What I’d Hold YOU Accountable For.

I got a rush out of the time that I spent at Educon last weekend.  There’s nothing quite like having the chance to meet people that I’ve learned from online for so long in real life.

Intellectual networking—finding connections between my own thinking and the thinking of peers working in dozens of different schools—was awesome.

But I think I rubbed several principals the wrong way on the first night of Educon when I wrote:

Note to principals:  If you want me to innovate, you’ve got to create the conditions that encourage me to experiment.  

Seemed harmless enough to me.  It’s not like I haven’t written about the frustrations I feel with being held accountable for student performance while having my professional hands tied by decisions outside of my control before.

But I quickly found myself buried in pushback replies from principals.  “You can innovate if you want to,” they’d say.  “You’ll have better luck if you’d just try.”

Some of the replies were borderline sarcastic.  Most were overly idealistic.  All of them drove me nuts because the fact of the matter is the work of the classroom teacher is still largely controlled by decisions made by those working beyond the classroom—and many of those decisions are actively discouraging innovation and experimentation in our classrooms.

If you’re serious about encouraging innovation and experimentation in our schools, consider:

Completing an initiative inventory immediately:

Most teachers that I know are completely buried in new programs and projects dreamed up by someone working beyond the classroom.

We’re wrestling with new reading programs, behavior management programs, parent communication programs, character education programs, teacher evaluation programs, teacher professional development programs and innovative grading programs all at the same time.

And while each program has merits that teachers could get behind, tackling twelve different projects at once leaves us intellectually overwhelmed.

We can’t get our heads wrapped around so many big changes at once—and until we get our heads wrapped around the changes you’re asking us to embrace, we can’t even begin to think about innovating and/or experimenting with them.

So take some time to sit down and look at exactly what you’re asking your teachers and schools to do.  Make a list.  Rank your initiatives in order of importance—and then ditch all but the top two items on your list.

Pluheesse stop trying to hold us accountable for your inability to prioritize.  That’s just not fair.

Making innovation and experimentation a stated—and celebrated—expectation in your buildings:

This is going to rub someone the wrong way, but I’ve got to say it. I find it completely comical to hear policymakers and school leaders lamenting the lack of innovation in the classroom while rolling out scripted pacing guides that teachers are expected to follow closely.

How, exactly, are we supposed to innovate when our lessons are planned for us day after day after day after day?  More importantly, why would we even think that innovation was an option when we’re living in a scripted world?

If you were really serious about encouraging innovation and experimentation, you’d write school vision statements that described the actions and behaviors of innovative teachers—and then you’d ask us to provide evidence of how we were living up to the vision that you were painting.

Evaluations would include conversations about the instructional risks that we’d taken during the course of the year.  We’d share samples of lessons that we thought held real potential and explain what it was about those practices that were promising.

Better yet, we’d share samples of lessons that had failed and explain what we’d learned—about ourselves, our instruction and our students—in the process.

We’d detail the ways that peers—both those that we know in person and those that we ‘know’ digitally—had shaped our thinking about teaching and learning.

Sadly, none of this happens in most schools.  Teachers are held accountable for test scores if they teach in tested subjects, and if they don’t they’re held accountable for simple checklist behaviors.

Long story short:  If you want innovation and experimentation, you’ve got to prioritize and reward intellectual curiosity instead of basic compliance in every conversation that you have about teacher accountability.

Collect information on innovation and experimentation in your classrooms:

Can I ask you a simple question:  What kind of tangible data on innovation and experimentation are you currently collecting in your schools and districts?

That’s what I thought.  None, right?

I can’t say as I blame you.  We are, after all, stuck with an almost ridiculous set of reporting expectations for student performance on end of grade reading and math exams.

The problem is this:  Because we’re not collecting any information about innovation and experimentation in our classrooms, we have no way to objectively reflect on just how innovative our teachers and our schools really are.

Sure, we can all probably dig up a bit of anecdotal evidence.  “Mr. Ferriter’s kids were talking about this great project the other day,” we’ll say.  “I saw a bit of it and the class was excited.”

But anecdotal evidence is easy to misinterpret.  More importantly, anecdotal evidence is easy to ignore.

Are you really going to be able to convince anyone—parents, other teachers, your bosses, district or state level policymakers—to adopt new practices based on a few warm and fuzzy stories that collect in the back of your mind as you roll through classrooms each day?

Of course not.

So start actively documenting instances of experimentation and innovation—and the impact that it is having on students.

Create video libraries of progressive practices.  Share them at faculty meetings. Share them at parent nights.  Host webinars with members of your school community spotlighting what you’re doing and why you think it matters.

Encourage—and provide time, resources and training for—your teachers and teams to conduct action research projects on practices.  Develop libraries of written reports that your faculty—and the faculties of the other schools in your district and state—can refer to.

Start surveying parents and students every chance that you get.  Ask them to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of each new practice that your building has embraced.  Share reports with your entire school community.

Doing so will send a clear message to your community:  We care about reflection.  We care about trying new things.  We care about getting better together.  We care about more than the end of grade tests, and we’ve got a heaping cheeseload of evidence to prove it.

Isn’t that the kind of message that schools should be sending anyway?

Does any of this make sense?  Basically, what I’m trying to tell you is that I’m ready to start holding YOU accountable for creating the kinds of conditions that make innovation possible.

Bury me in all the “up-by-the-bootstraps, be-the-change-you-want-to-see” messages that you want, but until you give me the intellectual space to innovate and you start explicitly encouraging and documenting innovation in your schools, it ain’t going to happen.

Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable.

16 thoughts on “What I’d Hold YOU Accountable For.

  1. nike tn

    I don’t know if my comments here have a point other than, thank you for continuing to reach out to administrators with your thoughts about what you

  2. Lyn HIlt

    Bill,
    Thanks for making me think, again.
    Let me address this:
    “I guess the question that I still have for school leaders is how hard is it to resist the forces—district leadership, local policymakers, federal policies—that are pushing against you?”
    It’s hard. But it’s not impossible. I am fortunate in that my central office team supports me in many of my endeavors, some of which are considered “innovative” although frankly I think we need to be doing more in that regard. I’ve only been in my role three yeas, but by the mid-point of Year 1, after the formalities and the getting-to-know yous were through, I knew I had to act. Things were happening that were counterproductive to developing kids’ thinking. Teachers were acting without knowing why. “That’s how it’s always been.” When pressed to tell me why they were implementing something a certain way, they couldn’t recall who told them to do that or when. That was a huge issue for me. A teacher “following blindly,” be it a scripted curriculum, pacing guide, reading program, is something I do not support. STOP and THINK. Reflect. Push back. Part of my job there was to make sure teachers felt autonomous and comfortable enough to have those conversations with me. I wanted to know what was working for them, and what wasn’t. The most difficult thing about changing things that are “handed down” is that sometimes the other buildings aren’t on board with those changes, because their leadership mode is different. Some principals are comfortable with the status quo, and in a small district such as ours, it then becomes very easy for an “us vs. them” between buildings to occur, which is truly unfortunate. I do my best to spread my ideas about change to my colleagues, but ultimately it’s their call in their buildings. If central office gets an inkling that things are happening “differently” and not by the book at one of their buildings, that will almost certainly raise a conversation with the principal, because they’re looking for “consistent and pervasive” implementation of programs. So long as I can justify my actions, based solidly in this-is-whats-best-for-my-kids-and-my-teachers, I’m usually safe drifting from that expected standardization.
    To this:
    “I mean, Im pretty hard on principals who let their schools drift because Im always on the receiving end of that drift—-but my guess is that principals are struggling to deal with drift of their own, and while they may have more organizational power than I do as a teacher, they still have to answer to bosses just like I do.”
    There are days when I am required to sit through data meetings, admin meetings focusing on topics that may or may not impact my students and learning, and I want to curl up in a ball and crawl under the table. The time spent on managerial tasks is truly draining. I think, “If only I wouldn’t have to worry about x, I could be doing y.” But, the reality is, I DO have to worry about x, because as of right now, most principals I know assume the impossible-to-live-up to All-Star Manager and Instructional Leader Role. Like George said, we have to examine how we are spending our precious minutes, prioritize, eliminate nonsense, and move forward. And we HAVE to help our teachers do the same.
    I appreciate your thoughts on teacher supervision and the conversations that should result. I found this year, especially, after writing the required 4-page observation reports (one of those processes that sucks the life out of me and requires too much of my time, thank you, state of Pennsylvania), I have been engaged in some really powerful conversations with teachers about ways they can transform their lessons and systems of thinking about the learning for their students. I have seen so many teachers step out of their comfort zones this year. That’s because I allow them to. I give them freedom. I don’t babysit them. I don’t want them to be robots. I need them. Our kids need them.
    I don’t know if my comments here have a point other than, thank you for continuing to reach out to administrators with your thoughts about what you need us to be for your schools and your students. And it was so fantastic meeting you last week 🙂

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Chris,
    Thanks for stopping by the Radical! Good to see you here….
    You know, at SLA last weekend, I think what stood out to me—and granted, I only had a surface level view of what actually happens in your building—-were the grade level guiding questions. What I liked so much about them is that they could serve as a hook—-mental velcro, so to speak—for every choice made by your faculty and every conversation between teachers and students. As simple as that seems, its HUGE when it comes to promoting/supporting/encouraging innovation.
    Thats the visioning piece that I think is missing from so many schools. Theres no shared, guiding thoughts, ideas or beliefs—-and as a result, it becomes harder to engage teachers in change because they dont see how it connects to their work and because they dont have any commitment to new ideas that are proposed. Whats more, it becomes harder for principals to prioritize. Without some sort of clear vision in place, tackling too many projects becomes the norm simply because everything seems—or can be sold as—important.
    I guess the question that I still have for school leaders is how hard is it to resist the forces—district leadership, local policymakers, federal policies—that are pushing against you?
    I mean, Im pretty hard on principals who let their schools drift because Im always on the receiving end of that drift—-but my guess is that principals are struggling to deal with drift of their own, and while they may have more organizational power than I do as a teacher, they still have to answer to bosses just like I do.
    Does this make any sense?
    Bill

  4. Chris Lehmann

    Personally, I thought your tweet was spot-on for the 140 character limits that Twitter creates. When we unpack it, I think it’s very important to note that you aren’t saying, “Let me do whatever I want.” I know I didn’t take it that way.
    The conditions for innovation (to me) involve setting up smart systems and structures that allow teachers to have enough guidance and support and time to work within an easily communicated pedagogy / vision and the freedom to be thoughtful, creative and passionate within it.
    As leaders, we principals have to understand that creating the conditions for teachers and students to innovate and learn together is absolutely our job. If we don’t, what are we doing?

  5. Gail Ritchie

    Thank you, Bill! You are so right on. Teachers feel disenfranchised and disempowered when they are buried under multiple, sometimes conflicting initiatives imposed from above. I attended a very lively colloquium last night on the intersection of research, policy, and practice and came away reinforced in my belief that knowledge is continually emerging and teachers should be part of the inquiry and refining of what works in specific contexts with specific students.

  6. Erin Paynter (@adriander12)

    Amazing thought-provoking post. It didn’t make me uncomfortable, it made me want to hoot and holler YES!
    I kept thinking back to advice from a fellow administrator that I hold in the highest esteem, and he always said that the people in the building are your programs. It’s where we should be investing the time and resources so that we can create conditions for them to innovate and take risks.
    When I was a new driver in my teens, I took my lessons during a sterotypical Canadian winter – low visibility, slippy roads and crazy winds. But I learned more about driving in those few weeks than if I had during the summer, when conditions are favourable, or easy. And there the whole time was my support system, my teacher. If I started to slide a bit, he’d ask me what I learned the next time. IF I had to brake suddenly on a snowy road, same question. And then I had opportunities to implement my new learning.
    So I’m going to go ahead and try and create conditions (minus the crazy weather) where my teachers can take a small risky step, with my support, and reflect with them on what they learned, and then give them the time to implement.
    Thank you for the post. I’ll be sharing with colleagues in my board.
    ~Erin

  7. Trey Mohler

    Hey my name is Trey. I attend the University of South Alabama, and I was assigned to your blog by Dr. John Strange’s EDM310 Microcomputing Systems class.
    This is a great post. You bring up very important topics. “If you want innovation and experimentation, you’ve got to prioritize and reward intellectual curiosity instead of basic compliance in every conversation that you have about teacher accountability.” I couldn’t agree with you anymore.

  8. Mike Scott

    You know, your point about pacing and planning guides demonstrates the clear idiocy of one aspect of our life in schools. It shackles imaginative teachers and provides a ready made excuse for those who are less inclined to innovate. Turns out that a pacing and planning guide is the easiest way to document a division or schools efforts at meeting standards. Pacing and planning guides are analogous to Knowledge in Blooms taxonomy. They represent nothing but a declaration of what should be covered.
    Having said that, I’ve done this long enough to realize that these documents are an improvement to the free lance instruction that I witnessed early in my career. Without the standards, and the assessments tied to them, it really was grab bag of what was being taught. It’s time to move past pacing and planning though.
    How would school be different if content was presented consistently, over time in a students centered environment? For example, instead of declaring 4 days of instruction on “measurement”, the school year consisted of numerous opportunities to use the skill in projects across all disciplines. I think creative people could contrive an experience in which the important skills are woven across curriculum and repeatedly used throughout the year. We agree such content is important, but it doesn’t need to be pigeon holed in a fixed time frame in which it’s value is set by the number of days provided for mastery.

  9. Yourkidsteacher

    Great post! You made your point very well. In my former professional life, I always tried to take something away, before I added an additional item to someone’s ‘to-do’ list. Program overload IS a real problem and I’m glad you talked about it. A PD session shouldn’t always lead to another task, but alas it always seems to. Thanks for the good fight.

  10. Tracy Strelser

    I love you. There are a lot of teachers I dislike, but maybe I’m learning from you that the outside influences are what tie the hands of most teachers and create the situations I hate. Keep speaking out and please don’t be offended by the strong punches of parents. They have been misled oftentimes and/or just don’t know what they don’t know. Thank you for giving me more information.

  11. Karen Szymusiak

    Bill,
    I think your thoughts are so important to consider. I have always hoped we could create more places where the “must do lists” are cleared away for real teacher innovation. I try to do that as much as I can. Teachers deserve it.
    I do fear that there are not enough learning communities where this happens. We can only hope to keep pushing forward until we have a critical mass of supportive environments for teachers.
    So let’s keep pushing the notion that we need to create environments for teachers to (and students) to experiment and learn.

  12. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for this pushback, Eric….
    I think you and I probably have a lot more in common on this topic than differences and I agree that my construct is a bit of an oversimplification. Thats probably true for most blog entries.
    I also understand all too well that principals are often in the same boat as teachers in that theyre simply responding to external demands that they dont really control either. Most of the programs in my own school, for example, are mandated by people beyond the school—and while Id love my principal to take a stand against them, his hands are as tied as mine. In retrospect, Id probably craft two separate posts on accountability—one for principals and one for policymakers.
    Two things are still rolling through my mind, though:
    First, while I agree that the us v. them vibe you get from my post is disconcerting, I really think its appropriate. In fact, the were all in this together and we have equal responsibilities for driving change lines that I hear in so many conversations about education actually drive me bonkers. Heres why: Principals and policymakers and school leaders beyond the classroom DO have more organizational power than teachers.
    You—and by you, I mean everyone working beyond the classroom—-CAN make the kinds of decisions and choices that I talk about in this post. You can start cutting back on programs implemented at the school level. You can encourage some programs and discourage others through budgeting choices. You can make innovation and experimentation a part of our evaluations. You can control how scripted curricula are used in our buildings.
    Those are choices that rest within your organizational spheres of influence—and the choices that you make, Ill have to respond to without question. In the end, your organizational authority gives you a measure of power and responsibility that Ill never have. That means school change is more dependent on you than it is me.
    Sometimes it drives me nuts to hear principals talking about leadership but then abdicating their responsibility to lead when key decisions have to be made. At least one part of leadership—especially in the hierarchies that are schools—is making the final choices that shape work in our buildings, and the fact of the matter is that those of you beyond classrooms are the folks making those choices.
    Ive also been thinking a lot about your scripted curricula comments because while I love the differentiated approach that youre taking to implementing scripted curricula in your school, I wonder whether thats the reality in most buildings. I mean, I know really accomplished teachers working in several different schools who have been told point blank that their evaluations will be based on the number of times that they log in to their districts scripted curricula program. Ive seen district level professional development providers tell rooms full of teachers that it is their obligation to follow the script created by the district.
    My guess—and its only a guess—is that progressive principals are doing a great job finding middle ground with scripted programs. My guess is also that middling to weak principals—who are often overwhelmed in their own right by their workloads and external pressures—are using scripted curricula in a much more rigid manner because it makes teacher supervision easier. When logging in to a scripted curricula is the only evidence that you have to gather about the work a teacher is doing, evaluation becomes much, much easier.
    But how many progressive principals are out there? Are they a majority of the principals working in our schools?
    Because if theyre not, most teachers are going to be on the receiving end of really negative messages about innovation and experimentation.
    Does any of this make sense?
    Either way, enjoying the chance to think with you…
    Bill

  13. Eric Juli

    Bill,
    Your post does not make me feel uncomfortable. I think you’ve done a great job of framing the conditions a good principal should strive to implement. I think what I struggle with as I read your post is the us versus them implication. Your piece seems to imply that all teachers are ready and willing to work in a school that values innovation and experimentation, and weak or unwilling or unable principals are holding these teachers and schools back.
    In my experience, the schools and classrooms you describe here are equally terrifying to both principals and teachers. I know principals who are unwilling to set up the conditions you describe, who push test-prep, and don’t let teachers teach courses that aren’t tested, but I also know teachers who meet visitors at the door, lecture only, and teach to the text and test.
    I think I’m an administrator who empowers teachers. As you describe, I encourage, provide time, resources and training to try just about anything a teacher says he/she wants, as long as it’s framed in the context of improving student learning. I’m slowly building a group of teachers who want to be empowered, but not everyone does.
    I struggle when teachers write angrily about having to follow a script. I taught in a middle school with a scripted literacy program. The district purchased the program because the average student read 3-4 years below grade level and the average middle school teacher does not know how to teach English Language Learners or struggling readers to read English. Many teachers needed the script to move student learning forward. I didn’t need the script, I didn’t like having the script, so I didn’t use it. My principal made sure I knew what I was doing without it. If I didn’t know what to do, what would have been wrong with using the script, if it helped students learn to read more than they would have if I didn’t use it? Having a script isn’t so bad depending on your context. If your principal treats the script and teachers as one size fits all, that’s just bad leadership, not a bad reason for having the script to begin with.
    You’re absolutely right in your thinking, the construct just isn’t quite so simple. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  14. Shane Rayburn

    You got it right here! And to borrow from George’s comment above, our purpose should be to clear the path. Well put! Thanks for the challenge abs reminder. Important writing here. If we want it, we have to make it possible!

  15. Cfanch

    I always am thankful for my present situation in that I have the ability to talk directly with our district curriculum specialists to discuss what I will be covering for the year. As long as they know that I have a plan in place to cover all of the district and state requirements then they are content to let me plan a course of instruction. And, the rest of our teachers have the same autonomy.
    Still, there are so many “programs” as you describe that we feel overwhelmed and become hard-pressed to engage our creative juices by the time we get to this point of the year.
    If we could somehow remove our state standardized testing (that dictate our every move between the first of Feb. and the end of April) then we might be able to find that “intellectual space” and start being more creative.
    Thank you for this great post.

  16. Gcouros

    I think that you are bang on Bill. As I have continued on in my career as a principal, I have truly believed in “clearing the path” for my staff. I read your one tweet about managerial duties and I believe that is huge. No matter what, there is always going to be those tasks that happen, but how can we get rid of more of this? I also believe that TIME is the one thing that I can really give to staff to help them improve. If we want something to be innovative, I have to provide time for that to happen.
    Thanks for your continued awesome writing. It means even more to me that I met you in person. Awesome.

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