I struggle not to write an apology as an introduction to each of my posts. Even that sentence, I struggle not to write an apology as an introduction to each of my posts, is a kind of veiled apology. An ironic and intentional one, but an apology nonetheless. And before I get into the meat of this post, pointing out the purposeless manner in which professional educators present to each other, I want to remind myself more than anyone else why apologizing is not appropriate in the work of making change.
Public education is broken because, in a large part, the Prussian paradigm is now status quo, but is no longer serving the purpose that public education should be serving in 2013. I get it; I’m in this system too. I get 25 arbitrarily grouped kids scheduled with me for an arbitrarily determined allotment of time (4 hours week for 40 weeks) and our success is determined by a very particularly structured exam at the end of that time. But the purpose of this blog is not to bemoan the system in which we operate. The purpose of this blog is to actively and deliberately change this system by becoming completely transparent in my own pedagogical decisions and by encouraging discourse about these pedagogical decisions. This blog is called “fearless flip” to remind me that I need to be fearless in purposefully challenging a broken paradigm, not to assert that I already am fearless. It’s a challenge to my future self to continue to flip the paradigm, and to do it fearlessly and unapologetically because I know that it is important, even righteous, work.
Public education is broken, in an equally large part, because of the purposeless day to day actions of the individuals involved in this broken system. If you are not pushing against the edges, you’re perpetuating the problem. And while it makes me uncomfortable to publicly say to a friend and/or colleague This is Bad Practice, I can’t not and consider myself fearless. We’re not building widgets, or airplanes in the air, for that matter in public education: we’re trying to sculpt the future of our communities, of our nation, and, yes, even of our world. My assumption is that people simply must not be aware of the ways in which their actions are not purposeful. I hope that by calling attention to a lack of purpose, I am in a sense asking you to first recognize that you’re simply casting more shadows on the wall. If you’re fearless, you’ll want to step from Plato’s cave into the sunlight. If you choose to run back into the cave, squinting and screaming as so many do, then you’ve chosen to be part of the problem – even worse than simply unintentionally contributing to it. Either way, no apology is needed for calling attention to poor practice.
Tuesdays are faculty meeting day at every district I have ever worked at. From my very first days as a teacher, I have always loathed Tuesdays that end in faculty meetings. Department meetings can be purposeful and can be a look-at-me-fest and anything in between, but rarely if ever have I walked out of a faculty meeting thinking, You know what? This was a great use of my time! What follows are reasons why a traditional, regularly-scheduled faculty meeting is ineffective in meeting the needs of adult learners paired with suggestions for flipping faculty meetings.
Faculty meetings often include “Information” items or announcements that could better be handled in a well-written memo. If you’re simply communicating logistics to me, the when and the wheres and the whos, please send me a note. I won’t remember what you read to me, and I’ll want something written to refer to later on. If I choose not to read the memo you will pen instead of hosting a Powerpoint lecture and then I complain later about being uninformed, point out I feel like I got caught with my pants down because I chose to be unprepared and remind me where and how I can help myself; that’s what we adults would tell a student, isn’t it?
Faculty meetings have no predictable ending, and therefore, no sense of urgency that leads to purposeful pacing. Educators craft lessons for adolescent learners that have an opening activity, some skill to be practiced or concept to remember, and then a closing activity; but when we present to each other, if there is any design to the lesson, it is completely obfuscated from the learner. Be more clear with the ways in which the delivery method is tied to the content. If — let’s call a meeting what it is: a lecture — is not the best manner of delivering content, don’t deliver it that way.
Faculty meetings happen on a schedule, whether or not there is a need to vary that schedule. I said in the above bullet “if there is a design to the lesson” because often it feels like the objective is simply to check the box on some form somewhere that says we met. During high-stress and high-activity times – exam weeks, following traumatic local or world events that require a cohesive response, the first and last few weeks of school, etc. – more meetings might be needed. And during slower times – the couple of weeks between back-to-back breaks, that blissful honeymoon period from September to the day after Halloween – maybe less are needed. My point is that a meeting for a meeting’s sake is never purposeful.
Faculty meetings do not value or allow room for differentiation of instruction within a session. Sure, one faculty meeting might require you to work in groups: these groups are always randomly selected or assigned by administration – never learner-selected, and never after we know what the task is, so as to help craft a strong team to fulfill it. And the next meeting might require you to read and annotate and then think-pair-share something out. Maybe a co-teaching model is being used by administration, but it’s more of a one teach, one observe co-teaching model with back-to-back-to-back Powerpoint presentations, than it is teacher-led station activities exploring some aspect of the agenda or parallel meetings, each offering a different way to approach the objectives. As there is no valuing of pacing, there is no need to vary activities within a sitting. Setting an end time communicates to learners that you value their time. Even more importantly, setting an ending time forces an instructor to work within the constraints of time, which forces one to prioritize and structure the sequence of both content and delivery method.
Teachers have learned how to behave when uninterested from our least engaged students. We’ve had a lot of time to perfect strategies each new batch of teenagers thinks they invented. But, because teachers and administration often (and unnecessarily) have an antagonistic relationship, and because we collectively cower behind the protection of The Union (a topic for another post) we don’t tend to text in our hoodies or our laps or under the table; we don’t chat in whispers. We grade papers or prep lessons openly while you are talking and, if ever called on it, we say things like “I can multitask!” We check Twitter and Facebook on our phones or school-issued computers. Hell, I’ll admit to printing up “Bullshit BINGO” boards with edubabble in each of the 24 blank boxes for team members at a former district to get us through opening day activities under a particularly purposeless superintendent. My point is that educators know that learners must be doing to be learning, and yet we aren’t given the opportunity to do much but passively receive information. Recognize that learners are not engaged because an hour-long lecture is not rooted in a constructivist, learner-centered model of education. Classroom observations that revealed hour-long lectures with little opportunity to make meaning for oneself would not score well on the rubric for evaluating teachers approved by The Union; faculty meetings – if they must occur – ought to be examples of your very, very best lessons each and every time. Changing the paradigm will change the results; leaders are most certainly not exempt from my call to be purposeful in crafting learning opportunities.
Agendas are used to assert power and control by codifying which conversations are acceptable. On those rare occasions when the meeting seems to have (often accidentally) uncovered a hot button issue – you know you’re there when for 45 seconds after the question is asked, your colleagues murmur – the meeting already has a set agenda and there is simply not the wiggle room provided to engage in any learner-directed discourse. A few faculty meetings ago, shortly after Sandy Hook, this happened at my current district. Our leader had several agenda items, one of the first was simply to reassure the faculty that, in part due to concerns we had voiced euphemistically “in light of recent events”, district leaders recognize the need to reevaluate our safety plan, but that we are a safe district and we should continue to build relationships with students and do good work while post-Sandy Hook responses were discussed. An hour later, after being peppered with questions from people who were clearly trying to digest the presence of evil in the world and its direct effect on our insular little lives, the rest of the agenda items seemed truly inconsequential. Children are dead, and you want to discuss APPR?! seemed to be the mood of the room. And yet the agenda must be fulfilled. This was a missed opportunity for break-out sessions and a scrapping of the pre-planned agenda, or for something like “I see there is more interest in this topic than I anticipated and allotted; I think we need to table this conversation for now until we can give it the time it clearly needs. I’ll send an e-mail inviting you to respond and we’ll set up a time and place to meet before X day.” Either way would have modeled reflective practice and set the stage for a discussion of the APPR process, which ironically includes reflective practice as an indicator of highly effective teaching.
Sometimes catty and unprofessional individuals view the faculty meeting as an opportunity to force the leader into a public admission of something perceived to be dishonest and/or malicious. You know these questions because they usually come from someone deeply entrenched in The Union and each question begins with a vigorous, “But!” or a long-winded string of dependent clauses, politician-style. This is not productive nor respectful, but is the kind of thing that emerges when professionals’ autonomy is systemically limited. It’s a symptom of the ineffective meeting as well as a toxic culture and/or individual. While not having a faculty meeting doesn’t make the troll disappear, it does serve the purpose of not giving them the air to troll publicly. Trolling in secret is mere assholery, and can be handled deftly by any good leader.
The culture of faculty meetings does not encourage discourse. In each district where I’ve worked, teachers make no bones about speaking over the presenter: the same very ones who are quick with a “One voice!” command when they are being spoken over will chat a few decibels higher than a stage-whisper, if you’re lucky. I once attended a BER conference in upstate NY in which the presenter actually had to address members of a particular district for their disruption of the learning of others. When faculties are large, as they have been in two of my four districts, a faculty meeting turns into nothing more than an undergraduate core class lecture. Meeting implies that there is an exchange of ideas, a dialogue, a two-way conversation. No questions from the peanut gallery doesn’t indicate understanding, it indicates a lack of engagement or an unwillingness to take a risk. Even if you do have a question or a comment, when there are a few hundred other people who can’t leave until all questions are asked and answered, no one wants to be That Guy. You know That Guy: the one who does raise his hand to ask the question, either because he doesn’t realize it’s in violation of the Secret Teacher Pact of Silence or because he’s about to retire and doesn’t care. Nor is it effective to ask certain me-specific questions of one’s leader in front of several hundred people; I would like to believe this silencing effect is not deliberate. Now that I’ve named it and cast light on it, going back to holding all-faculty meetings is simply casting shadows in that cave. And I’ll argue that passively participating in all-faculty meetings without calling attention to their inherent ineffectiveness is also simply casting shadows on the wall of the cave. If I’m asking teenagers to passively resist poor pedagogy by naming it and casting light on it and leaving it no dark corner in which to hide, I am most certainly asking adults to be able to do the same. Change is scary, especially when it’s just and moral and necessary; we need to be comfortable modeling the fearlessness that comes from being righteous.
In closing, I’ve recently come to a new understanding of Ghandi’s famous directive that You must be the change you want to see in the world. As a younger woman, I had always attached a kind of lightheartedness to this idea. To me, this idea felt more comfortable when I left out the “You must” and amended it by adding, “because you can do anything if you put your mind to it!” It occupied a place in my heart that made it neighbors with Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you land among the stars. It was a touchy-feely idea from a man who was clearly born a leader that hung on my wall and motivated my kids to stop picking on the weird kid at recess while I continued to churn out teacher-directed lessons and make decisions for students about how they would learn best all while bitching about how broken the system is and how I can’t do this and I can’t do that within it. That framing of how change occurs, simply hoping that someone would figure out how to this broken system, was not fearless and it was not purposeful. It allowed me to shirk my own responsibility as a change-maker. And it is, I fear, the modis operandi by which most educators approach their work and the work of their students. Hope for change is a great and powerful thing, but it must be paired with a deliberate and consistent action or it is simply an emotion. Change isn’t something other people do anymore. Shoot for the moon and the like have been evicted. My favorite part of the Ghandi quote is the independent clause most of us omit from our memories: You must. This quote’s new neighbors are Dr. King’s quote The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy, Niemoller’s “First they came…” poem, and Socrates’ The unexamined life is not worth living. You must be the change… is now amended to acknowledge the bleakness of reality and the inability of the institution to reform itself without the daily work of fearless individuals.
You must be the change you want to see in the world right now – precisely while it is inconvenient and challenging for you to advocate for this change – because modeling how to embrace the terrifying strangeness of change is what Real Men simply do each and every day. Someone else won’t do it; you must. And it doesn’t get any easier to make change; if you’re very, very lucky, it just won’t get any harder.