Asset-Based Experiences

Our school district started a Teacher Academy this school year. In essence, juniors and seniors take classes to learn more about school-based professions and effective pedagogy, and then seniors also have the opportunity to participate in internships for a few class periods a day. These internships take place in our elementary schools and middle school. It’s a wonderful experience for both our high school students and the students they support. Our elementary and middle school teachers are also grateful for the support.

This program happens to be located next to our professional meeting space which is housed in our high school. It dawned on me that there are many different ways we can partner with this program especially given it’s close proximity to us. Not to mention, student voice is one of the most underutilized resources in our schools.

Every week our district administrators, principals, associate principals, and coaches go on instructional rounds. We leave positive notes of encouragement for the teachers we visit. Once we’ve exited each classroom, we also fill out a form about what we saw. The form does not include teacher names but does capture the content and grade level. There are many purposes for these walks. We review our purpose each week when we gather, so we don’t lose our why.

The purpose our learning walks:

  • To provide specific, positive feedback to teachers
  • To practice looking at effective instructional practices and strengthen our collective capacity to engage in dialogue with each other and with teachers about instruction
  • To gather data to inform professional learning needs

This week we decided to invite students from the Teacher Academy to join us. Seven seniors joined us around the table. We gathered before going into classrooms to both get to know each a bit better but to also help them understand our purpose for these walks. Before organizing ourselves into small groups of administrators and students, we showed them our formula for giving positive feedback on post-it notes in classrooms. We use 30 second feedback which is a strategy we learned from Mike Rutherford author of the Artisan Teacher.

It’s basically a simple strategy for giving specific praise in a way that keeps in the focus on learning versus things we personally like. It goes something like this:

Hi Ms. Smith! Thank you for having us today! When you gave students an opportunity to turn and talk, their engagement and energy during the lesson went up which makes deeper learning more accessible. Nice move! – ML

And off we went! The seniors joined us in visiting freshmen classes. The administrators/coaches wrote quick notes while we were in the rooms and when the four of us stepped out into the hall together, the two seniors in the group paired up to work on their post it notes, and the administrator/coach pairing worked on completing the form which we keep as a short-cut on our phones.

When we gathered after this experience, the takeaways from our students blew us away. To start, their thoughtful insights about classroom environment and effective pedagogy were deeply insightful. It is amazing how knowledgeable they’ve become in just a few short months. Additionally, their professionalism was top tier. We had explained our norms to them which include not saying people’s names if you have something critical to say about what you saw in the classroom, and they honored and upheld our norm in such a beautiful human-centered manner.

An unintended consequence from this experience was their heightened respect for the hard work and intentionality our teachers were pouring into their lesson. They explained that more goes into planning (for them as high school students) than they realized; they said they respect their teachers more deeply now with that understanding. Some of them said they thought all seniors should have this experience. They also saw the value of positive feedback as a way to encourage teacher growth and learning. Finally, because they in teaching professions classes and internships, they left with ideas they wanted to try with the students they served.

There is a lot we can learn from this situation. To start, trust students. We were a little nervous about how this would go, but this was the most encouraging and rich dialogue we’ve had to date in our instructional rounds. Sitting around a table with students changes the conversation in the best possible way because they are living the experiences we are working to create for them. Their feedback is paramount to all other feedback.

But we also learned the value of having students empathize with the teacher experience. I’m a big believer in student voice and shadow a student days, so we as the adults can empathize with the student experience and empathy is a critical first step in the design process. However, I had not considered how powerful it would be to have students doing the same. When we all, regardless of our roles, have an opportunity to understand each other and our roles within the school in a more meaningful way, the sense of care and connection goes up. When our sense of understanding and community goes up, deeper learning is more likely to occur.

Finally, we spend a lot of time starting with deficits in schools. We shoot ideas down because we can think of reasons why something won’t work. We focus on learning deficits in classrooms and on state assessments. We talk a lot about what we aren’t seeing. Our kids need to know how to read and think critically. I’m not arguing that. However, no one is inspired by a relentless focus on their deficits. I learned from my good friend, Dr. Tim Kubik, it can be more powerful to focus instead on what assets we do indeed have. The strengths and skills and special talents that students and teachers bring into schools every day are endless. If we were to spend more energy amplifying the good instead of diagnosing the not so good, I think the energy in our schools would change.

Our positive post-it notes might seem like a frivolous endeavor to some, but what I’ve learned from Tim is that people often take note of what we didn’t write without calling it out. It feels good to have good work celebrated with specificity. Many teachers keep our post-it notes up on the walls behind their desk. At the end of the day, we all want to be appreciated for our contributions. I’ve yet to visit a classroom where I couldn’t find something worth celebrating on that post-it note!

My challenge to all of us to take seriously the roll of being asset-based in our thinking. The belief that everyone in our schools, students and staff alike, have something important to contribute is critical to creating a positive school experience. When we tap into the unique assets that each individual brings with them, our sense of belonging and ownership for learning outcomes goes up. The work goes better when we all leverage our strengths.

What is one way you can celebrate the good next week? How might you invite students to tables for important conversations?

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