The First Steps

This year I have spent several days, in several schools, sitting at a table surrounded by fellow educators in meetings that are called ‘student intervention meetings’. These meetings aim to get classroom teachers, special education resource teachers, instructional coaches (that’s me!) and often ministry or board consultants together in order to discuss student needs. Bringing many voices and a variety of expertise together, so the thinking goes, will result in focused and intentional planning that will improve student learning and outcomes. These meetings basically bring several professionals together to talk about how we — the broad ‘we’, being everyone involved in these students’ education— can be better.

In theory these meetings SHOULD work and I’ll never discredit the value of bringing educators together. School culture, and teacher attitudes play a critical role in school improvement. I’ll do my best to explain these simple truths here.

Negative School Culture Gets in the Way

Every school community is unique; visit two schools that are walking distance from each other and you’ll realize this. In a similar way, every staff is unique and, perhaps most importantly, every principal has a unique leadership style and particular set of skills. The culture of a school really refers to a synergy between who works in the school and the community it serves. If school leaders think of education as “just a job” it will be clearly visible to anyone from the community when they interact with staff or administration (this is NOT the impression we want to make).

The ‘just a job’ approach is not one that leads to much improvement and, unfortunately, it is the approach most often seen ‘when no one is watching’; what’s worse is that this approach is sometimes enabled by the examples set by administrators. How motivated would you be to improve if on the FIRST day of school you’re colleagues (and maybe even leaders) started the countdown to summer holidays? The countdown mentality, in general, leads to a wishing away of our days but it’s especially harmful when it starts on day one. Unfortunately, I’m not speaking hypothetically here, I’m describing lived experience. When we are treating our school year as a 190 day sentence it’s not likely that we’re engaging in professional reading or making meaningful efforts to collaborate with our colleagues. From my experience, a countdown mentality finds it’s way into improvement planning so that this time, too, is basically wished away. When we’ve wished away the chance to talk about improvement in the first place, follow through is unlikely.

Whenever there is an ‘us vs them’ mentality behind closed doors, you’re dealing with the ‘just a job’ approach. But ‘us vs them’ takes things even further. In schools where teachers are treating their work as just a job, there’s less connection with students. When students don’t have meaningful relationships with their teachers, negative behaviors are often more frequent and, eventually, the ‘us vs them’ cycle begins. Teachers feel that students misbehave intentionally, students feel that their teachers don’t genuinely care about them and the ‘just a job’ approach gives the teacher the feeling that they’re already “doing their job” and the student is making this job unnecessarily difficult. In this kind of environment administrators are often put in a position where they are required to support their teachers, which is a very important part of the leadership role; the difficulty lies in the fact that they need to avoid encouraging antagonistic relationships between teachers, parents and students. When ‘us vs them’ is occurring in a school, administrators have an unenviable responsibility to lead by example and, when necessary, engage in difficult conversations with teachers in efforts to encourage them to repair damaged relationships if and when appropriate. School improvement is not a top priority when positive teacher-student relationships aren’t in place and administrators need to engage in serious introspection to make sure they’re part of the solution and never part of the problem.

School culture also refers to the ways that teachers interact with each other. Have you ever been in a school where the staff don’t say hello to each other? I have. Have you ever walked into a school as an outsider, or even as a staff member from a different school or department and had teachers walk right past you without saying hello or offering to help you out? Again, I certainly have. In fact, on my first day as a member of a new department (the program department at my board office) I walked into the building and said good morning to two women who were walking past me. Instead of replying with the expected ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’, one of the women chuckled and said to the other, “he’s new”. Neither bothered to greet me or acknowledge my greeting. Any staff that has a tough time acknowledging colleagues with a simple, pleasant greeting, is going to have a very hard time with anything that resembles meaningful collaboration.

In many schools staff are very friendly to me and to each other. The problem is some of the friendliest schools have cultures where pleasant small talk is the norm but meaningful dialogue is rare. Sharing stories about your weekend on planning time is normal and contributes to relationship building, but the conversation shouldn’t stop there. Obviously these buildings can be pleasant to work in at times, but ‘being better’ is not much of a concern (though it’s fair to say that the conditions are at least favorable in these schools).

In schools where culture is an issue, meetings that are focused on ‘being better’, whatever we might call them, often turn into an exercise in ‘saying what’s supposed to be said’. Teachers who find themselves in schools with cultures that are steeped in ‘us vs them’ and ‘who the heck is this guy’ (recall my greeting example) appear to see time spent on getting better as an annoyance and something to get over with (so I can get back to doing my job) at best. Let’s keep in mind that it’s fairly normal to want things to be “over with” when we think our work is “just a job”.

We can’t get better when we see what we do as “just a job”. We can’t get better when improvement is annoying. We certainly can’t get better when our relationship to the students we serve and their families can be defined as ‘us vs them’. A negative school culture will always get in the way of improvement no matter what meetings leaders put in place. It’s also important to note that, while it’s likely a precursor to meaningful collaboration, a friendly staff is not automatically a staff that is working towards improvement. Now, anyone can complain so what does it take to improve schools?

You Might Think it’s Cliché, but…

In order to improve, or just be effective in the first place, teachers need to have the right attitude and a strong commitment to their profession. A good educator is a great learner. A great learner is someone who cares about knowing and understanding more about the world around them. A great learner is enthusiastic, driven and happy to find new ways of doing things. We might even say that a great learner is creative and comfortable taking risks. If you follow #edchat gurus and over-sharers on twitter you will have also heard any number of ‘original’ spins on this kind of thinking; I’m guilty of several of these kinds of tweets myself. Here’s the thing, in order for educators to improve we actually have to BE the kind of educator described above, lip service isn’t enough.

We need to genuinely care about all of our students; we need to embrace them as PEOPLE first and students second. This approach works. When we find ways to connect with our students our chances of actually teaching them improve. We also need to genuinely care about our colleagues! This is difficult for some of us. No one is saying that you have to be attending Sunday dinners (although you certainly can if that works for you!), but if we can’t at least be friendly with each other and work together when it’s beneficial to the school and our students, how can we possibly expect our students to work collaboratively in our classrooms? (have you ever noticed how teachers who refuse to work with others think it’s absolutely crazy that some of their students don’t want to work together?). Here’s a crazy thought: say good morning to each of your colleagues every day AND SMILE. This usually works too, though not always right away. Even more importantly, do the same thing with your students (if this is the norm in the school, ‘us vs them’ isn’t likely to even start).

Now, I haven’t forgotten about the friendly staff who don’t really talk much about actual work. I think I’ve covered them at the start of this section when I mentioned our need to be committed to our profession and the value of a genuine ‘lifelong learner’ stance.

We have to CARE about what we’re doing…It’s really that simple! Frameworks matter — and I hope to elaborate on some of my ideas around effective professional development in future posts — but no special meetings or improvement models will ever be effective if we don’t see the value in constant improvement. It’s not about seeing ourselves as inadequate, it’s about recognizing that we can always be better.

The first steps towards improvement are pretty simple, we have to: see ourselves as professionals and believe there’s always room for growth, genuinely care about our students and our colleagues and demonstrate this caring through our actions, and believe that what we are doing matters in ways that we might not yet see. These ideas might seem obvious but, if they were really as visible as they perhaps should be, I wouldn’t have been able to put this piece together.

On a few occasions I’ve heard colleagues say things like “we’re not curing cancer” and “you’re not saving the world”. This is exactly the kind of attitude that needs to disappear from within our profession. Without sounding too self-important, I’d like to suggest that we very well might be educating the people who will do these things someday.

Getting better requires us to remove all apathy and indifference. When we’re able to do that, we’ll be ready to start our work.

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