Common Agreements

I had the opportunity to provide a workshop at another school several hours drive from home this last week. I’d been giddy with happiness when the Director approached us to start with, and as we worked together to prepare a workshop that would meet the needs of her staff, my excitement grew. There’s something wonderful about that feeling of anticipation mixed with what-if-based fear and the happiness that you feel once it’s confirmed that what you had in your head was what they had in their heart.

A component of the workshop was designed around the idea of common agreements among staff. Mike Schmoker wrote a book called Focus some time ago, and in the time I’d devoured that version and we’d worked two years with it, another edition and a book for school leaders has been published. In all three books, he talks about what educational researchers like Robert Marzano and Rick Stiggins and others have learned works well. The beauty of the Schmoker books is that it takes all of that very dry research and puts it together in a way that describes the things that have the largest effect size and why they work. It’s a no-nonsense kind of book. Do these things; you will see improvement.

But all of that potential improvement hinges on one thing: Common Agreements. Those practices, routines, and expectations that everyone agrees to implement for the greater good, even if they aren’t everyone’s preferred way of doing things.

When we embarked on our book study of Schmoker’s original book years ago, it was fascinating to see how everyone’s educational philosophy came to the forefront of our discussions. Some were very much stuck in the middle to high school and into college mindset of “I assign-you do-I grade-there is no further discussion.” Others were more flexible in their comments, considering project and problem-based learning opportunities to be the way we should do things to allow for student choice, part of gifted best practice. And still others called on their own experiences in school and their own preferred way of learning, feeling that lecture and note taking using one particular model had to be the way in which we provided content to our students. And others felt strongly that everyone must be doing the same assignment, the same way, at the same time because then we could ensure that all children were experiencing the “consistency” that they felt we so lacked. And some felt strongly that we should consider a mixture of everyone’s ideas–there is a place for all of those things for a child while they’re learning, after all. Everyone agreed we needed to see growth in our students and that changes in our practice needed to occur, but common agreements were difficult to come by.

As the years have passed, we’ve determined that some of our common agreements need to simply be directives: We will use this resource in this way and everyone will do it….full stop. Those are compliance based and are honestly quite difficult when you take into consideration the artistry that teaching involves–when you can see the bigger picture, however, you can help a teacher to understand that he or she doesn’t have to lose the artistry to implement what’s being required. Other aspects of our work toward common agreements involved lead teachers and committees of teachers who gathered for a specific purpose–those with many years of experience among them who have watched pendulum swings that educational practices often go through or have practical knowledge of the impact a particular practice will have later on. We revisit common agreements every year it seems, particularly when new staff joins us, and it’s one of those pieces of our culture that is really critical–making sure that everyone is on the same page, understanding our goals and roadmap to get there. I won’t lie and say there isn’t pushback every year on some level, but often in retrospect after the initial conflict, it’s more questioning to understand than “I’m not gonna and you can’t make me.” Education is dynamic, not static, because the needs of the stakeholders change over time. For instance, eons ago we had no idea that tech addiction would be a thing, but now we definitely have to address it in how we handle it for our population of learners. We can’t go back to typewriters or further back to dictation necessarily, but need to figure out how to get kids the skills they’ll need while addressing potential addiction.

In working with someone else’s staff to begin this process, using our story as the framework for how it might go, has been interesting. The discussions with teachers who have a passion not only for teaching, but also for what THIS building does and who they serve have been wonderful. Watching body language and noting “thinking faces” vs. “confrontation faces” is definitely a necessary skill, and in a way that’s similar to teaching kids, being able to adjust and modify as you go is critical. The best part though, is seeing teachers get excited about doing this work, this BIG WORK, with one saying she’ll pull last year’s data so they can review it to see where their growth areas are, another saying she’ll put together what a portfolio might look like so the staff can talk about it, another offering to create a spreadsheet to use to collect data, and another hunting for possible writing rubrics for each level that are already out there or that some have been using that can be tweaked so that their staff is more aligned in their grading practice. Teachers want to grow and learn, and it was wonderful to see that some were ready to take action to do it.

While it’s great to have total buy-in when making a change, it’s rarely what happens. Change is scary. I read somewhere that you can’t wait for 100% to be on board with a decision to make a change. You simply get some who are ready to take action on board and the others will follow. It’s not easy, particularly when you do truly care about your staff and the kids you serve, and want to allow for all to have a voice in the decision. There comes a point though, that a Fierce Conversation might need to happen. We know that teachers care about kids and want what’s best for them, but more often than not, there’s fear behind a refusal to comply, not simply defiance. Working through that fear is what’s most important, even if common agreements are still a struggle.

This is Big Work I love. This brings me joy. This is work I want to continue to do more of because I think it’s important. It creates a sense of community among teachers and a shared vision for the work they’re doing with and for kids. And THAT is why we became teachers–not to do it alone.

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