Several years ago, when I was teaching 6th grade, I began experimenting with standards-based grading. I was actually running two experiments simultaneously: by myself in my 6th grade reading classes, and with my 6th grade team in our English classes (yep, we identified reading and English as two separate classes – uggghhh!), under the guidance of our data coach and administration. Both were the result of the work our district had begun with Solution Tree.
When I reflect on the process of both of those experiments, I have a few take-aways. First, the experiment that was occurring in my classroom, on my own, resulted in some major learning. I was attempting to take one standard, break it into learning targets, assess each student on their proficiency towards each learning target, AND having each student track their own progress on each learning target. It was messy and rolled out in a clunky way and I’m not sure those students really understood the direction we were going, but it has served to further my understanding of standards-based grading. Second, the experiment that was occurring with my sixth grade team was equally as messy and clunky, but I had the support of a team to collaborate with, and I had some pressure to keep doing the work. Each member of our team was accountable for doing the work and bringing our results back to the team. It served as a reminder of the importance of collaboration and accountability, while furthering my understanding of standards-based grading.
Pressure and Support
When I find myself struggling to understand why teachers are hesitant to roll forward with initiatives we have going in our district, I remind myself that this hesitancy likely results from a lack of skill, rather than will. Not to mention that teachers are exhausted. I reflect on the experience I just described with standards-based grading; I didn’t experience tons of success initially, so I was naturally hesitant to jump fully on board. Some success did eventually come, and I was able to access resources that supported the process of transitioning from traditional grading to standards-based grading. Acquiring the skill to utilize standards based grading took time, effort, failure, and success (oh, and I wasn’t ever 100% successful – there was/is still much to learn!). Teachers need time, effort, access to resources, pressure, and support to acquire the skills needed to tackle new (which aren’t always so new) initiatives.
In the world of instructional coaching, we think about providing both pressure and support for teachers. According to Michael Fullan in Motion Leadership: The Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy, the two work hand-in-hand, but are applied by different entities. Pressure is provided by administration and is “…dependent on building a shared vision for school improvement and holding teachers accountable.” Support is provided by instructional coaches (and I would add from administration, as well) and is “Dependent on establishing student-centered partnerships with teachers and working with them to reach their goals for student learning.”
I continue to try to find the right amount of pressure and support for my own learning, and for the teachers that I get to work with. When teachers are reluctant to engage in a new process (standards-based grading, hosting an SEL class, adhering to a new curriculum, reporting proficiency on priority standards, sharing data with team members), it is perfectly understandable. There is MUCH to learn with any new initiative. I believe the key, here, is to be humble enough to recognize that some of our practices are not the most effective, be willing to collaborate, remain curious, and be vulnerable enough to make, admit, and fix mistakes that are bound to occur when we tackle something new.
Dr. Tracy Weeden summarizes this idea beautifully in an interview with Laura Stewart on The Reading League’s Teaching Reading & Learning, The Podcast: “Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. So it’s about being humble enough to admit that and seeking those answers relentlessly until we get them.” She goes on to say that districts need to be willing to find systems that are working, tour those places, ask questions, and replicate them.
I know that we need to go slow to go fast; I know that teachers need the above-mentioned time, effort, access to resources, pressure and support. At the same time, our students need the best of us now. We have students who need teachers and leaders who are willing to model what it means to be humble, collaborative, curious, and vulnerable. Eric Jensen put it this way in a recent post: “Avoid expectations of perfection of yourself; expect constant effort. Every day, do something. Every day, put one foot forward. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe said, ‘Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have.’ That’s profound (and useful) So… you are about done reading. Go ahead and select the strategy to start NOW!”
The 2021-2022 school year has proven to be as tough as the 2020-2021 school year. Each has come with its own degrees and examples of “toughness;” we are experiencing some incredibly tough times in education. Each time I think about how tough things are, I return to this question: When has education (life) been easy? Every year in education (at least in my 26 years) has presented its own host of challenges. Please know that I am not, in any way, trying to diminish the extreme challenges that have come with Covid; my point is that we will always face challenges. Can it be as simple as living by the quote that flashed across a billboard on my run yesterday, “Gather strength from life’s storms.” The storms are always going to be there. Some storms will be far worse than others. How can we take the lessons from each storm to continue to learn and grow?
This past week has brought incredible tragedy to our high school as well as to a high school in a neighboring district. Southeast Iowa is currently weathering a terrible storm in these two high schools. As our communities work through intense pain and a search for healing, what are the lessons that we will walk away with? What will be put in place so that these acts are not repeated? Chuck Vandenberg, editor of The Pen City Current, always with the ability to tug at his readers’ heart strings, wrote in an article today, “I’m not sure there’s ever been a more critical time for a community to examine a problem, define an approach, and execute a plan.” With heavy hearts, we will weather this storm together.