There is this misconception out there - that you can’t hold people accountable and help them grow, while maintaining collegial rapport and earning their genuine respect. Most leaders think that holding people accountable automatically means having to be the bad guy. Because deadlines are scary, letting people know they missed the deadline is mean, and the follow up just to get your direct reports to comply is just straight up exhausting.
Or there’s the other way: Maintain the culture of niceness. Get them to like you, or at least act as if they do. Let things slide or look the other way when your direct reports are not doing what you asked them to because you don’t want to ‘hurt the relationship’. You pick up the slack, leave school a little later, have a little less time with your kids, but it’s okay because…. I’m not sure why.
I hear you. I know that the mere thought of telling people to do things that you know they don’t want to do makes you want to hide, go on about what’s not in job description, or even retire early.
And it doesn’t have to be that way. You can have it all – develop your teachers, hold them accountable, and have a life. You can have it all while even building the relationship. I promise. I know because I’ve done it myself.
When I coached a group of 12 novice teachers, in an anonymous evaluation of my ability to supervise, coach, and lead them in professional development, 100% of them rated me as Excellent. Each and every single one. Even this one teacher who I thought didn’t like getting feedback from women – he rated me as excellent, no lie. (Okay I was surprised by that one too!)
I was not ‘nice’. I said things that put them in their feelings. I didn’t even respond to their emails after 6pm or give every single lesson plan ever submitted detailed feedback. The weight of the day or the week didn’t haunt me in my free time and I was able to enjoy evenings and weekends with my wife (then girlfriend). And yet their classroom management, instructional practices and curriculum planning improved. For each and every single one of them. And they all felt supported along the way.
How did I do it?
BOUNDARIES. Make them transparent, make them a two-way street, and implement them from the (fresh) start. For my novice teachers, I did this by telling them, on the first day that I met them, that I will respond to their emails Monday-Friday from 7am-8am and Monday-Thursday from 5pm-6pm (my NYC subway commute). By doing this, I taught my novice teachers how to treat me and what to expect from me. I taught them that they won’t have access to me 24/7, but they definitely will have access to me via email during those 1-2 hours a day. They did not sulk in disappointment or fall apart because I did not answer their emails during my lunch break or after 6:01pm. Since they knew when the ball was in their court, they had the information they needed to plan their communication and anticipate a predictable, timely response. Which means that I no longer became the barrier to their access of information… that responsibility was put on them. That’s how I got peace of mind, stopped checking my work emails, started enjoying (not escaping into) Netflix and wine at the end of long day.
TELL THE TRUTH. About them and about yourself. Start with the truth about yourself. Tell them why you are here. Your real reason. And let them know that everything you do will stem from that. I told my teachers that I am here to create access to grade-level content for Black children and the most direct path to getting there was to intentionally build their instructional practices. This declaration made me courageous in the conviction to say and do things that allowed me to act in integrity with this belief. And by telling the truth about who I am and what I stood for, it made those inevitable ‘difficult’ conversations so much easier to start. For example, that teacher who I thought didn’t like feedback from women had classroom management skills that met and exceeded the program’s expectations. But his lesson planning and instruction were not there. And after a several observations and lesson planning feedback cycles, it was evident that he just wasn’t trying, probably because he knew he didn’t need to (like many teachers of color that are overlooked when it comes to being developed because they have “good management” and will be fine).
So, for one coaching conversation, I scrapped my usual agenda and shared with him the impact of his actions, while contextualizing it in the power of his potential. That (sermon) conversation went a little like this:
You have the classroom management skills to pass this program. And that will be good enough for this institution. However, as one of two male teachers of color in our cohort, it is a disservice to the youth of color in front of you to deny them of an opportunity to deeply think and engage in an intellectual way with an adult who looks like them and comes from where they are from. In education, Black and Brown educators are systemically pushed into leadership for culture and classroom management and instructional leadership is systemically reserved for white educators. What does that tell us, what does that tell our kids about who is smart enough to learn from and who is the keeper of knowledge in this world? You have an opportunity to disrupt that with the youth sitting in front of you and the only thing that is getting in the way of that right now is you. I believe in your capacity for instructional greatness and want to empower you with the foundation that will bring this into fruition for you. However, I can’t give you feedback that develops your skills and your students won’t have that opportunity to be intellectual with a male teacher of color until you step it up and do X, Y, Z in your lesson plans. What do you need from me to feel supported and do X, Y, Z?
So yes, I went in.
And yes, his brow was sweating by the end of the conversation.
But oh my goodness. That was one of the fastest transformations and learning curves I have ever seen in my life.
Not only that. At the end of the program, he thanked me! This teacher said thank you for having that real talk with me, that no one has ever called him out like that before.
The truth didn’t break him. The truth did not disrespect him. The truth, with respect, compassion and fidelity to the why – access for Black children – empowered him with the information he needed to get out of his own way step into his own power and potential.
Like they say, the truth (with respect, compassion and fidelity to the why) will set you free.
TEACH THEM TO SEE. Use evidence, not judgements, to teach teachers how to see what you see. When they see differently, they will do differently. If your teachers do what you asked them to do once, maybe a couple of times, then they revert back, then your teachers did not have the opportunity to develop an understanding of what happened. If your teachers respond defensively, then you did not share what you saw. You shared your judgements.
With my teachers, I grounded our coaching conversations in an evidence-based question that allowed them to zoom in on a specific moment, reflect and think deeply about what their kids were saying and doing. This prompt led to aha! moments that allowed my teachers to make connections between the evidence of student learning we had in front of us and the instructional decisions they were making. As a result, what my teachers wanted to work on and what I determined to be a high-leverage focus area were regularly aligned. So by the time we began to discuss strategies for improvement, not only were they receptive, they were eager to try them. My teachers didn’t just blindly trust me, and we didn’t just have a great relationship. I created an opportunity for my teachers to see differently by sharing low-inference evidence of student action and asking them to reflect on it.
So how are you going to develop your teachers while holding them accountable and having a life of your own?
What boundaries will you teach and uphold with the people that you supervise? How will you be transparent and share the information they need to prepare for when they won’t have access to you?HINT: No one has access to you all the time, even if you try to be available all the time. You can choose to stay stressed, tell yourself you are “less than” for not always being available, and project this anxiety to the people you love in your life (I’ve been guilty of this too). Or you can choose peace of mind, communicate what your ethical due diligence looks like, and enjoy your dayum weekend.
What truth are you hiding from the people that you are responsible for developing? How can you share that truth in a way that communicates respect, compassion and fidelity to your (shared) ultimate purpose?
What evidence-based questions are you going to ask your teachers that invite them to reflect on the relationship between what kids are doing and the instructional decisions they are making?
Share the boundaries that you are considering, the truths you need to share, and the evidence-based questions you need to ask in the comments below, or on social media and tag Equitable Outcomes on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter with your how.
In many conference rooms and libraries across the country, teachers are receiving professional development and participating in professional learning communities that are addressing Unfinished Learning. These school and system leaders understand that Black children need access to grade-level content today. They get that their teachers have to be the ones to create those opportunities for students and they might even understand that whenever Unfinished Learning pops up, it’s really Unfinished Teaching* hiding in plain sight. So these school and system leaders take action and set out to arm their teachers with the skills and knowledge they need create meaningful access for the students next Monday morning.
Yet after countless hours spent on coaching teachers on how to improve and tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on hiring professional development vendors to help their teachers understand and apply strategies that create access to grade-level content, October is coming to a close, access for Black children seems to be decreasing and school and system leaders are starting to increasingly hear this:
“My kids just can’t do this.”
“I know my kids and I know what they can handle.”
“I need to bring it back two or three grade levels so they can understand.”
“I’m going to cut this, bring in this other text, or make the numbers smaller here so they can be successful.”
How is this possible? My teachers know the strategies they need to make this accessible. They had the PD for it. They learned about the research that proved any kid can access complex text if we build the background knowledge. Why are my teachers not even trying to help our Black students show mastery on grade level? Why are my teachers choosing to spend days, weeks, and months of instructional time on content from one, two, even three years below grade-level?
Why? Because they have been conditioned to. We all have. Educators in this country are systemically conditioned to limit access to grade-level content for Black children. Inequity for Black children on this scale is not possible without this being true. This means that identities as allies or anti-racists don’t absolve us from being participants in the education system; we are a part of it. Furthermore, expending energy and resources to prove that this doesn’t apply to you does not change outcomes for Black children, which means you’re still participating in it.
Until teachers have professional learning experiences that actively disrupt that conditioning and actively build a new understanding of what it means to create access, regardless of a student’s ‘level’, their Unfinished Teaching is our Unfinished Leading.
As long as we allow fixed mindsets about what Black children can do to inform and determine instructional practices, their Unfinished Teaching is our Unfinished Leading.
Upon reading this, you might want to go to your teachers and say:
“You have a fixed mindset around what Black children can do and that’s problematic.”
“You have to create access for Black children or that’s contributing to racism.”
“You’re not trying hard enough to support your kids. And because of that they are falling further behind. We’re supposed to be helping them grow, not slide back.”
FOR THE LOVE OF IYANLA AND RUPUAL DON’T SAY THAT TO A TEACHER.
You can think those thoughts. And have those insights. But what will saying that to educators accomplish? Will it be the impact that you want it to have? Are your teachers going to have aha! moments about how their instructional decisions contribute to inequity because you told them they have fixed mindsets, are not trying hard enough, and are ultimately contributing to racism?
You might feel courageous for saying these things. You might even consider yourself an advocate or champion for Black children when you’re done. But how can you be a champion for Black children when the outcome is teachers who shut down, close their classroom doors, and continue to do the same thing because they felt judged, think you have no empathy, and now just tune you out on auto-pilot? End result: Black children continue to be denied access to grade-level content.
No, I don’t think it is your responsibility to take on the emotional labor that comes with tiptoeing around mindsets, decisions and instructional practices that produce inequity for Black children. Please don’t.
Instead, what I am suggesting for you as school and system leaders, is another way.
The Call to Action
Instead of this narrative about teachers:
“They are problematic, have low expectations.”
“Who am I to change how a grown person thinks? People can’t change the mindsets of other grown people, especially if they don’t want to change or think that they are right all the time.”
“Those teachers just have fixed mindsets. How can you work with a fixed mindset? It’s fixed!”
Choose this narrative about teachers:
“All educators, including myself, have been conditioned to have limiting beliefs about Black children.”
“These beliefs are pervasive and will continue to inform all instructional decisions until I find a way to actively disrupt them.”
“I can create professional learning experiences and cultivate instructional habits and ways of thinking that actively disrupt this.”
Why? If you unlearn the old narrative and make a choice to accept this new narrative, you can actually reclaim your instructional power as leaders within your schools and school systems.
You can let go of the endless, expensive, and time-consuming cycle of providing teachers with resources, telling teachers what to do, and writing them up or repeating yourself when you don’t see that compliance. That’s exhausting and is probably shortening your lifespan in this role before you burn out.
You can start to design structures that require teachers to make evidence-based decisions and desystematize implicit bias.
You can start to facilitate professional learning experiences that allow teachers to foster insight and generate solutions for creating access for Black children.
You can start to create space for the conversations grounded in evidence and content that cultivate an educator’s capacity for the kind of paradigm shift that allows them to see different and do differently.
It’s possible. That’s what Equitable Outcomes trains leaders how to do. Not only is it possible, it’s what we need. A paradigm shift. And you are the one to nurture them into fruition. But this is only possible if you let go of the model of professional development and coaching that puts no heavy lifting on teachers by ‘giving them’ knowledge and research or by ‘telling them’ what’s wrong in their classroom so they can fix it.
My last call to action for you, and this might be the scariest – allow and encourage dissonant thinking about the curriculum and instructional practices to be named, interrogated with evidence, and tested. Without that experience, those dissonant thoughts will fester into things no leader enjoys: seemingly needless resistance, petty battles and a complete breakdown of trust. All of which ultimately results in a rejection of the same strategies + instructional materials that create access to grade-level content for Black children.
Without unlearning and choosing to accept a new narrative about Unfinished Teaching, we participate in Unfinished Leading. We function as the gatekeepers that allow conditioning designed to limit access for Black students to walk through our school doors, right past the time, effort and money your school system has invested and directly into educational experiences that reliably and predictably lock Black children out.
What narrative are you going to choose to unlearn? Which narrative are you going to choose to accept? And once you’ve made those decisions, what are you going to do about it?
(originally written July 2020)
In so many classrooms across the country, children will walk into their first day of school with lots of unfinished learning and already behind grade-level. Teachers across content areas will have prepared for this inevitability and adjust their content to meet the kids where they are. And for many, meeting kids where they are will mean remediating to below grade-level standards or starting with last years’ content. Students will make progress against the goals that their teachers have set for them, and at the end of the year, we will celebrate their academic growth, acknowledge their grit and even marvel all of the things our students had to overcome to get to this point. And while the end of year goodbyes and reflections will bring tears and some insights about our practice, this fact will remain: Starting the year with below grade-level standards and content guarantees that our students who started the year below grade-level will also end the year below grade-level, if not further behind. Furthermore, the stories we tell ourselves about why our students are behind will undermine our ability to learn from our own practice. As a result, the instructional decisions that led to this outcome will remain uninterrogated and will even be validated as acceptable, despite the levels of student achievement they failed to yield. And when we allow this to happen, we will abandon our locus of control and systemically abdicate the power we have to create access and close opportunity gaps for all of students.
Within our education system, models for learning presume that the path to mastery is a singular, linear path. Therefore, when students are below grade-level, many educators chose to ‘go back’ to the gaps in student understanding and then continue ‘in order’ until students are back on grade-level. While this approach does allow teachers to address unfinished learning, it simply does not account for time. The time spent ‘going back’ takes away from the time designated for grade-level content. As time runs out, so do student opportunities to grow against grade-level standards.
When teachers choose to remediate to below grade-level standards, students are not exposed to grade-level content and never receive the opportunity to ‘catch up’. However, even though students did not have the opportunity to learn grade-level content, they are held accountable for it when they are tested on grade-level standards they were never exposed to. And when those students are black, brown or learning English, that accountability in our education system looks like being retained, being pushed into special education and ultimately being labeled as unteachable, absolving teachers and schools of our responsibility to teach them. While our jobs are done, their learning remains unfinished and unaddressed.
The Call to Action
I would like to put forward the notion that unfinished learning is unfinished teaching. That gaps in student learning are actually gaps in our teaching. That gaps in our teaching are actually opportunities to identify and implement scaffolds that create access. That there are multiple paths to mastery and that teachers have the power and the responsibility to open those paths to mastery for their students. That our call to action is to identify how to create access to grade level content, while students are learning grade level content. I call you to stop remediating and start creating access.
When we remediate students to below grade-level standards, we resign our actions to the belief that our students will never be able to access grade-level and eventually college-level content. Instead, let’s assume that all students can learn grade level content. If we can embrace that assertion, then if and when students struggle, we will find barriers to grade level content and remove the barriers, instead of removing the grade level content. Start the school year with Day 1 of grade level content. Identify the specific questions, tasks, and lessons where explicit connections or instruction on the previous year’s content creates access, then move on. Filter all of instructional decisions through the lens of this question: Will this create access to my grade level content, today? If the answer is yes, then that is wonderful! If the answer is no, then we have the responsibility and an opportunity to learn a way to do better. So let’s address this unfinished learning by addressing our own unfinished teaching with scaffolds that create access to (not remediate away from) grade-level content.