Many of us are making plans for the 22-23 school year. Often student and teacher voice is absent from these planning sessions. This really puts us in the danger zone when those closest to the work are not a part of building the plans. The most important insights and perspectives come from the people in our classrooms every day.
While our teachers enjoy must deserved time away from the school setting this summer, we need to create plans that are both loose and tight. We must be firm about our values and the direction we are going while being loose about the methods we will use to get there. And we must plan for input upon the return to school. No one wants to feel like a robot or a cog in a wheel. Sometimes, in the name of implementing plans and programs with fidelity, we lose sight of the people implementing the work and the incredible assets and expertise they bring to the table. What the research says is important. What professional voices have to say is important. These can inform our plans but not drive our plans. There is a key difference between informing and driving. It’s why I prefer the term “data-informed” versus “data-driven.”
There are many teachers fleeing our profession. For many reasons. Many understandable reasons. More money. More flexibility to name a few. But there are other reasons that are harder to describe and more difficult to confront. Mainly, people often leave bosses not jobs. Often, those with authority are creating plans and giving those plans to teachers without involving them in the planning and decision-making. Sure, sometimes this is necessary, but often it does not need to be this way. What ends up happening is these ambitious plans meant to grow student achievement and deepen learning in our schools become unwieldy and difficult to implement at the classroom level.
Plans often address what we will do but not what we will stop doing. So more means more means more…and suddenly, everything feels important and therefore nothing is important. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do it all with the same gusto. Sometimes, we don’t even realize this is happening to our teachers because we have a culture of compliance. So, like any person would, staff will ensure that those impossible plans are being followed on walk-through days and during evaluations. They will say the right things in meetings, and then suffer in private dialogues with trusted colleagues or in silence.
It’s easy to walk around a school and criticize teachers for leading compliance-only focused classrooms. What’s harder is confronting the reality that we, ourselves, are the ones creating this kind of culture in our schools. It’s easy to criticize teachers for not speaking up in meetings or not implementing plans with fidelity. What’s difficult is asking ourselves if we are creating the kind of psychological safety needed to share in authentic, honest ways. What’s difficult is asking ourselves whether our plans are the right plans.
Any successful change efforts I’ve been a part of had students, teachers, and community members at the table. We need to get comfortable putting thoughts/ideas in front of people before they are fully developed and ask for input. The plans get smarter and more practical with students and teachers at the table. Now, it might make things a little harder on the front end. It might feel more messy. It might take a bit more time, but the plan gets better and implementation drastically improves.
People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to feel like their work matters. Their voice matters. They want to be a part of work that matters in a deep way. They want their time respected and rewarded. We all do. People want to be successful. No one shows up up to work trying to do a bad job. As Dr. Deming has said in so many words, 96% of problems are a result of the system with only 4% belonging to the worker. So let’s stop blaming educators. Instead, let’s involve educators in the process for making changes to the system.
If nothing else, let’s not forget what we all know to be true as educators. The person doing the doing is the person doing the learning. Every time we work out all of the details for people and just give it to them, we’ve taken learning away from them.
As we reflect upon ways we will grow and develop as leaders this school year, I encourage us to do the following:
- Put plans in front of groups of teachers and students and gather feedback before finalizing. But only do this if you truly mean it and your plan isn’t fully developed. We all can tell when we are asked for “feedback” on something that is already a done deal. Additionally, be open to plans that you didn’t come up with but people brought to you.
- Admit when you don’t know something or are struggling with something. Do this publicly…in front of other people. When it comes to vulnerability and creating a culture of authentic, honest dialogue, great leaders go first. They model being deeply human in front of other people. Then, learn from others. Lean on others. Involve others in solutions.
- Look for and listen for a focus on compliance where it’s not needed. Of course, we need safe and orderly school environments. We need rules. But just as you hear kids asking teachers in classrooms, “How many paragraphs does this need to be? Is this what you wanted?” If we have teachers coming to leaders with questions that sound like that when they don’t need to, that’s information about the culture we have in place. We must make space for people to use their voices, share their perspectives, and approach work in ways that feel empowering.
Instead of blaming teachers, let’s do the hard work of examining ourselves as leaders. Examine our practices. Examine our systems. And work with educators, students, and our community to build better systems. Our kids deserve it.