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June 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 9

Dare to Go First

Being a change agent means taking the leap before anyone else.
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"Someone has to go first." My swim coach's words repeated in my 9-year-old mind as I shivered from adrenaline, my toes grabbing the edge of the high dive. Her challenge pushed me out into space as my body arched into an awkward dive before breaking the surface of the water. Clumsily combining a dolphin kick and a dog paddle, I moved toward the side of the pool, reveling in my accomplishment.
Someone has to go first.
Even when it's scary. Even when you're all by yourself. That's what I knew then, and that's what I know now.

Leading Change

Change agents know this lesson all too well—that bringing about necessary change often means taking a risk and being the first to try something new. It not only applies to swim teams, start-ups, and social activists, but it also applies to schools.
On my own school campus, change started when a small group of teachers decided it was better to be brave than to be boring. Down deep, we knew we needed to change the way our classrooms engaged in discussion.
Seven English teachers decided to go first. Because of scheduling, we knew it would be more efficient to record videos of our classes and then meet at a later time to watch and talk about what we observed. We found that sharing video, even in this small group, was difficult and sometimes painful. It's one thing to view your classroom from your own charitable point of view. It's quite another to watch it on film with a group—because you suddenly gain the omniscient point of view.
But, as psychologist Susan Jeffers says, you have to feel the fear and do it anyway. Watching myself on a screen was as disorienting as standing on a diving board. What I saw didn't match what I thought I'd done. During my "engaging lesson," Kenny slipped an earbud behind his black curls to listen to his favorite song, sharing the other one with Kelly, while Mikayla colored her nails with a highlighter, Austin slept, and at least a dozen students were texting or posting on social media.
We all wanted more student voice in our classrooms, but the videos showed us that our own voices dominated the space. To mitigate the feelings of exposure in viewing our early attempts, we devised a protocol to assess both our own and our students' discussions in each video. We also created plans for our next lessons to repeat what was working. We met every other week for an hour—a time that our principal carved out of the school day for us—and watched videos of our classroom discussions.
From these meetings, we created a discussion structure that put student voice and choice first. Students were part of the design, giving us feedback and evaluating their own taped performances with each iteration. They told us that although they generally enjoyed Socratic circle discussions, we should allow those who wanted to speak to sign up for those roles. More introverted students participated as coaches for the speakers; students who excelled at listening served as judges of text evidence, logic, and rhetorical appeals. Others composed what we called tweetables—short takeaways from the discussion. Some students volunteered for roles that they created, including a "hot seat" that anyone outside of the inner speaking circle could occupy to offer commentary, as well as a devil's advocate, a popular position raising critical questions without being rude. We followed our students' lead, making tweaks each week after they evaluated videos of their discussions.
And after a year of meetings matched with continual improvement, we found that students of all ability levels were engaged and participating. We saw remarkable growth in their academic language, facility with text evidence, and behaviors that nurtured and sustained thoughtful discussion.
We wouldn't have labeled ourselves change agents that year, but that's what we were. The shift in classroom outcomes was clear and repeatable. Our administrators were convinced by this evidence, and our superintendent supported the use of video to improve teaching and learning across the district.

Asking Questions

But what if you don't have a team around you or a supportive administrator? And how do you even know what to begin working on?
A privilege of being the National Teacher of the Year is meeting and learning from those teachers who go first, who put themselves out there because they are so passionate about becoming the change they wish to see in the world.
One of my models for teacher-led change is James Ford, a Renaissance man whom I first met as a member of my cohort of 2015 state teachers of the year. Ford, the North Carolina Teacher of the Year, taught high school history, is a minister and a social justice activist, and now serves as the program director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. In the latter role, Ford works with 150 first-year and early-service teachers to develop their skills and hone their sense of social justice. "I introduce them to policy in hopes that they too become advocates," he said. He leads teachers in a study group on educational opportunities in North Carolina that target racial equity, trauma and learning, and low-performing schools.
Most impressively, Ford was instrumental in securing the first post-recession teacher raises by lobbying the North Carolina General Assembly during a budget gridlock. "I managed to get a private meeting with Governor Pat McCrory and then Speaker of the House Thom Tillis to address the concerns of teachers," he said.
Ford then drafted a letter that passionately argued for teachers' needs and delivered it to each member of the General Assembly. Because of his advocacy, McCrory appointed Ford as chair of the Governors Teacher Advisory Committee.
What was his first step in becoming a change agent? He raised questions about education policy and how it affected his classroom. "I always found myself asking questions about how certain rules were made, what informed the process, and who was involved in the conversation," he said. He realized that merely raising these questions helped him enter the realm of education policy.
Ford's personal experiences as "a sub-par student growing up in a district with rampant inequality" caused him to notice his commonalities with his own students, which drew him into more involvement with policy. "I want to be who my instructors were for me on behalf of similarly situated students. It has given me a greater thirst for justice and equity for young people we consider disadvantaged," he said, noting that he speaks in the spaces and to the people that his students don't have access to.

Making Connections

Another change agent I met in my travels was Rusul Alrubail, an educator, writer, and advocate. She is a member of #EduColor, an organization with a mission to elevate the voices of public school advocates of color, and she facilitates the group's Twitter chats. Her visibility on social media along with her writing on her blog have attracted educators, parents, and students who are in need of support as they work to make schools more equitable.
When we were both guests on a podcast, Alrubail grounded all of her answers in empathy, demonstrating that kindness works as a "force multiplier" when you're trying to persuade others to change their thinking about an issue.
She believes that a good place to start is by connecting with those around you. "Reach out to someone who you think needs support, mentorship, and guidance and build a relationship with them," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "The impact of your work doesn't have to be groundbreaking, because even if we manage to create a positive change in our own footprints, that alone defines us as change agents."
She believes that there are three key factors to bringing about change: "Positivity, listening to understand rather than to reply, and respect are always important elements to consider when attempting to make a difference, big or small." Alrubail credits this empathetic stance with helping people feel connected and validated in their own change work. "We constantly hear stories from teachers about empowerment, perseverance, and overcoming adversity as a result of working with #EduColor members," she said.
Alrubail, a refugee herself from Iraq, noticed an outflow of her own experience into advocacy work: "The majority of students I taught were students of color and English language learners, so advocating for them and even having discussions about advocacy and social justice with them felt like a necessary part of the work in order to cultivate an environment that supports student agency and voice."

Speaking Up and Out

Effective change agents speak up and speak out, Ford and Alrubail believe. Doing so within networks is even more effective, a Rand study of change agents reported. Researchers found that "natural networks" of teachers, such as those found within professional organizations, could be more effective than strategies advanced by policy systems.
For many teachers today, those networks are formed, sustained, and powered by social media. For instance, Alrubail found her own passion for social justice validated and strengthened in her first involvement with the #EduColor Twitter chats. "I was very nervous to discuss social justice issues in front of a professional learning network that hardly ever discussed them," she said. "However, I felt supported [during the first #EduColor chat] and that my voice was heard. People directly engaged with my concerns and reached out to tell me that they feel the same way. Sometimes, all we need is someone to listen in order for us to be encouraged and empowered to advocate for others."
Ford, who deftly uses Facebook and Twitter to amplify the issues he cares about, agrees with Alrubail about the power of social media. "What social media has done is made it completely possible to conceive a thought, and literally spread it to millions of people in a matter of seconds," Ford said. "We have more opportunity to make social, political, and educational change than at any other time in history."
Some of these online discussions can lead to difficult conversations, but they can only improve when people prepare for them in thoughtful ways. "Be intentional about utilizing your position, whatever it may be, to advocate," said Ford. "It's about playing your role. There is more than one way to advocate for something. Everyone doesn't need to be a protester, although that is one way. You don't have to be the movement, you just have to play your part. No matter where you are, there's something you can do to affect change in a major way. Use your actual voice, use your digital footprint, use whatever you can to raise awareness around your issues."

"Just a Teacher"

In my visits with teachers, I've found that one of the most depressing things I hear is a variation of: "I can't do_____, I'm just a teacher." But in my mind, only a teacher can do the kinds of advocacy we are called to do.
Because I was "just a teacher," I was invited to speak to both the Israeli and the Palestinian ministers of education. I also was invited to speak to the lieutenant governor and the chairmen of the education committees in my state.
Someone has to go first. Why not you? If you're reading this, I can guarantee that you're not "just a teacher." You are a stabilizing force for good, a fierce promoter and protector of our democracy. For so many children, you are the difference between hope and despair. For so many teachers, you are the model of what a change agent looks like and sounds like. To paraphrase the Biblical book of Esther: "And who knows whether you have not become a teacher for such a time as this?"
This is your time. Dare to go first.
End Notes

1 McLaughlin, M. W. (1990) The Rand change agent study revisited: Macro perspectives and micro realities. Educational Researcher, 19(9), 11–16.

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