Reflections on an Emerging Student-Centered Learning Ecosystem: Options and Opportunities

In this final segment of our five-part blog regarding the Student-Centered Learning Ecosystem (SCLE) at the West Clermont School District, Dr. Tim Kubik and I share our thoughts on what we learned as we head into 2022-23 and a new cohort of SCLE fellows.

Options and Opportunities from Tim’s Perspective

The SCLE Fellowship came together for three days at the end of the school year to reflect on what they had done and to tune and revise their work. This was a big ask at the end of one of the more difficult years in teaching any of us remembers. That said, most teachers, community partners, and students who attended were glad to see one another outside of the normal school context. True, we met in the same room we’d used in January, but “school” was over. It was time just to show and tell.

The first day was a heavy lift for the teachers. We focused on Looking at Student Work and Student Engagement using the SRI ATLAS Protocol and the aggregate data from Student Experience 21. We didn’t do any evaluation. Instead, we stayed focused on describing what happened for learners. Teachers dug into this rare opportunity to learn from their learners and themselves rather than to grade their work or have someone grade them. At the end of the day, we did a What, So What, Now What Protocol just to collect their experience. As an exit ticket, we asked them to self-assess their work over the spring using the Learning ARC Rubric. Unsurprisingly, most were harder on themselves than an administrator or I might have been.

Day Two was thus a shot in the arm. The students and community partners joined the teachers to share their experiences and begin to think about new projects for 2022-23. There was so much positive energy in the room. While the teachers had been hard on themselves on Day One, they realized there were far more successes than failures and far more options and opportunities in the year ahead. Now the time was right to add a log to the fire and get them thinking about possible changes in practice

In their small groups, the fire began to grow. When, at the end of the day, I asked for a “Fist to Five” to help us understand whether they were learning something over these first two days, something very unusual happened. Everyone gave me a high five instantly. That’s something I’ve never experienced in 15 years of coaching.

But something even more unusual happened the next and final day. Teachers always say they want more planning time, so Meghan and I agreed that we would devote the final day to that with just a few options to engage in planning with some support from me as an option. While the teachers were working, they didn’t take advantage of the scaffolds I had tailored, and they weren’t even working on planning their new projects! To my (VERY pleasant) surprise, here’s what I heard about the opportunities they chose to work on for 2022-23.

“We’ve learned much about designing projects this spring, enough to know that we can keep learning on our own next year.”  Not bad, I thought. Then one team said: “What we need to work on is a school-level team that can meet to discuss and review project ideas and make sure we’re in sync.” “That’s great!” was my reply. “I can see why you’d want that.” Another team sparked up, “If we’re going to do authentic project-learning experiences connected to the community, what we really need as a district is some PD co-designed and implemented with community partners so that we can keep learning about one another.” Now if that’s not an authentic project-learning experience for teachers, I don’t know what is! The teachers were starting to build a learning ecosystem on their own, one that was informed by their learners’ and community partners’ perspectives.

I didn’t have a very busy afternoon after that. It reminded me of the motto of one of my favorite Colorado teachers, Kendra Vair at Conrad Ball Middle School in Loveland, Colorado. “If [learners] can do it, I don’t!” In turn, it made me think of another common leadership quote “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” In the end it’s not a choice of those three options but a professional continuum just like good project-learning experiences. My main takeaway? Gradual release isn’t linear, it’s a reciprocal cycle of negotiations between teachers and their learners.

I deeply appreciate that Meghan and others at West Clermont have asked me to lead a second SCLE Fellowship in 2022-23. I will be equally appreciative when those fellows are empowered enough to ask me to get out of the way, or teach, when they need it!

Options and Opportunities from Meghan’s Perspective

I often tell people that if you want to be filled with hope for the future, spend time with students and teachers. Spending three days with teachers, in June, at the end of one of the hardest school years of our careers made me feel hopeful because let me tell you, they were on fire. In a good way. There were many sparks of good energy, deep reflection, genuine care and interest, problem-finding, and problem-solving.

The community that Tim built with these fellows was truly special. I’ve thought about many possible reasons, but one, in particular, stands out. We were all simply people having a conversation. It wasn’t about being a teacher, a community member, or a student. It was about being human and caring about our community. It was about wanting to make a difference with what we learned together. When we feel like our work matters, and when we have the agency to solve complex problems with other people we trust, there is very little we can’t accomplish.

There were teachers whose project ideas led them to zoning commission offices to ask questions and get paperwork that would be needed to move forward next school year. Instead of being daunted by obstacles, we became curious about them. Obstacles became problems for us to solve together and because we had the space and time to think clearly and solve together, we found solutions. Some call this agency. Some call this resilience. Whatever we call it, it can’t happen without hope. 

I believe Brene Brown says that “Hope is the belief that tomorrow will be better than today.” Battelle for Kids (BFK) explains that students must believe they can create a better future. When they believe that the future can be better and that they have the power to make it better, they can power through challenges. The same is true for teachers. The BFK research also shows that hope is not a fixed trait. We can grow hope and teachers can lend students hope when they need it as long as teachers have hope themselves. The BFK research further indicates that hope is a stronger predictor of student success above any academic factor: more than grades, GPA, ACT, SAT.

Hope matters in a big way. But our teachers can’t give students something they don’t have themselves. I loved this experience because we grew hope by using reflection to grow connections. When teachers had time to talk to each other, their students, and the community and when they had time to be curious, explore, and implement a community-connected learning idea – they surprised themselves. Their students surprised them. We were amazed by what could be learned and how kids show up for those experiences. We all seemed to enjoy how it made us feel.

None of us went into this profession to give classes in test-taking. We became educators because we were hopeful we could make the world better than it is today. One child at a time. One day at a time.

Many teachers talked about how energizing and rejuvenating this experience was – and it wasn’t an easy experience. It was messy. And at times scary but just the right amount of both with plenty of time to process, think, and learn together through meaningful discourse.

On that last day in June, people stayed and talked after it was over. I’ve always said that if people don’t run to escape from the room you’re facilitating, you must be doing something right. People stayed not just for minutes but for HOURS after the session ended. They didn’t want to stop thinking, working, and talking.

We often discuss creating experiences that make our students want to run into school daily. But perhaps we should talk more about creating learning experiences that make our teachers want to linger. There is beauty in lingering, and it feels like they will linger in this work as we approach the 22-23 school year and invite new members to join the SCLE fellowship this school year.


“What we need is some PD co-designed with community partners, so we can keep learning about each other.” That sentence that emerged from a teacher during our culminating experience together is powerful. Not only is this idea brilliant…the fact that it’s coming from a group of teachers is important. It’s amazing what happens when you cultivate community with intentionality, and you give people time and space to think, reflect, and talk about things they care about, things that feel important and matter. 

We often use the word collaboration to describe what we want to happen in our classrooms, but we typically mean that we’ve experienced coordination or cooperation. True collaboration, as defined by Mattessich and Monsey, 1992 (Yes, that was a long time ago, and yet this is still very on point), is: “a working relationship over a relatively long period of time. Collaboration requires shared goals derived during the partnership.” Derived during partnership is an important phrase here. The teachers’ goals were not predetermined by their building or district leadership. They were not even pre-established in advance of the work. The goals bubbled and were nurtured during the work together. Teachers’ reflections led them to their own success criteria, connected to the West Clermont Portrait of a Graduate. That’s a much different way of discussing the work than when we typically plan with the end in mind. 

As educators, many of our plans are forged in a fire of fear without a spark of curiosity. We’re afraid we won’t cover everything or that students won’t learn everything we cover. That fear often leads us to cling to rigid planning. Perhaps we should plan with the conditions and direction in mind and maybe not plan so much about concrete end goals. 

As we reflect on last year, it seems that the best plans unfolded with a diversity of thought in the room and response to stimulus, which often makes us curious to uncover more and take action.  In this case, we surveyed interested participants at the beginning and used their thinking and reflections to inform where we might want to start the conversation. Knowing a bit about our fellows in advance helped us to know where there might be a spark or energy in a room, and this allowed us to cultivate more meaningful dialogue sooner. We knew early in this process that increasing student engagement was top of mind for many of our teachers. We also learned that we meant different things when we used the words “student engagement,” but it was a clear entry point into the experience and dialogue.

True, we used some end measures to reflect upon success, such as The Student Experience 21 tool from Battelle for Kids. However, if we hadn’t allowed teachers the freedom to use that in their work as they saw fit, their work may not have been nearly as rich nor as learner-driven, as we hoped. Those engaged in learning needed the freedom to share with and listen to each other, to be problem finders, not just problem solvers. From that, we could see where the energy was in the room. Rather than take the learning away from others, telling them what we need them to do and how we want them to do it, we gave the flexibility to adjust and evolve as we all learned and evolved together: students, educators, and community partners alike. 

It’s not that we don’t know this is important. We know it’s important to make space for reflection. We know it’s important to model what we want to see in classrooms. We know the best efforts are often grassroots efforts co-led by the people closest to the classroom. We know all of this. So, how do we lose our way? 

We lose our way by treating too many things as very important.  Nothing is important when everything is on fire, and it’s all burning around us. Recently, someone shared a post with Meghan in which a teacher said they felt like “cookie-cutter data donkeys.” We’ve all been there where we feel like a cog in the wheel or a robot. These are red flags indicating that we have taken agency away from others. Teachers who do not have agency cannot lead classrooms where kids have agency. We cannot give to others that which we do not possess ourselves. 

One simple, effective strategy for keeping the “main thing the main thing” is simply proximity. Proximity, when well-executed, builds trust and reinforces listening to those working closest to our classrooms and students. Tim and I often interacted with these teachers, not just on PD days. When we put on our tennis shoes, roll up our sleeves, and come alongside others in the work, we can see people and the work more clearly. The work simply gets better when we are truly in it together.

This requires a certain self-awareness because we must recognize when we are on fire to the point that we are starting wildfires. We had to be willing to own where we were, so we could own where we were going in our work. This included owning how we were impacting other people and their work. Tim had to do this as a result of his observations on day three of our June meetings. A simple strategy that Meghan uses to tap into the metacognitive side of the work is to pay attention to her thoughts at any given moment. If something pops up that feels unhelpful in the moment, she says (to herself – we know that sounds odd), “Girl, we do not have time for this.” Being able to select our thoughts in moments, much like we select what we wear each day, gives such a stronger sense of efficacy and agency in our work. Also, asking others for feedback about how the work is going for them and how we are impacting each other in the work is critical to ensuring we make the impact we desire. This can be done through a well-placed and well-worded question that invites inquiry instead of judgment.

Perhaps this school year, we need less rushing around and planning. Instead, we need a loose direction, space for the work, and frequent opportunities for connection. Above all else, perhaps all we need is the most self-aware version of ourselves and others. Teachers need time to uncover. This means that when we give them time. We need fewer to-do lists, compliance checklists, boxes to fill out, and more space for true conversation, inquiry, and teacher-driven action research. In the end, professional development is an authentic project-learning experience for teachers, too, and where teachers have higher levels of agency and ownership, they’ll have more options and opportunities. Students will too.

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