Want School Change? Do the Hard Work First
Sometimes we want too much. We, the "progressive" teachers. Whether we'd admit it or not, we imagine that to be on the pedagogical cutting edge, our school must resemble a Google Lab where students solve the water crisis while partaking in the design-thinking cycle, speaking in Spanish, a Starbucks nearby, tucked into a geometric wonder-corner where students are discussing their passions over frothy lattes. But we need to get real. You're trying to bench 300 lbs., and you've had a gym membership for two months. We're not wrong, we just need to slow down.
Step 1: Your colleagues who are hiding in their classroom and extremely uncomfortable with the changes taking place around them—you know the ones—we have to help them. No, I don't want to hear anything about "getting with the program." They are people, and they resent the change that's been thrust upon them. We have to honor their fear and then teach them to walk again. You can shun them, laugh at them, ignore them, give up on them; guess what, they love kids, too. But they are scared. They've been teacher-centered their entire careers, you aren't going to change them by condescension or isolation. You're going to change them by developing your professional relationships, by showing them that there is room on this 21st-century journey for them.
Step 2: Stop adding programs that are cool and innovative that serve as a thin veil for a weak curriculum. Do the hard work of slowing down to make sure that everyone is moving forward in the same direction, that the curricular goals are clear, and that the work is research-informed. Innovative programs must come from the core of your school, not the periphery, else real change will not happen. Building a culture of teachers who have a growth mindset and who finally admit that the industrial model of education is obsolete is difficult. It doesn't happen overnight, but if you don't address the hard problems in your community and curriculum, you will build a papier-mache school. And you will remain frustrated.
Step 3: Keep the vision in mind—standards-based grading, student choice, growth mindset, maker's spaces, whatever—but do the daily work, the small steps, that helps everyone move toward that vision. You can't throw tons of new initiatives on people and expect everyone to be as gung-ho as you. That never happens, unless the school has started from scratch. Real change is incremental, intentional, and hard.
Relationship, slowing down, and baby steps. This is the formula for change. But—and if you have kids you'll know this—baby steps are awkward for a while and there's a couple of years of toddling, but then kids take off, fast. You can't slow them down. They are gunning from the time they wake up until you put them to bed. And that's how great schools are, too, once you've done the hard work of building relationships, crystallizing your goals, and clarifying the vision and how to get there.