Becky Bair teaches the intermediate grades in a Pennsylvania public school district. She’s passionate about incorporating technology as one of many tools to help students view learning as an exciting, lifelong endeavor. She writes the blog Teach ‘N’ Life, contributes to the group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution, and can be followed on Twitter @becky7274. In a series of posts here at MiddleWeb, she writes about school climate, teacher culture, and lessons learned about professional collaboration.
In my first post and second post, I shared some of the story of our new intermediate school (grades 4-6) launch last fall and the concerns I and two of my colleagues had about the negative impact our initial schedule and student assignment plan had on some rising fourth graders and students with special needs.
Our story continues here.
When my two teammates and I made the original proposal to our administrative team and our grade level team, the key to our proposal was that teachers would have a voice. We really wanted all the fourth grade teachers to look at their strengths and weaknesses and come up with a teaming plan that matched teachers with those students they felt best prepared to teach.
It’s well documented how challenging the change process can be for some people at every organizational level. But it was an eye-opening experience to live through it first hand. We could not understand why everything was being done so secretively at the decision-making levels, and we really weren’t sure which stories or which people to believe. Our plan for teachers having a voice backfired, and it seemed that the same thing was happening with our desire for open and honest communication.
As the 2012-13 school year came to a close, my teammates and I still didn’t know if our suggested plan was actually going to be acted upon in some way, with or without teacher voice. We didn’t know what our teaching assignments were going to be; we didn’t know if 4th grade teacher teams would be reorganized, and we didn’t know how our students would be placed on teams.
It was only after a confrontational discussion that we finally found out that the three of us would be teaching all four subjects as we requested in our proposal. And while the intent behind the changes was never officially announced to all of the fourth grade teachers, our administration did take the step to reassign teams and the subjects some were teaching in order to make the proposal work.
People are angry
As school started this fall, it was clear that people were angry about that. People are also angry that we shoved our fourth-grade teacher community out of its happy place and into rough and murky waters. And I know people are chomping at the bit for us to fail this year so they can say, “See, I TOLD you that would never work!” All of this is simply motivating us to work harder to make a successful year for our students.
Change will never happen unless people are willing to take all of the wonderful discussions happening among teachers in the virtual world, bring them into face-to-face settings and start putting them into practice in real classrooms. After reading this you’re probably wondering, “Why? Why would any teacher continue forward trying to lead change in his or her school after going through these experiences?” Two words: THE KIDS.
Some lessons we’re learning
We have to be strong enough to stand up and do what is right, even though it may make us unpopular. Our kids deserve that much. If you relate in some way to our story — and you probably do if you’ve stuck with this narrative to this point — then you might be looking for ideas or advice about pushing for change in your building. Here are some of the lessons we have learned. And we’re still learning!
• Make sure you put the kids’ best interests first and keep coming back to that commitment when the going gets stormy.
• Research, research, research. Make sure there is a substantial amount of support for (or a lack of research against) your proposal for change. People need to see that you are truly prepared and are not just coming to them with a random idea that you think sounds good.
• Ask for opposing viewpoints and actually listen to them. Change what doesn’t work and advocate for the points about which you feel strongly. Do this very early and at a personal level. If you’ve read our story, you know that we could have done this sooner.
• Be willing to compromise. While you may love your idea, it might be improved. It may be too big a step for your organization. A baby step is better than no step at all.
• Develop a tough skin and be prepared for some storming. It’s inevitable when you suggest pushing people out of their comfort zones. Some “colleagues” will insult you, your idea and your teaching style. The good news: most will grow over time and continue to move through the process. If your change proposal is sound, many will come to see its wisdom.
• Continue to seek out those who haven’t been willing to change and push them to be open and honest about their concerns. If they don’t have any foundation for their negative behaviors, calling them on it repeated times will bring most of it to a stop.
• Finally, and this is a hard one, if your organization is so strongly entrenched in the old ways of doing things or in always putting adult interests ahead of children’s needs, then it may be time to find a place to work that’s a better fit for you.
Weathering the storms
My teammates and I have had some really awful days. We have often questioned why we think we can make a difference. But each time these doubts creep into our minds, we focus on the real reason for this change. A little more than a month into the new arrangement and the new school year, our 4th graders are already benefiting tremendously from the changes we’ve pushed for. The kids are the ones who matter. That’s why we are here. That’s why this school is here.
For the past month, we’ve encouraged our grade-level team to move forward — to realize that every meaningful change process includes a storming phase. We continue to assure them that the storms produced by climate shift will help us all grow and become more focused on our students’ successes academically, emotionally and socially.
Next: Brighter Skies?