Designing Conditions

Lately, I find myself reminiscing about my first teaching experience. It was student teaching with a veteran teacher, of 35 years. Heading into the first day, I can still recall being consumed with eager anticipation. The knowledge that would be bestowed upon me from a master teacher and veteran coach that’d forever change me, and shape my future. I was ready to change the world. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Then it happened. My cooperating teacher assigned three tasks to me, which he said would create conditions for success, for me as a new teacher, and down the line, for the students in my class.

1) Each morning, make the coffee for the Teacher’s Lounge.

2) For each lesson, write the objective on the chalk board.

3) Each weekend, make the time to organize a weekly plan book.

As a new teacher, full of enthusiasm, ideas, and limitless time and boundless energy, this was not exactly what I expected teaching to be. And as a kid in his early 20’s myself, I didn’t drink coffee let alone know how it was supposed to taste.

Being a rule follower, I fully embraced the assigned tasks. What I didn’t realize was what made this valuable to an aspiring teacher: it familiarized me with the importance of “the basics”. In the years that followed, I came to appreciate the importance of foundations and the value of predictability. Without them, how can we grow roots, that anchor us for future risk taking?

Throughout that semester, I came to love working in that classroom. Seeing how my cooperating teacher went out of his way to foster a safe learning space for his students, how he built in structure and fun, and how he connected with his kids on such a personalized level. These were all things I wanted for my own classroom someday. And this formative experience stayed with me, well into my first years of teaching.

Recently, the above image was shared via Twitter by an innovative Middle School leader whose work admire, Anthony Davidson (Follow him at @ajdavidsonsr). It got me thinking, how when I encounter teachers of today, my heart fills with doubt that I could compete with the talented innovators of today’s education force. Now responsible for hiring future teachers, I think and smile at the notion that I don’t think I could make it past a first-round teacher interview, if I were interviewed…by myself.
Thinking back on what worked in that 20th Century classroom, it came down to the teacher being firmly planted at the center of the classroom, with the charge to create conditions for success. This leaves me to wonder, if not for the teacher creating these conditions, would students not succeed? There was a time and a place for that. Today is different.

Today, if one adult, whether leading a school or a classroom, is responsible for creating conditions, what happens in the absence of that adult?

Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, but what might happen if, instead of creating conditions in our schools we shifted our mindsets to begin embracing the idea of designing conditions?

There are so many institutions we’ve come to live by  in our schools that we’ve historically accept as “the way it’s done” in school.

Back-to-School Night is one of those institutions.

It gives me great pride that this year, as a school community, our team pushed back on “the way we’ve always done it”. The following is what we did, how we did it, and why we did it. But first, let’s begin…with the why. Why change?

Do I like the teacher?

I’ve facilitated Back-to-School Night, from the classroom, I’ve attended it as a parent, and I’ve organized and implemented it as a school leader. In each of these experiences, there seems to be an overarching theme: Do I like the teacher? I’ve approached these situations coming to expect that I’d come out of it with a judgment on a teacher, a classroom, and a school year. And while good educators can sense good teaching from a mile away, why was I always satisfied with the superficiality associated with this experience? As a parent, I should’ve dug deeper, developed a relationship, and committed myself to a year of learning something new, from someone new.

This year would be different, because, this year would be the year I was committing myself to working with our team to design conditions to see something familiar with new lenses.

The night itself began like any other Back-to-School night. Our Welcome Back PTO meeting. Four class meetings separated by grade level. And 15 coveted Advisory period minutes. This first series provided parents with predictable comforts that they’d grown accustomed to over the years. It gave them something familiar to relate to, heading into what would be a busy night.

The next phase is where we shifted gears.

In years past, we’ve had parents progress throughout a truncated version of their child’s daytime schedule (an A-Day). Nine separate stops, each lasting nine minutes. Tired parents were left to interpret a student schedule and then expected to find their children’s classes in an unfamiliar setting.

As an alternative approach, we set four distinctly different 20-minute stations, having parents travel together, by grade level. The stations were as follows:

1. Two-Way School-Home (and Home-School) Communications

2. Humanities Grades 5-8

3. Math-Science-Technology Grades 5-8

4. Special Area Courses Grades 5-8

In the planning that led up to this less than three-hour event, is that the most important elements aren’t what you’d necessarily expect. And thus far, the rewards are tenfold. In reflecting on what made this a success for our community, moving forward, here are ten questions I will ask myself.

10 Questions School Leaders Should Ask

When Implementing a Complex Change:

1) Are we engaging in enough one-on-one conversations?
2) Are we seeking out the input of divergent thinkers?
3) Are we bringing small groups of people together?
4) Are we open to listening to constructive and honest feedback?
5) Are we committed to removing obstacles for one another?
6) Are we seeking out more than just “yes people”?
7) Are we prepared to under-promise and over-deliver?
8) Are we establishing safe and predictable feedback loops?
9) Are we ready to “go for it” and prepared to “own” the outcomes?
10) Are we honoring people’s courage to try something new?

As one might expect, much like those first imperfect pots of coffee, our evening was not perfect. But nor was in fatal. This experience reminded of the words of Sir Winston Churchill, who said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Being intentional with time, clear communication and a relentless willingness to work together and to improve together; that is what made all the difference.

26 Days of Learning Leadership
Day 1: Accountability
Day 2: BRAVO
Day 3: Collective Wisdom