Narrowly Averting a Leadership Fail

Since taking the role as lead teacher for our junior high department, our team has been collaborating around an idea I took my principal two years ago: common reading strategies across all subjects.  We are a small team of 6 teachers who vary not only in the subjects we teach but also in age and experience.  My team is a dynamic, high performing group of teachers.  And I came close to jeopardizing that by attempting to respond to a complex problem using a simple problem solving framework.

Because I suggested the idea, I felt somewhat invested in this project and in its success.  The first year was our “honeymoon period.” This was new for us, and we met challenges with optimism and a willingness to give it a try.

We started the next year wiser about some of the issues we were going to face and began our second round a little less optimistically but still willingly. It wasn’t long before a few cracks began to show up in our collaboration, though.

Sometimes the common reading strategy was difficult to fit in with the learning outcomes being covered in class.  Sometimes teachers struggled to find meaningful ways to formatively assess the strategy.  Sometimes we questioned the validity of our assessments. The honeymoon period was over.

We brainstormed and adjusted our game plan.  No longer were we going to collaboratively mark our formative assessments.  Teachers would mark their own subject area assessments.  Then, in our meetings we would share assessments used, results, challenges, and successes.  The bulk of our meetings would focus more on ways to implement the next strategy in our classes.

It wasn’t long before this began to show some cracks, too.  Not all teachers were assessing all students.  As a PLC school, the focus on results is one of the 3 big ideas.  Results drive instruction and intervention.  How would we know if this project was improving student learning if our results were based on inconsistent assessment practices?  How could we provide equity of intervention if not all students were assessed?

I sought the advice of my principal about how to frame that conversation with my colleagues.  How could I get them to buy into the importance of consistent assessment practices without alienating them?  His advice was to shape the conversation with important questions that get to the heart of the matter.

I drafted a framework and went back to my principal for feedback.  After I was done, he asked me what two things I wanted to accomplish most.  Equity of assessment and intervention and data that will inform us if the project is working, I responded.  Then he suggested that I use questions to shape the conversation.  Yup, that’s right. Somewhere between our first conversation and my planning, I lost sight of that.  All I was doing was telling them what to do based on what I thought was obvious.  Back to the drafting table.

The meeting went well.  At the beginning we reviewed why we were doing the reading strategies in the first place and the value we originally saw in it.  Then came the tough questions.  There were a few anxious moments, but listening, clarifying, and letting go of the personal attachment I had helped.  If the consensus was that this project was not improving student learning, then it needed to come off the table.

In the end, they came up with a great idea that allows more flexibility in assessing and fitting into curriculum.  So we are going to adjust again. This is a complex challenge that requires us to probe, sense, respond and then probe, sense, and respond again.  I am so thankful that our meeting did not go the way I had originally planned.  I would have lost a lot of credibility but, more importantly, I wouldn’t have honoured the wisdom and expertise in my team. That would have been a leadership fail.

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About Sherry Langland

I have been teaching English for 15 years and am passionate about teaching students to read critically, think critically, and live purposefully. I am also the lead teacher for our junior high department and am thankful to be part of such a dedicated group of teachers who are committed to collaborating around the most important part of our job: student learning. My biggest blessing is being the mother of 2 young men who are in their 20s and discovering their purpose.
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