Strengthening Teacher Voice

Can I just say — and I am most likely speaking for all teachers at this point in the year — that I am TIRED? It’s that time of the year, after testing stress and pressure has been lifted, but immune systems are shot and influenza, colds, and all manner of viral infection spread like wildfire through schools, at the very same time that kids are responding to the warmer weather and approaching summer and going crazy . . .

So today’s post will be short. I wanted to highlight some great comments by a teacher that were added in belatedly on the group notes page I set up for my presentation on schools as ecosystems at EdCampNYC. Whoever you are out there, I’m listening, and I thank you for your thoughtful input.

As I think about your school as an ecosystem idea I think a lot more attention has to be placed on the systematization of school but in a way that allows it to change with the times and be fluid yet dependable. Often times schools are run based on personalities or in a dictatorial manner and we need to start running it from the bottom up. [Bold added]

So true. This idea of combining flexibility and systematization is a hard nut to crack.
How do we systematize the right things, while allowing for flexibility, and how do we do so in a way that allows for distributed leadership that enables communication and decision-making to travel upwards and across, not just top down?
This particular teacher had insight into that:

I think we need to strengthen teacher voice and in strengthening teacher voice we could strengthen our schools. The idea [Schools as Ecosystems] is MORE than cute it’s actually intriguing and viable. And it has stayed with me. [Bold and insertion added]

Thank you for that. And I strongly agree, strengthening teacher voice is key. For policy level aspects of this, I invite you to check out our page on teacher voice groups. I have worked with an awesome organization working to uplift and empower teacher voice called The VIVA Project. The VIVA Project works to plug teachers directly into the process of policymaking.

Within the school, however, how can we work to strengthen teacher voice, and set up structures and practices that better empower teachers? What kind of governance model will best cultivate trust and respect teacher voice in decision-making processes?

I’m just going to throw some quick ideas on this out there and let them hang, and I’d like to return to them in the future:

  • Collaboration and dialogue are key and must be formally implemented in a school — strong leadership is necessary to set the tone and structure for how and why teachers collaborate
  • The VIVA Project uses an online discussion forum called the idea exchange before initiating action plans and policy reports. Everyone At the Table has developed a structured conversation to engage and respect teacher perspectives around the issue of teacher evaluation and accountability. How can we systematize these kinds of structured democratic collaborations at a school level?

These are great points to bring to focus for looking at schools as ecosystems! Thank you for your input, and I welcome any other teachers to check out my presentation and add their perspectives on our group feedback page on Google Docs!

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Links and Reflections on Schools as Ecosystems

On Friday, GothamSchools posted a piece I wrote that ties directly into our vision of schools as ecosystems. I outlined the fundamental importance of relationships in a school, and how the attempt to disaggregate an individual teacher’s impact on a student is misguided. I then proposed some concrete ways we could hold schools accountable for providing a solid education to children:

So what should we be measuring, then? How can we possibly hold schools accountable for the learning of the students they are responsible for? 

My advice is to recognize the importance of relationships in a school in raising student achievement, and seek a means of measuring the context of a school, such as the trust and strength of relationships between the adults in the building, the ratio of positive to negative words used, and the quality of the physical environment. We can stop shelling out public money yearly to testing corporations, and instead adopt a randomized testing schedule, and we could put some of that money instead towards the much more important face-to-face accountability of leaders stepping foot into schools, rather than examining disaggregated data dissociated from its context. This could be coupled with some modified form of the inspectorate model currently used in the United Kingdom. 

But contexts alone are not the only service that schools provide. Schools deliver content to students, and all too often, the critical importance of a strong curriculum is completely ignored. We can measure the strength of a school’s curriculum by assessing how well it is horizontally and vertically aligned, as well as in how well it targets and addresses student gaps in background knowledge. 

Let’s stop pretending, therefore, that students are products. It takes a whole school to educate a whole child. And that whole school must have a strong, coherent curriculum that is delivered in an environment of trust and respect that promotes well-being, risk-taking, and empathy.

On Saturday, I presented an overview of Schools as Ecosystems at EdCampNYC. It was a good experience, as it forced me to grapple with how to articulate the framework as something more than a mere metaphor. I want to thank the educators in attendance for their lively discussions and critical feedback.

What went well:

  • I gained valuable insight into areas of thought I need to work on clarifying and refining, such as how underlying values of schools as ecosystems might tie concretely into policy measures, or what catch-all terms like “integration” really would look like in application, or how content taught in a school could be better aligned to the local economy
  • Many of the share outs from educators during the session served–in my mind–to reinforce further the great need for a shift in education reform towards the measures Will and I are advocating for
  • I learned that teachers want to know what they can do NOW to shift towards developing their schools and classrooms as an ecosystem
What I need to work on:
  • One science teacher’s feedback to me after the session was that Schools as Ecosystems as a model was “cute.” I’d like to transform that perspective into “viable!”
  • Another teacher’s feedback was that the model is “radical.” I don’t think of it in that way — though I suppose if we are pushing against the status quo of current education reform perspectives, it might be considered so. But I think I’d prefer our model to be considered simply a better way of doing things
  • Much of the questioning and feedback from teachers pushed me to try make my ideas more concrete and actionable — this was great pushback, because this is exactly why I wanted to put it out there — to find out how I can better develop it as a methodology, not simply as a metaphor
It was nice to learn directly from other educators about their thoughts, professional perspectives about their respective school environments, and feelings about schools as ecosystems as a potential framework for approaching education reform. Thank you again for participating and helping me forward this positive vision of education reform.

Join Schools as Ecosystems Live at EdCampNYC

I am going to make my presentation at EdCampNYC on Schools as Ecosystems! The presentation will be at 11:20 AM in Room 124 134

If you’re not here in person, you can still follow along and participate. Here’s how:
View the presentation on Google Docs HERE
Watch and collaborate with participants as they give their input and feedback on the presentation on a Google Docs group note page HERE
Follow the hashtags #edcampnyc and #schoolecosystem on Twitter or on the widget below!

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Schools as Ecosystems at EdCampNYC

I’m beginning to get a bit sick, but barring any bedridden debilitation, I plan on heading out to EdCamp NYC this Saturday. I’m hoping to lead a session on Schools as Ecosystems in order to present and discuss our ideas with other educators and get their feedback and insight on how to refine our model and make it a praxis, rather than simply a metaphor.

In case you’ve never heard of EdCamp, it’s based on the idea of an “unconference,” which is where sessions are led by attendees and the agenda is open to all to create upon arrival. You are free to attend whichever session strikes your fancy and come and go as you will. I’m not too sure where the idea of an unconference was birthed, but I have the sense that it originated in the software engineering or social media business world.

Will and I did some brainstorming on what we’ve got outlined so far in our model, and I’m excited to see what other educators will add to our vision.

Here’s my agenda for the session:

  • Discuss the current state of education reform
  • Present a new vision for reform
  • Schools as Ecosystems as a set of values
  • Schools as Ecosystems as a methodology for school design and evaluation
  • Envisioning the school as an ecosystem
I’ll share my presentation, outline, and notes from the meeting as soon it’s over.