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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Profession Opinion

Want Vibrant, Engaged Teachers? Give Them Professional Freedom

By Jonah Schenker — November 06, 2022 5 min read
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The pandemic unearthed a lot of opportunities along with all the hardships it brought. One benefit was that it has made social and emotional wellness a more mainstream topic across the board in education. As a result, teachers, principals, and other school leaders seem to be carrying a little less on their shoulders. With that weight lifted, they have been especially engaged and energetic this year, but as the world returns to something like normal, there is going to be tremendous pressure to go back to doing things the old ways, even when they weren’t the best ways. How do we recognize that and work to extend the longevity of the eagerness and energy that’s been returning to campus?

Ulster Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) is a service district, so all our programs are alternatives to traditional schooling. That gives us some leeway to experiment that regular districts don’t have. Our districts can, however, look to us and the approaches we use to see what works for all students, making change a little easier for them.

At Ulster, the key to fostering a positive environment for teaching and learning has remained the same before, during, and after the pandemic. We believe our teachers are committed and capable educators and we give them the freedom to prove it. Here’s what it looks like.

Taking the ‘Gotcha!’ Out of Performance Reviews

A few years ago, BOCES leaders and faculty had a meeting about New York state’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), which has become a bit of a touchstone for the ethos of our district. A lot of faculty expressed concern about using the freedom they’ve been given to teach because if they tried something and it didn’t work, they would be punished for it on their evaluations and maybe even found to be ineffective.

Our superintendent, Charles Khoury, told them, “We hire professionals who come to the table with professional learning, professional experience, and professional judgment. Every teacher in every classroom makes hundreds of decisions every single day. I want you to make those decisions based on what you think is right using your professional judgment and experience. Each one of you is the designer, manager, and leader of a learning space, and I need you to be innovative in that role. I want you to figure out what’s right for each student in your class and to do it, even if it’s new and it might not work out.”

He told them that when any teacher is found to be ineffective, they would be allowed to appeal and that he was the person who would hear and decide on their appeal. And then he told them that if they were using their professional judgment, he guaranteed that they would be deemed effective. Fear of being found ineffective was stopping teachers from trying ideas they believed in, so Khoury removed that barrier for them.

To be clear, though, this was not a blank check to let ineffective teachers skate past accountability. Our job is to figure out who is struggling, why, and then to help lead them past that barrier so they can begin innovating for students again. We see the APPR as a tool for assessing growth instead of a tool for identifying teachers who aren’t a good fit for our district. Blending those functions doesn’t make sense, especially when we have an arsenal of tools that can help us identify teachers for removal.

Empowered by Khoury, our teachers are building portfolios about their own growth as teachers and learners that demonstrate that they are real students of the institution. When teachers are students themselves, that trickles down into the classroom and gives it a vibrant energy.

Building Community Within and Outside the BOCES

Our district is unusual, even among BOCES. We tend to do things a little differently, and most of our teachers have never worked anywhere quite like Ulster. To help make the transition smoother, we recently revamped and extended our teacher on-boarding process to three days so that they can really understand who we are and what makes our district unique. We on-boarded about 35 new teachers this year and received great feedback about this change.

In our morning meetings, we are trying to minimize email and focus on building human connections. Our HR team and directors are pulling together clerical and support staff cross-divisionally so people can begin building relationships and connecting.

In other meetings that would previously have been only faculty, we are including staff to help build community and make it clear that they’re part of the team. Everyone who works in this district touches the lives of our students, and keeping them in the loop by inviting them to meetings is a simple way to make it clear that we honor that.

Like most principals or superintendents, we’re looking at all our spaces intentionally to make sure people are eager to come in and work in our model workspaces.

Building connections also extends beyond our campus. We have a detailed plan to make sure leadership is able to meet other education professionals from around the country. We want to make sure that our educators are not just thinking about solutions within the box of Ulster County. Other people in other places see different possibilities from what we might here, so we want our people to explore and learn from people teaching in different contexts. We are fortunate to partner with organizations like High Tech High, EL Education, World Savvy and the Stanford d.School to collaborate, share knowledge, and improve education.

Committing to Equity

An essential part of Ulster’s commitment to empowering teachers as the leaders of their own classrooms is our dedication to ongoing equity work. Our team discusses these issues confidently and with a willingness to learn and be wrong. Nor are we shy about admitting the challenges of white leadership doing belonging and equity work. If the traditional way isn’t working and we don’t have the answers, Khoury’s willing to invest in looking beyond our district for the best pathway forward.

I have felt the energy in our buildings this school year, and it feels great. Our educators continue to prove us right—that they are professionals and in the best position to decide what’s right for their students, and we work at every level to set them free to exercise that judgment.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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