Embrace The Struggle

We are teachers. We know how important the “struggle phase” is for our students to deepen the learning, especially when it is challenging.  But do we extend that same opportunity to struggle to ourselves when faced with a challenge? At times, I think we have an expectation that, as individual teachers, we should know all the answers, have all the solutions, be able to fix all the problems - we don’t have time to “struggle” through those difficult dilemmas!

But we as teachers are also learners. We can honor the “messiness” of the struggle phase for ourselves and for our colleagues, give ourselves the tools and the time to address the most vexing challenges we face in our classrooms, and learn how to improve student outcomes for all of our students.  And all means all.

At Mammoth Elementary School, we lost a significant chunk of instructional time last winter, due to historically extreme weather conditions.  Progress toward proficiency was impacted and our English learners and economically disadvantaged students suffered the most.  It was a frustrating time for kids, teachers, and parents, and as hard as we worked to make up for lost time, the obstacles seemed insurmountable as we ended the school year.

Fast forward to the new year:  with a fresh start, we were able to take a step back, so that we could “see the forest for the trees”, and then we embraced the struggle. 

First, we narrowed our scope to ELA, our most critical area of need.  We looked at our baseline data on benchmark assessments.  Then each grade level team created a PORTABLE DATA WALL (a four-section poster board that displayed individual student performance in ELA on red, yellow, blue and green post-it-note labels). We brought our data walls and gathered together in the school library to collaborate, using our “no blaming, no shaming meeting norms” to plan our next steps for moving forward. We struggled through analyzing the student data together, first in grade level teams, then as a school team.  Then we allowed ourselves time for the conversation, time to listen to each other, time to talk about our students needs and our evidence-based instructional practices, and time to hone in on our most vexing challenge. By the end of that meeting, we were hearing “we’ve got this!” comments from around the room.

But that meeting wasn’t the end of our work or the end of our struggle.  Anything worth doing, is worth doing well, right? Those portable data walls are now present at each and every grade level meeting, so that we can use the visual representation of our data to guide collaboration on lesson planning, looking at student work, and refining our practices with specific interventions.  We just finished with our second benchmark assessment, so we will work as grade level teams to move the student labels to represent their latest results (and celebrate our successes!), then meet all together as a staff to move the work forward schoolwide.  This is the plan following every benchmark assessment this year, as we watch our students progress toward proficiency.

And in the midst of adversity, here is what we learned:  Use our tools.  Rely on each other.  Support each other.  Believe in our kids and in ourselves.  And embrace the struggle.

Bryan RobertsComment