Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Finding “Loose-Tight” Nostalgia In The Middle Of The Summer!

There is a rhythm to the seasons of an educators’ life. And early this morning, driving down the street, on a lazy, hazy summer day, this feeling kicked in that is hard to explain. I was simultaneously relaxed and nervous. It was the smell in the air, the children playing and the cars packed for vacation. It was this flood of memories and moments with my own children that always made summer so special.

It was the knowing that at this time of the year, I can relax just a bit and enjoy these great summer days and moments, but knowing too, with a bit of subtle tension, that the next season (2013-2014) is looming out there… with all of its excitement, frustration, newness, adversity, knowns and unknowns. What changes would lay ahead, I would wonder – and will I be prepared for them?

Whether your 2013-2014 school year begins next week (as it does for our senior daughter), or in mid to late August, or even late September, summer offers a much-needed time of transition between the “seasons” of what becomes your career.

This summer is my 40th such summer in between the seasons of each school year, but one of my most memorable was the summer of 1993 - Twenty summers ago. It was a long time ago and yet it seems like yesterday too. That is how the seasons seem to work.  

It is memorable, because for me personally, while on summer vacation with my family, I had made a decision about my work leadership life that would eventually come to define me, although I did not know it then. I was most certainly feeling that tension of summer ending (we were having a lot of fun), and the uncertainties of a new season beginning (it was not going to be easy).  

The summer of 1993, I had read quite a bit about the term loose-tight. Could it be possible that a school leader could be “tight”—that is, direct the decision-making process—and be “loose”—that is, allow for participative decision making at the same time?

At Stevenson, for example, we had committed ourselves to implementing student engaged learning through reorganization of the classroom structure.  Seven teachers, including me, ran a pilot in the spring of 1993 with three different classrooms. We used a cooperative learning model called “teams of four,” a classroom design that eliminated the use of rows except in testing situations.

That summer I kept thinking:

We should all be tight about this “right thing” called student engaged learning – not just some of our faculty, but all. No options. No exceptions. We can be loose about how it gets implemented by each team of adults. And we should constantly evaluate what is and is not working… and take action.

And so, In August of 1993, I stood in front of the mathematics and science faculty on opening day (vision day) and stated:

It is time for our mathematics and science division of the school to take action on the district-wide vision of student-engaged learning. The time to act is now. This year. No option. Not a choice. Based on a pilot by seven teachers last year, based on the best we know from research, based on what is being taught by our national organizations, based on what we have learned from one another (all trusted sources), we will no longer, again—ever—teach our students with the desks sitting in rows. We will use a blend of whole-group and small-group instruction each day, forever.

I asked each of the pilot teachers to say a few words about how to do it well (the loose part), and then I asked, “Can anyone think of any educationally sound reason students should sit in rows other than on test days? Can anyone advocate for the continued use of rows?”

The room was silent. After a few moments, one mathematics teacher asked, “Do we have to do this? Is it required?”

It was a defining moment for me as a leader. My response would decide whether I was just a manager of my area of the school hoping for eventual vision implementation by invitation, or a leader willing to ensure that the vision of student-engaged learning as a coherent aspect of our daily lesson planning would be fulfilled—with no tolerance for anything less.

I was thinking: Yes, no options. How could we in good conscience defend a practice that was not effective? All courses. All teachers. Every day. How many pilots do we need to do to be convinced?

As a professional learning community teacher and leader you cannot afford to be laissez-faire about your work. If anything, you must be serious and passionate about the business of educating every child extremely well—even as it is done with a sense of compassion, humor, and grace. Inviting faculty, staff, and colleagues to take action on the vision is significantly different than declaring and ensuring everyone will take action. This was much more than an invitation. No options, no excuses, no exceptions.

My response to the teacher was:

Why wouldn’t we want to try to teach using research-affirmed practice? Why wouldn’t we want the benefit of improved student learning that results from student engagement with each other around meaningful work? Why wouldn’t we want to work together to make this an essential element of every lesson? How should we explain to our parents, the school board, and the general school community that we do not wish to pursue best-practice, research-affirmed instruction?

Teams must have some autonomy for how they do the work—otherwise adult motivation will dissipate quickly. So be careful to distinguish between the actual vision and the structures for achieving the vision. In this case, however, the existing structure had caused a 7-year delay to the full implementation of our vision for instruction. The status quo of rows —was not a choice anymore.That era was over. 

As your summer ends and you prepare for another season, what “era” needs to end for your teaching team, curriculum program or area of school leadership? What problem is worth your time, best effort, and effort? Will this new season provide a future defining moment of summer nostalgia for you? May you experience a 2013-2014 season that makes a difference!