Time to Pause
Unit 1 is in the books and it’s time to debrief. Ideally, I’m doing this weekly, but I haven’t quite managed that pace just yet.
A natural place to start, I think. Getting to know kids – really know them, beyond their grade, beyond their academic profile – is always priority number one for me. And for most teachers, I think.
In a fairly short amount of time I feel like I have a pretty good sense for who my students are (even though there are 164 of them). As important, they all seem to know each other really well, having had loads of opportunities to reflect on the things that make them who they are, and then share them with one another.
Most students are very comfortable sharing. We are using restorative practices preemptively – have been from day 1 – and I’m so impressed with how open they are, and how considerate they are toward their peers. They’re not perfect, but that they feel comfortable, and safe, in this space is important to me.
They seem to be developing a strong sense of community. We’ve organized students into ‘houses’ (we’re the Mountain House) and within these houses, they travel together and share the same 4 teachers (they also have 2 classes outside the house structure). All of which, I believe, has helped them to see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves, and along with my deliberate efforts to discuss and develop community, this has created meaningful connections.
The house structure has also allowed us, the teachers, to collaborate effectively and support students in ways that would be impossible otherwise. With effective communication tools and time together weekly, we spend a ton of time thinking and talking about students – students we all share – and how we can help them to experience more success, more often.
If I gave you the impression that things were approaching perfection, my apologies. There’s so much room for growth I don’t even know where to start.
The novelty of a new school year, particularly one in which we’ve been tasked with rethinking high school (this is my 3rd year being asked to do that very thing) always seems to bring with it a very optimistic expectation about the students who’ll be walking in the door on day one. That these students might actually be as excited about the prospect of doing school differently as we are. Having fallen prey to this kind of thinking the last 2 years, I’d hoped to avoid it this year. No such luck. It turns out, kids feel pretty much the same way about high school as they always have.
I mention that because, while the idea of doing school differently is intriguing on the surface, down deep, it’s extraordinarily difficult work. For teachers, sure, but that’s what we signed up for. I’m talking about for kids. The only way to truly make meaningful change around the high school experience is to ask, and expect, some really different things from students. And as we all know, change is hard, and uncomfortable, and stressful. Add all that to the standard difficulty and stress and awkwardness of one’s freshmen year in high school and it becomes clear that we’re asking a lot of our students.
Stress is running very high among the early adopters (the staff involved in this 9th grade effort). I don’t think I was the only one wearing the rose-colored glasses going into the first day of school (nor the only one who’s seeing a bit more clearly now). But that’s not the primary driver of the stress. No, I’d say there are a few key reasons for that…
- The house structure itself – with 4 ‘on-team’ classes in each – made scheduling a genuine nightmare. I don’t envy the job of the master-scheduler, that’s for sure. But there were significant and negative consequences for both students and teachers as a result of this (some mentioned below).
- Inequitable distribution of students among the houses has put an extraordinary burden on some teachers, and has created very challenging learning environments for students.
- The built-in collaboration time is not being properly honored, and so our time to work together to build this program has not been sufficient. It seems the only thing we’ve really had time to focus on are efforts to work through student behavior issues together. That’s super valuable, no doubt, but what about building multi-disciplinary units? Or building new courses entirely (as some of us are being asked to do)? Or completely changing our pedagogies? Or personalizing learning?
Dwelling on the struggles isn’t the point. Hardly. I believe firmly that we need to acknowledge the good and the bad, and have open discussions about them. Not to lay blame, but to be honest, to build trust, and most critically, to get better.
As I look ahead, I have a few priorities:
- Continue to work closely with my team – the other teachers in the Mountain House as well as those with whom I’m building the Challenge Course.
- My most significant growth as a professional has always come as a result of working with colleagues in pursuit of common goals. My successes so far this year are no exception, so I’ll continue to focus there.
- Continue to implement restorative practices in a preventative manner.
- The real value that I see in restorative justice isn’t in how it suggests handling disciplinary issues, but in preventing those issues by building a culture of trust and an investment in community. This remains the highest priority for me in helping these young learners transition into competent, responsible, invested adults.
- Continue to acknowledge that teachers and students are the solution.
- It’s easy to point fingers, and to imagine that someone else is responsible for fixing things. They’re not. It’s only us. Always us. It’s fine to get frustrated, but then it’s time to get to work.
- Regular reflection
- It’s funny how I don’t mind insisting that my students reflect regularly, yet when I get busy, I’m okay not insisting the same of myself. That needs to stop. Not just because we’re always modeling…but because there’s too much value in the reflection to ignore it. I’ll do better.
Always easier said than done, but these are the priorities that I’ll continue to strive towards.