Empowering Teachers to Respond to Change - ASCD
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June 1, 2017

Empowering Teachers to Respond to Change

With high levels of change expected, schools must set up structures that help teachers share their best thinking and manage change effectively.

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As a teacher in New York City, I know the life of a school is always full of challenges. It's natural to enter into a pattern of simply reacting to each challenge as it arrives. Sometimes this works out, but when the volume of challenges increases, our reactions often become less thoughtful and can potentially create additional problems. Getting beyond this very human tendency—and creating systems that prepare us to anticipate challenges and respond thoughtfully—is an essential element of teaching and leading successfully.

In the current political climate, those of us inside schools can expect to face an increase in the challenges affecting our day-to-day work. Teachers and school leaders will be on the front lines, managing funding and policy changes that might hit us directly, as well as those that will affect us indirectly through their impact on our students and neighborhoods (the targeting of undocumented immigrants, for example).

We cannot know exactly what's in store. But I know this: Where top-down leadership has fallen short under "normal" circumstances, it will fall even shorter during tumultuous times. To survive, schools must create structures that position everyone—especially teachers—to respond thoughtfully, purposefully, and quickly to difficult situations. When such structures exist, empowered teachers, supported by administrators, will be willing and able to continue their meaningful work with students (and one another) as challenges ramp up.

A Blueprint of the Possible

The school where I teach—The Renaissance Charter School, a preK–12 public charter school in Queens—offers a blueprint for engaging and empowering teachers. In planning this article, I set out to write more generally about structures that empower teachers, but as I reflected, I realized that the practices in my current school offer a particular balance of structure and flexibility that makes them the most effective example I've seen of teacher empowerment.

Over 13 years, I've taught in four very different New York City public schools. I've taught in places where there were few opportunities for teacher leadership and almost no time in the schedule for collaboration, and where change came from the top (and many teachers actively ignored directives). I've experienced teacher leadership roles that consisted too much of delivering administrators' ideas to fellow teachers, creating tension rather than empowerment. I've also taught in a school that provided generous time for teacher collaboration. Teachers in that school did amazing things with that time—but there was a lack of schoolwide structure, and teachers were responsible for more than we could handle on top of our teaching loads.

I don't mean to claim that my current school is a utopia where change is easy and no conflicts arise. But we do have sustainable processes in place for teachers to share ideas, raise questions and concerns, get support from colleagues, and take collective action to respond to students' needs. It's a sustainable system because teachers can make significant changes within it while the framework stays intact. The teacher leaders can change, the issues at hand can change, but the processes remain consistent.

Many Channels for Communication

Renaissance Charter is an educational environment that responds thoughtfully to challenges in part because teachers are constantly in communication with a wide variety of colleagues around common interests and concerns. Teachers collaborate within several different configurations. All teachers are members of a "cluster" and a PLC, and many additional teams meet formally. For instance, I'm formally part of the following teams:

  • A grade cluster. Because our grades are small and most teachers teach two grades, we have grade clusters instead of grade teams. I belong to Cluster 2, which includes most teachers of grades 6–8. We meet monthly for two hours after school, and our two cluster leaders send out a weekly bulletin with relevant announcements.

  • A professional learning community. Teachers of the same subject area meet in this configuration. I belong to the English language arts PLC with other ELA teachers of grades 6–12. Most teachers are members of just one PLC, and all our PLCs meet weekly for an hour and a half while middle school students do physical activity at the YMCA and high school students do internships. Our PLCs work on a variety of initiatives, determined by goals we set collaboratively at the beginning of the year. One tradition all PLCs follow is "teacher practice presentations": At least once a year, each teacher presents an idea, dilemma, or practice to the team for feedback.

  • Coaches. This group is composed of the coordinators of PLCs, all of whom are teachers. We meet monthly to share goals for the year, progress, and practices that could benefit teachers beyond our own PLCs.

  • Advisors. Most middle and high school teachers run an advisory, a small group of students that meets every morning and once a week for a longer period. The advisors meet monthly for an hour.

  • Advisory planning committee. This small group of teachers plans the advisory lessons for each grade and sets the agenda for the advisors' monthly meeting.

  • Response to Intervention team. Every other week, middle school teachers at the same grade level meet to discuss specific students who need additional supports and to design interventions.

I also co-coordinate our middle school student council. Each advisory elects a representative to the council, which meets biweekly during lunch to plan events and initiatives in response to student interests and concerns.

There's a great deal of overlap between the membership and focal points of these various groups. Cross-pollination occurs naturally. For example, there's a flow of communication between student advisories, advisors, student council members, and cluster members. Advisors facilitate discussions in advisories at least once a week on topics that students choose. Advisors discuss student concerns (with discretion) in our monthly meetings. Student council representatives bring ideas and concerns from their advisories to the student council meetings; they also present updates on students' initiatives and concerns at some teacher meetings, and then take feedback back to their advisories. Communication travels along many paths, not just from the top down.

Learning and Responding Together

This horizontal communication helps us respond well to challenges and strengthens teachers' professional development. This year in a Cluster 2 meeting, for example, participants looked at student achievement data in reading and math. The school's administration didn't direct us toward a particular process or outcome; it's simply a tradition that clusters and PLCs observe and respond to available data, using a particular protocol. One salient point that emerged from our discussion was that we all agreed some students' reading abilities were holding them back in all academic subjects, and that we needed to go beyond what individual ELA teachers could accomplish in their classes and to take action as a team. Content-area teachers expressed an interest in having more tools to help struggling readers in their classes.

Our middle school literacy intervention teacher decided to bring the issue to the ELA professional learning community by choosing it as the focus of her teacher-practice presentation, which was coming up on the PLC's calendar. She hoped that talking about the problem with this PLC would give her ideas about ways to support struggling readers, which she could then share with the cluster. Our English Language Arts PLC used a protocol called Ping Pong that allowed us to explore this question and formulate advice for our colleagues in other content areas.

In addition to bringing ideas back to Cluster 2, the communication and work around this issue has travelled organically to the social studies PLC, the RTI team, and the coaches meeting—and those are just the groups I'm aware of. In a recent Cluster 2 meeting, ELA teachers shared what we were focusing on in our classes, and content-area teachers shared practices they were using to support literacy in their classes. There was much common ground. We read part of a text on disciplinary literacy developed by the New York City Department of Education, which a social studies teacher had recommended, and discussed it using a protocol called The Final Word.

This is just one of countless examples of how the structures at Renaissance support teacher collaboration and spread knowledge in response to a problem that arises. This example represents a large issue that doesn't have an easy solution, but the key is that teachers became engaged and are driving the school forward. We're gladly digging into issues that matter to teachers and students, without anyone deciding for us that we should do so.

Our teacher-powered structures and reflective processes also help us notice and respond more quickly to issues that come up in the outside world and affect our students. For example, in the fall, students in advisories took part in lessons on self-esteem. We do this lesson sequence every year, but this year when the advisors debriefed in a subsequent meeting, we noticed an uptick in students who expressed distress about their body images. In some discussions that happened in the advisory groups, students had brought up comments about women's bodies from then-presidential candidate Donald Trump that had recently been made public.

Individually, we might not have realized that this was troubling many of our students, but having the chance to share and analyze information together made a need become clear. Following this advisors meeting, the advisory planning committee met (as we do monthly) and adjusted the curriculum to include additional time and resources for supporting students to challenge stereotypes perpetuated in the media around, in particular, female bodies—stereotypes that can aggravate already sensitive points in our own families or communities. Being able to take small but immediate steps like this to help our students build confidence and self-awareness during difficult times contributes to a strong school community.

The Power of Protocols

You'll notice I've mentioned discussion protocols. The use of protocols to guide team collaboration at my school may well be the glue holding everything together. I believe these protocols are a key to thoughtfully responding to challenges and changes.

When I came to Renaissance, I assumed I was already familiar with protocols. To a certain degree I was, but I hadn't participated in a community that actively uses a variety of protocols to guide collaborative work. Protocols differ from agendas created for a specific meeting or workshop. They are communication processes that have a stated purpose—such as sharing a dilemma or looking at student work together—and can be applied to any situation with that common goal.

At Renaissance Charter, we use a collection of protocols available from the School Reform Initiative (SRI). Different educators in the field created each protocol to respond to particular situations, and members of the SRI community have practiced and refined these tools. Most teacher leaders at my school have been to an SRI conference, where attendees participate in short but intense PLC groups and gain experience facilitating group sessions using a variety of protocols.

Although each one is different, all effective discussion protocols do the following:

  • Ensure that everyone has a voice. All are designed to ensure that everyone speaks and is heard at certain intervals in the session. This is very important in developing an engaged faculty.

  • Slow us down. The pace in most schools is hurried. 1 Good protocols ensure that we have time to think throughout the collaborative process. This supports everyone having a voice, because many people need time to think or write before they're comfortable speaking. I'll admit that at first, I found this aspect frustrating. I was used to moving faster in generating solutions to problems. However, I've found that my thinking has deepened, and I'm less reactionary as a result of consistently participating in protocol-based PLCs.

  • Require reflection. Protocols often build in time to reflect personally before sharing—sometimes at the beginning of the meeting, sometimes at a later point. Again, this helps me think more deeply about the question at hand and process more fully what my colleagues are saying. As a final step, all protocols include time to reflect as a group on how the process went.

  • Provide structure. The right protocol ensures that we manage our time well and arrive at meaningful next steps. It's important to select a protocol that's geared to the purpose of the collaboration.

  • Flatten hierarchies. Because the protocols provide the structure and we rotate the role of facilitator throughout the year, using protocols limits the amount of authority the leader of the PLC has—which is a good thing. I say that having spent time as both a member and a leader. Protocols help show that the strength of the group depends on each member, rather than on one leader. This helps empower everyone and maintains the continuity of the group, even if its leadership changes.

My school has used the protocols and other SRI tools as a resource for PLCs for more than 20 years. The longevity of this relationship speaks to the power of these practices to adapt to the times.

Tending the Flame

Working in an environment that's both structured and flexible, one where teachers' voices and minds are at the center of most thinking and decision making, I feel energized and supported—ready to respond to whatever changes surface. Setting up conditions like this for more teachers is crucial if our profession is to be prepared for the future.

In 2010, I was part of a team of teachers who, with Center for Teaching Quality founder Barnett Berry, co-wrote the book Teaching 2030: What We Can and Must Do for Our Public Schools—Now and In the Future (Teachers College Press, 2013). In our writing sessions, we talked about the changes we imagined would happen to schools and teaching in the coming decades and voiced our concerns about some of the ways we saw the tides moving. One of my fellow authors, Shannon C'de Baca, said, "With all this change, who will be the keeper of the flame? Who will make sure that public education serves all of our nation's students?" This powerful image gave us all pause. Of course, we determined that teachers would be the keepers of the flame.

Staring down the next three years to 2020, wondering how public schools and all our students will fare, I know that because my colleagues and I have created solid structures through which we communicate, explore challenges, and think our way toward solutions, we're poised to weather the storm. We will not only survive, but we'll also engage thoughtfully with students and one another every day. We're ready to adapt, fight when necessary, and stay focused on what matters most.

End Notes

1 Wright, S. (2014, August 26). / >Are you ready to join the slow education movement? [blog post]. Retrieved from Powerful Learning Practice.

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