In November, I posted some of the efforts and goals I was targeting within my school for the year. As promised, I will now review how I’ve done. I had a wide range of goals and they were kinda lofty. Over the course of the year, I’ve learned more about the challenges that are faced in the actual implementation of systemic changes. Some of the targets I originally began with have shifted as my school’s priorities have changed, as well as my own priorities and interests. Some goals I dropped not because I didn’t believe they were important, but because I saw that I’d be fighting a losing battle. I attempted to focus my efforts in areas where I knew I could make some headway or that I had earned enough political capital to advocate for.
As a review, here were some of the goals I’d outlined in November:
1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school
2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions
3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior
5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)
6) Implement the Response to Intervention model
7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic
I’ve encountered substantial frustrations in working towards my goals. These hurdles have taught me that for real change to occur, you have to spend a significant amount of time and effort working on the most basic foundations that will sustain that change. For example, one of the systems we were working to put into place in our school was structured grade level team meetings, held according to a consistent protocol. We envisioned these teams successfully performing inquiry into student work and collaboratively designing instructional units, interventions, and assessments together. And some teams did achieve this to a degree that was quite substantive in comparison to the past. However, the reality is that sustaining a focus amongst a group of teachers over the course of a school year requires some fundamental components in place that was all too often lacking. It requires a strong facilitator, consistent and frequent meetings, planning and preparation for the meetings, well established roles and responsibilities, an administration willing to hold teachers accountable for their meetings, and open channels of communication. When these components are scattered or missing, running meetings that are productive can be highly difficult. It’s also difficult when the majority of teachers view the meetings as an encroachment on their time instead of as a useful opportunity to collaborate as professionals.
Despite these challenges, however, progress was made. Some goals we’ve made substantial headway on, such as introducing the Common Core Standards and making the process of inquiry more authentic. Others, we’ve only begun to lay down the groundwork for. For example, thanks to the help of our network STOPP team, we now have an in-school team established for behavior referrals, and we have an official behavioral referral form. The fact that the groundwork has been laid is in and of itself noteworthy, because now there is a basis for renewed effort towards achieving real progress in the next year.
One of the biggest challenges I now am aware of that we face is that of the specters of external accountability, in the form of state testing and reviews of the school. In both circumstances, shit hits the fan. The administration freaks out and runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, and this induces the teachers and their students to assume an unhealthy dose of stress as well. I am not opposed to standardized testing nor to school quality reviews or state audits, but I think that the high stakes attached to them are blown far out of proportion to their actual value. All of the hard work our teams had been making fell to the wayside once we began gearing up for testing and an audit was being performed on our school (we hadn’t made AYP for some student populations). Teachers spent their time drilling in test taking skills and making sure that they had student portfolios neatly accessible for adult visitors. The administration spent its time making sure the halls were decorated and bulletin boards looked pretty. These things are perhaps a necessary evil, but I don’t think that long-term sustained efforts such as team meetings should be allowed to fizzle due to these external pressures. I am beginning to see why teachers become jaded and lambast the systems of accountability that produce this kind of short-term hysteria and frenzy, which is ultimately detrimental to real learning and progress.
One goal which I have expanded upon is the idea of making the process of inquiry more authentic. As it was rolled out to us by the DOE, inquiry was all about these rather dry and academic methods of looking at student data. Which I think can be extremely valuable–but it requires a foundation of professional teams with an established protocol, a culture of professionalism and collaboration. And building that foundation in a public school, as I mentioned above, is significantly harder than it sounds. It also requires that the school has a process of curriculum mapping in place, or at least an acknowledged and shared curriculum map in general. When this isn’t really there, inquiry work becomes hollow and useless, because here we are, looking at our students’ deficits and targeting those deficits, but we don’t have any guide to refer back to when we acknowledge that we need to collectively bolster our instruction in certain areas. Once I realized this, I focused most of my efforts towards the end of the year on building a foundation for curriculum development in our school.
I’ve written at length already about my views on the importance of curriculum, so it should be obvious that I place extreme value on it. I also place a lot of weight on the value of professional learning communities. I believe that curriculum must be developed within the forum of professional learning communities. So I focused my main efforts during the school year on promoting the structures for a professional learning community to develop and in developing the technological resources for curriculum development to occur.
Over the course of this year, we’ve been encouraging teachers to begin actively using our school’s Google account to share documents, record meeting minutes, and communicate and collaborate. Even simply getting teachers to log on has proven to be a significant hurdle, and I don’t say this merely to criticize non-technologically savvy teachers. Most of our computers are clunky and old, running Internet Explorer, which does not operate well with Google Doc functions. It makes it pretty hard for folks not accustomed to troubleshooting on computers to get a handle on. These obstacles to merely gaining access to the online resources are significant, because it reduces the efficiency of being able to simply email all the staff and know that people will respond online. Instead, in order to organize things, we’ve had to rely on a combination of word-of-mouth, printing out memos to place in mailboxes, and email. And since I and other teachers have extremely limited time, this greatly decreases the likelihood of us collaborating outside of the venue of scheduled meetings.
Anyway, I’m realizing that I could go on and on about this all day, but it’s probably pretty boring stuff to an outsider. So let me just wrap this up by stating the things that we did accomplish:
- The Special Education Team met at least 14 times over the course of the year, and discussed issues critical to special educators in NYC, such as implementing the new IEP system (SESIS), understanding Response to Intervention, understanding Phase I special education reform, issues of compliance with state law, building communication amongst all special education service providers, and conducting Functional Behavioral Analysis
- The Inquiry Team and corollary grade level teams met fairly regularly until state testing rolled around, and began the process of establishing a more consistent protocol
- I introduced the concept of core domain knowledge to the school, as well as the concept of developing a structured and systematic approach to developing curriculum within the forum of a professional learning community
- Technology was utilized more widely and some basic issues of access were addressed