The importance of having a good plan
December 30, 2015
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The back and forth talk about public education on the internet consists largely of policy talk mixed with snark, whining, piss, and vinegar. Rarely do we get a window into the practice of teachers, or their thought process in approaching the hard work of developing learning cultures. This stolen post below gives us just such a look. Written by Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher of The Year, it illustrates Mr. Rad’s work at a low-performing, high-potential school.

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I work in one of those schools.  One of those schools that carry special state-assessed designations.  One of those schools where the low data on tests does not capture the ridiculous brilliance of our kids or the insanely hard work of our staff, and one of those schools where the low data on tests illustrates that we have a big ass problem, and our amazing kids aren’t getting all they could or should.

My role is a weird one.  I’m an Instructional Specialist.  I’m not really admin, and not quite a teacher.  Most of the kids think I’m a behavior guy, but not a very good one.  I think most of the teachers think I just represent more work, and I’m pretty sure my administrators think I’m a whiny pain in the ass.  Everyone’s kinda right.

My role affords me the chance to sit back from school and have a minute to think.  That minute (and sometimes, really, just a minute, a solid sixty seconds at my desk or in a hallway to sit and process a thing that just happened) is something I rarely got when I was in front of a classroom, and a thing that seems impossible to grab as an administrator.  So, I’m kinda the guy in school with some space to think about school.  I’m convinced my job is the easiest in the building, and it’s still a really hard job.  Actually, yeah, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had.

The last few months of the work I’ve managed to do while doing everything else has culminated in this thing I keep calling “The Two Week Plan.”  I call it this because it’s a plan, because it takes two weeks, and because it’s what I first named the document I made it on.  I have time to think, but not enough time to name things in catchy ways.  My old school had someone who would brand things for us, which, on reflection, is a really weird thing for a school to have.

Anyway.

I worked hard on this.  It doesn’t contain any hugely ground breaking new ideas, but it does attempt to address instead of just identify problems.  I’ve done it for one of the two weeks, and I’d like to share it, because I think it’s not a bad thing so far.  What’s fun about sharing it now is that it has lost some of the shininess of a new idea.  I screwed up enough stuff to realize I’m not the genius I thought I was when I started.  It hasn’t all worked, but some pieces have been pretty damn powerful.

I can say with some decent confidence that overall, this week has been better than awful. I can say with even more confidence that we could have done it a whole lot better.

The Problem:

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The first thing I did was try to represent the root causes of the problems we were seeing.  Certainly, we could have made a long list of ways those problems were manifesting themselves, and certainly in many staff meetings we do.  However, addressing specific behaviors means that we are often setting policy in a reactionary way, using our support like whack-a-mole to tamp down whatever current fires are raging.

Some of this frame is important, but really the most important is the grey box on the bottom.  I had seen (and my understanding is that my school is far from the only school where this is true) that we say the phrase “restorative justice” as if it we were shouting “Reparo!” (this is only the first Harry Potter reference, so buckle in).  In other words, we talked about it more than we did it, and issues of buy-in, staffing, understanding and structure were keeping us from doing restorative practices in a systemic way.

So, instead of using incidents with students to build their capacity for better behavior, we often got the student just calm enough to get back into class, closing the door behind us as we rushed off to the next student issue, and hoping against hope that introducing a student in nearly the exact frame of mind into the exact classroom situation where the problems happened will somehow yield a different result.

I mean… sometimes it did, but I suspect that had a lot to do with whatever magic and skill and patience the teacher had on the other side of that door.  We were doing very little to stop whatever issue was happening from happening again during the next day, or during the next hour.

The more I thought about it, the more complex the root of our problems were, which makes sense.  If there was one thing that could turn a school climate around, we would have found it already. Schools are ridiculously complex places, and anyone who assumes they have “the” answer likely has no idea what they’re talking about (and is likely being paid a lot of money by your district to be there).

The answer, then, is a complex and imperfect one.  I put together a plan to take two weeks to attempt to interrupt the climate of our school.  The plan involves pretty big asks of just about every adult in the building and seeks to address in many key ways the issues that are playing out.  Above all else, I tried to keep the plan constructive rather than reactive.  I tried to keep an eye out for how our efforts could collectively build capacity in students and staff to build a more positive culture rather than focusing on how to just put an end to bad behavior.

The Plan:

The Plan asks that for two weeks, for all of two weeks, every adult in the building focuses on creating a safer, more positive climate for our students.

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So here’s my thing.  Our efforts, I believe, should include three very distinct kinds of work:

  1. We should be preventative, focusing on students and situations that we know are on the brink and addressing them before anything happens.
  2. We should be supportive, which means recognizing that asking for a perfect day won’t get you one, and students and staff are actual real live human beings with all the messiness inherent in that, and issues are going to pop up.  When they do, they need to be handled holistically, immediately, and in a way that helps to raise the capacity of those involved.
  3. We should be constructive.  Through highly engaging, high-level, and community building instruction, we can create and reward a more positive climate while the more negative aspects are addressed.

One thing I’ve found is that it is pretty easy to convince someone that everyone else needs to do something different, but much more challenging to convince them they should too.  In small and big ways, direct and passive ways, there’s been consistent push back to continue doing things the way they’ve been done.  There’s a system in place that is supposed to be working to turn our school around, but it’s mostly more of the same system that wasn’t working before, so I don’t honestly have a whole lot of faith in it.

Teachers were, in a way I was actually surprised by, the most willing to dive in on something new and to spend time and effort they were already spending all of on making the two weeks as successful as possible.

So, in more depth, here’s how each of those phases looked in practice, and what we learned from everything I messed up.

Preventative

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The key piece of our preventative work was what I called “support circles.”  The idea was to identify and pull in students who we felt were high priority in their need for additional support and a stronger connection with their teachers.  We brought these students in the afternoon when the majority of their teachers had a prep hour and followed, loosely anyway, the pattern here:

That picture, though awfully nice, really doesn’t capture the power of the circles, or the power they had because of everything the teachers on my team brought with them.  We all sat around a table and loaded up on snacks and candy (I decided that food was essential to the circle, and, in what is certainly not a coincidence, our most successful circles were those where Capri Sun packets were available).

A student was brought in and warmly welcomed, but before we really jumped in on their strengths and all of the feels in the world, we spent time just chatting with each other and the student.  We joked around, laughed and smiled authentically.  One person involved in the early planning kept referring to these meetings as a “hot seat” for students.  It wasn’t that.  It absolutely shouldn’t be that.

The circles are where the teachers are especially amazing.  They created an atmosphere in every meeting that was laid back, non-confrontational and welcoming.  It didn’t feel like school, which was the very best thing.  Also, we couldn’t require the teachers to have more than one of these meetings, so we made them optional, and nearly everyone showed up every day, and I almost had a feeling about that.

A few days in, one teacher had the good idea of creating a written invitation to students that would include the big questions we were asking (What are your strengths?  What could we do to help make school better for you?  Do you know any good jokes?) so the student had some time to reflect before they were surrounded by a bunch of weird adults shoving Rolos in their mouths.

Each meeting was different, sometimes involving more talking to the top of a student’s head, and sometimes led by the student who would check to make sure every adult had the chance to say good things about them.

I knew going in that these would not be meetings that we would “win.”  Students would not break down, give everyone a hug, and have every obstacle in their lives suddenly disappear.  Students would, for example, continue to have hormones and stuff.  Still though, every meeting felt productive, and almost all felt powerful.  For students who do not regularly feel the support and care of adults, having teachers list specific strengths and offers of specific help for them is a big thing.

We haven’t had time yet to see if these meetings will create measurable differences in student performance and behavior, but I have to believe they will.  I have noticed myself and others more free with their praise and support in other students as we’ve seen the strength it can have, and have noticed every student involved carrying themselves differently, and much more likely to connect with a staff member when having a rough day.

Support

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The circles and other preventative work are a huge ask of our teachers.  My team of teachers were asked to give up their prep period four days a week for two straight weeks.  In return, I felt it was also important for them to see the rest of the building make a profound effort to make their days run smoothly and well.  To do that best, we needed all hands on deck.

The ideal of our support would have been to cancel all meetings between staff for two weeks, or at least work to keep non-classroom staff available to work with students who are struggling, and to give those support staff the time to be able to really work with students.  This is where we would address, structurally, the lack of real Restorative practices in schools.

We would have time and space to de-escalate a student who was struggling (we are starting a movement in our school towards Trauma-Informed teaching as well, and would say that we would be regulating a student who was having a trauma reaction.  This is helpful because by looking at disruptive behavior as a result of trauma, we help to remind ourselves that we are probably not going to be able to threaten, punish, or shout trauma away).

We would have time and staff to reflect with students once (and only when) they were calmer.  We could work with that student on a plan to restore whatever damage was done to their class or school community in a deliberate way.

So, yeah.  Lots of ideal there.  We spent much of our first week trying to build towards that ideal but never quite getting there.  There was some problems with buy-in, some problems with the requiredness of some meetings, and some problems with all hands on deck still being a few hands short on some days.

Still, it helped, and introducing a focus on de-escalating situations rather than pushing for a “fix” to behavior proved an important step.  There’s a lot of room to do this step a whole lot better though (and I should have included a whole structured and intentional part around the emotional care of staff members and the capacity for self-care during the teaching day), and it would require a lot more set-up than we did to adjust the schedules and structures of many adult days.  I think it would be worth the work.

Instruction

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The step is pretty self-explanatory, but I needed to do a lot better job of explaining it.  I wish now I would have named it “two weeks without worksheets.”  Live and learn.

It’s true, and it’s been true and it will remain true that school sucks way too often.  It’s super important, of course, that we don’t say that teachers must be entertainers, except that, guess what?  Teachers must be entertainers.  I was talking recently with a principal from Chicago who said, “good instruction is the antidote to behavior problems.”  You better damn well believe I wrote that down.  Didn’t write the guy’s name down though.  Sorry.

Our instruction plan in the first week had a huge wrench thrown in it by… and you’ll never believe it…  standardized testing.  Like I said, I work at one of those schools, and part of the brilliant fix for improving instruction at our school seems to be to test or survey the students what feels like every other day to collect data that says our students aren’t learning enough.  The theory, I believe, is to expose the students to enough constant personal failure that they spontaneously learn stuff.

Holy shit.  I love testing.

Anyway, so students were testing during four straight days and teachers were giving them some space in their brains when they weren’t testing and so we didn’t get to see the strength of every class simultaneously doing something creative and awesome.  I’m hoping for next week, and have seen glimpses of what it could be and worked with some teachers on what they are planning.

I’ve known all this from in my room over the last decade and see it often now that I’m parked in the hallway outside of many rooms.  Behavior issues go way down on days and in classes that are entertaining and enjoyable.  So, I asked teachers to really invest in these two weeks like they would at the beginning of a school year.  Focus on community building, on problem solving, on making things more fun.  There were car-crash simulations with little clay dudes and an egg drop coming up and math problems scrawled on desks with expo markers and many things made children smile.  Imagine that.  Smiling children are often not children who are being jerks.  It’s a thing.

The Students

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Here’s the thing.  If we don’t tell students why we are doing something, then it’s possible we won’t manage to do anything.  It’s a problem just about everywhere now as we scale back things like suspensions that students (sometimes quite correctly) feel like we are removing behavior consequences and not replacing them with anything.  This is working… umm…  not well.

I believe in kids though.  I believe if we teach them why we are changing the way we do behavior, they will totally get and respect it.  If we get them together and have some fun and make it a thing and provide examples of the kinds of (Restorative) consequences (Reparo!) they may see, it will feel less like an invitation to chaos, and more like consequences that are natural, productive, and oriented on student growth.  I mean… right?

So, whatever.  We didn’t really do that.  The students just had an administrative team come by a week ago to reinforce expectations around behavior, language, and cell phones.  It wasn’t a good time to come at them again and try to explain what new consequences would look like or announce the beginning of this two week thing.

We did need to recognize and reward good behaviors, though, and let them know we would be looking out for them.  To do this, we developed a sort of competition where advisories (like houses) earned points for good behavior (like defending your friend from a Troll, for example…) and got a breakfast party as a form of celebration (because House Cups are super expensive on Ebay).  During the planning stages, a colleague suggested ClassDojo.com, and we set up the whole team to be able to reward points on their phones or computers to students as groups.  We didn’t put a lot of rules on how and when teachers could award points, and they went ballistic.

At the end of the first week, almost 1,000 points total had been awarded to only about 90 kids.  It was goddamn brilliant.  Kids were doing nice stuff to each other in front of us, then turning and being like, “does that get a point?”  They didn’t even know what they were competing for, they just wanted points.  POINTS!  We gave them away freely and openly, and each one became a small moment that we could say to someone “hey, you did a thing that was a good thing.”  So, think of it that way, that over that one small week in this one small school, we created 1,000 interactions where we told someone “hey, good job with that whatever.”

We added categories specific to our school mission to go with things like “trying hard” and “leadership.”  I added the option of giving a classroom a point for “not saying “Deez Nuts” which was funny until teachers told me that it was making way more kids say it even more often as they discussed whether or not anyone had said it (in a move from high school to middle school this year, “Deez Nuts” has taken over promposals as my least favorite thing in the world).

Teachers (being, you know, consistently awesome through this whole process) created competitions within competitions, ideas for what to do after these two weeks, ways to strengthen the identity of their advisories as a group and community, and kept the Dojo points a constant part of the conversations they were having with kids promoting and rewarding good stuff.

So.

The first week is over.  I spent the week with a walkie-talkie in my hand walking a few miles a day up and down the same two hallways.  I did not a lot of Instructional Specializing during school hours because I was working with students in need, helping to manage and improve behavior, pushing into classes that seemed likely to be trouble spots and sitting with students as long as I could before my walkie told me to go somewhere else.

It’s the kind of work I’m not supposed to focus on because I’m supposed to be working more directly with teachers, but it does feel like the work that needs to get done before I can work more with teachers.

My five-year old daughter looked at me this morning and said, “daddy, you’re always tired and I don’t like it.”  So, it was a week.  It was a frustrating and exhausting and insanely stressful week, and I’m pretty damn sure it was worth it, and will be for one more.

We already know the Dojo points are sticking around in one way or another when The Plan is over.  The support circles are another tool in our belt that we may start building into our team meeting time once a week (because wouldn’t it be great before a staff meeting to spend some time building up and connecting with a kid to their actual real face before talking about data or test schedules or whatever?).

Every piece of the Plan that has gone well has done so because of the input of the teachers and staff around me.  They made it theirs, adapted it for the work they are doing, and for what they know to be true of our students.  The Plan should look different in every school, and should involve a whole lot of listening from whoever is leading the effort (this was the biggest ask I had of myself, since I’m pretty sure I’m always right about everything and everyone should just shut up and do what I say).

I’m not sure exactly what we did in this first week, but I think we moved the needle.  I think we made some bad stuff better and we made some new good stuff.  I’m excited for how we’ll build on what we’ve done in week two, and hoping all of it will help weeks three through thirty.

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If you would like to use all or any part of this, feel free.  If there’s an appropriate place to credit me for it, please do.  If you’re planning to make extra money by using these ideas without my permission, you may not.  If you have questions or want editable files, send me an email.  mrtomrad@gmail.com

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