Tag Archives: Supporting Teachers

Not All At Once: Breaking Your Initiative Into Phases

Leading large-scale school change is a challenge. These kinds of initiatives are often complex and include numerous parts and components. Further, the initiative often includes practices educators, the folks responsible for implementing the initiative, have never experienced themselves as learners. Such initiatives often seem overwhelming to teachers!

While I was with Auburn schools, one lesson we learned from working with other districts further along implementing Customized Learning (proficiency-based learning) than we were was “not all at once!” Although there are many components to this school reform effort, following a certain sequence seemed to lead to successful implementation more often than other processes or approaches.

We teased out those lessons about sequence into phases for implementing Customized Learning and started applying them to plans for training and supporting teachers, as well as plans for implementing a statewide requirement for a proficiency-based diploma.

Seeing the practical benefits of breaking our proficiency-based learning work into phases led us to also consider our work around learning through technology within a 1to1 environment, and we created phases for implementing technology for learning, as well.

Although there is flexibility in how districts implement each phase, or even in how they might break an implementation into phases, there seems to be real, practical advantages to thinking of a complex initiative in phases. Each phase focuses on building the capacity of teachers to implement the key components of a complex initiative, but by making the transition manageable by breaking it down into doable steps.

The Power of Breaking an Initiative into Phases (as viewed from the example of Proficiency-Based Learning)

The Phases – Customized Learning

The Phases – Technology for Learning

Reframing Professional Development (Again)

Professional Development is more than just workshops, readings, and online courses. So what is it? And why am I dissatisfied with PD being reduced to these usual components? I think I have rewritten (and rethought) this post more than any other. My earlier thinking is posted here, and here.

Why reframe it again now?

I think I finally figured out what it is that makes us (Auburn Schools) think differently about professional development.

It’s the proficiency piece.

Teacher and student

We aren’t interested in simply sharing techniques or information. We want changes in classroom practice.

I have collaborated with other districts and initiatives, and I hear frustrations about how much they have invested in professional development – how many sessions they have provided – and how it has resulted in very little change in practice.

I think it is because our thinking about professional development has been incomplete. Sometimes folks say that teachers are oppositional or unwilling to change, but I think it is that workshops are simply insufficient (and perhaps their role is misunderstood), even though they are a key component.

Over time, our understanding about what we need to pay attention to in terms of PD and support has expanded to include 3 overarching categories: clarity; support for foundational knowledge, and support for achieving proficiency.


  • A Professional Learning Curriculum – If we have an initiative (technology integration, proficiency-based learning, math instruction, middle level practices, what ever it may be…), what do we want our educators to become good at? As with young learners, adult learners can excel when we are transparent about what we would like them to know and be able to do. What are the (clearly articulated) knowledge and skills we want our educators to become proficient in, and what scopes and sequences make sense?
  • A Professional Learning Progress Management System – How will we manage, acknowledge and certify adult learning (just as we should for student learning)? What system(s) will we use to help make the professional curriculum and pathways transparent, to certify teacher proficiencies as they move through their professional curriculum, and to record and manage their “certifications” (micro-credentialling, “badging,” Educate/Empower or other learning progress management systems)?
  • Answering “But What Does It Look Like?” – Simply stated, this is “models & examples”; a curated collection of possible documents, classroom visits, videos, photos, and articles, etc., to help teachers develop a sense of what an aspect of the strategy would look like in action. Teachers often have an intellectual understanding of what they are being asked to do, but not a practical understanding. These models and examples play a critical role in helping them move to the point of being able to try this new idea in their own classroom.

Support for Foundational Knowledge

  • “Same Page” Trainings – These are introductory workshops, getting teachers on the same page about a new set of concepts, skills, or strategies they will be working to implement. We used to think of teachers as leaving a workshop as proficient in the new skill. Now we think of these “same page” sessions as just the beginning. The real (professional) learning happens when they go back to their classrooms and try out the strategy (see the PD components in the next category).
  • Reusable Learning Objects – Instead of having to wait for a workshop, or for the Tech Integrator or Instructional Coach to visit her classroom, these how-to articles, lessons, short courses, videos, and other digital resources (aligned to our professional learning curriculum) are available to a teacher as she needs them.

Support for Achieving Proficiency

Lesson Invention
  • Lesson Invention and Tryouts – There is much to any new system that needs to be designed or invented (or at least adapted for our schools). The work teachers do to design, invent, prototype, refine, perfect, and share these systems and strategies is valuable professional learning for all of us. Even relatively simple ideas or strategies, if they are truly new to a teacher, require some level of “invention” for that educator to put them into action. Embedded in the idea of lesson invention and tryouts is the notion of continuous improvement, and the chance to try a skill in the classroom, reflect on how it went and how it could be done better, and then try it out again with the improvements (play-debrief-replay).
  • Coaching and Feedback – Keeping with the idea of continuous improvement, this includes the teacher working with any Technology Integrator, Instructional Coach, administrator, or peer, who models lessons or strategies, co-designs or plans with the teacher, observes, and/or provides formative feedback to support the teacher’s professional growth and ability to increase the level of fidelity with which they can implement the strategy.
  • Teacher Face-to-Face Time – Teachers need time to sit with other teachers working on the same initiatives to share experiences, ideas, and resources, as well as to ask questions and seek support. They need a chance to share things that they have tried that worked, and to seek assistance with those things they are still challenged by. And the notion of “face-to-face” can extend well beyond her school or district via the blogs and social networks the teacher builds and follows.
Teacher Face-to-Face Time

We don’t just see that there are 3 categories of professional learning, but we acknowledge that all three compliment each other and are needed. Teachers don’t get to proficiency without the foundational supports. To offer workshops without defining the desired broader professional learning at best leaves gaps in teachers’ learning and at worst becomes a collection of random workshops. To share a set of expectations with teachers (the professional curriculum) without providing training and supports is the irresponsible expectation that they can change practices without supports.

Successful changes in classroom practice come when there is clarity, as well as support for both building foundational understandings and growing to proficiency.

If your initiative isn’t progressing the way you would like, if you aren’t seeing the the classroom changes you’d like to see, I’d invite you to look at the strategies within the three categories. Is your initiative attending to each?


The (New) Evolving Face of Professional Development

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about professional development. 

We’re working on a comprehensive project to define a professional learning curriculum related to our strategic initiatives (Customized Learning, Tech for Learning, etc), build modules and professional learning playlists around those learning targets, and provide a system for certifying teachers for their accomplishments and for what they know and can do. And I have written before about how our thinking about professional development has evolved over time.

This post captures our current (Summer 2014) thinking on the topic.

Not only are we recognizing that we just don’t have enough resources and opportunities to do traditional “everyone in the same room” professional development, but we have started thinking differently about the purpose of those workshops and other whole-group PD.

Until recently, I used to think of whole-group PD as the end. Teachers attend the PD session and they would leave being proficient at the skill taught in the session, ready and able to implement it well in their classroom.

Now, I think of whole-group PD as just the beginning, an opportunity to introduce a group to a new idea and get them all “on the same page” before they begin working in their own classrooms at learning how to implement the skill well. This is especially important given that the work we’ve been doing lately around Customized Learning, including teaching with iPads, is new to teachers (they haven’t experienced this themselves as learners) and have to invent many of the pieces. 

And that idea, the idea that these new skills are complex, and need inventing and development, and later need practice, and that teachers need to be supported throughout their work to get good at them, has us thinking about workshops as just one small piece of professional development.

For us, professional development for our teachers needs to include some fluid combination of these components:

  • “Same Page” Trainings – These are introductory workshops, getting teachers on the same page about a new set of concepts, skills, or strategies they will be working to implement.
  • Lesson Invention & Tryouts – There is much to this new system that needs to be designed or invented (or at least adapted for our schools). The work teachers do to design, invent, prototype, refine, perfect, and share these systems and strategies is valuable professional learning for all of us. Embedded in this idea is the notion of continuous improvement, and the chance to try a skill in the classroom, reflect on how it went and how it could be done better, and then try it out again with the improvements (play-debrief-replay).
  • Coaching & Feedback – Keeping with the idea of continuous improvement, this includes any Technology Integrator, Instructional Coach, administrator, or peer who models lessons or strategies, co-designs or plans with the teacher, observes, and/or provides formative feedback to support the teacher’s professional growth.
  • Teacher Face-to-Face Time – Teachers need time to sit with other teachers to share experiences, ideas, and resources, as well as to ask questions and seek support. They need a chance to share things that they have tried that worked, and to seek assistance with those things they are still challenged by. And the notion of “face-to-face” can extend well beyond her school or district via the blogs and social networks the teacher builds and follows.
  • On-Demand Modules & Play Lists – Instead of having to wait for a workshop, or for the Tech Integrator or Instructional Coach to visit her classroom, these how-to articles, lessons, short courses, videos, and other digital resources are available to a teacher as she needs them.
  • Answering “But What Does It Look Like?” – Simply stated, this is models & examples: a curated collection of possible classroom visits, videos, photos, and articles, etc., to help teachers develop a sense of what an aspect of the initiative would look like in action. Teachers often have an intellectual understanding of what they are being asked to do, but not a practical understanding.  These models and examples play a critical role in helping them move to the point of being able to try this new idea in their own classroom.
Of course, now we have to figure out how to do all of these well…. 

Is Our Phases of iPad Integration Ready?

(Note: Cross posted to the Distribute PD Project)

Last August, one of our Auburn-and-friends work groups developed a draft Phases of Tech integration.

Draft Phases of iPad Integration

We wanted to think about developing teachers’ skills at leveraging iPads for teaching and learning beyond just googling topics and word processing. Beyond just projecting material. Beyond just thinking about getting good at various tools. Beyond just using apps connected to the curriculum.

We wanted to think about technology as a tool to help us customize learning. We wanted to focus more on pedagogical goals than technological goals. And we wanted to think about where technology could take us that we couldn’t easily go without technology.

So we set up our professional learning continuum, our phases of implementing technology integration, to be similar to our Phases of Implementing Customized Learning, and how such a structure helps support plementation and teachers. (Driver 1)

And we based it on our current thinking about powerful uses of technology for learning. (Driver 2)

And we tried to think about how the SAMR Model might inform our work. (Driver 3)

Now, we don’t believe any of our work is permanent. We know that as we get better at what we do, we’ll figure out how to improve our models. After we use this Phases of Technology document for a while, it will be ready for a revision.

But right now, we’re wondering if our draft is developed enough to be the one we live with for 12-18 months before we revise it again…

So, as you look at our draft,

  • Does the document adequately reflect our three drivers?
  • Does the sequence of the phases seem right? Does the progression make sense?
  • Does each phase seem to have the right elements for demonstrating mastery and moving on to the next phase? Does it adequately outline advancement (recognizing there will be plenty of support documents)?
  • Is anything missing? What should be added?
  • What needs to be edited or revised?
  • How do we make it better before living with it for a while?

We don’t need “perfect.” We’ll learn a lot by living with the model for a while. But we want to kick the tires on this version a little, and insure it is “good enough” to live with for a while.

So, what do you think?


Starting to Design a Distributed PD System

A while back, I described our need for a distributed system of professional development (as part of our comprehensive plan to support professional learning, including: workshops and trainings; coaching and formative feedback; educator lesson invention and tryouts; and opportunities for educators to get together to share successes and trouble shoot challenges).

So, we've put together a work group to start designing. We will focus first on building a system that will support educators learning to better integrate iPads into teaching and learning. Frankly, we could use the same kind of distributed PD system for our Customized Learning work, as well, but we'll work out the bugs on our iPad work first.

We have 1to1 iPads in K-2 and 7-12, and various clusters of iPads in between. Our work group has K-12 representation. But we know others are interested in this work and we often partner with folks from other districts, and several are participating in the workgroup. We love it when others come to play with us!

Distributed PD Website

And, if you're interested, there is an opportunity for you to lurk, or even participate.

We have created a Distributed PD website to help organize our work. We have pages for each key component of the design work and the Updates & Activities is our blog where we'll regularly publish (yes) activities and updates.

So if you want to lurk, check back at the site periodically to see what we've been up to (and I'll occasionally cross post or post updates to this blog, too).

If you want to participate, you can leverage the comments section of any of our posts or pages.

And if you're REALLY interested in rolling up your selves and being part of the work group, shoot me an email.


How the Phases Help Support Implementation and Teachers

The Phases of Implementation are actually a tool to leverage in support of teachers and the school's or district's implementation of Customized Learning. The components of Customized Learning are certainly not new to schools, but successfully implementing CL depends on raising the level of level of implementation and the consistency of implementation across the school and school year so they don't simply occur in certain classrooms or during certain units. But learning to implement all those moving parts, in a sequence that actually works, can seem daunting! The Phases take a complex initiative (Customized Learning) and break it into manageable chunks, supporting implementation (and teachers!) in several ways.

The Phases Help Leaders Articulate Where the Staff and School are in Their Implementation
The notion of phases is helpful to leadership because they can classify their educators by the phase each is in. Not only can teachers be identified as being in a specific phase, but so can teams (grade levels, interdisciplinary teams, departments, etc.), schools, and districts based on the phase of the majority of their teachers. This helps with articulating to the district, parents, and community where you are on your journey toward implementing Customized Learning, and reminds everyone that this work will not be completed over night (our district has a 5-year plan for implementation!), and helps everyone manage expectations about what should be happening in our schools at this point in the implementation.

Keep in mind that teachers within a school will be at different phases. Districts in the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning have had success with having early adopters pilot a phase ahead of the rest of the staff, and even when the majority of staff in a school are ready to move to the next phase, there will be new staff needing initial training, or staff who are progressing at a different pace than their colleagues.

The Phases Help Teachers Focus Their Professional Learning and Implementation
The phases help educators know the “curriculum” of implementing Customized Learning, where they are in the scope and sequence of that curriculum, and what goals and next steps they might need for progressing to the next level. The goal of any phase is to develop proficiency in the skills related to that phase. This will lead to a strategic progression of more and more skill at creating a personalized learning environment for students, where we expect students to have an improved sense of having their learning needs met, resulting in increased competence, engagement, and academic success.

It is always okay for teachers to dabble, try out, and explore features of a phase or two ahead of where they are, but only within the context of informal learning (“dabbling”). Educators' primary responsibility is getting good at the skills of their current phase.

“Plan, Do, Check, and Adjust” is a crucial component of implementation at each phase, insuring that reflection, continuous improvement, collaborative problem-solving, supporting colleagues, and sharing ideas are hallmarks of the teachers' work.

The Phases Help Leaders Plan for Professional Development
Leadership can more easily plan for training, support, coaching, and professional development because of the Phases : (a) leaders can articulate where their staff are in their professional learning progression; (b) the kinds of resources, training, and coaching needed differs by phase; and (c) how much of that support is needed depends on how many staff are in each phase. Similar to how students will move through the curriculum via Customized Learning, teachers demonstrate mastery of components in one phase before moving on to the next phase.

The first three phases each begin with educators participating in specific training designed to kick off that phase by orienting them to the key components and the work that awaits them (I have come to think of them as “same page” trainings since they are intended to get everyone on the same page.). Other trainings (offered as teachers need them, see below) help teaching staff become more familiar with the curriculum organization, the complex reasoning and life-long habits of mind curriculum strands, various instructional strategies, learning progress management, student motivation, etc.

In fact, from the Classroom Culture phase on, we do not automatically provide teachers the “next” trainings and professional development until they have demostrated some proficiency with the skills, tools, and concepts of the phase they are currenty in. They must get good at the current phase before moving on.

The Phases Help Leaders Focus Positive Pressure and Support
Level of implementation matters, and leaders increase level of implementation through Positive Pressure and Support. Positive Pressure and Support has three pieces: Expectations, Supervision, and Support. We have just discussed support, but the Phases help focus Positive Pressure and Support, as well, by making clear the expectations (getting good a skills in the phase you're teachers are in), and by clarifying what to look for in classrooms when supervising and supporting (those same skills of the current phase).

Even if the Phases help provide clarity, leaders still need training and support themselves so they know the phases and what each phase's skills look like. For example, are teachers in the Classroom Culture Phase actually working within their phase toward getting feedback from students, or are they jumping ahead? Have teachers simply posted some of the tools (such as a Parking Lot) or are they actually providing students with opportunities and guidance on providing feedback using a Parking Lot. Is the absence of a Parking Lot a sign that a teacher isn't focused on Student Voice and Choice, or is the teacher simply using other strategies?


This approach to scaling the reform is successful specifically because, at any given moment, the work is personalized to the immediate needs of the teacher, team, school, or district. Team level, school level, district level, and consortium level. Shared leadership teams (a) determine where their educators and communities are in the process of implementing customized learning (using the phases as a guide), (b) design individualized implementation plans and interventions for their group, and (c) provide positive pressure and support for moving to the next level.


Learning to Use the Common Core

A friend recently asked what teachers are doing to align with the new Common Core curriculum.

She wrote:

As I am working with teachers on the ELA CCSS, some are asking about examples of how the other content areas are using the standards in their curriculum. They are meeting with some resistance re: looking at their curriculums in light of the standards and are “waiting for their content associations” to publish new standards.

Educators being reluctant to put too much energy into the “New Best Thing” isn't surprising, given the speed with which innovations come and go in schools. But the notion of being clearer about what we are teaching and increasing the consistency of what is taught across classrooms, schools, and districts is not new, and is enduring enough that having a “new” curriculum is a good opportunity to be deliberate about getting better at that. (Now, if we could only get as strong and enduring a focus on quality instruction!)

We are working on transparency of teaching and integrating the Common Core in my district, and I shared with my friend what we are doing:

Introducing and Starting to Use the Common Core

In keeping with approaching implementing Customized Learning in phases, we are looking at using the curriculum differently as a phased implementation. I think I would label those phases as something like: Awareness, Models, Practice, Implementation.

Awareness: Have teachers do what they're doing now, but make sure that students know what the learning targets are for their activities that day (regardless of which set of standards teachers are using). At the same time, see if the teacher can identify which Common Core standards the activities they are doing that day are most closely related to. Some of this phase should be devoted to doing a 10,000 ft crosswalk between the curriculum they are used to using and the Common Core, to help identify how they are the same and how they are different.

Models: Have teachers visit (in person, on line, or in print) some examples of folks teaching from the Common Core in ways we might label “high level of implementation.” The goal, of course, is to help teachers find exemplars so they can experience what it looks like, feels like, tastes like, smells like, etc. Part of this phase is reflecting on how they might organize their teaching, lessons, or units differently to bring them more in line with the Common Core.

Practice: Teachers use the Common Core to design their teaching, lessons, and units, and try them out. Both feedback from knowledgeable, trusted others, and self reflection guide the revision and improved implementation of that teaching. The goal is to know you won't start out perfect, but that you are working to get better. Teachers here, in Cohort districts, would also be using the curriculum more and more to have students monitor their own progress.

Implementation: Teachers have gotten pretty comfortable with the transition and pretty good at teaching with the Common Core (these teachers don't have to be perfect or outstanding, just competent). Teachers in this phase become both places to visit and coaches (knowledgable, trusted others) for teachers in more novice phases.

Teachers in a builidng don't have to be all at the same phase at the same time. In fact, it's really helpful to have those teachers who are a phase or two ahead and can work with the more novice teachers.

We need to help teachers move from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset (the ability to learn and adapt as things change and evolve around you), possibly by having them all read the book Mindset. You need to build a common language around Growth Mindset, and talk about it often to keep that idea in the forefront of their minds while struggling through change. Parallel to this is helping teachers know that the new constant is change, and we must learn how to constantly adapt to productively respond to new challenges and requirements.

And lastly, I suspect part of what is giving teachers a hard time is not the Content Knowledge piece, but the focus on higher order thinking and the application of knowledge (changes away from sacred cow units of study aside). I think getting them involved with the Cohort's Complex Reasoning curriculum (essentially Marzano and Pickering' Dimensions of Learning) would give them a concrete way to apply and leverage higher order thinking to their content…


If It Sounds Crazy, That’s Probably Not How They’re Doing It

Teachers can sometimes have wild ideas about how a new initiative will work, but a recent experience helped us figure out how to lower teachers's anxiety.

A while back, one of the schools I'm working with had a staff meeting where we talked with middle grades students what had been student reporters at a conference focused on Customized Learning and iPads.

The students were enthusiastic and passionate about their involvement in the conference, as well as what they were starting to learn about Customized Learning.

Other than a handful of pilot teachers, this school has not received any significant training on Customized Learning and is very much at the beginning of their journey to implementation. Therefore the teachers were very interested in what the students had to say and their enthusiasm, and started asking student all their numerous questions about CL and even started to ask the students lots of “how to” questions about how things worked in CL.

I had to quickly remind the teachers that these students had simply attended and reported on a handful of conference sessions about CL and had experienced very little of it themselves. All the questions were perfectly legitimate, and reflect the natural curiosity that you would expect teachers to have at the Awareness Phase of implementation, but that we should probably save our practical, how-to questions for teachers and students who are more experienced! (and we all laughed – the student passion had certainly left us all feeling for the moment that the students were all-knowing experts about Customized Learning! And, of course, these middle grades students never hesitated to create an answer if they didn't actually know it!)

What was really interesting, however, were the teachers' questions. They were asking how they could work with 100 students all in different places in their learning? How did they just let students work at what ever pace they wanted? And how did teachers create a 100 different lesson plans a day to customized the learning? And did teachers just let unmotivated students do nothing? And how could students learn things if there was no direct instruction?

These are all understandable and appropriate questions of teachers early in the Awareness Phase of implementation. But they largely represented enormously false assumptions about Customized Learning. But these were false assumptions that many teachers brand new to Customized Learning seemed to have. And these false assumptions generated an enormous amount of anxiety in the teachers (largely, of course, because the teachers didn't yet know that the assumptions were false).

And it dawned on me that there was actually a fairly simple heuristic that teachers could apply that would help tame their assumptions and lower their anxiety.

So I shared it with the staff at this meeting: There are lots of schools that are very successfully implementing Customized Learning. So if an idea about how it might work seems totally crazy or undoable to you, then that's probably not how they're doing it!

It was so simple!

Does doing 100 lesson plans a night seem crazy to you? Then that's probably not how they're doing it!

Does letting unmotivated students do nothing seem unproductive? Then that's probably not how successful schools are doing it!

Does letting students do what they want seem untenable? Then that's probably not how they're doing it!

So next time you begin to wonder about a specific way you think folks are implementing Customized Learning, apply the Crazy Test. If it doesn't pass, then that's probably not how successful teachers are doing it!


School is Boring

School is boring.

We all know it.

Kids know it.

Parents know it, but don’t want to think about it.

We teachers know it, too, but defend it. In some small way, I think we don’t want to think that the subject(s) we love could possibly be boring! But we do go on to say things like: It’s preparation for life after school. We all have to do things in life that we don’t want to do. Or, I wish students would start taking responsibility for their own learning. Or, it is the students’ job to learn.

My problem with putting the onus on students is that we are all quick to forget that kids are not in school by choice. They are in school by law. Ironically, it is we, the educators, who are in school by choice. In fact, we are getting paid to help kids learn. In fact, we are the only ones getting paid – if learning were the children’s job, wouldn’t they get paid, too? To me this all shifts the moral responsibility.

And we are quick to forget that kids are kids. And that being a kid when you are a kid is appropriate. It is what you are supposed to be!

And we are the adults.

And we spend WAY too much time trying every possible crazy thing so solve the problem, EXCEPT trying to engage students. It’s enough to make you tired!

I think teachers defend school being boring because we fear we will be blamed.

But I don’t blame teachers.

(Well, if you lecture through an 80 minute block, perhaps you should be blamed…)

Edwards Demming, the father of Total Quality Management, says that 95% of our problems come from structures, not people. And Roger Schank actually makes the argument that it is school being boring that is to blame for kids not learning more, not teachers! In response to Tom Friedman’s blaming teachers, Schank writes:

So one more time for Tom: the problem is that school is boring and irrelevant and all the kids know it. They know they will never need algebra, or trigonometry. They know they will never need to balance chemical equations and they know they won’t need random historical myths promoted by the school system. When all this stuff was mandated in 1892 it was for a different time and a different kind of student.

I’m not denying that it’s hard, or that teachers get frustrated when we are trying what we think we can and not getting any further than we do. Why wouldn’t we feel like we were treading water as fast as we can?! And maybe that even makes it (a little) understandable when we blame kids for not learning.

But, the the solution to ALL this is teachers doing more to engage students.

Not be because it is our fault.

Because it is what we have control over.

And if we want teachers to engage students, then we sure better support the heck out of teachers!

And even though its true, we can’t simply say to teachers, you just have to focus on these five things: inviting schools, higher order thinking, learning by doing, real world connections, and student voice and choice.

We need to get teachers training. And into classrooms with teachers who do a good job engaging students. And we all better remove the barriers that are keeping us from creating the conditions that students find engaging (even if it means changing our curriculum, or how we schedule students, or how we group and regroup students, or how we connect with the community and the potential classrooms outside the building).

And the good news is that when kids aren’t bored, they don’t only learn more (making teachers/us look good), they behave better (making teachers/us happier!).

We need to get beyond the (irrelevant) question of who is to blame, or the (senseless) debate of whether we should or not, and just do it! Just work to engage students!

Engaging students is a win-win! It’s good for kids and it’s good for teachers. Just do it!


How will you help make school less boring?


Positive Pressure & Support Part 3: Support

Schools need effective, practical approaches to helping more students succeed academically.

A focus on student motivation and meaningful, engaged learning, on project- or problem-based learning, on personalized, customized learning, or on technology rich learning environments are all approaches that can help make that happen, but require a paradigm shift for teachers, since few of them have experienced these approaches themselves.

Successfully implementing initiatives that require a paradigm shift for educators requires strong, deliberate leadership for school change. The key pieces of Positive Pressure and Support (setting expectations, supervising for those expectations, and supporting those efforts) are necessary components of that leadership, and is the primary way to drive your initiative to a higher level of implementation.

Teachers will start using more core strategies of your initiative when they know it is expected of them and is being monitored—but they need (and deserve) support in getting there. What follows are some of the support strategies that I’ve found helpful.

Support: Celebrating Successes
Celebrating successes is the place to start. Implementing signficant school change is a long road, so the people working to implement those changes need encouragement and to know they are on the right track. Your expectations may be high, but teachers, like students, need to progress (to some extent) at their own pace and within their own capabilities. Nudging, prodding, and pushing are much more effective when combined with pats on the back and kind words, even if it is just small things being noticed.

For the teachers most resistant to change or the most challenged by the change, celebrating baby steps is especially important. With our own children, we didn’t wait to get excited until they could run. We got excited when they could crawl, then when they could stand, and again when they could put one foot in front of the other, and on and on. We need to celebrate each developmental growth step the staff passes through.

Often the best “celebrations” aren’t time consuming or expensive. As you’re walking down the hall, walk beside the teacher and say, “Your kids were pretty engaged during that lesson. You must have done a great job with that new strategy!” Or stick your head in the door during the teacher’s break and say, “Do you mind taking 5 minutes at our next meeting to tell the staff about that thing I saw you do this week? I think others will want to know how to do that.” Or as you leave a walk through, hand the teacher a 3×5 note card, where you’ve written, “I know you were frustrated with how things went in general, but I think you need to remember that the part where you did X, Y or Z went pretty well.” (Notice how the whole thing doesn’t even have to go well to celebrate the parts that did!)

Celebrating growth, progress, and success gives the message that this is important, that you noticed what they have done, and that they are on the right track. This is the fuel that keeps a staff working on hard work.

Support: Facilitate the Sharing of Ideas
By definition, this is “new” work: new to the teachers, new to the students, new to the leadership team. Sure, this initiative may be similar to others, or share components with those you’ve worked on in the past. But I’ve been defining large-scale school change as often being A change that teachers don’t have much experience putting into action, even if they have read about it, have heard about it, or are familiar with the key ideas.

And I have a friend who likes to say, “Teachers can’t do what they haven’t experienced.” Teaches are more often stumped with implementing an initiative by that lack of knowing what it looks like, feels like, tastes like, that not knowing for sure how to put it into action, than by any intent or determination to block or sabotage (even if blocking and sabotaging are how fear of failure most often surfaces for teachers!).

As the high school in Auburn is working toward implementing Customized Learning, many of our teachers are starting to use a Parking Lot, a kind of poster used to solicit students’ ideas, questions, feedback, and input. One of our teachers recently told us that he doesn’t believe in the Parking Lot because he put one up and students don’t use it. But, if we want teachers to put into practice something they haven’t done before, we owe it to them to help them find ideas on how to put it into action – how to make it work. We know that Parking Lots have been implemented effectively elsewhere. What strategies did those teachers use, and how could we connect our teacher with those strategies?

I wrote quite a bit in the last post about how talking about the initiative in meetings and modeling lessons can help with sharing ideas. Having teachers share in staff meetings and professional development sessions about their challenges and successes with their work in the classroom provides opportunities to get advice from their colleagues and to learn new strategies. So can having teachers visit schools and classrooms where the initiative is already in action (even within your own building or district!). Alternately, have teachers watch videos or read stories of how others implemented similar work – not informational pieces “about” the initiative, but those that actually illustrate “how” the initiative works, those that provide vicarious experiences.

Regardless of how you make it happen, you need to be thinking about where you can help teachers find their new ideas on how to implement the core strategies of your initiative.

Support: Provide Opportunities for Training and Professional Development
Part of support is looking for ways to provide further training and professional development. In fact, PD may be the first thing you think of when you think “support.” I know if you are thinking of a new initiative, you are already thinking about how to get your staff trained.

But you can’t think about this only in terms of initial training. If this is a big initiative, such as Customized Learning, then you need to be thinking about implementing it in phases, that means delivering training in phases, too. In Maine, the training for the first couple phases of implementing Customized Learning is generally “Own The Learning” (awareness), “Classroom Design and Delivery” (creating a culture of voice and choice), and “Instructional Design and Delivery” (working with the curriculum and organizing instruction around it). Not all the staff needs to be trained in the phases at the same time. In fact, staggering the training for staff can mean that folks a phase or two ahead can become resources for the rest of the staff.

But even if an initiative doesn’t lend itself to clearly defined phases, make sure that you are thinking of training in ongoing, not “one shot,” terms. In our kindergarten iPad initiative, we had one training at the end of the school year for teachers new to the initiative to get their iPads, learn how to use it for as a personal tool, and how to start identifying apps that might relate to their teaching. That was followed, late in the summer, with a two-day training helping teachers think more about teaching with the iPads. Then, throughout the year, we took advantage of Early Release Wednesdays, meeting nearly every other week.

Where are there other opportunities to get staff trained? Can you cajole your colleagues in another district for a handful of seats in their training? Is there a workshop or conference coming up in your region that directly addresses a need within your initiative? Do you have staff that you could groom to train others on some aspect of the initiative? Do you have someone you could free up to go into colleagues’ classrooms and coach them?

Your walkthrough data, teacher survey data, and conversations about the initiative at staff meetings should help you focus on the training and support your staff needs most at that moment.

Support: Provide Resources
Do your staff have the resources they need for this initiative? Do they have their own school-issued iPad or laptop? Does the wireless network adequately support as many simultaneous users as you are likely to have? Are there apps or programs your teachers need? Can teachers get to the websites they need to get to? Is there a book that will will help them design their lessons? Are there materials teachers need to execute those lessons? Do teachers have access to the expertise (perhaps in the form of books or of people) to put their learning activities into action? Do they have a reasonable number of the texts or equipment they need?

I was once involved with a non-traditional school in a mid-sized city. The school was trying to be a project-based career academy for students who were over-aged, but under-credentialed. We had a pretty effective and engaging online literacy program for students who were struggling because of their literacy ability. But the district Director of Curriculum (who also used to be a literacy specialist) insisted that we only use the district-approved literacy program (you know, the one that hadn’t worked for these students yet…). But we said ok, and she promised to send us the materials.

What showed up were the left over materials from the other schools in the district. Not only were there not enough of any item for there to be a class set (and we had 12 classes), there wasn’t even at least a single copy of each key set of materials in the program!

If you want your teachers to put your initiative into action, then make sure they have all (reasonable) materials they may need to do so.

Support: Remove Barriers and Run Interference
Doing something new is hard enough. But it is almost impossible if you see barriers around you, or you are left exposed to criticism. One of the most important ways you can support your staff is also something that they may never know that you do: removing barriers and running interference. Teachers making a good faith effort to implement your initiative deserve support in getting obstacles out of their way.

Many of the typical barriers you’ll remove simply by following the other suggestions in this post. Does a teacher not know how to implement a component of your initiative? Connect them with training or other teachers who can share their ideas on how to do it. Is not having certain resources or materials interfering with the teacher increasing their level of implementation? Find a way to get them the resources they need.

Time may be the largest perceived barrier for teachers. Find ways to create protected, designated time for planning and collaboration. Even if you have the protected time, sometimes teachers have so much going on that the time is used for other things, or to vent (perhaps not even about the initiative). Working to have those planning and collaboration times, and creating an agenda for each meeting to guide the work can remove that barrier.

Another type of barrier is the unhappy parent or colleague member. Such complaints are often based on a little truth, but often with a lot of missing information. As a leader, you have an opportunity to protect your staff from attacks and distractions. You can deal directly with the unhappy person and take the heat, then bring the legitimate pieces of the concern to the staff member in a much more calm, safe, supportive way.

Another way you help run interference for your teachers is by encouraging everyone (especially yourself) to “seek first to understand” (one of Stephen Covey’s habits of highly successful people). What is the full story of the thing the person is upset about? Students don’t like the way the teacher is teaching? What exactly is the teacher trying? What parts does the teacher think are going well and not so well? What does the teacher see as his next steps? It may be perfectly appropriate to respond to the parent or colleague, “Well, that teacher is working hard to implement the initiative beyond where he has been trained. He’s aware of the challenges he is having and has already asked for help in addressing those challenges.” And frankly, we need teachers who are willing to take those kinds of risks and blaze a trail of the rest of the staff.

My mantra is that if we want teachers to learn how to do things they haven’t experienced before, then we better be ready to support the heck out of them. If you want to drive your school initiative to a high level of implementation, help your teachers help you get there. How you get your teachers the training and ideas they need, work to remove barriers for staff doing this work, run interference as they make good faith attempts to implement new ideas, and how you connect staff to resources will also leave your teachers feeling supported as they work to meet higher expectations.

How do you plan to support your teachers as they strive to implement your large-scale school change?