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The Real Change Agents

I’ve asked the following question to numerous teachers, administrators, and librarians: “How many of you are having ongoing conversations with students about school—genuine conversations about learning, leading, and teaching?”

The results have all been the same: Few, if any, claimed to be engaging with their students.

This breaks my heart, because they are a critical mass for organizational change, and tapping their tremendous insights is imperative to their engagement. They offer so much:

• Students can inform us of bias, of misconceptions, of exaggerations, of local realities, and of blind spots that inform our directions.

• Students help us to see where our policies and practices are not aligned with our beliefs.

• Students bring another dimension of innovation to the discussion as a critical stakeholder in the community.

• Students represent the largest population of an organization and are vital for organizational change.

Here is my hard line: Stop saying it is about the students if you haven’t asked the students what they need, what they want, and what is the reality of their world.

The voices of change rest with every student who enters those doors each morning. When you bring them to the table, are you vested in their thoughts? Are we willing to challenge our own beliefs about learning and teaching based upon their beliefs? Will we leverage their ideas to shape a better present and future?

—Ryan Bretag


One Size Fits All

Several years ago, I attended a conference for teachers. The speaker at the podium was defending support for a law that requires all teachers in the state to use the same textbook. The crowd of teachers was getting restless to the point that several were shouting back at the speaker. Exasperated, the speaker bellowed into the microphone, “But not every kid in the state goes to your school!” Yes, I thought, but your policy is affecting the kids in my school!

It seems to me that a key challenge for policymakers in any arena is to implement policies that help make the worst cases better while simultaneously avoiding making the best cases worse. Take the effort by some to “teacher-proof” the curriculum.

Those who want to teacher-proof the curriculum apparently see examples of ineffective teachers and want to do something about it, so they create a scripted curriculum and pacing guide. I imagine that they think to themselves, “Well, this may not be perfect, but it’s better than what those teachers were doing before.”

I am willing to concede that it might be true that this kind of support helps some percentage of struggling teachers. Still, beware the law of unintended consequences. Some years ago, one of our local school districts embarked on such a plan. As a result, a number of strong teachers came to work at High Tech High, in their words, because they were “fleeing the district.” Years later, while that district is pursuing other strategies, we continue to benefit from the presence of these strong teachers.

It is frustrating to be on the receiving end of one-size-fits-all strategies. Still, at a national level, I do not think it is right to say that we should have no regulations, just let the market decide everything. I think we need a balance between bottom-up, market-driven mechanisms, and top-down policies.

But please, policymakers, a nod to the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.

—Ben Daley

Vol. 30, Issue 31, Page 10

Published in Print: May 18, 2011, as Blogs of the Week
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