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3/17/14

Five Things I Learned

Five Things I Learned From PAGE’s HSRI
    If you want to start an argument with any teacher, simply bring up the topic of professional development.  One of the more interesting professional conversations I ever heard centered around the issue of whether “professional” and “development”, similar to the conundrum of “rap” and “music”, were oxymoronic or mutually exclusive terms.  Over the past eight or so years, Georgia teachers have been subjected to endless hours of handouts, death-by-PowerPoint presentations and monologues on an endless line of topics from well-meaning, kind hearted presenters, more often than not keenly aware of the antipathetic attitudes their subjects hold silently in their thoughts as they cross their arms and prepare for yet another in a long series of near death experiences that allow no time for questions, clarification or disagreement.  In most cases these presentations are held after a long work day or even worse, during a work day when any teacher would rather be in class with their students, and as a requirement by well intentioned administrators, much along the lines of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”  I remember little and learned less from the vast majority of these meetings, and have observed on more than one occasion that if a first year teacher in my building or system presented to her class in a manner even remotely resembling the method in which most in-service meetings are conducted I would insist that teacher not only be non-renewed but refunded the money spent on her educational training and begin searching for a job more suited to their particular skill set; like maybe fast food manager trainee/sales associate.
    I once heard a teacher comment that she wanted to die during an in-service meeting because the transition from life to death would be so subtle she would hardly notice the difference.
    All of us have horror stories, and all we can do is shake our heads and sigh in collective commiseration.  I once sat through a three hour non-stop, no-break-because-we-have-so-much-to-tell-you meeting where three tag team DOE presenters talked at a group of us about how important it was that teachers not be allowed to lecture for an entire 90 minute class period.  The irony was, unfortunately, lost on them if not on us.  That was, believe it or not , only the morning session of that three day marathon in mental and physical tribulation.  One of my colleagues once asked a system level director why every in-service we attended had to be done in exactly the same way – meaning a deadly combination of lecture and power point.  “Because” he answered, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  How many administrators would believe that an acceptable answer from a teacher?  I’m guessing few if any.  We have all suffered through innumerable technical glitches, unprepared presenters, off topic personal remembrances and, worst of all, the we’re-gonna-be-here-two-hours-because-that’s-how-long-I’m-being-paid-for guys that could have been done in 15 minutes or less.  “Covering the material” is not the way real teachers work.  I would hazard a guess that many of you have participated in more positive professional learning experiences, discussions and productive collegial conversations in the hotel bar after hours than during the actual convention/conference/presentation/learning opportunity.  Isn’t that sad?
    That all began to change for me in 2006.  PAGE was beginning something they called the High School Redesign Initiative, and one of my colleagues suggested I apply for participation.  My first thoughts were that HSRI was just another canned program “guaranteed” to increase test scores, blah, blah, blah.  I was rather surprised when I met the new Director of the program and he promised none of those things.  He did promise to send me to Naples FL to a meeting for Principals.  I had never been to Naples, and on a teachers’ salary had not expected to do so, but here was an all-expense paid trip to attend a conference.  That was lesson number one.  HSRI does not believe in second class.  Where most school districts look for ways to minimize expenses, PAGE believes that teachers are a valuable resource that should be treated as such.  No Super 8 motels and no Happy Meals.  What a refreshing difference to be treated as a professional and not simply called one.
    The Principals’ Academy in Naples provided many more questions than answers.  I was expecting a step –by- step process guaranteed to improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement, but was instead subjected to actual conversations with presenters and other attendees concerning levels of student engagement in the classroom and what teachers could do to improve and build upon that engagement.  I left Naples after three days mentally drained and totally confused.  Returning to my office, I spent the next three weeks reading Phil Schleckty’s “Shaking Up the School House” and attempting to discern exactly where the step -by -step process was and why they didn’t just TELL us what to do.  There were several master teachers on my staff that already used many of the things Phil described, but the terminology was new.  I had used many of the same things in my classroom that he described, but never categorized the learners as he did.  My frustration was, though I didn’t know it at the time, that nobody from Phil on down pretended to have the silver bullet that would lead to the end of educational mediocrity and a persistent reliance on canned programs that promised educational nirvana.  That was new, unprecedented and challenging.  It took me several months and two more conferences before I began to see the Schleckty Center presenters were doing exactly what I expected good teachers to do; model the behaviors you expect to see in others.  They practiced what they preached – unheard of in educational circles.  They also evaluated everything and made “in flight” adjustments according to what the evaluation comments were, just like real teachers are expected to do.  That was lesson number two.
    I listened as a variety of teachers from my building went through several conferences and workshops as part of the process of the HSRI experience.  I learned to trust their opinions, listen to their ideas and to include those teachers as part of our administrative team.  Teachers were no longer just employees to be dictated too – they were an integral part of the decision making process once they began to believe that I was serious about hearing and utilizing their ideas and suggestions.  We fought through the weeds and tangles of unlearning everything we thought we knew about students and about teaching and began to make progress toward learning to use student engagement as a key weapon in our daily fight against the bastions of teacher and student apathy, seniority and ignorance.  We learned there are two kinds of teachers; those with X years of experience and those with one year’s experience X times; we wanted the first type in every room.  Our teachers quickly came up with a saying we heard in almost every meeting – “if you’re not making mistakes, try harder.”  Students soon began figuring out which teachers were learning about engagement and which ones were stubbornly holding the line against progress.  Students soon began to tell us which teachers were attending our planning period study sessions and design meetings.  They also told us which teachers seemed to worry more about conformity than student learning.  It was pretty impressive how quickly students caught on and bought into the engagement piece we were quietly selling.  Then came the hard part; we had to figure out a process to involve more of our teachers in our work.  There was lesson number three; we made a conscious decision to only work with the living.  We couldn’t drag teachers kicking and screaming to the student engagement altar.  Our Design Team decided we would let student behavior be the driver for teachers that could not/would not/did not commit, and began reporting discipline referral rates for teachers in faculty meetings.  They never talked about the teachers with 35 referrals but certainly did mention the growing number of those with 5 or less.  It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out whose classes were driven by engagement and whose classes were still stuck on the conformity train.
    One of our teacher leaders suggested we meet with the faculty of Sonoraville HS, another of the HSRI schools at Callaway Gardens over a weekend.  The HSRI people thought it was a great idea, facilitated the building, rooms and meals and allowed teachers from the two schools to plan the event.  The result was one of the most powerful learning experiences in my professional career.  Watching master teachers work together to discuss and create engaging student work was like watching the sun come out from behind the clouds.  Our teachers established professional relationships that continue to this day, and our participating teachers talked about the experience – and used the ideas they created and shared – for months.  Therein lies lesson number four – teachers holding collegial conversations and working together toward a common goal is the single most powerful and effective form of in-service there is.  Nothing else comes close.
    A little over two years into the HSRI process four of my key teacher leaders and I attended the Coaching for Design clinic in Louisville KY.  Once again HSRI people were the keystone in setting up our attendance, travel, hotel, conference fees and meals.  There were teams from several different schools across the country, but we felt like we received special attention from Phil and his staff.  After talking to the other teams, we learned they felt the same way.  We were experiencing first -hand the individualized attention that made our students feel special in our classes.  There was that modeling thing again, and we also realized that meeting teachers and administrators from different parts of the country experiencing the same problems and issues we were had become a key and integral part of every HSRI conference experience.  We were not the only ones in the fight, and our issues were similar regardless of the region.  Our team developed a professional learning outline for teachers in our school to help them learn the common language of engagement and design.  Using planning periods and once a week meetings, our teacher leaders conducted 45 minutes training sessions centered around student engagement and designing engaging work.  Not every teacher was a willing participant, but they all received 2 PLU’s at the end of the semester.  Even the disenchanted retirement-can’t-get-here-soon-enough-for-me crowd found something to smile about in these sessions.  The teacher leaders guided the conversations to ensure the group stayed on topic and didn’t drift into “war story” mode, and teachers were given the opportunity to evaluate every session anonymously.  The process changed our school.  Rather than become lost in the 59 flavor -of- the- week system initiatives our Central Office people promoted, we convinced them that we wanted to concentrate on student engagement.  One of our teachers created a credit recovery plan for students that became the model for our school.  Our 2010 graduation rate quickly soared to over 86% for all students and over 93% for minority students.   Our school was also a recipient of the State of Georgia Platinum Award: Greatest Gain in Students Meeting and Exceeding Standards.   In 2006, the Georgia DOE named Shaw High School as a "Distinguished School" for academic achievement, and in 2009 the GADOE recognized Shaw as an AP Access and Support School: Schools with 30% of AP Test Takers that are African-American or Hispanic and at least 30% of all AP Exams scoring 3 or higher. 
    There are other measures of success besides test scores; our teachers believed, and rightly so, that if we focused on student engagement test scores would take care of themselves.  They did.  That was lesson number five.  Teachers are the key to student success.  Period.  Great teachers make administrators look smarter than they really are IF given the power and authority to serve as teacher leaders.  Look around at other HSRI schools and measure their performance by whatever standards you choose.  Where administrators have the courage to allow teachers to lead, student success has followed.  HSRI is making a difference in Georgia education one school at a time.    I was glad to be a part of it.  So were our teachers, parents and students.

1 comment:

  1. I still believe it all. But I am sad to report that the powers that be- and should not "be"- are pushing tests and trying to make teachers conform to one way of teaching and following a calendar of benchmarks that ignores all the focus on the individual students in the classroom. They are raising standards for teachers and twisting arms to pass students so that true success is becoming only a facade and a poorly constructed one at that. I will still do what I always do- ignore constraints and test reviews, teach to my individual classes where they are and take them where I can....

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