About a week ago, George Couros (@gcouros) published a blog post, “The Policies in Your Head.” More or less, the piece calls upon a specific experience George had with a teacher/district to illustrate how progress can be hampered when teachers convince themselves an outdated policy is still in place.
So, here are my thoughts based on my experiences.
Problem #1: The Policies in Your Head
In general, teachers claim an outdated policy is still active because (1) they are leveraging what someone said “a long time ago” as an excuse to embrace the status quo, or (2) administration has not been clear in communicating the new direction (which is most likely because they don’t know where they’re going).
For example, as an assistant principal in a previous district, other administrators constantly preached the importance of teachers implementing their programs and textbooks with fidelity. Aside from the fact that this is an approach with which I strongly disagree, there was no universally agreed upon definition of what fidelity actually meant. Therefore expectations varied based on who was in on the conversation…A simple email from central office could have gone a long way in minimizing confusion and getting everyone moving in the same direction.
Problem #2: But We’re Waiting For District Direction
After teachers pick up a new strategy/approach/tool/resource (such as at a district professional development day), a lot can be determined about a district’s culture based on the autonomy teachers have in implementing what they learn.
Two years ago when I was teaching fourth grade, I was leading a session for other fourth grade teachers at an in-service when the topic of standards-based grading came up. After discussing the significance of redos and retakes and how we could implement them in our classrooms, another teacher announced something to the effect of, “Yeah! But we need to wait to see where the district wants to go with this.” This statement caught me off guard, as it was the first (but definitely not the last) time I had heard such a proclamation.
While I do agree that certain policies, such as grading, should not vary greatly across a district, I do think the whole “But we’re waiting for district direction” approach can be yet another excuse to not move forward. Or, on the other hand, teachers might feel so “beaten down” that (1) they don’t think their thoughts, ideas, and actions can make a systemic difference, and /or (2) they’re afraid of getting in trouble for taking risks in their own classrooms. So, they play the waiting game…Nonetheless, in “the best districts,” I do believe change generally starts with those in the trenches.
Problem #3: The Conversations in Faculty Rooms
We are in for a world of hurt if teachers don’t feel comfortable communicating real and honest thoughts with administrators. As Ed Catmull explains in Creativity Inc., “Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company [or school] where there is more candor in the hallways [or faculty rooms] than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out.”
As an administrator, I’ve learned it is not enough to wait for the teacher honesty to come to me. We have to go out and get it by being in classrooms, establishing relationships, and creating the conditions in which teachers feel comfortable speaking their minds (albeit respectfully)…As George writes in his post, “One thing that I would always say to my teachers as a principal is that ‘I cannot solve problems that I don’t know exist.’”
One of my goals this year has been to actively solicit feedback from teachers, particularly in regards to our implementation of Writing Workshop at the elementary level. Getting into classrooms, candid conversations, and anonymous surveys have helped to promote this dialogue. Another idea: At the end of professional development sessions that I facilitate/co-facilitate, I believe I can further encourage teacher voice by displaying a slide with my email (and possibly my cell phone number) and telling teachers to not hesitate to contact me for any reason at all.
In the End
These three problems emphasize the significance of continuous and open dialogue (not monologue) between teachers and administrators. When the hierarchy is flattened (at least to some extent), and open/trustworthy conversations take place, (1) district direction is clear, (2) teachers feel supported in proactively bringing about change in their classrooms and systemically, and (3) powerful cultures are built because teachers contribute to change as opposed to being on the receiving end and “having it done to them.”
What are your thoughts/experiences regarding any of these three problems? How about potential solutions?