How would you answer this question... "What is the one thing that we can do to increase student achievement?" And go...
Well, this was recently a question that I was lucky enough to have been posed...and the flood gates opened. I don't know if what I and others said was heard, but at least we stayed true to our "why" in sharing our voices.
**Before reading- I want to let you know that I am going to mention teachers a lot- please understand that I am not judging or laying ANY blame on teachers- I am one of you! I am in fact doing the opposite. I am doing what I have been fighting for-for four years- I know the importance of our role and it is unfair to put so much pressure on teacher's shoulders without providing the resources, support, man power, money and time that is needed. This is my fight for you and for our students. And it will continue in whatever capacity I can. This is my promise to you...to us!**
Here I will share my answer(s) - because we know there isn't just ONE:
-Change the conversation: Whenever anyone wants to talk about student achievement, I try to change the wording to discuss student learning. To me, this is an important distinction. Achievement to me is a number, a letter, a color on a chart and I don't want to reduce children to that. I would rather discuss how we can help students to learn differently. When we can have students learning and thinking differently- it will show up as an increase in students achievement- but the shift takes some time. Changing that one word, changes the conversation. Context matters.
-Learning and teaching go hand and hand:
"If we want to change the way students learn, we need to change the way that students are taught. There is no other way."
The teacher in the classroom IS the decisive factor. But how can we expect teaching to look different, if teachers are not given the resources to make it happen? If one has not been shown different ways, how are they expected to use different ways? When we know better, we do better. We owe it to our teachers, students and families to provide professional learning opportunities to arm our teachers with this mindset along with multiple strategies and tools to reach all kids. We need to provide them with time to dig in to it, with their colleagues and plan forward. They then need ongoing supports in the way of job embedded PD, observations of others, team planning and team teaching.
"Our students require different school experiences to make learning sticky. Teachers require different learning experiences to help make that learning sticky. Let's start our support with them. Support matters."
-Culture: This concept is not new, it is talked about often, but talking about it is different than acting on it. If we want student learning to change and we want teaching to change, then culture, too must change. From the top all the way down to the classroom and vice versa. Is there a shared "why" to what we do, every day? Does the organizational vision line up with the site vision, the teacher vision and the classroom vision? Is there a culture of collaboration and risk taking? Is there a sense that we can try, fail- get up and try again? I believe that for this culture to be true- it needs to be aligned throughout the whole organization and it needs to show. Show with actions over words. Encourage, celebrate and support those that are forward thinkers, willing to jump outside of the box and innovate- whether that is our administrators, our teachers and especially our students. It is often said, but is it done? With change comes fear- it is natural- so how can we help ease that fear? By modeling- at all levels. I often say #cultureovercurriculum but, it really goes above that-
The overall culture, beliefs and vision set the stage for the morale for all else. Culture matters.
-Tech: Oh tech..I both love it and hate it. I love it because when used properly, it can open up so many doors, create so many experiences and enhance learning for all. I hate it because it is also the great divide. Just putting devices in teacher's and student's hands is not the answer. We need to think about what is being done with those devices. Tech can make the "not so strong" teachers less strong, it can make the "strong teachers" go backwards OR (the hope) it can help move everyone forward. The incredibly important, yet often over looked factor is the training and the ongoing support that comes with those devices.
If data shows that devices are being used X% of the day by X% of students, my question is- where is the data that shows what is actually happening behind those screens? What experiences are our learners involved in? Were they used as "babysitters" where students play games or simply watch videos? Are they being used for students to now type the notes off the teacher's slides onto a doc rather-than hand write them into a note book? Are they only consuming information or are they being used for students to critically think, communicate, collaborate and create? If our students are still only consumers, we are doing them a disservice by not leveraging what is in front of them to become creative critical problem solvers. To do this, WE need to learn and WE need support. Experiences matter.
-Data: Data is big in education. And I agree- data is important. We need a measurement to understand where we started and where we are- and to plan where we want to go. Here is where I get tripped up- I believe we need multiple data points to make informed decisions that involve kids- they deserve better than decisions being made based on one snap shot.
But here is the other thing, what data is being collected AND more importantly, what is being done with it? We can give students assessments and surveys until they are completely exhausted- but why are we doing it? Where does that information go? Is it being analyzed? Or do we have so much that we are at "analysis paralysis" and don't even know where to begin?
What is done with that information? Is it used to find strengths and gaps in the organization as a whole, the sites, grade levels, classrooms? If so, great!! And then what? Is that information being used to create change? Do we find what is working well and build that capacity and spread it? Do we find the gaps and make a plan to help fill them? If so, how do we do that? Do we purchase more "programs" that promise this? How can a program help humans? How can a program know students as people and as learners? I don't believe it can - it can be one tool that can be used properly or not- it all depends-The important factor is always the teacher. So do we use that data to create space and opportunities for teachers to look at the data and provide professional development and supports on how to do different? Action matters.
-Differentiation: I think by now, we all can agree that different students learn differently. That we need to create different learning experiences based on knowing our kids. But what does that look like? Do we have a handle on what differentiation looks like? Have we been trained in such or just asked to make it happen? I will go back to #knowbetteredobetter- Before I knew, I thought it meant different leveled worksheets at different tables that the students rotated through. Well... now I know- that ain't it. Differentiation can be in the form of how students receive content, it can be how they interact with content and it can be what they do with the content to show their learning. With that, the opportunities are endless- and THAT is exciting. But again- where is the professional development to give teachers these tools, ideas, strategies and activities. Many of my "switch flip" moments only happened because my administrators provided us with these experiences. I was blessed to have been able to have my eyes opened to "do better" - to learn to meet kids where they are and not the other way around- but beyond that, the how. Opportunity matters.
So to answer the question above: No, there is not "one" thing, we are in the kid business and that is ever changing, unpredictable and incredibly important. BUT if I look at the umbrella theme in all that I just wrote, it does come down to one thing- Teacher support. What is the message to teachers? How are they supported to be continuous learners? How are they involved in the processes that affect them and their students?
It is unfair to put it on others to create change, without providing them with what is needed to do so.
My call to action is this: No matter your level of leadership (and WE are ALL leaders)- take some time to really look at those in which you serve. Think about what they need to be successful and create a plan to get it to them. The plan should be both long range and actionable. There also needs to be built in smaller reachable milestones - not only to have "checks and balances" but to also allow for enhancements or course correction as needed. There must be supports in place along the way and opportunities for success for the sake of overall morale that trickles down to the kids.
It's a huge job- but it is a huge responsibility as well. We need to always anchor back to our "why"- it is the kids...always the kids.
Keep fighting the good fight and I will be right along side you!
Mother, Teacher, Presenter, GCE Level 1 & 2, Encourager of others.
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