Constructive conversations, or how to make sound (or even sensible) decisions about school reform

This school year I have a .6 release to work in my district as we implement standards-based grading (SBG). I teach from 7:15 to 9:00 a.m., do a short stint with hall duty, conduct any necessary phone calls home, make copies, finish up lesson plans, and score assignments. By 10:30 a.m., I am usually on my way to my school district’s headquarters. For the rest of my day, I am facilitating the district’s move to SBG. The experience has been very enlightening and a great challenge.

Moving from interacting with fourteen year olds to interacting with adults can make one’s head hurt at times. (Sometimes the fourteen year olds make more sense than the adults.)

But I am very passionate about SBG and use it in my own classroom as the district pilots the idea in schools. That means I have legitimacy, or “street cred,” with my fellow teachers as I serve as a district coordinator.

So far, one lesson has made a great impact on me. If you want teachers to commit to something new, you have to involve us in the decision-making process. When teachers get our fingerprints all over reforms, we become accountable to those decisions. I knew this about my students—that they become accountable to the learning if they are an active participant in the construction of the learning—I just never applied it to my colleagues.

One task of district coordinators has been introducing report card criteria for teachers to use when assessing student achievement in various classes. There are way too many standards to list on a report card, so my fellow coordinators and I came up with four criteria for each discipline.

When we introduced the criteria to teachers, we got immediate push-back. “Where’d these come form?” “These aren’t the state standards!” “How am I supposed to report on a student’s writing when I teach social studies?” As much as I articulated our rationale for the criteria—a rationale that I thought was clear and sensible—teachers resisted.

They resisted until we were able to get a half-day release for some key teachers to join us in a conversation about the criteria. The teachers began to see where we were coming from, and they were able to add ideas that we had missed. They became involved in the production of the criteria and personally connected to the ideas. They felt as though they had come up with the end result, and because of this, they were committed to promoting the criteria among their peers.

As I reflected on the session with a colleague we realized something: effective leaders don’t cling to a sense of propriety of ideas, and they don’t close off the idea that others may have something valuable to contribute. In other words, good leaders need small egos.

After all, no one likes to be told what to do, especially when it comes to areas in which one has expertise but has not been asked to give input. In large school districts, it can seem to be easier to just dictate reforms or policies to the masses. When this happens, accountability gives way to efficiency.

But there are few decisions that need to be made with a “my way or the highway” approach unless the building is on fire. If changes that challenge an existing culture or ways that we do “business,” changes that require strong commitments, are to take hold in meaningful ways, leaders (whether administrators, policymakers, or teacher leaders like me) need to set aside time for important conversations with teachers.

The key to commitment? Conversation.

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