This is the latest in a series of blogs by a partnering cohort teacher.
By Brett Slezak, Allegheny Valley School District
In the past year and half, having transitioned from teacher to a district level administrator I have been working through how the ideals of the Fluency Project can scale throughout an institution. When I was a Health and Physical education teacher, I felt like I had a pretty clear grasp of what student voice, inquiry, and advocacy meant to me and my students. It was easier in the classroom to be the master of my own domain. Regardless of any of the systematic outside influences being placed on me by the state or school system, it was ultimately me as the teacher who had all of the decision making ability to design, hone and implement experiences for my students in those 45 minute time blocks. But looking at the system from a new administrative lens from a very different vantage point, I realized that my task with Fluency was still about building capacity, but just in a much larger, complex, scale.
Being in the central office, just from sheer geography, can make it extremely difficult to stay connected to the students and staff that you are serving. I struggled and still do struggle with the feeling this creates for me, because Fluency to an large extent is about building relationships and humanizing the shared experience of education. However, out of that struggle I’ve thought a lot about that phrase, “the shared experience of education,” and have grown to realize that my first step in building capacity around Fluency in our district is to help others start seeing our successes and struggles as a shared experience, not one of isolation. Having at times become extremely tunnel-visioned on projects this year, I know how easy it is to think that your goals and experiences are solely yours, and impact only you. And when I take a moment to notice and wonder about the people around me, it is clear to see that other administrators, staff and students are also having experiences that they believe are solely theirs. However, in reality our experiences are unbelievable interdependent and deeply woven together. It is easy to miss this simple fact.
Guilty of it myself, it is easy to forget what it feels like to be in the classroom everyday as a teacher, and even easier to forget what it is like to be a student living out a day in our school system. As a teacher, it is easy to forget what it is like to be a student sitting in class, in a hard desk for 6 hours a day. Being a student, it may be true that you’ve never spent the time to think about what it might be like to function as a teacher or administrator on a daily basis. Lowering barriers to understanding each other’s experiences though is essential to humanizing education. With just these three different roles in mind, it is easy to see how interconnected just the experience of one lesson plan might be. For example, when a teacher writes a lesson plan there is a good possibility that they have competing voices guiding them through the process. They might be trying to write a lesson that best fits the needs of all the different learners, while also writing a lesson that will get them a good evaluation, while also writing a lesson that helps them stay true to who they are as a learner themselves. None of which normally align in a neatly wrapped package of shared goals. This lesson then could be received in a hundred thousand different ways with students, which might lead to a teacher of the year award or disciplinary referral to the office. Then from the administrative perspective, in those extreme scenarios that is the difference between getting to celebrate awesomeness or dealing directly with an unpleasant behavioral exchange with a student. Additionally, that administrator is thinking about how they might support or change the instruction that is happening in that room for the better. From the student’s vantage, they might see a lesson that ignites their passion for something they didn’t know exists, or they might feel like their teacher is giving them busy work and doesn’t care about them learning. They might then be thinking about what they can do to avoid that class tomorrow or how excited they may be to come back and learn more. All of this could happen, with a million and one other variations of reactions in between. Obviously, learning, education and school is a highly complex experience with complex forces pushing and pulling in a number of directions. I truly believe that most administrators, teachers and students (regardless of the reality of the outcomes) want learning to be engaging, meaningful and what is best for student. However, I would also venture a guess that most students feel like they are on “team student,” teachers on “team teacher” and administrators on “team administrators” without ever thinking about the roles that others play in the system. They most likely are focused on the outcomes they want with little noticing of the other’s experiences or wants. It is as if we are all playing on the same team but feel the need to always steal the ball from our own teammates. And most likely it is our system that has taught us all to think that way. It has taught us to see learning as a competition to better ourselves and not a shared experience with shared ownership.
This idea of the shared experience of education, I have found is where I am focusing my leadership energy in this moment. I’ve realized that the first step in creating a culture of Fluency in our district is to do my best to help bring people from all levels of the system to an understanding that our actions and decisions are so closely interconnected. It is important to understand that there is value in listening to each other’s perspectives and having our own perspective heard. When we do this, we start to understand that we are all part of a larger system that functions both independently of us and co-dependently with us. Much like how I view technology through Fluency as a force that can bring us together or drive us apart, this shared experience is a force that we can choose to harness in the same way. We can forget about the other people outside of us and let learning slowly atrophy, or we can remember that we all share in this experience together and by acknowledging that schools can be a bit more humanizing for everyone.