Lead Differently

Lead Differently

By Ryan Christopoulos

In 1982, Apple released the Macintosh personal computer and changed the digital landscape forever. The thought of having a computer in every classroom, every home, every industry revolutionized the way humans could engage with the world. I still remember when my elementary school received their first computer lab with Macintosh computers. If I think for a moment, I can still hear the old dial-up modem processing the connection to the internet (and now that incessant sequence of buzzing, beeping, and static is in your head, too). But perhaps what was most fascinating about the Macintosh computer was not its all-in-one format, or its mouse, or  even the invention of the desktop. Inside the plastic casing of the original 1982 Macintosh were inscribed the names of all the individuals who were on the team for the revolutionary invention (see Figure 1). Names that you didn't know were there when you connected to the digital world for the very first time. The team was committed to this product. They worked toward a common goal. They believed in each other. So, the question is, how can we foster this type of committed, collaborative success in an industry that has historically been individualized? 

The current paradigm of the school is rapidly changing. The idea of closing your door and “doing your thing” is archaic. Collaborative Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) are replacing the teacher silos. With these new practices come new skills that teachers are developing. Communication, compromise, developing buy-in, and harmony are attributes of the educational landscape that were not present twenty years ago. This past year, I had the opportunity to break down the historical silos between teachers to develop a PLC around the gifted population at my school. This task was my practicum project as a student in Northwestern’s MSEd Teacher Leadership program. I currently teach science at Robert Frost Junior High School, one of five junior highs that serve the students of Schaumburg Consolidated School District 54 in Schaumburg, Illinois.  We are a 7th and 8th grade junior high (old school I know) that serves more than 600 adolescents from the area. Each 7th and 8th grade class has one section of gifted students. The program is regally referred to as “Discovery.” While this project was a requirement of the MSEd Teacher Leadership program, this was also an opportunity to advance my career and better meet the needs of our students at Frost.

This year the Discovery program went through a re-evaluation of its scope and sequence, with major changes to the curriculum to better serve our population. This work provided the opportunity for our Discovery teachers at Frost to develop a PLC around our new curriculum to collaborate and better serve our gifted students. My intentions in developing this team were to increase the conversation between Discovery teachers and develop meaningful dialogue around a select group of students. The team was comprised of four initial members with several ancillary members providing insight and additional thoughts. The four core participants consisted of the 7th grade Social Studies teacher (also a Department Chair), the 8th Grade Social Studies teacher, the 7th grade Science teacher (Department Chair), and myself. The Language Arts teachers from both 7th and 8th grade were consulting during this process, but did not attend meetings. Our principal also served as a consultant. The team met once a month from March through May to reflect on the new scope and sequence, and find commonalities and opportunities to support other subjects within their content areas. Throughout this process there were three areas of focus I maintained: creating buy-in, sustaining dialogue, and developing a long-term plan.

To develop buy-in from the group, I first developed a Needs Survey. The purpose of the survey was to identify areas that the group members felt were important to address this year. The questions were based upon several other surveys and reflections that content-based PLC’s use throughout the year, and common language was used to establish familiarity and comfort with the questions. Various groups are requested to complete surveys to improve building functions, and the language of the questions was derived from several of those questionnaires. These were the four inquiries:

  1. Considering the demands of the Discovery class, what do you do in your classroom that is most effective? What makes it so effective for you?
  2. Looking at the re-developed Discovery curriculum for your content area, what excites you the most? Why?
  3. What suggestions do you have to better support your curriculum across other content areas (i.e. skill alignment across subject areas, opportunities for interdisciplinary projects, content cross-over, etc.)?
  4. What additional support would you like to see for the Discovery program at Frost Jr. High (Discovery Parent Night)?

The survey was given to Social Studies, Science and Language Arts teachers, and answers were divided into two categories: small, attainable goals that could be accomplished within the year and long-term goals that would be addressed and revisited over the course of several years. Giving staff the autonomy to identify areas of growth builds intrinsic motivation and buy-in. These are goals that the staff have determined are important, not ones identified from the leader of the group. As we began our work this year, it was clear that the staff was committed to being successful. Jim Knight in his book Unmistakable Impact summarizes Daniel Pink’s research on developing motivation among people in a group. Pink has three factors that help to motivate people. As Knight describes, “To accomplish mastery, people need to have the freedom to choose their goals and how to achieve them. Autonomy, Pink suggests, ‘appears to be a human concept rather than a western one … Even in high-poverty non-Western locales like Bangladesh, social scientists have found that autonomy is something that people seek and that improves their lives’” [Knight, 2011]. Tapping into the human concept of autonomy allowed the team to begin its journey on a foundation that each member was a valuable asset to the group’s success and growth. 

The focus this year was around one goal: to identify commonly addressed standards and skills across content disciplines and build capacity for collaboration on the identified areas. Collaboration included sharing resources to support skills addressed in both science and social studies, as well as seeking additional resources (including technology) to better meet the needs of our gifted population. The commonly addressed skills were determined based upon our standards-based grading system. In contrast to a conventional letter grade format, standards-based rates students on a 1-4 scale across standards that are both content specific as well as ones associated with being considered college and career ready. We began by identifying which standards were being taught in each of Frost’s three trimesters. From there, we highlighted where similar standards were being taught across content areas. The three identified standards were, using evidence to support assertions in writing, determining the central idea of texts, and building understanding of content vocabulary. Some preliminary work had already been done on the first standard, with a school-wide protocol for citing evidence in student writing. Our ambition was to strengthen this skill, while also collaborating on the same ingrained level across the other two standards. 

Focusing on fewer goals allowed the team to develop trust in each other and build comfort in dialogue. Teachers, like students, need to feel successful in the tasks that they are completing. Approaching the process of developing a new PLC meant that we had to tackle an attainable goal in the beginning in order to establish trust in each other and the team. A team founded on successes will survive a lot longer than a team founded on failure. This strategy also allowed for the team to sustain dialogue around a focused topic. I am confident we have all been on teams that can bite off more than they can chew. Too many goals are set, and there is never enough time to reach them all.This causes the team’s energies to be thinly divided among goals, and rarely do tasks become accomplished to their potential. Fewer, prioritized goals drive the team’s focus and force collaboration among members. Collaboration that goes deeply into tasks and begins to form the best solutions for the job at hand. 

When I began this project, I will admit that I viewed this task as a stepping stone to bigger and better things for the team this year. I had ambitions of getting our new PLC to the same level as other collaborative teams in the building, ignoring the fact that the success of those groups were built on years of close work and collaboration. In short, I wanted to bite off more than I could chew. Listening to the team became a huge focus for me. If a leader does not listen to the team and their focus, then the product’s synergy becomes fragmented and static. In order to maintain a culture of listening to each other and our ideas, we established a protocol to aid in this habit. Prior to each meeting an agenda was sent to the group highlighting what would be covered and discussed. These agendas allocated time for group members to be active participants in conversation around what was to be discussed. Every person on the team had an opportunity at each meeting to contribute something to the progression of the group. While this aided in creating active participants, it also forced group members to listen to each person, and take time to value what they are contributing to the group.

As we began to feel successful on our initial goals, the attention then turned to developing longer overarching targets to bring us into the following school year. I wanted our larger plan to be built off of our work from this year. As we established these commonly aligned standards across our content areas, we needed to develop a solution to sharing resources. A folder on our network server was created and divided into the three common standards. This would be a central location for our team to document and share resources related to the standards. The resource bank will become the foundation for our continued collaboration next year. Here, team members will be able to deposit resources to be shared with the group, and to discuss at future meetings. The goal is to build an actively evolving database of standards resources. This will reduce time needed to find materials from exterior sources and allow teachers to focus their energy towards delivering better instruction to our students. The language arts teachers will join the team the following school year, and will add an additional layer of collaboration.

Our final meeting was focused around reflecting on what we had accomplished this year, and how our growth will carry over into the following school year. We had developed a new scope and sequence for our gifted students in our content area, formed a new PLC, and collaborated on how we could exceed the needs of our students in our subjects. We identified areas for collaboration and growth, and began to build dialogue around how those goals could be met. At the end of a challenge such as this one, it is vital to reflect on the successes in order to build capacity for future dialogue. We discussed how some of the topics brought up in meetings positively impacted our instruction. For example, we deliberated over how differentiation for gifted students looks in our classrooms. We concluded that this could take place through content, product, or process we were exposing to our students. The idea being that we do not need to constantly search for higher content, but rather can differentiate products that students create or the process they use to get there to challenge them at a higher level. Discussions like this would not have been possible without developing a culture of collaboration by creating buy-in, sustaining dialogue, and developing long-term goals.

The product that we produced this year was one molded out of collaboration, dialogue, and the dedication toward a common purpose. We may not have invented the personal computer, nor are our names inscribed anywhere beneath the surface of our work. One thing is certain: like the team at Apple Computers in Cupertino, California. a group of adults came together to do something great and challenged themselves to Teach Differently. 

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