By Scott Weinstein
If you are an educator, you are familiar with the phrase, “one more thing!” It is a fair sentiment by educators describing the plethora of initiatives and different forms of accountability that often leave teachers scrambling and dealing with time-consuming work that frequently does not have a tangible impact on their students. Educational leaders must be mindful of the concept of work going up vs. work going down. I describe work going up as tasks that teachers are consumed with that is for other adults, typically administrators to see. Work going down is the work that has a more immediate impact on students such as lesson planning and providing feedback to students towards learning. There is work that goes up that is necessary and important, for example energy toward teacher growth and reflection, but as leaders we must discern the difference to make sure we are providing the balance of time for the productivity and health of our teachers.
Great schools are learning organizations that hold every member of the institution accountable to growth and an oversensitivity to not adding, “one more thing” can be at the danger of what is needed for your school. Teachers are complex professionals who are more than capable of developing various components of their craft simultaneously. For example, shall we only focus on the “one thing” of developing better assessments at the expense of the many other nuanced areas of teaching? I have found that the balance of pushing too many initiatives too swiftly vs. not moving learning forward out of the sensitivity to the, “one more thing” phenomenon to be an important task for educational leaders. In the same way that teachers wrestle with the task of challenging students in the zone of proximal development, educational leaders must also ensure that teachers are being challenged at the appropriate level when charged to reflect and hone their practice.
An important leadership concept in creating professional learning focus areas for your staff is not simply what you focus on, but the messaging and framing of why and how you are focusing. If new focus areas that you want to collectively develop are not messaged clearly and consistently, they will likely blend in with the stream of noise that is reverberating in educators’ ears from every direction. If not framed properly, it may come off as too much and you will hear about it… “Can’t we focus on just one thing at a time.” “There is too much going on.” “I just want to teach.” These phrases will accompany the symphony of your teachers saying, “not one more thing!”
The Toolbelt of Professional Development:
The first leadership frame is the figurative toolbelt. I use the toolbelt as a metaphor to demonstrate, like a carpenter, we can simultaneously hold many tools, analogous with strategies and best practices in a teacher’s repertoire. In meetings and emails, I attach an image to provide a visual that accompanies this concept. An example of how the toolbelt is messaged brings me back to a focus area that we prioritized as a district that included Robert Marzano’s nine high yield instructional strategies. We experienced a common professional learning session on the topic, we highlighted those strategies when observed in classrooms, and spent a lot of time discussing how to lesson plan in ways to incorporate these high yield strategies. The next school year, we did not spend nearly as much time focusing on Marzano’s high yield strategies. Does that mean we wouldn’t expect teachers to know them and utilize them in the classroom? Of course not. They are in our teachers’ toolbelts included in the graphic that I frequently share with staff. In this graphic, you will see other focus areas that we have developed as a staff. The repetition of exposing staff to the toolbelt reinforces the metaphor of the toolbelt along with the talking point of continuing to grow in a variety of ways as a professional educator.
The other frame, literally in this case, is a pair of glasses. The concept and visual is the lens through which we view our work.
In our lens, you can see a picture of Restorative Practices, Habits of Mind, Culturally Responsive Teaching, and Challenge Success. These are focus areas for our school. If framed poorly, it is way too much. These are not initiatives; they are mindsets. They represent the lens and mindset we use in working with our students. If it feels like too much, I would ask, are you willing to not be restorative in your approach with students? Additionally, in messaging these focus areas, they are not concepts where we need to carve out additional time and place our other work aside. These focus areas run parallel to our work. We use this lens as a mindset for which we view our work. Initiatives come and go, but the glasses always stay on.
The Toolbelt and the Glasses:
I believe these metaphors to be successful in messaging important areas of building focus for a variety of reasons. I think the most poignant reasons include:
- Metaphors are sticky; people remember them.
- The images are a visual anchor to the metaphor, making people more likely to remember our focus. I can’t emphasize this enough. Think about how many people work for an organization that don’t know their organization’s mission or focus.
- Repetition of the focus is vital for people to remember. Instead of repeating the same words, or writing them repeatedly, just share the image. If you explained it well enough initially, people will know exactly what the image represents.
So I ask you… what is in your toolbelt or behind the lens of your glasses?
Scott Weinstein is the Principal of Harriton High School in the Lower Merion School District.