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September 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 1

Leading Together / Syncing Behavior Strategies

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Classroom Management
It's the week before school begins, and members of the 7th grade teaching team at Green Middle School have just finished setting up their rooms. Spurred by chronic classroom management issues the prior year and inspired by readings that a teacher leader had introduced during common planning time, the team is committed to redesigning their classrooms in a way that will empower students to take greater ownership of their learning—and positively impact classroom climate. They've raided the school's storage closet, scoured thrift shops, and purchased a few items on their own to create areas for student collaboration, offer choice in materials, and provide a comfortable place for students to cool down and practice self-management when needed.
The principal of Green Middle School is also approaching the new school year with plans to address classroom management concerns. Her primary job, as she sees it, is to create the conditions for teachers to teach effectively. When teachers call the office for back-up assistance with a student who has lost control, she wants to offer support so the classroom can quickly return to learning.
Last spring, the calls came too frequently to keep up with, especially from particular classrooms. She turned to her principal PLC, where her colleagues suggested she encourage positive behavior by use of a schoolwide ticket system that could be managed centrally and supplied with certificates and gifts from community partners. She explored this idea with members of her administrative team, who were eager for the opportunity to balance the caseload of negative behaviors they see with recognition for positive behaviors. Together, they drafted a plan for implementation.
Just before students return for the new school year, the principal introduces key features of the schoolwide management system to teachers. The members of the 7th grade team have many questions. They've just invested time, money, and effort into creating their own new system. Would the students experience these two systems as part of a coherent plan, or would they find them confusing? Would the work of managing tickets compete for teachers' attention to their own plan? Might the external rewards offered by the schoolwide system run counter to the goal of boosting students' internal motivation? In this hypothetical but all too typical example, both of these systems have merit, but they are not in sync.

Complementary Knowledge and Experience

Teachers are leaders of their classrooms and, in informal if not formal ways, they are leaders of their peers. Administrators are leaders of their schools and, in schools with strong family engagement, they are regarded as leaders of their communities. Both groups stand to influence—and thus lead—school practices that ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. But if they are not working with each other, they are working against each other. Their efforts must be in sync.
The leaders at Green Middle School—teachers and administrators alike—were keeping students at the center of their decision making as they aimed to create the best possible conditions for teaching and learning. However, they each had different data informing those decisions.
Teachers know their students as individuals, as learners, and as members of a classroom community. They know what works, as they witness daily examples of students engaging productively in learning activities, beginning to boil over but then simmering down, or engaging in conflicts that they resolve themselves. Teachers also know what sets students off and what might best motivate them to stay on their game. In addition, the non-hierarchical relationships teachers tend to have with colleagues mean they may be more open to sharing—and learning from—each other's classroom climate challenges. Thus, teachers have a keen sense of how students and their colleagues might respond to potential new policies and practices. It makes sense that they might play a key role in shaping them.
In contrast, school administrators' views of classroom management can often be dominated by chronic or extreme student behaviors that draw the attention of the front office. Their views may also be uneven throughout the school, as some teachers solicit office intervention more than others. Of course, administrators' positional authority alone may be enough to sway some errant students into a stronger commitment to following school rules. When that's not the case, administrators have a repertoire of consequences at their disposal that is distinct from that of teachers. The umbrella view that administrators have of behaviors throughout the school also allows them to discern patterns of students' infractions and consider systemic responses, such as social-emotional supports, a new student-assignment system, or professional development for teachers.

Co-Performance of Leadership

Clearly, teachers and administrators each have unique and essential information by virtue of the roles they play in schools. But contrasting perspectives can only complement each other when they are brought together. Unfortunately, few schools make the time needed for leaders to connect, collaborate, and synchronize their efforts with regard to classroom management and school climate. Indeed, a recent study found that "establishing student discipline procedures and policies" is one of the specific areas of teacher decision making that is most strongly related to student achievement, yet schools are rarely organized to leverage teacher leadership in this arena.
Schools that aim to leverage the leadership influence of teachers as an asset for school improvement must think deliberately about how leaders will co-perform leadership. It's insufficient just to add new teacher-leader roles; teacher leaders and administrators must have dedicated time and space to learn to lead together.
Schools might identify a cross-stakeholder inquiry team whose members use data to focus on one pervasive problem at a time, experiment with implementing research-informed changes, and monitor results. They might invite family and community members to join them in studying a shared text and co-constructing school expectations together. They might establish a climate committee in which administrators and grade-level representatives collaborate to support the implementation of policies and procedures that make sense at both the classroom and school level. Or administrators might draft key features or initial design principles for a policy, leaving space for teachers to weigh in and help shape final steps.
Ideally, Green Middle School would employ this latter solution. After being introduced to the new schoolwide behavior system, teachers and administrators could use conversation protocols to explore the benefits and limitations of the initiative and develop implementation recommendations that align with existing systems. They might forge agreements about which aspects of the systems would become schoolwide expectations and clarify where classrooms would have flexibility. And, recognizing the new system would be imperfect at first, they could set a date in three months to revisit and tweak the system together.
There is no secret formula to classroom management and school climate. Even "best practices" are only possibilities. But by putting their heads together, teachers and principals can create policies that leverage their unique perspectives and solutions that work for the students in their shared care.
End Notes

1 Ingersoll, R. M., Sirinides, P., & Dougherty, P. (2018). Leadership matters: Teachers' roles in school decision making and school performance. American Educator, Spring 2018. Retrieved from www.aft.org/ae/spring2018/ingersoll_sirinides_dougherty

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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