Did you ask the teachers?

It is a simple question, but one that leads to all kinds of reactions: “Did you ask the teachers?”

Often times in a search for innovative ideas and programs, we miss a ridiculously important stakeholder: Teachers.

I know it sounds crazy, but after working in three different school districts (as well as interacting with thousands of teachers and hundreds of schools in the last few years), it is more common than you might think.

I remember the first time I made this mistake as a school leader.

We were rolling out open education resources (OER) for a new Math curriculum in our elementary schools. I was excited about the possibilities for revisiting curriculum that was dated and out-of-place in many respects. We put a new five-year cycle that had touchpoints each year for revising and improving the curriculum to make it more of a living document that was not set in stone.

I truly believed that we could use the precious funds currently used for buying programs, to actually help pay teachers to develop the resources and curriculum.

Everything was ready to go.

Then we had our first committee meeting (more on why I dislike committees in a moment). The committee was comprised of principals, a few teachers, coaches, and some central office staff. We even had a few parents and students in the group during our after-school meeting.

The conversation was wide-ranging and “in-theory” everyone agreed on moving forward with the OER process. Most of the folks were pumped about our next steps.

We started a few OER curriculum projects in the high school that were going well, backed by a few teachers that were content experts and ready to shape the process. They wanted to go in this direction.

Then in our first writing meeting with Elementary teachers, I could sense something was off.

No one was talking (except me of course). The room had a sense of doom in it.

Towards the end of the hour, I finally asked the question, “Is there something I’m missing?”

The silence was palpable.

Then one of the veteran teachers spoke up. She said, “I understand what we are trying to do here. And I appreciate moving away from our dated curriculum and textbooks, but…”

She paused for a moment.

“Did you ask the teachers?”

The question caught me so off guard, that I couldn’t answer for a moment.

I swore I would never be the administrator or school leader that forgot what it was like to be in the classroom. And, here I was, asking teachers to do something, that I had never even asked if they wanted to do, or believed was the right path forward.

I stumbled through a few sentences referring to the committee (which was K-12 and only had two elementary representatives) and then stopped.

“No, I’m sorry, we never really had that conversation. I never had that conversation.”

The teachers were great, and I asked if we could set up a follow-up meeting to discuss how much time (which they didn’t have) and effort/research (which would take a while) it would take to develop their own curriculum and resources.

In the following weeks, I didn’t just meet with that group, I spent time meeting with every elementary teacher in our school district who taught math. I wanted everyone to have a say, and committees did not provide that opportunity.

In our short small-group conversations (we met with grade levels at each school for 15-20 minutes) so many great insights came from our teachers.

While their perspective was varied, there was one consistent belief: It would take a lot of time to write their curriculum, let alone developing/choosing every single resource. They didn’t believe a textbook was the right way to go but creating everything in-house also seemed improbable for an entire K-5 Math program. 

They were right. I was wrong.

It wasn’t about OER (we had very successful OER projects run by teachers in our district). It was about the process.

I was wrong for not including them much earlier in the decision-making process. I was wrong for not asking a simple question, “What do you think we should do?”

I learned this lesson the hard way and have tried to include as many teacher voices, opinions, and ideas as possible in these decisions since that wake-up call.

This Is a Bigger Problem Than I Realized

The Hechinger Report recently shared an interesting piece on the U.S. Education Department’s $1.5 billion “innovation” stimulus:

As part of the federal recovery effort to boost the economy after the 2008 recession, the U.S. Education Department suddenly had a big pot of money to give away to “innovations” in education. Since then, more than $1.5 billion has been spent on almost 200 ideas because Congress continued to appropriate funds even after the recession ended.

Only 12 of the 67 innovations, or 18 percent, were found to have any positive impact on student achievement, according to a report published earlier in 2018. 

“It’s only a handful,” said Barbara Goodson, a researcher at Abt Associates Inc., a research and consulting firm that was hired to analyze the results of the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund for the Department of Education. “It’s discouraging to everybody. We are desperate to find what works. Here was a program that was supposed to identify promising models. People are disappointed that we didn’t come up with 20 new models.”

“That’s the dirty secret of all of education research,” Goodson added. “It is really hard to change student achievement. We have rarely been able to do it. It’s harder than anybody thinks.” She cited a prior 2013 study that also found when education reforms were put to rigorous scientific tests with control groups and random assignment, 90 percent of them failed to find positive effects. 

When I read this story, I dug a bit deeper into the programs and ideas. Looked at the funding and also how the research decided what had “positive” impact or ROI (as the business-world calls it).

Turns out there was a big missing piece to many of these ideas, programs, and initiatives.

No one asked the teachers what they thought. Most hadn’t even included the teachers in any form of discussion prior to starting the program/initiative.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my time as a school leader, it is this:

New ideas started from the ground-up (with unwavering support from the top), are much more likely to have a positive impact than any other kind of initiative.

So, if this is true, how do we build this type of culture from the ground up? How can we empower teachers and students to share their ideas, to be creative, and to make sure they are valued?

Ideas From Teachers, Supported By Administrators

One of the best at this is the High School Principal at William Tennent (the district where I work). Dennis Best has seen what happens when he supports and helps to grow teacher’s ideas.

He valued our teacher’s ideas for an innovation program and supported CentennialX, our home-grown human-centered design program where students work side-by-side major companies and organizations to solve real-world problems.

In addition, our partnerships with companies, organizations, and institutions have grown with teachers and students working alongside people from:

  • The Character Lab (Angela Duckworth’s team is doing action research in our schools and working with our teachers and students around grit and character)
  • Drexel University (our students go to Drexel Med to work on real cadavers)
  • The University of Pennsylvania (our biology and psych students work with lab rats and we recently built a lab with real rats in our HS)
  • St. Joseph’s University (our students work with undergrad students who are performing neurosurgery)
  • Fox Chase Cancer Center (the TRIP program and our Genetics of Cancer course)
  • ShopRite (we have a Shoprite store in our HS where students work at and the community shops at)
  • Eli Lilly and PRA Health Sciences (sponsored student challenges for our design teams to solve real medical problems while in school)
  • MIT Cycling Team (our students developed a new cycling performance sock for the MIT Team during CentennialX)

Amidst all of these innovative opportunities, the teaching and learning continued at WTHS. There was not a huge reform movement that had to stop everything we were doing to start something new. The change happened from within and took place while life went on.

Recently WTHS took this approach a step further with their Teacher Innovation Pitch.

First, Dennis and his administrative team identified the areas of innovation, growth, and success at William Tennent High School. They noticed that many of these areas were started by staff and supported by the administration.

Yet, they were still in pockets and wanted more teachers to feel empowered to have ideas and try something new with their students or in their own professional journey.

Enter the Teacher Innovation Pitch.

Last spring, teachers had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to their colleagues and administration.

The goal is to further empower our teachers to:

  • Take instructional risks and feel free to make mistakes and get better.
  • Innovate as you might see fit given the current constraints.  
  • Develop and leverage partnerships to provide opportunities for students to participate in authentic, real-world learning experiences.

The question I keep coming back to again and again is: “Did you ask the teachers?”

And why wouldn’t we? Teachers are with students every day. They see things from all kinds of perspectives. They live in the practice of teaching and learning, not just the theory of teaching and learning.

When we included the teachers in the decision-making process, or better yet, started with the teachers for ideas to teach/learn better, it now became a team initiative. Everyone was involved, and everyone wanted it to succeed for our kids.

It sounds simple, but might just be the most profound thing we can do as leaders. Ask a teacher, see what they think, and then give them space and support to create something worth doing.

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