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September 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 1

Leading Together / Changing Your Instructional Mindset

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Professional Learning
Instructional Strategies
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Dylan O’Connor, Nyree Smith, and Tobi E. Afolayan are teacher leaders at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Boston.

Listen & Learn

When school buildings shut down in March 2020 and educators had to find a new way to teach students, many were pushed to confront previously held assumptions. Where they once might have thought that schooling happens in a school, that homework is done at home, or that the teacher is the one doing all the teaching, the conditions of remote learning challenged these traditional mental models of teaching and learning. The pandemic had educators questioning everything.
This piqued my interest in the kinds of internal shifts educators were making in response to these external shifts, and I began asking them to reflect on the ­following:
  • How have changes in your practice shifted your mindset?
  • How have changes in your mindset shifted your practice?
I posed this pair of reflective questions during a leadership retreat I recently facilitated with teacher leaders and administrators at Boston’s Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. I found their insights about how forced changes in practice led to transformative changes in mindsets inspiring. These mindset shifts—among ­students and teachers—stand to have a profound and lasting impact on instructional effectiveness.

Classroom Community Building

Tobi E. Afolayan is a 7th grade English teacher who recognized early in the pandemic that his old approaches to establishing classroom community had to change. To meet the unusual challenge of building “community through a screen,” he began the 2020–2021 school year by having each of his classes create its own set of community agreements. Students came up with shared values and got specific in defining them. “Students said things like, ‘We should help each other out, assume that we’re trying our best, normalize mistakes, and have good music to keep good vibes going.’ Each class came up with something different” and the agreements were referred to throughout each week.
“That just shifted the conversation for me,” Afolayan reflected. “This is not something I was imposing like in the past. We made these agreements together, so now we could hold each other accountable to these shared values.” With this new mindset, building classroom community was no longer a set of activities but an approach for sharing the responsibility of defining—and upholding—a safe and supportive learning community with students.
Such practices created a new mindset for Tobi—that, while he plays a key supporting role, true community can only be built by students. “For me, it’s not just about the beginning of the year anymore,” said Tobi. “Now I’m centering student voice as much as possible. Now my students will just do the right thing, they will support each other, and they have a lot of empathy for each other. Keeping that in mind, I just center student leadership, and it’s awesome. Students love being in power, so they’re very engaged.”

Adult Collaboration “By Any Means Necessary”

Within their large sprawling school building, Frederick teachers can easily spend the whole day interacting with only the same few teachers. Dylan O’Connor, an 8th grade special education teacher, and many of his colleagues saw the building as a primary obstacle to strengthening the relational trust that would be necessary for authentic conversations and collaboration throughout the school.
Then the pandemic arrived, bringing new and urgent challenges and circumstances for students and teachers alike. The faculty was adamant about developing new practices and patterns for connecting. No longer feeling “compartmentalized,” they began seeking each other out via text, email, and shared online documents far beyond the usual teams.
In just a few months, these changes in practice led to a mindset shift about collaboration. It was redefined in a way that was unconstrained by the walls of the building or the idea of aligned schedules. Colleagues developed a new collective understanding that collaboration entails ­fostering supportive connections by any means necessary.
“Now we’re collaborating with [teachers] in other hallways in many ways,” noted Dylan. “We’re learning about what’s working for kids right now [and discussing] different learning platforms and remote learning routines.” The Frederick faculty has always been collaborative, but the movie playing in teachers’ heads about what a “collaborative culture” looks like has changed and led to new collaborative routines.

Her students’ new mindsets about feedback as a way of seeing different perspectives of their work led to new practices when they returned to the classroom: They began to seek each other out as collaborators who could support their learning.

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Feedback for Growth

As a multilingual ESL teacher of students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), Nyree Smith doubled down on her commitment to ensure the shift to remote learning would not be a major instructional disruption. “In remote learning, I could instantly look at each kid’s work in Google Docs and add highlights or comments to give them direct feedback on what I wanted them to look at. I could also easily meet with them in small breakout [rooms].” She reflected, “It really changed the way I felt about how and when I give feedback.”
Over time, she noticed that students also seemed to display a different attitude about feedback. “Kids really latched on to this idea that feedback is something that is a part of a formative process, not just a summative process,” she said. “We developed a culture where everyone knew what was going to happen and what was expected.”
At Frederick Middle School, teachers routinely begin lessons by clarifying objectives and sharing, if not developing, with students the criteria for success. But, Nyree reflected, “Directing students back to success criteria in an online environment felt different than in the classroom; it felt a little bit more personal.”
And her students’ new mindsets about feedback as a way of seeing different perspectives of their work led to new practices when they returned to the classroom: They began to seek each other out as collaborators who could support their learning. “It just became this really productive process for everyone.”

A New Path Forward

When we think back to the 2020–2021 school year, we reflexively shake our heads and recall the challenges we faced. But guided by two simple questions, these Boston educators were able to draw a bit of inspiration from this tumultuous time and take action. The changes they had to make in practice led to new mindsets—which led to transformational steps forward.
Why not take these two questions for a spin yourself? Your insights just might change your mind about what’s possible this school year—and about what you, your colleagues, and your students are capable of achieving together.
Author’s note: Dylan O’Connor, Nyree Smith, and Tobi E. Afolayan contributed to this article.

Jill Harrison Berg is a leadership coach, school improvement consultant, researcher, and writer committed to supporting education leaders to recognize and maximize the critical role of teacher leadership in ensuring instructional equity.

Berg is an educator of leaders at all levels. She began her career in the classroom, teaching students to be leaders who take ownership of their own learning and are a positive influence on others, then moved into supporting teachers and other education leaders to do the same. Berg earned her doctorate at Harvard’s GSE while working as a researcher with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She was one of the first teachers in Massachusetts to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

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