I admire teachers who adopt an attitude best summed up by President Harry S Truman, who famously had a sign on his desk that said: “The buck stops here.” It meant that he accepted responsibility for leading the country and that he would not pass off blame or work to others that he, himself, should do.
Teachers who embrace this ethic of personal responsibility deeply believe they have the power and authority to solve problems. They know they are the best person to handle most school business before them. That’s not to say they don’t ask for help or share their struggles; they sure do. It means they are comfortable rising to the occasion when there is a need to do so. They don’t wait for someone else to ride in to save the day.
This same philosophy, when applied to whole school dynamics, can be transformative as well. If, as you look back over the school year, you found yourself wanting more from your administrators, your colleagues or your work life, here are a few small moves you might make to ignite the changes you wish to see. I think you might be surprised by how powerful the actions of one teacher can be for making schools better:
1. Keep your classroom door open and extend an invitation to others. Many of us work in places where it’s reasonable to say “my door is always open” or to casually invite peers in to see what’s going on when you have big, cool things happening. Take it one step further and make explicit invitations to colleagues to see you teach. Post dates, times and lesson topics somewhere public (see pineapple charts). It’s even better if they come to see you on a “regular” day when good-old instruction is happening, not a project or a show or something similarly dazzling. The point here? We have to demystify our work and make seeing each other do it so ordinary and routine that it takes hold in every classroom. It’s the only way we will all get better at teaching together.
2. Ask for feedback. The research is clear. When learners receive timely, actionable feedback they can use to improve successive attempts, their output improves. When you have your colleagues watch you teach, ask them for specific feedback right away and then use it before the next group of kids comes in. When you share projects, activities or lessons with others, ask for feedback. It’s OK to specify how you’d like the feedback (verbal, on a post-it, in an email), how much feedback you’d like, or when (during or after), but ask for it. Once you have that feedback, truly consider implementing it. Your colleagues want you to succeed. They won’t suggest something they don’t honestly believe will make you better.
3. Have a brave conversation. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “our lives begin to end when we stay silent about things that matter.” How many times have teachers you work with said or done things you disagreed with vehemently? Probably often. How many times have you had the courage to confront them? Perhaps less often. Recently, I worked with a group of teachers extremely frustrated by colleagues who were providing supports (organizers, sentence starters) during a common, on-demand assessment—after we had all agreed we would not do so. They wanted an administrator to step in to scold those teachers. I disagreed. I urged each of them to speak up and tell their colleagues themselves how they felt. If the agreed-upon rule was important enough for them to have, then it had to be important enough for them to uphold it publicly to a colleague. No one loves confrontation, but we must get comfortable holding each other accountable for the things we’ve collectively agreed are essential. Use explicit, kind, neutral language to express what’s bothering you and ask your colleague to explain their choices. Find a way to get to common ground. It won’t be the most fun conversation you’ve ever had, but I promise you it’s going to be one of the most important ones. Be brave.
4. Be solutions-oriented when toxic talk occurs or plan to leave the room. If you don’t offer up an alternative view, real facts or a solution when these teacher conversations go down, you’re complicit. If you aren’t comfortable combating chat that’s anti-kid, anti-school, anti-administration, then at the very least make a quick getaway. The message (and it’s a powerful one when it’s coming from you): I’m not here for this.
5. Make your mistakes public. It’s natural to share a fun success from the classroom, but more often, I remember times someone I looked up to shared a flop. Sharing a mistake reinforces the idea that we don’t all have to be perfect, but we do all have to be trying new things and risking failure. Be honest about the things that go wrong in your practice. Ask for advice about what to do differently next time or ask if anyone can mentor your next try.
6. Find an accountability partner. We all have teacher besties who keep us laughing, keep us sane and save us at least once a week. Branch out to find a colleague on campus you can team up with to reach a goal. Pick something you both want to do better, research and plan together and then go to work. Check-in, cheerlead, troubleshoot and compare results at the end. Growing with your colleagues is a great way to stimulate conversation, change and professional learning.
7. Model the actions you wish others would take. If there are things you wish your colleagues, your students or your leaders did differently, you need to model those actions in your daily practice and make them visible for all to see. If you want the dialogue on campus to be more positive and uplifting, then you need to be this way. If you want people to become more flexible around grading or homework, or if you want more free reading or teacher collaboration time baked into the day, you’ve got to show others how these things work for you and what the successes look like. Those stories and your examples are potently persuasive.
8. Be a follower. As odd as it sounds, sometimes joining someone else’s parade is a powerful form of leadership, especially when you are seen as an influential teacher/leader yourself. It doesn’t matter where a good idea comes from; if it helps us achieve a common goal, then sign on as soon as you can.
9. Report to the principal’s office. Principals want their schools to succeed, and they want teachers to grow and be happy. However, the demands made of our building leaders have outpaced their capacity to do everything they are expected to accomplish—much like teachers. This is why we have to band together like never before. Make an appointment with your boss to talk about your passions and what you want to happen at your school. More critical, budget time to listen to your principal share what matters to her or him as well. Ask for advice about how to make the shifts you’re passionate about, and offer yourself up as a conduit for helping your principal realize some of her or his dreams. Together, you will create win-win situations that serve students, teachers and your school.
10. Make sure your colleagues know you care about them and need their support. We, teachers, are expected to do so much on our own, and parts of us fiercely prize that independence. But we also know that strong and lasting growth happens when we knit our work more closely to the work of others. We also need to be told we matter by our peers. That is a balm to soothe the soul and sustain us for the tough work we do. Kindle this interdependence by being the kind of teacher who lets your colleagues know you value them, that you need them, that you don’t know all the answers, but you care an awful lot about getting better together.