Changing Climates -- Where It All Began

Since before I signed my first contract, it was clear that each school that I entered was set up very differently.
In Cambridge, MA, where I had my first practicum experiences, I spent 2 years at the same school. The staff worked very independently of one another, but everyone was on the same track. They all had the same goals, used the same materials They all worked in very different ways to achieve them, implementing different strategies, utilizing different materials.

In Arlington, MA, I found a school where again, teachers and students worked toward the same goals. Here, most classrooms resembled one another. They posted the same words on their word walls, had the same posters hung in, more or less, the same spots on the walls, and emphasized use of the same strategies in problem-solving. 

In Brookline, MA, I student taught for a semester. Here, I found a staff that, when teaching, seemed more isolated than I had ever seen. It was abundantly clear that not all teachers were teaching the same thing at the same time. They used very different strategies, even different programs. In this school, there was a very loose outline of a curriculum, but the teachers had a great deal of freedom to take their class pretty much whichever direction they wanted. While my class studied shadows, our grade partner's class was studying states of matter, while another grade partner's class studied germs.

In each of these schools, I felt 100% comfortable working with any member of the staff. Every single one of these schools had a fantastic climate. Collaboration was plentiful, staff, students, and families were constantly interacting and almost always had a smile on their faces. Walking in, you just got... good vibes. Back then, as an education student, I attributed this feeling to a group of individuals doing their dream job, answering their calling. 

I have now taught in Bridgeport, CT for 3 years (in my 4th!) and I have experienced prescriptive curriculum requiring all but the reading of an actual script as well as pacing guides indicating shared objectives, but allowing the freedom to teach as the individual deems necessary.

When I was first hired , I entered a school undergoing a complete turnaround. None of those warm, fuzzy feelings took over. Those "good vibes" just weren't present. Was it me? Was it my Principal? Was it the result of veteran staff members embittered by years of threatened school closures? What was it?! After some soul-searching, some research, and some time getting to know some pretty incredible educators I realized... the answer was YES. It was all of that and more.
During my Masters program, I took a class called Characteristics of Effective Schools. The very first topic which we discussed was school leadership. We visited numerous schools and made observations on leadership style as well as referenced literature on the subject. My favorite piece was one written by Kaye Pepper and Lisa Hamilton Thomas. Pepper was an acting Principal in a low-performing school and tried many things to turn the school around. She was methodical in her approach and highly reflective, taking note of how her leadership of the school affected the staff and students she managed. Her article, Making a Change: The Effects of the Leadership Role on School Climate outlines her own personal changes from a command & control standpoint, to more of a transformational leader. Through her article, she exposes the anxiety in her staff as they worked under her totalitarian leadership and how it eased into trust and feelings and respect when she made her own adjustments. She comments on the desire to work harder and to do more. Honestly, if you have the time, it's a great read. Unfortunately, the link above is the only place I was able to find it, but your local college book store might be able to order it, also. Seriously, check it out. She has some incredible insights!

Our Principal came in on day 1 and was adamant that she was here to make a difference -- here to inspire students, ignite a passion, and educate. She made it clear that she would be relying heavily on veteran teachers, but that all faculty and staff members would have a voice. Is this true all of the time? Absolutely not. But when I really reflect on it, do I expect my Principal to open all topics up to discussion? No, I really don't. And she shouldn't have to. An effective leader should be able to rely on others when needed, but also make tough calls on her own.

In August, she kicked the year off by explaining that we would now, after 3 years, be working toward developing an active PLC (Professional Learning Community). We spent time during summer in-service reviewing articles on the set-up of PLCs and presenting on the topic in small groups. I will discuss PLCs in more depth later this week, but basically, a PLC engages all members. Decisions are made by the group, for the group and all members take ownership of the final outcome. This is the type of transformational leadership that so many have been searching for.

Introducing a full staff to PLCs is a process and one thing that I have noticed much of the staff doing over the past couple of years is relying on... 

Teacher Leaders

I made a promise to myself to be honest throughout this entire series -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. In year 1, did we have clear teacher leaders? No. In year 2, did we have clear teacher leaders? Mayyyybe... I can think of 1 individual who used to step up. She used to fall on the grenades that no one else wanted to touch.

When staff members were concerned about service hours for students, she brought it up.
When paper was scarce, she brought it up.
When inequities occurred in the building, she brought it up. 

Most people in our school knew that if you had a problem or a concern that needed to be addressed, you could simply speak to her and she would make sure that said issue was brought up.

While many relied on her, these issues were often brought up in the wrong forum, and often with little tact. Because of this, few staff members respected her as they should have. She really was a very good teacher!

Now, let me tell you. In year 3, I stepped up in a big way. I didn't plan to do it. I promise I didn't! But in my 3rd year, I found myself hitting my stride. I was comfortable as a teacher -- planning, instructions, assessment, all of it. I finally felt like I had a handle on this crazy ride.

That year, I stepped up as Secretary of the School-Wide Data Team, Secretary of School Governance Council, and got together with a colleague to improve the climate of the building.

And this is where we begin this journey that is the blog series. I cannot speak for school administration, but I can surely speak as a staff member... and I will be speaking as a teacher leader. Over the next couple of days, I hope to look at school climate from a teacher's perspective and provide some insight into exactly what a member of the teaching staff can do to improve the climate. I plan to lay out the very same process that I began at the start of the 2013-2014 school year and having continued into this year.

Make sure to follow the blog to keep up with new blog postings. Stay tuned for my next post in the series! 
But first, I'm curious... what types of school climate issues do you and your school face? What have you tried that has worked? Anything not work?
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