Two Traits of Innovative Charter School Teachers

The internet is brimming over with writing on the key traits of innovators – “great” ones, “successful” ones, “strategic” ones, alike. Rather than regurgitate the litany of skills that super-duper innovators apparently must have, I’d like to focus on two key traits that are specific to the innovation we so desperately need in today’s urban charter schools.

Charter schools receive a mixed-bag of public support – they can be just as terrible at meeting the needs of students as the worst public schools – but their autonomy can create space for moonshots. When schools trust teachers to make instructional decisions for their students, innovation is possible. Given the resegregation of schools in the South and the persistent gap between schools for wealthy and the poor in New Orleans, innovation is necessary (and no, it’s not the silver bullet either). The standardized teaching methods of non-traditional and traditional teacher training alike leave little room for personalized learning, where student agency is king. To shift from test-centered to student-centered schools, we need experienced risk-takers leading our classrooms.

Experience

“Duh” fails to express what I assume to be many veteran educators’ reaction to this trait, but it is critically lacking in many charter schools. Ask any teacher about their first year teaching anywhere, and you’ll hear a tragic comedy of epic failures. Neil Armstrong was better prepared to walk on the moon than most teachers are to take over a classroom. When a school’s teaching population is 1/3rd to 1/2 first- and second-year teachers, the focus is constantly on classroom management and basic content knowledge. Even third-, fourth-, and fifth-year teachers are still figuring out the common misconceptions, engaging hooks, and thought-provoking “why” questions for every lesson on the scope and sequence. In my brief six years teaching, I barely scratched the surface of what was possible.

To innovate in the classroom requires a keen understanding of what traditional, successful teaching is. It also requires experience with the content – where do kids seem to get most tripped up? Where are the opportunities to make the content relevant to them? When during the year can we break the mold and try something new?

Teachers innovate when they are passionate about a problem. When you’re a new teacher, most of what’s happening around you is problematic. Experienced teachers are better positioned to articulate the problem that innovation should address.

Risk-Taking

Experienced teachers benefit from their file cabinets – years of unit plans, behavior management systems, Powerpoints, projects, and strategies for engaging introverts and students with ADHD. But experience can breed complacency and stifle innovation; it is far easier to continue on using the strategies that have made teaching successful – or tolerable – than to try something new.

Innovative teachers see value in failure. Undoubtably, every teacher has experienced failure – likely on a daily basis. Experienced teachers have likely failed the most; great teachers learn the most from their failures. To take risks is to be open to failure and to engage with it – to ‘fail forward.’

“Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs

Risk-takers focus on the opportunity in innovation, but they also know when to say “no.” When rolling out the simple iPod interface, Steve Jobs responded to criticism about ‘missing’ features by saying, “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” Innovators are willing to draw a line in the stand for the problem they are passionate about, rather than drawing a wide net.

What else?

There are dozens of other traits that make a teacher truly innovative, from perseverance and reflection to curiosity and empathy. (George Couros touches on many of them in this blog post that turned into his book.) Focusing on these two traits is by no means comprehensive; rather it’s a starting point for the greenest schools among us, where groups of passionate, inexperienced educators are working tirelessly to improve opportunities for kids. Supporting the few experienced teachers in taking risks is the least we can do to encourage innovation in our schools. And it might just keep them in the classroom for a few more years, too.

What other traits do you find in innovative teachers? How can we help teachers to find these traits in themselves?

#FailForward: The Pilot

An entire chapter of the book Go Blended by Liz Arney is dedicated to running successful pilots of blended learning initiatives. For those looking for an in-depth explanation of a successful pilot, order her book (seriously, it’s fantastic). This post will outline a few of the lessons I learned the hard way from our most recent pilot.

At ReNEW, we run a year-long schedule in an attempt to prevent the ‘summer slump’ for our students. When October rolls around, we take a two-week long ‘break’ called Intersession.  This 10-day period is an opportunity for a small group of our students to receive remediation – to fill a few gaps and help catch them up before the next quarter starts. Due to the personalized nature of intersession, blended learning software is used to meet students on their level. We decided to pilot an adaptive math program to compare its effectiveness with a program currently in use on many of our campuses. Specifically, we wanted to see how a truly ‘adaptive’ program would affect student achievement, and to determine if the program would be worth piloting on a larger scale later on in the year.

In attempting the pilot, I learned a number of lessons the hard way; many of them are quite obvious, and all of them are covered in depth in Liz’s book.

1. Plan Ahead
I have all sorts of excuses for this one, but ultimately it became clear that I needed to find a way to set-up everything as far in advance as possible. We didn’t know who would be on the rosters until just days before Intersession started, which put us in a holding pattern. In retrospect, I could have pushed for a full SIS integration weeks in advance, and followed-up with the unique intersession classes once we had rosters in hand. Instead, when it came time to load the students, the SIS integration took a shockingly long time – leaving teachers and students hanging without access to the program they had been promised for the first three days of Intersession.

2. Vendors Make Mistakes
Despite my egregious frustrations from our set-up this fall – I had no idea vendors could be so difficult – I trusted our new friends when they told me we could be up and running in the short timeframe we needed. I even trusted the automated email on Sunday night alerting me to a successful student data upload, only to find out it unexpectedly that rosters were not working Monday morning. This is a consistent problem with edtech companies. So what seems to be happening? For one, the sales and support departments never seem to be on the same page. As our data guys continue to remind me, I need to start talking more directly with the folks that make the software work – not the ones who are selling me on it. We could have alleviated a number of problems along the way with more streamlined and accurate communication from the vendor.

3. Communication Matters
To build on that second point, accurate, timely communication is critical to the success of a pilot (and most of what we do!). School leaders need to communicate their intentions – curriculum needs, student rosters, etc. – ahead of time. Vendors need to communicate the actual over the theoretical. Most importantly, I have come to learn how important it is for me to communicate more often and with greater clarity with everybody: leaders need deadlines and updates; teachers need to know what to expect when; vendors need to know our needs.

4. Clarify Expectations
Liz does a wonderful job of explaining the how and why of this. How we communicate the purpose, desired outcomes, and strategy behind a pilot is as important as the pilot itself (sort of). Mis-communicating can cause a good pilot to go bad – quickly. Controlling the expectations of all involved will allow your pilot to give you the information you need to make decisions moving forward. I’ve learned this lesson best from the vendors themselves, actually – nearly every single one has promised something – a timeframe, SIS integration capabilities, program features, etc. – that was unrealistic and ultimately fell short; instead of planning appropriately and communicating early with teachers, we get frustrated as our expectations aren’t met. This disregard for the experience of the teacher forces me to rethink the usefulness of the product. From this experience, I am learning to push vendors to provide more accuracy and clarity, in hopes that I can do so with our leaders and teachers.

If I take one thing away from my experience with vendors this year, it’s to expect delays and false promises. Every yes comes with an asterisk – “yes, we can integrate with Clever” could have any number of caveats, from “if you pay for it,” to “if you create extremely specific structures that mimic our system (and don’t work with yours),” to “if you wait 6 months!”
 

Our pilot will conclude in the coming days. Hopefully, we’ll learn about the impact of the product itself on student learning – and not more about how not to pilot.

Fail forward!

Hitting Reset

Photo by Flickr user Redux

When I took on my new tech role back in June, I approached it with a focus on teachers. In my years in the classroom (the only job I’ve known is teaching), I came to believe that teachers not only were the leverage points in schools but also that they deserved better. By that I mean that teachers are too often questioned, unsupported, reigned-in, and dismissed by those in leadership positions.  So when I began this work, I committed myself to the teachers – in hopes of winning them over with constant support, and providing them with the resources and guidance for successful tech implementation. If change management requires an initial focus on the innovators and early-adopters of an organization, then I must be doing something right. Right?

Well, the irony I’ve come to see (with generous advice from folks internally and externally – including Liz Arney and Shawn Rubin) is that indeed it is the ones in leadership positions who allow for the innovators to flourish or fail. Simply put, leaders are the leverage point; they have the ability to support or stifle innovation in their classrooms. A few reasons why I’m stumbling into this realization…

1. Leaders have the ultimate say – Under the charter umbrella, our schools are given a great deal of autonomy.  Therefore, leaders are given the power to make decisions – nearly all decisions – as to what is best for their school. If I’m hoping for a teacher to pilot a station-rotation model, it will require the school leaders support – not just approval. The leader needs to see the value in the program, because inevitably things will go wrong with technology (internet outages, new management requirements, furniture rearrangement or acquisition, schedule restructuring, or any number of other issues that will require building-level support). If a school leader’s vision doesn’t include blended learning, then scaling the pilot becomes practically impossible, as well; one teacher’s innovation will simply fall flat without the active support and advocacy for innovation. On the contrary, a leader who is committed is not only going to support that pilot but actively spread it to others if it’s successful.

2.  Leaders have greater reach – I met with an assistant principal recently who wanted to identify next steps in supporting his teachers use of a blended program. As he explained his system, whereby each teacher was already checking the data biweekly, and using it to intervene with students, I realized how much more powerful an engaged school leader is than myself. Had I attempted to push his teachers to do the exact same thing, I would have fallen short – I don’t have the same rapport with his staff, I don’t see their classes daily, I don’t know their students personally, and I don’t have the power to hold them accountable and make demands if necessary. Leaders are in the building all day every day; they’re able to check-in with the teachers in their building on an as-needed (at least daily) basis; they’re able to push teachers to follow through on the initiatives that they’ve outlined for their building. I can’t compete with that; But I can support it. If I can support other leaders to make similar commitments to consistent data analysis and action, my impact will be exponentially greater. Leaders are the leverage point.

All of this said, I haven’t given up on the teachers. To the contrary, I’ve doubled-down on my efforts around the teacher-leader program I’ve envisioned from the beginning. The INSPIRES Fellowship will be an avenue to leverage rockstar teachers within each school, not only to support blended learning in their own buildings but also – I hope – to spread innovation and best practices across the network. This program is, in Shawn Rubin’s words, “a building leader play.” By that, he means that the program’s success will hinge on leaders’ valuing and support of their teachers and the program; with leader support, we will be able to commit ourselves to supporting innovation across schools.

So I’ve hit reset. I’m going to restructure my time to reflect this shift, in hopes of making a greater impact with my work. This means monthly leader check-ins to evaluate progress on specific blended goals, along with constant walk-throughs with leaders to assess needs. Ultimately, my job is to promote and support personalized learning for all of our students. To do so, the work will need to support each school leader’s vision and goals for their students, meeting the instructional needs unique to their program. But who knows? Might need to hit reset again soon.

Belated Reflections from #ISTE2015

Photo by flickr user Wesley Fryer.

Attending conferences was a consistently powerful experience for me as a classroom teacher. While my session choices failed me at times, I left each conference feeling more empowered and inspired. For my first ISTE, however, I landed in Philly with a new purpose. My focus shifted from discovering ways of improving my craft in the classroom to identifying best practices for supporting teachers in my new role outside of it. And while I found ISTE to be overwhelming (not surprisingly) and somewhat lacking, I left feeling equally inspired to empower teachers.

Focused on supporting personalized learning and technology integration in an urban school district, here were my (albeit limited) ISTE 2015 takeaways. For my full notes from the conference, click here.

1) Learn from the rest

There are so many organizations, districts, school-systems, individuals, and non-profits who are already doing this work. Duh. I know. The classic, ignorant view of edtech being “new” continues to frustrate to amaze me, but I still didn’t realize or know of the specific partners who are working in situations so similar to ours in New Orleans. The few district-focused sessions at ISTE brought together panels of leaders from across the country. Technology directors, professional learning leaders, superintendents, teacher leaders, non-profit chiefs, university fellows and others shared the many lessons they’ve learned in trying to promote and support personalized learning in their schools.

What inspired me most was how much work has gone into this new focus (I’m extremely hesitant to call anything with a long-history in education a movement, so I’ll go with focus instead) in the past 5-10 years. With the explosion in Chromebook sales of late, reflective of a combination of cheaper access to hardware and proliferation of adaptive software, blended learning has established itself as a potentially effective means of personalizing learning for students on scale (emphasis on potentially given the lack of definitive research supporting blended learning’s effectiveness, the focus on low-level thinking, and the current shortcomings of software, not to mention the problematic belief that access is synonymous with equality). For schools with increasing class sizes, widening ranges in entering learning levels, and increasing political pressures around standardized test scores (woof), its no surprise to see the push for blended learning.

What ISTE demonstrated, however, was that leaders are doing the hard work of identifying how best to support teachers in personalizing learning for students. For veteran, experienced teachers, this shift is forcing (for some) an uncomfortable change, asking these teachers to take new risks. For new teachers, blended looks vastly different than the K-12 (at least, K-8 for sure) education they experienced, making it harder to relate from the student experience. To support teachers in personalizing learning for our students, we are leveraging computers. (As Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute pointed out, “if the objective is mastery, and the challenge is personalized learning, then the solution is blended learning.”) While computers do not, by themselves, personalize learning (blog post for another day), they do have a place in supporting personalized learning. The question these organizations have sought to answer is how we support educators themselves.

2) Professional development needs to empower teachers.

One of the consistent themes of so many of my sessions (keeping in mind I sought these out, as opposed to presentations on literacy programs or Minecraft) was the need to reform – or as the ‘innovators’ will say, disrupt – professional development. We all know that PD can be bad – really really bad. (I gave some ‘bad’ PD just this week!) What’s surprising is how ‘bad’ PD is still the norm in schools. ‘Bad’ is a lazy word here, admittedly; unpacked, ‘bad’ PD is that PD that typically fails to meet the needs of individual teachers, and has been bastardized by corporate, top-down accountability measures that assume a great deal about lots of people being forced to sit in a room together.

The sessions at ISTE included a range of quality – some folks delivering sit-and-get PD about how not to give sit-and-get PD, while others revealed truly innovative systems and processes to reach more teachers with higher quality PD on greater scale. Much of that PD revolves around the use of “blended” or “flipped” PD, allowing teachers to access resources on-demand (even e-courses) instead of requiring 100% face-to-face.

It was inspiring to see how many districts are choosing to trust their teachers with their own learning – a seemingly obvious idea, but one that all educators can attest is normally not the case; instead of the rigid, top-down requirement of certain types of PD at certain times, some are moving in the direction of the 20% time/FedEx model of allowing teachers choice to determine their own professional path. Empowering teachers to own their learning is a keystone in the vision for how I plan to support teachers this year.

3) The lack of diversity in edtech needs to change.

I’ve experienced the whiteness and maleness of tech conferences before, so I can’t honestly say I’m surprised – especially as a white male who regularly reads Audrey Watters and Rafranz Davis. But ISTE exposed the systemic, entrenched nature of the problem. What stuck most with me was the maleness and whiteness of the people in public, leading positions – keynotes (with Soledad O’Brien as the exception), session leaders, vendors, Twitter celebrities. There are pioneering women and people of color who are clearly bucking the trend (see Audrey and Rafranz, as well as Jose Vilson, Sarah Thomas, Jennie Magiera, Ken Shelton and many many others), and they deserve greater voice in our PLNs and conference sessions. As a straight white male who presents at conferences, I can’t help but be conscious of my own perpetuation of the problem, and I’m open to any and all thoughts on what I can do as an ally. It’s not just on ISTE. It’s on all of us.