1. Is failure a real and regularly option and experience for kids at your school?
Failure is not something that my colleagues or students experience often. Rather, my students and others in our school are encouraged to maintain a growth mindset in all they do. Being that our school is ranked the second highest high school in our district, we have demonstrated that we emphasize high achievement. That being said, it’s still not enough, as our standards for excellence are always increasing. I always say to my students that good enough isn’t enough; we should always strive for improvement. And the presumption of competence is very prevalent within our school, as we believe in the best in each student and encourage students to mentor and motivate one another to strive for excellence in all facets of their lives.
2. If so, what impact do you believe that is creating? If not, what structures have been put into place to accomplish alternatives?
Like Benjamin Zander (2002), our school focuses on the positive aspect of situations rather than dwelling on shortcomings. Our Safe and Civil team, Peer Mediation club, various service-learning organizations, and the attitude of our K-12 staff is all centered around being a united collective that supports one another in all endeavors. After school interventions are in place for all students and/or parents who may need extra help with homework or just help studying. These are held three days a week in our math department, and at various intervals with other departments. Our campus is open, unique and promotes high achievement by celebrating the accomplishments of our graduates throughout their college and post-college journeys. Our school also invites many guests to come and speak to the entire school as motivators to keep students focused on high achievement and self-confidence.
3. What conditions exist that make it too late to learn and reach competency in your school? Can you give an example?
There are no conditions in our school that exist to learning to competency impossible. We are a small campus with open lines of communication, and we never give up on our students. For instance, I have a student (7th grade boy) who has every statistic in the book predicting he will fail in school and in life. However, I myself am a statistical anomaly and will fight to make him one, too. I have set up daily lines of communication with his mother so that we can keep him on track, and this is done daily after 4th period. This takes planning, attention to detail and constant communication with the entire 7th grade PLC. We are all in agreement that we must fight to not define this boy by his past and that we must presume he is competent.
4. What would you do, if anything, to introduce/enhance “never too late to learn” structures in you school if you were the school leader?
As a school leader, I would emphasize the message that we can choose to look in the rear-view mirror or focus on the road ahead. Those of us—teachers or students—who choose to focus on maximizing our learning through perseverance and maintaining a growth mindset are able to spread a contagious attitude of achievement with everyone around us. Our spheres of influence should be grounded on keystones of excellence, so I would focus on establishing proactive instructional habits that don’t discriminate against students who may have been underserved in previous learning experiences. I would start this by targeting the instructional leadership team (or all PLCs), ELAC, and PTA so that we could agree on an action plan that aligns to the school mission and vision. Every student should be given equitable treatment and access in every classroom, every day.
5. What can you do in your present position to create “never too late to learn” structures into your current practice and those of your peers? Are those things in your sphere of influence?
In my present teaching position, I am able to devote extra time to planning lessons and activities that engage all students, and then share those ideas with all my peers so they can also improve their teaching practices in order to keep students engaged in their learning. Because my school staff is so small, I can encourage and lead professional development sessions on integrating innovative technology and research-based pedagogy learning through professional development sessions I attend on my own time. All of the communication and collaboration I do with teachers can be centered around the idea of reaching every student so that all students have the opportunity to learn equally, regardless of prior history. I can encourage effective homogenous scaffolding ideas and formative assessment activities that energize students who may not otherwise care to attend school. All of these efforts would echo the idea that it’s never too late to learn and all students are able to control their own destiny through hard work and cultivation.
6. Commit to 5 things you are willing to do this semester that will make your school increase learning opportunities:
1. I will focus on communicating with all the parents and/or guardians of at-risk students to encourage those students to attend my after school study and intervention sessions with free tutoring
2. I will focus on implementing my technology club and having all teachers learn to incorporate engaging learning activities that use cell phones, tablets and other readily available devices for formative assessments (note: our CORE survey shows that 97% of our secondary students have cell phones and access to computers)
3. I will meet with 6th-12th grade teachers of various subject areas on a weekly basis to see how we can collaborate horizontally and vertically and teach literacy skills to reach all EL students and low SES students.
4. I will hold one parent night per quarter, focusing on communicating with all parents and forming an alliance that works together, in synergy, to encourage and motivate all students to reach our schoolwide learner outcomes, mission and vision.
5. I will collaborate with the Catalina Island Conservancy to implement the newly created “NatureWorks” curriculum that I worked on this past summer into all K-12 classrooms, which emphasizes vocational skills, project-based learning and STEAM-based standards through nature-based connections on Catalina Island.
I can vividly recall being teased when I was in 7th grade by a classmate because I was chubby. To this day, I remember her exact words, and I’d rather not write them. All I know is that when I leaned out in high school, those words stuck with me; they left a small scar. I also remember being encouraged by my cross country coach, and his edifying words still resonate, and I am now coaching cross country with the same mindset: build up, don’t tear down.
When I speak, I am mindful of the words I choose to say. I’m careful to not provide too much nurture (to avoid the “nurture shock” syndrome), but I’m also careful to provide valuable feedback that isn’t harsh criticism. As Fisher, Frey and Pumpian (2012) mention, with respect to Carol Dweck’s Mindset, “Praise of fixed traits reinforces a fixed mindset.” We must be mindful of the words we say so we can continue to motivate students to not fear failure and to persevere through endeavors. I think we all need a cheerleader in our lives to motivate us with powerful words; maybe that’s why there are so many websites and books filled with quotes from hundreds of historical figures.
I have a poster on my classroom door that outlines our school’s Guidelines for Success. It reads, “Thoughts create our reality, think positively and deeply; words are powerful, speak appropriately and respectfully; actions represent us, act responsibly and be kind to others.” This is something I point to as a school norm, while our class norms (which the students developed and voted on) also promote respectful language. In order for our school to not just be a safe learning environment, but also a flourishing learning environment, we must model the language and courtesy we expect of them.
On Monday of this week, I learned of a student who was being bullied In multiple classes. She’s a stellar student with nothing but kind words for everyone else, so it did not make sense to me why she would be bullied. Nonetheless, I made sure to remind my class that I am proud of the way they respectfully acknowledge one another throughout our classroom activities. This student who was being bullied was in that class, and after I spoke to the class, I made sure to let each student know something I appreciate from them. She was beaming and her next period teacher called me asking what I had done to make the students so cheerful. I laughed and said I just thanked them for working so hard and for using their resources well! In return, these students told me that they respect that I am constantly giving them good feedback that drives them forward, and those words meant more than anything my administration could have said. These are the students we are here to serve, not the other way around. So when I hear something from them that lets me know I’m doing my job well, it feels great.
Here are my five goals for keeping my school on track to using choice words:
1) When I hear profanity, I won’t lash out at the person using it; I will politely ask them to choose better language and remind them of our norms.
2) I will never raise my voice to my students, but will instead redirect them to our class and school norms, as well as our Guidelines for Success.
3) I will continue to give positive specific feedback to every single student, at least once per week, in order to keep them motivated to persevere.
4) I will participate alongside our school’s Peer Mediation club, which aims to mediate with students who bully, and/or are being bullied, while focusing on edification and encouragement.
5) I will encourage students and colleagues to diplomatically resolve conflicts with others in order to keep our learning environment safe and to model good habits for our students.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Pumpian. I. (2012). How to Create a Culture of Achievement In Your Schools and Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
This pillar of “Do No Harm” is extremely personal and relevant in my life. I enjoyed reading this chapter and analyzing my school’s approach, while also revisiting the “Welcome” pillar goals I’ve set for myself. I believe these pillars and those to come will transform my own practices by making me more proactively seek out ways to have our school adopt better practices for the sake of our students’ learning.
When it comes to the concept of “Do No Harm,” I believe we should consider our students to be analogous to a lightbulb burning brightly. If we aren’t careful, we can shatter that bulb, which could be extremely difficult to put back together, or almost impossible. But if we focus on its illumination, we can create limitless opportunities for growth within the context of the light that is being illuminated.
As my school’s future leader, my underlying beliefs of restorative practices and focusing on proactively creating safe and civil learning environments will help me guide my staff (and students) to create and practice relevant group norms. Discipline policies would be restorative and focus on accountability, yet would be fair. Discipline policies would be taught and would be enforced in a firm, fair and consistent manner. The policies themselves would be backed by research of maximizing student learning within a safe learning environment.
Our program practices would parallel the discipline policies. Athletics, road trips, and any other extracurricular activities would adhere to the same policies because consistency is key. The importance of analyzing and revisiting our practices would thus be necessary so students would not be victims of harm.
My staff members and I would be utilized within our own meetings and professional development events. We would also celebrate the positive culture shifts and any data that is pertinent to student achievement growth. It is absolutely necessary to not just teach staff, but to engage them, so that we can create the culture of buy-in with policies that emphasize “Do No Harm.”
At this point in time, my school does not emphasize practices of restorative justice and “Do No Harm.” Of course the elements of such are in place, with analyzing types of discipline and consequences, but our students would confess that they do not feel safe in all classrooms. In my opinion, if all teachers aren’t practicing the same policies, the results is that students aren’t being taught and treated consistently and that means harm is being done. I’ve even known students who come to me in tears because of things that have been said by a teacher (which then led to several parent/administrative conferences).
I’m not happy with the fact that my school isn’t consistently practicing effective discipline policies. In order to be proactive, though, and not reactive, I will work on introducing these ideas of “Do No Harm” and restorative justice (using data of student discipline logs and surveys) to our Instructional Leadership Team and department PLC meetings. I believe we can transform the culture of our school with positive adjustments to our policies and consistency of implementation. More importantly, students will learn more effectively and safely.
Five practices I will commit to this semester to make my school more positive and restorative:
1. Analyze the causes of student behavior in order to focus on restoration ideas; question my own students through surveys to see how they honestly feel in my class, as well as all their classes.
2. Encourage staff to get to know all students better, to build a rapport beyond the classroom;
3. Work on motivating students more with engaging activities that celebrate positive student behavior;
4. Celebrate courteous acts and respectful gestures by both staff and students;
5. Focus on disrupting poor school habits with positive practices that teach true citizenship (such as using cell phones for formative assessment activities and teaching digital literacy and citizenship; diplomatically challenging fossilized practices with those backed by research).
How is the challenge of making stakeholders feel welcome to your school (or place of work) connected to your school mission?
Our school mission includes encouraging personal integrity and creating a safe learning environment for everyone. I feel that if all stakeholders create and uphold a genuine sense of welcome, similar to that of a quality resort, that the learning environment would foster constructive learning practices, as well as integrity. Students would want to come to school more, and all stakeholders would realize that the overall energy in the school is evident when everyone makes an effort to acknowledge those around them with sincerity and warmth.
What did you do to assess which stakeholder group (or subgroup) could be more effectively welcomed? And what did you find?
In order to assess the fact that parents and students could be more effectively welcomed in our school, I simply asked some of my students how they feel when they enter their classes each day. I realized that I, myself, am guilty of not always welcoming students the way I feel I should. In addition, after speaking with some of my departmental colleagues, we agreed that our entire staff could do a better job of regularly calling home to invite parents to participate in school events (other than routine back-to-school and open-house nights). My AVID department conducts parent outreach nights to promote college and standards for success, but my colleagues and I agreed that we could do more.
Future Sphere of Influence: What would you do to improve welcoming this group if you were the school leader?
To improve welcoming students, I would initiate a summer program to promote excitement with the students. I would have the upperclassmen of the school organize water balloons, music, games, food, and lots of enthusiasm to conduct a team-building day on our campus with all underclassmen students (organized by grade) in order to foster a real sense of welcome with these students. I would create an authentic peer mediation group for older students to mentor younger students, and to teach the value of a smile and laughter, as well as acknowledging others by name.
To improve the welcoming of parents, I would have staff members invite parents to a school BBQ or similar event and have the staff focus on authentic conversations to get to know the parents for who they are, aside from the usual data-driven, student-centered conversations. I would want my staff members to create a sense of familiarity and comfortability for the parents to want to seek out ways to become more involved with the school. I would train my staff to lead team-building initiatives (the way I did for eight summers, as a summer camp counselor) so that they could lead small groups of parents and other teachers through fun, engaging activities that build community.
Current Sphere of Influence: What can you do in your present position to enhance welcoming these stakeholders?
Currently, I can be proactive in meeting each of my students at the door with a smile each and every day, giving them a high-five as they come in. I can engage in small talk or even tell a cheesy joke at the start of class to ease the tension so students feel welcome and invited to belong. I often do these things, but I don’t make it a point to do these things every day. In addition, I can share these thoughts with staff members at faculty meetings and encourage others to do the same, as we share the importance of highlighting this aspect of our school mission. I could also start making positive phone calls home to parents, going out of my way to call them to give them compliments for supporting their children. I think parents rarely get that sort of positive feedback they really need, which could encourage them to become more proactive with school/class events, knowing they have at least some allies on campus.
Current Sphere of Influence: Commit to 5 things you are willing to do this semester that will make your school a more welcoming place:
1. I will make an effort to welcome every person I encounter at school with a smile each day.
2. I will make at least 5 phone calls home to address positive feedback for parents each week.
3. I will greet my students with warmth each day when they arrive to my classroom.
4. I will visit the school office once a day to thank them for the great work they do for everyone.
5. I will write each and every student a card during finals week to thank them for their diligence.