G+ Communities for Professional Growth

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Our district recently set up Google+ Communities for our staff.  Currently we have two communities set up, one for our PreK through 5th grade staff, and another for our 6th grade through high school staff.

Why did we do this?  Well, for a lot of reasons:

  1. Creating a district culture. There are four buildings in our district – one for PreK-2, one for 3-5, one for 6-8, and one for 9-12.  Even though the buildings are all geographically close (two of them are even connected), ideologically, culturally, and pedagogically, they are sometimes worlds apart.  Creating online communities that combine buildings is an attempt to bring those worlds a little closer together, with staff interacting in an asynchronously so there is no need to carve out time during the school day for that interaction to happen.
  2. Magnifying the positive.  One of my goals is to take the positive that is already there and magnify it, letting it run rampant and causing good wherever it goes.  What better way to do that than creating a space where teachers can share all the good stuff they do in their own classrooms?
  3. Making professional growth the norm.  Along with all that sharing of goodness, Google+ communities within an educational G Suite domain are a private space where teachers can have conversations about what they do in their classrooms and why they do it, providing and/or sparking ideas among all staff.  While developing a PLN of educators around the world is always a fantastic idea, sometimes the best ideas for helping a teacher grow in their practice are locate right next door to their own classroom.
  4. Building relationships in an online space. These G+ Communities allow teachers, principals, and district administrators to engage in dialogue that normally might not happen.  I know I always have every intention of getting out and about into classrooms, but then end up getting pulled back into my office because of some situation that arises.  However, if I’m in front of my computer, I can interact with teachers and other administrators that are posting at any time.  I’m not saying this is a replacement for face-to-face interaction, but I feel it can offer another avenue to build relationships when time is always in short supply.
  5. Modeling technology expectations. Everyone is responsible for growing, and I believe it’s a responsibility of administration to model how to do that.  That means participating in these G+ Communities is a chance for administrators to model what growth in this day and age looks like, posting and discussing and growing out in the digital open.

While the expectation is that all teachers join one of our two communities, there is no expectation to post.  If some feel comfortable posting, fantastic.  If others just want to lurk and get good ideas from their colleagues, that’s great too.  Whatever use they get out of it will be a good one, as long as everyone is growing together.

Because that’s how good district become great – they never ever settle, and never stop growing.

If you want to take the excitement out of an innovation, make everyone do it. 

In one of the presentations I gave a few years back about standards-based learning, I used the slide below:


I think you could say something similar applies to innovative ideas and practices that are being implemented by teachers willing to take the risk:

“If you want to take the excitement and passion out of innovation, make everyone do it.”

Have a few teachers implementing new grading practices? Let’s form an implementation plan so everyone is doing it. 

Have a few teachers flipping their classrooms?  Let’s make it a school-wide mandate. 

Have a few teachers implementing new technology tools in their classroom?  Let’s train everyone on those tools and expect to see them in most lessons. 

Just like forcing all students to do the same thing all the time even though they all have different learning needs makes absolutely no sense, neither does making all teachers implement a practice in the name of uniformity and “fairness.”  It’s not that teachers shouldn’t be trying to improve their skills by learning new techniques and practices, but I’m not sure what the long-term staying power of any innovation will be if the impetus originates from above rather than below. 

Changing a system we created in the first place.

Is that what we want? Kids who get straight As but hate learning?

The question above is from an excerpt from Jessica Lahey’s book “The Gift of Failure  in this article from The Atlantic poses that very question.

Prefacing that question comes a story about a student names Maureen, whose mother is worried about the fact that her daughter seems to have lost her love of learning.  The author is wondering what to tell this parent, and ultimately decides to tell her the truth.

The truth—for this parent and so many others—is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault. Marianna’s parents, her teachers, society at large—we are all implicated in this crime against learning. From her first day of school, we pointed her toward that altar and trained her to measure her progress by means of points, scores, and awards. We taught Marianna that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to come home proudly bearing As, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfect record. Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.

We can’t forget that the students in front of us are products of a system we created.  What we need to focus on now is how to fix that system.  And I don’t mean with surface, structural changes that don’t get to the heart of the problem – that the way we do school to students must change, where we teach less and give more feedback, setting up learning experiences rather than lessons where students can find out what they love.

Those kinds of changes require changes in mindset and a lot of time and effort, not changes in schedules or grading scales or what report cards look like or any other change schools tend to make that doesn’t directly change learning.

There’s no quick fix to this.  But it all boils down to changing a system we created in the first place.

 

Permission is the first step

From Scott McLeod’s latest post:

As school leaders, we must provide much greater support to our teachers as we ask them to initiate new instructional practices and ’transform school.’ I hear repeatedly from principals and superintendents that they supposedly have given their educators permission to be risk-takers. But it is not enough for school leaders to just give encouragement or permission. Our teachers deserve specific, concrete instructional (re)design strategies and techniques; short-cycle feedback loops; ongoing conversation with teaching peers about successes and failures; and long-term, follow-up activities that ensure implementation success. We also have to create organizational systems that foster ongoing innovation cultures rather than momentary risk-taking, including educator resilience and learning from failure. And we have to continually and critically interrogate our own internal culture, climate, messaging, reward systems, and other leadership practices that reinforce the status quo and mitigate our alleged ‘permission to take risks.’

This reminds me of Michael Fullan’s idea of pressure and support to move change forward in institutions – the pressure must be there to improve and enhance student learning, but support is also required to help teachers make the changes necessary.

And that support requires that school leaders stay current with best practice.  It requires that true professional learning communities are set up so teachers can get the conversation and feedback they need from peers from successes and from failures.  It also requires us to put aside our own egos to take a good, long look at our systems and culture from a 10,000 foot view in order to see what needs to be changed, what needs to be amplified, and what else needs to be tweaked.

Really, it comes down to this:

If we as leaders are not helping everyone become smarter and better, we’re not doing our job. (From Fullan’s book The New Meaning of Educational Change)

Permission is only the first step.  Leaders must create the pressure to innovate and provide the support teachers need to do just that.

No such thing as dysfunctional organizations

I’ve been reading The Practice of Adaptive Leadership lately, and it’s full of useful nuggets that have been helpful in understanding the dynamics of my still newish-to-me district. Jeff Lawrence is quoted in the book under the section, “The Illusion of the Broken System:”

dysfunctional

 

This statement really made me ask some questions of myself:

  1. What are the actual results we are currently getting?
  2. Are they in line with our purpose as a school, which is to educate children in such a way as to prepare them for the world into which they will graduate?
  3. Do the results we are currently getting benefit students or are the majority of those results benefitting adults only?

It also made me stop looking for dysfunction and start looking for what outcomes we’re really valuing and rewarding…a better direction to lead change, I think.