1. Is failure a real and regular option and experience for kids at your school?
Yes, failure is a real option and frequent experience for kids at my school. There are currently twenty two eighth graders (of roughly 170) who are enrolled in the “promotion” after school class, with the requirement of raising their GPA to above 2.0 if they want to participate in the end of year 8th grade activities including the promotion ceremony. (In this community, making it through 8th grade and on to high school is by many considered to be an exceptional accomplishment, beyond what either parent has ever done).
Aside from the twenty two, eleven others are floating just above 2.0 and are considered at-risk. Combine those numbers and we are looking at 19% - roughly one of every five eighth graders are failing. (It should be said that a large number of these students have IEPs, and/or are English Learners).
2. If so, what impact do you believe that is creating? If not, what structures have been put into place to accomplish alternatives?
The impact on this failure (which is consistent year after year) is tremendous, both on the students affected, their peers, and other stakeholders. Those in promotion or at risk mainly are of the belief that they just can’t do it, that they never have been. Their fixed mindset, lack of intervention, and further decline year after year has only made them feel less capable of succeeding academically. Other students also see it. They see the division.
There are some systems in place to help remedy the failures. The main intervention used is the after school program. When parents are told their child is failing, it is the first suggested option. For the above mentioned eighth graders, the after school class is a bit more pointed - over the years it has been taught by a dedicated credentialed teacher who works with students to bring up their grades. The struggle is, many of them enter eighth grade far below a 2.0. The mountain necessary to climb to bring their cumulative GPA is sky high, thus few succeed.
3. What conditions exist that make it to late to learn and reach competency in your school? Can you give an example?
There has been an ongoing discussion at our school of whether or not to assign zeroes or F’s. Few teacher give incompletes, as suggested in the text, nor do they encourage students to redo assignments for improved grades. I love the idea that each assignment is a work in progress. That errors are used as instruction tools and students are encouraged to revisit tasks until they are sufficiently completed.
Additionally, I believe the requirements of the promotion class are too strict. For each quarter that they participate, an additional .2 will be added to their GPA, but it is challenging to make this happen. Students can have no more than two absences, must have rock-solid behavior, and must get a higher GPA than they got last quarter. There is no flexibility. In one situation this year a certificated teacher volunteered to work in a small group with a handful of the students (without being paid) and was told no. This would have benefitted not only the small group but the other class which would have had smaller numbers as well. The impact on the morale of these students was harsh. They had to choose whether to stay and work with the teacher to improve their work or be thrown into a larger class - where two of them admitted they would struggle, recognizing they would likely get themselves into trouble - in order to receive the necessary credit to bring up their GPA.
4. What would you do, if anything, to introduce/enhance “never too late to learn” structures in you school if you were the school leader?
As a leader I would work with my leadership team to develop and implement a plan where students receive “incompletes” over F’s. I love the Academic Recovery Plan introduced and I’ve always been in support of teacher student conferences to discuss successes, needs, and crafting individualized plans to make that happen. I also believe that zeroes should never be given, as they negatively and unfairly impact a child’s grade.
At our school the leadership team consists of both administrators and one representative from each content area. I would expand my team to include our English Language Specialist, academic counselor, at least one socio-emotional counselor, the technology coach (if applicable).
In addition to evaluating and equalizing the school’s grading policy, I strongly believe that promoting a growth mindset model over fixed mindset would help, in particular when started when students first join the school. Even more broadly, improving the culture of the school would positively impact the academic success of students - they need to feel welcomed, loved, and valued to even want to be successful. Students must be seen as individuals, their stories heard, and many of them must have their socio-emotional and physiological needs met, as Maslow describes, before they can achieve academically.
5. What can you do in your present position to create “never too late to learn” structures into your current practice and those of your peers? Are those things in your sphere of influence?
As a coach, though my focus is technology integration, I am often present in new teachers’ classrooms. Because we have so many new teachers this year, I have found myself not only modeling technology-focused lessons but positive classroom management, including building relationships with students. One teacher in particular, a 23 year old just out of college, struggles with her class and her new teacher project advisor. I have worked with her on opening up and sharing personal information with her kids. Though she doesn’t look like them, and they wouldn’t have expected it, she grew up in poverty raising her younger siblings just as many of her students have and are. This encouragement has changed her classroom environment as kids now see her as an ally, have compassion for her, and vice versa.
For new and veteran teachers to promote a “never too late to learn” environment they must encourage students to revise and resubmit work when it is incomplete or unsatisfactory. Additionally, it is important for teachers to embrace the philosophy by learning new things themselves. Teachers who open up their classrooms to coaches like myself show their students that they are also learning - that tech integration is something they want to improve on to make their teaching more engaging and robust.
Commit to 5 things you are willing to do this semester that will make your school a increase learning opportunities:
1. What role does school play in building students’ agency and identity?
It pains me to say this but my school does a very poor job of building students’ agency and identity. Though we have some fantastic teachers, there is a vocal majority that negatively drive conversation and model poor communication techniques for new teachers. The example at the beginning of the Choice Words chapter where teacher one relied “on shame to get cooperation” (Fisher, Frey, and Pumpian p. 77). This reminded me of not only the way teachers I’ve witnessed communicate with kids but sadly how our leadership and campus supervisor do as well. Probably because these leaders rely on this type of language others feel entitled to do so as well.
2. How aware are you and your colleagues of the impact our choice of words have on developing students’ agency and identity? Can you give examples?
Above I discuss how many educators and leaders at my school struggle with using words to develop student agency and positive identity, but I don’t believe it’s on purpose. Many teachers, both veteran and rookie, use the models they were raised with when conversing with a student - as well as adhering to the same expectations. We learned that way, so why shouldn’t they? Administration is mired in a routine of living day to day from a place of urgency, almost panic. There is little long term planning, and meetings are often cancelled because something pressing came up (this reminds me of last week’s lesson on time management). Because of this, conversations with students are often rushed and fall into the same pattern of familiarity, resulting in punishment rather than reflection. I’ve heard the campus supervisor refer to kids as “the bad kids” or “gang bangers”, which makes my skin crawl. How are students ever to pull themselves out of the hole they were born into with such negative expectations?
3. What would you do, if anything, to make using choice words a more conscious and accountable school wide practice if you were the school leader?
So far there have been many take-aways from the readings in How the Create a Culture of Achievement that would guide my professional development as a school leader. I feel that each pillar deserves time to be introduced and worked on, revisited, and each time I learn of a new one I think that one needs to be the focus. But when I think about using choice words, it seems the foundation of the others. How can we expect teachers and staff to adhere to a Do No Harm structure of discipline if they don’t communicate with their students in a respectful and positive manner. Forming an early professional development session with provided video clips, handouts with sentence starters, and role-playing practice sessions
would be a strong place to start. Additionally, I always feel that practicing what you preach is essential. Being present in classrooms, modeling growth mindset language, giving compliments, and being an active listener would help new teachers adopt choice words and veterans modify their language. Just as students adopting the language of their teacher in conversations with each other, so will teachers adopt the language of their leader, especially when there are visible benefits.
4. What could you do, if anything, to make the use of choice words a more conscious and accountable personal practice as well as one embraced by others on your site? Are those things within your sphere of influence?
I worked with a principal for two years, during my first tenure at a middle school, who would always say “everyone is somebody’s baby”, reminding us that what we say to a student should always be something we would be willing to say with that child’s parent present. When reflecting on my time as an educator I definitely became more conscious of my words when I became a parent. Sadly, many of the students we work with come from home environments where words are not chosen carefully and students are not developing strong self-concept.
I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on using positive language and interacting with students in a way that is going to build them up, but I’m honestly not too sure how I can, from my current sphere of influence, encourage others to do the same.
5. Commit to 5 things you are willing to do this semester that will make your school choose words wisely?
Yesterday I worked with three students in a math intervention group. At the end of the period they got up to go back to class and I saw that one of them had written on a chair in sharpie. I asked the students about it, they denied it, pointed fingers, and one finally admitted to defacing the chair.
Under my school’s current system, the student would have been sent to the office, likely been given a Wednesday detention or other harsh punishment. He would have been told what he did wrong and asked if he understood why what he did was wrong. Other past behavior issues would likely have been brought up. He probably would have gone back to class thinking mainly that he needed to better at not being caught.
I took this incident as an opportunity to practice what I would do in my future sphere of influence as a school leader, to approach the situation from a Do No Harm perspective. I believe the best way to realize change is to start with yourself, model, practice, and share successes and challenges with colleagues and administrators.
I asked the child with the challenging behavior to come see me at the end of the day (I felt it was important that he return to class and not miss his science instruction). He agreed and removed the desk from the classroom so as not to cause further harm to the next group of students coming in. When he arrived I structured the conversation around some of the affective questions presented in the Do No Harm chapter, including “what were you thinking about at the time?”, “what have you thought about since?”, “who has been affected?”, and “what do you think you can do to make things right?”.
It was a very interesting conversation, in ways that I didn’t expect. When I began asking about his thoughts during and before the occurrence he had no idea how to answer. There was a lot of silence, even confusion as to my line of questioning. (My school runs a heavily punitive system of punishment, which I will discuss my feelings on a bit later). I would assume that what was going through his mind were questions like “isn’t she going to punish me?” and “what is this strange line of communication?” (or a kid friendly version of that). When we got to the last question he simply said, “I don’t say sorry.” I asked him if he thought saying sorry was what could make it right. He said yes, but that he doesn’t like to apologize. (I know this kid well, I know he has a tough exterior and an image to portray but also that he has a kind heart and does a lot to help other people). I think there was a bit of a disconnect because he didn’t know the teacher of the classroom we had been in, so when I posed what if it had been my chair he’d defaced he nodded and I could see thinking going on. I let him think and then he stood up and said, “can I go right now?”. I asked him to do what and he said apologize. He came back with cleaning solution he’d found from the janitor and scrubbed the chair clean.
When he was cleaning, conversation drifted elsewhere, but at the end he asked me if I was going to send him to the AP (our person who handles discipline). When I told him no he asked why he wasn’t going to be punished. I was unprepared for this response but was completely honest saying that I believe it was more effective for him to have that conversation with me than go serve a three hour detention.
When it comes to the concept of Do No Harm I believe that conversations between students and adults on campus must be about the behavior that caused the harm and not the individual. We live in a punitive culture full of hostility and negativity (our election results last night highlighted this). The screencast this week pointed out that “when a child can’t read we teach him to read, when a child can’t do math we teach them math, but when a child can’t behave we punish them.”
I love this pillar. I believe that if we want to live in a world filled with kind, thoughtful, respectful adults, schools need to take part in the teaching and guidance of children on their choices and how they affect themselves, others, and the environment. As a future leader, my beliefs would be reflected in my policies by embracing this pillar out of the gate. I might begin by introducing the Do No Harm pillar to staff at an SBC day or staff meeting and asking them to look over the student handbook, deciding if each rule in the handbook was there because breaking it caused harm. Starting off the school year with this as a focus could tremendously impact the reasons students are sent to the office. (Fisher, Frey, & Pumpian 2012, p. 52) “At the end of the first week of school, students can tell you that the purpose of every school rule is to do no harm to yourself, to others, and to the environment so that learning can take place”.
Professional development around this issue would be an essential part of my plan coming into a new administrative position. As we’ve seen a few times so far this semester, learning can’t take place without a foundation of trust and communication between students and adults on campus. New teachers in particular would need guidance in having these conversations with students. Modeling those types of conversations for teachers would be a focus for me and revisiting the pillar frequently with individuals, in grade level meetings, and on professional development days throughout the first year of implementation.
The last prompt question saddens me. We not only lack the Do No Harm structure in place at my school but what is in place does pretty much the exact opposite. I feel strongly that the procedures we do have in place are actually causing harm. If we want students to internalize the concept of Do No Harm then we must stop harming them with harsh discipline and ticky-tack rules. Suspension rates were high last year, almost a quarter of the occurrences for willful defiance situations. Students are constantly removed from class for hours at a time for small offenses. Teachers struggle to talk to kids, kids feel that punishments are unjust, acting out further, and the cycle continues. The assistant principal, who handles the majority of discipline, has done little to improve their communication strategies in the three years she has worked here.
One positive is that a mindfulness expert has offered to train our staff on mindfulness techniques (for themselves and later to work on with students). The morale and stress level being so high undoubtedly affects what is happening here, and if teachers can ways to improve themselves it might release some of the strain on relationships.
We can’t expect students to happy to come to school when teachers aren’t. Do No Harm would heal the relationships of all stakeholders.
This was one of a series of such interactions I plan to have with students in the coming semester. Though I am not at administrator I am seen as a leader on campus and know at least half of the student body by name. I make it a point to get to know them individually.
Commit to 5 things you are willing to do this semester that will make your school a more positive restorative place:
1. How is the challenge of making stakeholders feel welcome to your school (or place of work) connected to your school mission? (Who knows our mission? Who does it apply to?)
Last year at my first staff meeting at Pajaro Middle School we spent about an hour on a collaborative activity to revise the school mission and vision. At the time it seemed like an outstanding activity to launch into the school year with a sense of community. The unfortunate outcome of that meeting was that the activity was never completed and was tabled for a later date. This was August, 2015 and I have yet to hear another word about it.
If you were to ask most teachers, students, parents, and community members what Pajaro’s mission statement is, it’s unlikely you’d get a clear answer. The mission statement can be found on the school website, and while it contains a solid set of beliefs including respect, cooperation, care, support, and academic growth, it is not revisited or used as a foundation for staff meeting discussions or professional development.
2. What did you do to assess which stakeholder group (or subgroup) could be more effectively welcomed? And what did you find?
This week I observed communication between teachers in the staff room (there were few - many eat in their classrooms), and interactions between administrators and teachers (usually just quick conversations in passing). I also spent time in classrooms while I was coaching, observing the communication between teachers and students. Many of our veteran teachers embrace welcoming techniques that foster student buy-in but several structure their classrooms with a definite hierarchy. Some are new and have yet to learn the art opening up lines of communication with students, and some are unaware that they have drawn a line between themselves and the students.
Pajaro administrators and teachers are good people, but there is an undeniable disconnect between the adults on campus and the students. A definite Us and Them. Though I feel Pajaro could do a better job of welcoming everybody more effectively, it’s the students that I assessed as being the ones most in need of feeling more welcomed. There is very low morale at Pajaro, for a variety of reasons, and students feel it.
In my time in the district almost all Professional Development has been related to academic achievement. I can’t remember a district or site-based workshop that focused on school culture, student’s socio-emotional needs, or positive classroom management and behavior support. This presents a huge problem for leaders - when presented with so many mandates, where is the time for training staff on processes that could improve morale and create a more welcoming culture?
Because of the limited amount of time to focus teacher training on welcoming strategies, it is important for those of us that recognize the gaps to model strategies that will create more of a welcome culture at school. Hopefully it will become infectious.
3. Future Sphere of Influence: What would you do to improve welcoming this group if you were the school leader?
One of Dr. Pumpian’s themes this week was the importance of eliminating the “them” mentality to create a welcoming culture. As the lecture this week and the readings discuss, students have the ultimate say in whether or not they are going to engage in education. It is important for students to know that success academically, emotionally, and socially is as important to those that work at the school as for those that attend it. As a leader, though my responsibilities will differ from classroom teachers, I will work hard to stand together with my staff and model the “us” type relationships that will be encouraged inside the classroom as well.
Some of the ideas from this book (and my experience working with with principals I see as role models) that I would implement as a school leader to foster a welcoming culture are:
4. Current Sphere of Influence: What can you do in your present position to enhance welcoming these stakeholders?
One challenge as a coach is building those strong connections with students that you do as a classroom teacher. While I love being able to visit classrooms and interact with many different students, most of my relationships with students have been superficial. I am working this year on learning students’ names and greeting them by name (or at least with a smile) each and every time I see them. Students come to me for support with their Chromebooks and I have an open door policy that they can also speak to me about other things that might be on their mind. I regularly have students visit me in my office at break and lunch to chat about life and ask for advice. As I’ve started working with more at-risk kids in a closer capacity I feel that more are seeing me as an ally around campus.
Current Sphere of Influence: Commit to 5 things you are willing to do this semester that will make your school a more welcoming place: