I recently spent a weekend with two elementary school teachers. I was not there because I was from their school or even their state—I was serving as their Critical Friend. My role was to provide objective feedback, collaborate with them, ask tough questions, urge them to focus on an action plan that was realistic and viable.
These were two very passionate and creative teachers who were determined to make change even if they had to go it alone. They were tired of their students facing negative reinforcement daily in a hostile school environment. One of their least favorite examples of this was a digital tool that flashes a giant red circle across the screen to show when a child has failed an assessment. Meanwhile, opportunities to share and celebrate abilities that can’t be measured by an online assessment were few and far between.
This school serves a high number of refugee students. More than 20 different languages are spoken in its classrooms. Many, if not all students are living in poverty. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, “These students bring their unique individual cultures and backgrounds while bearing some of the challenges and stresses of the refugee experience.”
This is a school that houses many levels of trauma, and somehow, someone thought that blank white walls, stern rules and flashing red circles were going to encouraging these children to succeed. The teachers I spent the weekend with disagreed.
Tackling the Biggest Challenge: Changing Adult Mindsets
When our day started with breakfast and introductions, my teammates were friendly and excited. Heads held high, smiles on faces, they were ready to tackle the impossible. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but they were ready.
While venting their frustrations about their current situation, they brainstormed ways to showcase what their students were learning well. They thought it was important to recognize the successes and achievements of students just as much as they document the struggles students face as they master English and build skills.
To those outside education, making this kind of change might sound like no big deal. But let’s look at the big picture. This school was clearly a toxic workplace. Students weren’t the only ones bringing trauma to school—adults were struggling, too. Not only were the adults experiencing vicarious trauma, but as a team, they lacked a plan. Many teachers probably also needed more training and support to know how to work with immigrant students, English learners and students with special needs. All these factors came together to create a culture of stress and fear that was exacerbated by the school’s physical environment.
By lunchtime, shoulders were hunched, tears had been shed and a sense of failure was mounting. They may as well have had a giant red circle flashing before them.
They struggled with how to approach their colleagues who were, as they described it, in a failure mindset. Knowing that “these kids” often prefaced the explanations for behavior and academic struggles, they knew they needed to not only come back to school with a plan, but with a new narrative. As much as they would have liked to pull the plug on the assessment software with the evil red circles, that wasn’t their decision to make.
Among their colleagues, they had a few advocates on their side, teachers who had already started toying with arts integration and STEAM, but the majority were teachers who felt that projects, art and other creative endeavors were a waste of time.
Changing a Toxic Workplace Starts With Small Steps Forward
It took a few hours, but finally it surfaced.
They figured out what they could do to make a small, but meaningful shift in the existing culture To address those blank white walls, they planned to go beyond bulletin boards and create fun hallway displays that would both feature student work and engage learners with rich vocabulary, deep inquiry questions and challenges. They’d sneak in some important test-prep information, too. Ultimately, they hoped to give their students an environment they wouldn’t just feel safe in, but one they could feel proud of.
Sounds easy enough, right? Not so much. Honestly, it probably would have been easier to change the assessment model than people’s ways of thinking. Fearful that “these kids” would write on the displays or ruin them in some way, it was easier for everyone to not have any.
Feeling downtrodden by a consistent narrative of failure, it was easier for all involved to stick to the script, and not to stray outside of the box. It was time to begin rewriting that narrative. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but they were ready.
As a former teacher, I had seen many schools with Pinterest-worthy bulletin boards and colorful murals on the walls. It would be easy to think, “They just need to get some creative people together and voila!”
But the existing school culture of low expectations, and the fact that the school was identified as a “turnaround” school, had left almost everyone with little hope.
They needed to be the catalysts for shaping their school into a place of visible learning. First step, tie their idea to the schoolwide goals and improvement plan. Next step, meet with administration and colleagues about ways to transform the hallways into interactive learning spaces. Step three, put in the initial work to provide a sample of how the school could embrace interactive learning and celebrate the work of students at the same time.
It Takes Warrior Teachers to Help Kids See Their Own Potential
My new friends would returned to their home state ready to introduce their plan to their school on Monday morning. Would it work? Maybe, maybe not. However it shakes out, I applaud them for taking the leap. The were not going to sit back any longer and watch students get caught in the cross-fire of negative culture and poor decision making. They came to San Jose not only to form a plan, but to sharpen their voices and find their inner advocates.
The kids at their school are lucky to have them. Hopefully, they will begin to see their own potential as they look at their own projects displayed in the hallways, and embrace their curiosity when passing by a colorful mural or chart. Maybe the other teachers in the building will see that they, too, can take pride in their students’ work.
Their students will probably never even know they went to California. But hopefully they do know they have warriors on their side—teachers who are willing to sacrifice their time, money and much more, to show them that they are smart, capable and loved.