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Friday, August 05, 2016

Teacher Voice: Including Educators in Decision Making

The new ESSA law calls for school systems to include educators in decisions. Then this week I attended a great workshop led by Dan Callahan, Charmain Champagne, Mike Ritzius, and Rich Wilson focused on "Hosting Conversations." The workshop provided so many great ways to motivate and establish inclusive conversations to promote wise action.

Too often leaders think for educators, and this results in less than optimal results. For example furniture was selected for me recently. It's old fashion teaching/learning furniture that serves to impede progress rather than forward new and better ways to set up a classroom and teach in today's world. If teachers were part of that decision making using good process, I'm sure that we would have ended up with furniture that supports knowledge age teaching and learning rather than the furniture we received which, in part, hinders modern approaches.

Similarly I've received a number of notices this summer about decisions that have been made for me--decisions about how I need to teach and what I'll have to do my job. Yet I've spent a good number of days this summer reading, attending conferences, and researching to inform my practice. The information has alerted me to a number of terrific ways to move the teaching/learning ahead, ways that, in part, differ from the directives I've received. What I long for is the ability for educators to continually learn, share, and work together to move our systems forward. Yet, in some places, the decisions related to that movement are relegated to only a select few in the organization. I believe this diminishes what's possible, whereas good, modern age, inclusive process elevates system potential.

No teacher or leader knows all, but together there is so much potential for what we can do to better teach each and every child. It's imperative that systems begin to look at ways that they can embed new processes to forward the good work and innovation possible. Massachusetts is working towards this now as our Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is sharing strategies to create greater teacher voice and distributive models of leadership. Similarly our state union is sharing ways that we can embed ESSA to develop our teaching/learning organizations in ways that matter. There is much to learn and develop to improve school systems and create the kind of systems that promote rich collaboration amongst all members of the teaching/learning community including educators, families, students, administrators, and local citizens.

Yet, as a teacher that sits under most directives, and has been unsuccessful to a large part when it comes to trying to motivate greater inclusivity and teacher voice with decision making, what will I do?

First, I will work with my local union, state union, and state department of education to look for ways to implement the new ESSA law so that teacher voice and autonomy plays an advantageous role in teaching and learning. When teachers have no voice, they lose confidence, investment, and enthusiasm for the job. Also when teachers do not have authentic voice, the potential for good collaboration diminishes as when teacher voice is not respectfully entertained and utilized to move schools forward, teachers stop sharing, and when teachers stop sharing the potential possible to move an entire organization forward diminishes.

Next I will look for ways to use strategic, collaborative decision making processes. In the past, I've shared many ideas via email--ideas based on research, study, and learning. In general, the email share is not well received. Mostly, I'm met with negative or no response for new ideas. Once in a while, though, an idea is embraced. For example, the principal championed our grade-level idea for a shared teaching model. That idea has resulted in a powerful approach to teaching fifth graders--one that we continue to grow. I want to think more strategically about how to move new ideas forward. For example, I'm trying to think about how to help our most challenged students get access to technology and WIFI at the start of the school year rather than well into the year after routines have been established. I think early attention to this issue will result in better teaching and learning for those students. I also want to match science and math standards together. For example, I wanted to write a grant to combine States of Matter standards with fraction study. I received little support for this grant idea, and to forward a grant idea, I need the signature of leaders so I will put that idea on hold for now. Unfortunately to access funds from the local organization, leadership has to sign off on the grants. That sometimes means that educators' creative ideas are not given support.

I also would like greater support for my room set-up including painting and some shelving. I could not find a way to have my room painted and I don't have the resources to do it myself right now, but I'll continue to look for ways to gain support for some structural changes that would improve the learning conditions in my classroom. I'd also like to revisit the types of assessments we use and match those assessments to the standards we teach so that I don't have to teach all the standards and so many more information points in order to prepare my students for tests that don't reflect the standards. To prepare for the standards and information not included in the standards means that I have to squish so much curriculum into one year, and it's clearly been shown that "squishing" too many facts and figures into the learning year does not result in rich learning experiences.

I'd really like to see inclusive decision making structures embedded into school life, structures similar to the kind I learned about at this week's "Hosting Conversations." Good structure and process can truly move systems ahead in ways that matter, and today's learning and teaching requires new systematic structures in order to make positive change. I certainly don't know it all and I crave the opportunity to work with others with depth to develop the best that we can do for students and schools. I do get this opportunity with the shared teaching model at the grade level, and I want this opportunity with regard to the many other groups I work with in school as I believe good process and greater, authentic, inclusive, honest, and transparent collaboration will truly lead us forward.

This week at the MTA Summer Conference I listened to teachers who work in vigorous, dynamic teacher-led learning and teaching environments, and I listened to teachers who work in environments with little or no teacher voice. There's terrific potential for what's possible in collaborative teaching/learning environments, the kind of environment I want to foster. For the most part, the Middle School and High School environments often have greater teacher leadership since departments often work together to lead each other and department heads are often teachers too.  It seems like elementary schools often have a larger number of administrators and others removed from daily teaching that make decisions for teachers. Some at the conference thought that this occurs because elementary school teachers are often thought of as being of the same age and mindset of the young children they teach. Elementary school teachers are often not treated as the well educated, adult learners and professionals that they are. In fact, I shared a comment made by an administrator, recently. The administrator noted basically that anyone could teach elementary school and that it doesn't take much skill. You can imagine how I felt about that comment since I've invested more than thirty years into teaching and learning about teaching. I do believe that teaching elementary school well takes skill and knowledge, and that our efforts to learn, teach well, and work together matter.

Let's work together to improve schools. Let's find ways to support greater collaboration and teacher voice in all decisions that affect the teaching and learning we can do. Together we are better, and together means that all members of the community have the chance to voice their knowledge, concerns, ideas, and potential, and that the collective thought is regarded well with good collaborative process that results in the wise action possible.