more career satisfaction despite feeling powerless to change their school culture.

Claim your expertise 

You are an expert and that expertise needs to be claimed by you. Education is one of the few professions where masses of talented and accomplished people seem to think that claiming expertise translates to arrogance. Humility is an awesome quality to have when your professional life is spent serving others and claiming expertise is unrelated to humility. When I say to claim your expertise this means taking ownership of what you have to offer students and colleagues and putting yourself out there to share your ideas. Take action to amplify your voice in our profession and engage in highlighting what you know works while investigating new approaches with enthusiasm.

Being really good in a particular aspect of your job is something that should be celebrated and shared. Collaborate without an invitation from others and do not bother seeking validation from school leaders who seem too busy to realize your value. When the culture of your school doesn't encourage sharing, your success is not a threat so do the best you can without worrying about what others think. We do not need permission to be experts. Most importantly, take your ideas somewhere else to grow. Your expertise will benefit other people and ultimately your ideas will reach students which is the goal.
I earned the role of a Lead Fellow with America Achieves 
so that I can help educators amplify their voices on 
education and policy issues. I feel connected to so many
pros who continue to help me improve as a teacher.

Outside of my daily interaction with students, claiming my expertise as a teacher has brought me more satisfaction and enjoyment than any other aspect of my professional life. Accepting a fellowship with America Achieves launched me into the 2015-2016 school year with new professional relationships and a network of pros to learn from on a regular basis. If you can find an organization with professional values that match your own, go for it. Do not wait for an invitation. Find a way to be involved beyond your school. Twitter chats are another great extension to branch out professionally.

Whatever your particular strengths, keep in mind that the expertise you bring everyday adds value to your school and to the experience of hundreds of students. Your confidence will grow by leaps and bounds if you put yourself out there and choose to present at conferences or take a role as a leader within your building.

You did not get into teaching to be on the sidelines. We all bring a different personality and dynamic to this profession and when you go all in and claim your expertise, no one can take that from you. As an expert you continue to learn and grow professionally and even in a school that may not appreciate or recognize your talent, it is okay to seek validation elsewhere. Personally, I feel most accomplished and excited about the potential of our profession in my roles outside of my school. I used to be resentful about leaders who fail to recognize my talents, and I am now liberated because I have moved on and found my own place to shine. My school represents a part of who I am professionally, but certainly not everything. Go claim your expertise and branch out - it might be the best decision you make for your career.

Elevate your voice with ideas, not complaints

Perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned in the last few years is to bring ideas and solutions to the table in the face of adversity. Some school cultures are set up in a manner where ideas are not valued, but that does not mean that you should stop bringing those ideas. Even if your ideas do not take flight today, you can become a person on the staff who is viewed as creative rather than simply a griper. Your colleagues, the real pros, will recognize you as a leader even if the principal may not notice. Leaders who are not interested in new ideas have already lost the confidence of the staff so it is imperative that others pick up the slack. Be a "slack picker-upper" who knows the limit of his reach. One day it may be a trusted colleague who earns a leadership role and seeks your advice because of your track record of good ideas.

Twitter chats are a tremendous
source of professional development. 
Click HERE to check on great 
chats coast to coast. 
Keep in mind that principals and other leaders often move on to new roles and many will change and grow just as the best teachers do. Your ideas may take root eventually so keep generating new ones to meet the challenges of teaching. Each idea could be a springboard for something down the road so don't think of it as wasted time.

I have embraced the fact that most of my ideas will live on this blog because to this point I am in an environment that has not made room for my ideas yet. (Did you catch the yet?) Maybe someday. Regardless, having ideas and sharing them will provide positive energy. A great post on the #COLchat Twitter chat, "Your vibe attracts your tribe" reminds me to stay mindful of who I attract. The ideas
and goals I share with others are my magnet.

Be the leader you wish you had 

Hopefully you are able to find strengths in the leaders you work alongside and it is important to recognize those strengths. I am fortunate to work with caring and compassionate leaders with a wide range of talents. When I say to be the leader you wish you had, it is important to note that I am not coming at this from a place of judgement. This is more of a challenge and it has helped me grow as a leader.

Rather than becoming mired in disappointment about the weaknesses in your building leaders, turn those perceived weaknesses into personal tests of your own leadership. For instance, if you think your principal does not communicate well enough how much she values teachers then choose to show your appreciation of teachers in your own way. If your leader struggles to hold people accountable, find ways to influence your sphere and create a learning environment with more personal accountability. If you are like me and get frustrated about the priorities building leaders hold then work through the proper channels to address the issues you can influence. If you make your leader's weaknesses your personal challenge, you will a.) likely appreciate how difficult it is to do some of the things you value and b.) you will be more fulfilled taking action and leading by example.

Once I decided I was done waiting for leadership in the areas I value most, my learning accelerated and new opportunities have added value to my career to make up for what's missing in the school culture. As teachers we also need to remain mindful that there are a lot of aspects of building leadership we're not aware of so being the leader you wish you had is a positive way to build a better culture. Teachers share in the responsibility of creating a positive building culture.


Mentorship & Collaboration = Growth

At the heart of teaching is our desire to help others. We all need help and the best way to help ourselves is to share our ideas, experiences and hardships with colleagues. If the culture around you promotes isolation then the best way to push back is to muster the energy to reach out to like-minded people and help one another. If you are feeling bold, reach out to someone you struggle to understand and see what you can pick up from that person. This school year I chose to reach out to a couple colleagues whose style and personality are very different than my own. This simple exercise made me a better teacher and gave my work more meaning. Along the way, I also began to appreciate a different way of doing things.

Expert teachers benefit from mentorship as do inexperienced teachers. I got tired of waiting around for my district to re-commit to a formal mentorship program so I began to seek mentoring from some of the pros right down the hall. Mentorship does not require official documentation and evidence of growth. It can simply mean that you are choosing to make guidance part of your professional diet. Somehow we got so caught up in data and evidence that doing simple things that make work fun and meaningful got lost in the shuffle.

As an aspiring administrator, I appreciate that my assistant principal has taken an interest in my
career aspirations. She has my back. I have reached out to school leaders in my district to learn more about their respective jobs. No matter what the culture is in your school, you are surrounded by people who got into this profession to help others. You may need to look for those people if you are in an environment where everyone seems to be in hiding, but it is worth your time to search. Trust me.

Feed the Beast 

The beast is your natural curiosity. If you are a teacher, you are hard-wired to have a love for learning. You must feed that curiosity. Whether your passions have a link to your profession or not, they deserve more of you. For me, my passions are photography and writing. For you, it may be knitting, reading or gaming. Regardless, we are happier when we find balance.

Happy people make better teachers.

On this occasion my passion for photography included 
taking pictures at the GearUp2Lead Conference in 
Flint, Mich. for heroic student leaders in mid-Michigan. 
This photo was from Bullycide, a production of 
Trust Theatre Ensemble, directed by Lori Thompson. 
It is tough to be happy when all of your eggs are in one basket from August to June. At work, I do my best to remain mindful of all the aspects of this profession that are meaningful in my life so I can weather challenges better.

On a personal level, this is an area in which I have grown considerably. I still have a long way to go.

I will openly admit that my growth continues to be the result of me taking responsibility for my attitude and finding ways to make a positive difference in education. When I was feeling discouraged about my role in my school, I chose to stop waiting for things to change. I have talents and interests that continue to leave me wanting more influence so I continue to seek new outlets for my ideas. I have forged a positive professional identity in spite of sometimes feeling held back within the culture of my building. As a result, I have never felt more motivated and optimistic about my role in education.

Concluding Thoughts

When motivated educators finish the school year feeling discouraged, we have a responsibility to unpack the challenges of the school year in order to work toward improvement. Teachers and administrators have to take ownership of the culture we perpetuate in our schools. More than anything, children cannot afford to have teachers feeling diminished or professionally handicapped by fear and anxiety.

If educators cannot examine issues related to school culture honestly in the summer then I am not sure how we can truly tackle the threat a negative school culture poses for students.

When I have felt stunted in my role as a teacher, it is only when I reached out and took some risks that my situation began to improve. Writing and talking honestly about important topics in education has made a positive difference for me. Professionally I am on a trajectory that has me poised to keep learning and growing in a pursuit I love. Quite frankly, I got tired of waiting around for things to improve and I have dedicated my energy to ideas that carry my passion. I am grateful I can explore my professional interests in a public forum. I hope this advice is helpful.

Tanner is a made up name used to protect the identity of the student

ABOUT THE AUTHOR of CIVICS ENGAGED: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher at Fenton High School since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2002. Gregory is a Michigan Education Voice Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning. You can follow him on Twitter @CivicsEngaged.

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 my own school district. 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.  

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