Friday, May 27, 2016

The Next Step

For the past 13 years I’ve taught junior high students English and History. As I walked out of the school building this week after the final day of school something was different. In the fall, I will not be returning to the classroom where I have spent countless hours trying to motivate students to learn and grow as people. Instead, I will be taking over as our school’s Learning Commons Director. Yes, I will be the school librarian. Please, insert cardigan sweater and reading glasses chain jokes now. :) As news of this broke with my students and community I was met with a variety of reactions.

“Did you get demoted?” a friend who is not a teacher asked me.

“Why would you do that? You are too good of a teacher to be a librarian.” a student shared with me.

“So, you want to sit down all day, read books and yell at kids for talking in the library?” mentioned a colleague.

These reactions and responses caused me to have mixed emotions. On one level I have a sense of guilt about leaving the classroom. I know I shouldn't, but in some way I do. Parents of my current students have reached out expressing a let down because their younger children will not have me as a teacher. Many of my current students were in shock and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. I tried to explain to them I will still be a teacher but with a much bigger classroom. But as 12 year olds, they didn’t quite get it. So I know I shouldn’t feel the guilt, but it is there.

On another level these reactions show me I have some work to do to change perceptions. Whether it's with my colleagues, my friends, or students, I want to change how they view the library space and what happens there. I am guilty of this perception issue as well when I was telling people about my new role. I was trying to come up with other names or terms for what I was going to be doing. I told people I was going to be a director of the learning services in my school. I told some people I was going to be a technology integrator and media specialist. I made up lots of different terms and definitions about the job that I was going to be doing. I think the reason I did that is because the term “librarian” traditionally has a stigma attached to it that I don't want. I am not going to be the old man in the library barking at kids about overdue books and spending my days at my desk making sure everyone's quiet.

Yes, I'm going to be the school librarian next year but my role will be so much more than the keeper of books and collector of fines. My district is rebranding and shifting the role of the library and creating what will be called Learning Commons. This is an intentional shift in the how these spaces will look and operate across the district. In my new role I will be the director of this space and everything that happens within it. I will be planning and leading professional development for staff. I will be teaching students and providing learning opportunities ranging from class projects and research to breakout EDUs and a makerspace. I will also be redesigning the space to encourage and promote learning beyond the traditional mindset into a more innovative and flexible learning environment. Yes, I will also be checking out books. :) These new learning commons will be the hub of activity and learning in our buildings and I am looking forward to being at the center of it all.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Failure to Change

If you read enough tweets, blog posts, education books or attend enough conferences you will likely come across many people who claim to have it all figured out. They will tell you schools are broken and the system needs to be changed. In some cases they'll go so far as to say the entire institution of public education needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Some of the less dramatic ones will speak about how teachers need to do more to initiate change in their classrooms. They will insist that innovation, creativity, risk-taking and failure are things all teachers should be doing, pushing and encouraging in their classrooms. While in many regards I agree with those sentiments and believe change is possible, I think we need to take a heavy dose of reality with these thoughts. Many of the people pushing forth these ideas about teachers needing to step up are not in schools themselves and lack the context or perspective of what it is actually like in a school. What’s worse is often these individuals will blame the teachers for their failure to change.

Personally, I have been fortunate to work in an environment where I have been allowed a lot of room and space to be innovative and creative. I have been provided opportunities to push back on status quo and try new things I felt were in the best interest of the students in my classroom. Having said that, I am not naive enough to think that the situation I am in is one many teachers find themselves in. Countless teachers can not push back or challenge the status quo. Many teachers have nearly no freedom to be creative or innovative and instead are stuck following very rigid protocols, curricula or are micromanaged to death. While it may be easy to blame these teachers for their failure to change, it is not that simple. What I have found in these situations is far too often the lack of change stems from a lack of leadership. Whether it's a building principal or a district curriculum coordinator or possibly even the superintendent, a culture of conformity or stagnation is typically cultural from the top down.

The harsh reality is some environments will not allow, let alone encourage, these out-of-the-box thinkers in classrooms. While I agree with the sentiment of teachers pushing back, challenging the status quo and being revolutionary in their thinking, we need to be realistic. At the end of the day if you have an administrator who doesn't encourage or even allow this, it simply will not happen. If it does happen it will require a massive amount of work and effort on behalf of the teacher. It may also require some subversion and asking for forgiveness. I have seen some of the most dynamic creative and innovative teachers burned out and even run out of schools by overbearing and micromanaging administrators. I have even seen teachers try to leave or transfer out of a particular school only to have their efforts torpedoed by their current administration.

I wholeheartedly believe we need change and revolution of ideas in schools. In addition, I have always believed lasting and impactful change must be initiated from the classroom level. Yet, I think we would be shortsighted if we fail to recognize the influence administration has on this culture of change. It is very easy to say teachers should push back and change the ways they are doing things in their classrooms. But the harsh reality is even those that really want to often find themselves in situations where they can not. A failure to change is far too often a reflection of the leadership in a building of district and not that of the teacher in the classroom.