Last April, a group of colleagues and I applied to the New York Teacher Leadership Summit (powered by Teach to Lead). It was billed as an opportunity to:
- Develop the skills to design and advocate for a teacher-led initiative
- Network and build relationships with critical national thought partners
- Connect with teacher leaders and administrators from across the NY Metro region
Driven by our love for our south Bronx public middle and high school students, we aspired to improve our practice. To do so, we wanted more professional learning opportunities and a structure to help us share what we learned with each other. We submitted a proposal that would allow us to do just that. Our proposal was one of twenty selected from across New York State, and we were excited to join other teams working to create opportunities for teacher-led learning and leadership at their schools, in their districts, or across the state.
I was frustrated.
I was angry.
I get it. I work in a Title I school with overcrowded classes where not every teacher is blessed to have their own room, especially new teachers. I was fortunate to have my own room for my first year of teaching. I already tasted what it was like to have my very own space, which is why it was that much harder to give it up. Year two I would roam.
It wasn’t easy to hear the bad news from the principal, especially because it dropped at the beginning of the first week of school. It’s moments like these when you feel unappreciated, devalued, and sometimes you want to quit. The thought of traveling to six different classrooms throughout the day made me feel defeated from the start. Six different rooms. That meant six different seating charts, six different classrooms to set up, six different offices, six different teachers to negotiate with, and the list goes on. As predicted, I had a miserable first week of school, but my despair ended quickly. After that first week, I realized that roaming as a second year teacher would be beneficial to my growth as a professional.
Think back to a time you implemented a new idea with a group of your peers. What made it successful or challenging? For me, this process is both exciting and intense, wanting the idea to work and also understanding the stress that such changes bring about.
This school year, I’m trying a new role on for size — Instructional Coach. In this role, I’ll be bringing a lot of new ideas to the table. I’m nervous, energized, and filled with hope. Yet, I needed some reminders on how to successfully implement new ideas within systems that may or may not have equivalent buy-in from all members.
Enter Mark Barnes, author of Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School (special thanks to Mark’s co-author, Jennifer Gonzalez, as well). This summer, a group of 50 educators and I embarked on a journey as we read their book. Now, we’re preparing to implement hacks as individuals at our respective schools. In talking with Mark via Google Hangout, he guided our thinking with five key elements that will help provide focus and direction as we implement new ideas in our systems. Read more
As teachers, we all know the cycle. It seems just as our heads stop spinning from the end-of-year craziness and we have some downtime, we just can’t seem to help ourselves from reflecting, reading, learning, and planning for the upcoming school year. Not to say this reading, learning and planning isn’t mixed with a healthy dose of beach, pool and golf outings, but no matter how hard we try to relax, we just can’t seem to shake the teacher in us. Now that my head has finally stopped spinning and I have some relative downtime, I wanted to reflect on what has been such an incredible learning year for me.
If you’ve ever taught in a classroom, you get what few other people understand — there is no such thing as summer vacation. Yes, we do receive that precious eight to ten weeks (depending on where you live) of time without children in the months of June, July and early August. But, depending on where you are in your career and whether you’re working summer school, those months can look drastically different.
I’ve always loved the summer; not just because of the weather and the holidays (Hello, 4th of July!), but because of the time it gives me to rest, recover and reevaluate what happened in the past academic year. Each summer of my career has looked different, and this one is no exception.
In my experience as a teacher, I find that nearly every day I face a disconnect between what I perceive to be a challenging problem, and how the educational system responds to my needs. The system, as a whole, tends to focus on massive, overarching changes. However, it’s more often the case that what I need is a small adjustment, crafted from creative thinking, to help me work more efficiently and in so doing, increase my efficacy and productivity.
With this dilemma in mind, I recently encountered the book, Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School.
At first, I questioned the term “hacking.” I thought it only pertained to illegal, malicious computer hacking. After delving into the book, though, I learned that a hack is a clever procedure that helps to solve a meaningful problem. Furthermore, hacking is a way to develop agency in a situation by creating individual or collective solutions to an existing problem. Through creativity, one artfully identifies a problem, devises potential pathways to overcome it, explores the feasibility of those solutions, and implements and refines it along the way.
The life of an instructional coach is a balancing act. On the one hand, you are still a teacher. You still plan lessons, they’re just called agendas. You still assess the effectiveness of your instruction, but now refer to the process as follow-up professional development sessions. On the other hand, you are a part of the instructional leadership team with the assistant principals and principal of the school. You have “crossed over” to the other side, to use teacher parlance.
This straddling of two perspectives can help you craft initiatives for great teaching that work for both teachers and the instructional leadership team. The beauty of this duality is that it allows teachers and leaders to work together to determine what the initiatives will be. The improvement of teaching is best realized when teachers are involved in the conversation, rather than summoned to the table. Here are four ways I’ve worked with teachers and administrators to create room for teacher voice and collaboration:
I’m a huge fan of writing in math class! While I was teaching, I had my 5th graders write in their math journals every single day. Whether they used the journals before the lesson to write down estimations, during class to show their reasoning through a problem, or at the end of class for an exit prompt, the journals were always a safe and not-graded place for students to jot down their thoughts. No matter the prompt, I always learned so much about what they understood by reading their entries each day.
This year, as a math specialist, I get to see student writing in math classes across many grade levels, and it’s so incredibly interesting. I’m able to see where it all begins, in kindergarten, before students are even writing explanations in words, to 5th grade, where the writing becomes very articulate. In each lesson I plan with teachers, we incorporate a writing aspect that we use for reflection after the lesson. The students’ written pieces, in addition to our classroom observations, help to ground our reflective conversation after the lesson.
My first example of love was from my parents, which is probably true for most people. Their care and attention to my moral, spiritual, and physical development provided the template for what I hope to achieve with Laila and Joshua, my two children. In the space between the example that I saw and the habits I hope to repeat, learning took place. This relationship is essential to creating an infrastructure that allows great teaching to flow.
You must set a vision of excellence that is visible, practical, and impactful. For many, this vision requires an intentional shift. Throughout my work at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, it has become clear that there are three high-leverage actions that begin to facilitate this change: establishing common language and expectations, building a standards-based foundation, and maintaining a tight feedback loop. Here are some dos and don’ts to consider when engaging with each action:
Great teaching is special. There might be comprehensive rubrics to measure it and best-selling books to define it; but there is something intangible yet deeply felt when you see the eyes of students in the middle of a powerful lesson, delivered by a powerful teacher.
Students’ eyes are on the teacher, on the work, and looking to each other. Students quickly and intentionally discuss and debate the learning of the day. At the conclusion of such a lesson, the bell seems like a surprise and an interruption all at once. This type of environment is special to witness and shouldn’t be a unique experience. We want all students to experience this, every day. This year, through my work as an instructional coach, I am more convinced than ever that the best teachers grow out of rich and empowering systems.