Nine Constructive Methods to Annoy Institutional Inertia

  • High School
Sean Riley

I consider change a healthy state not only for individual life but systems. I would rather err in pursuit of evolution than stability.

To pursue evolution in schools that are in some state of inertia can produce self-doubt, disillusion, fatigue, and resignation. (I went through all of those this year!) But the pursuit also inspires imagination, empathy, clarity and resolve. Pursuing change teaches why systems exist as they do. Sometimes they exist for good reasons; sometimes they exist because they haven't been questioned.

As a tool for reflection for me and perhaps a guide for you, I wanted to think about my actions this year in my culture-strong school that helped rattle the cages of inertia and move the school towards an ever-more engaging, cohesive, culturally responsive, and rigorous education for all students. 

1) I was firm in my beliefs about what best practice teaching and learning looks like, and thus I know when I see gaps that do meet those needs.

Best practice is real. When teaching just cranks on all cylinders (student voice, text selection, self-assessment, outcome-aligned awesome projects, etc.), a classroom emanates sublime energy. Sublime classrooms are not accidents. Teaching is a craft with foundational criteria. I know that an amalgam of high standards, predictable routines, respectful discourse, meaningful work, and helpful assessment create an ideal learning environment. This was true with Socrates over two-thousand years ago. It’s true today.

2) I taught my face off, and I tried to show the products of that teaching.

Whether putting up strong work in the hall, having PD in my classroom so teachers could sneak peeks at workshop structures, or inviting staff and families to  student performances, I showcased what my students did. This pressured me (in a good way) to consistently apply best practices; it also made some teachers interested in what was going on in room 125.  It also enhanced my reputation with families at the school. 

3) I patiently worked my way into positions with some power.

I became the department chair this year. This position not only helps steer the Language Arts team towards creating an ever-more engaging, cohesive, culturally responsive, and rigorous department, but at my school it puts me on the Instructional Council (which sounds like Star Wars), which is the department chair from each team. On IC, we make decisions that impact the whole school.

I wrote grants to buy texts to supplement our rigorous reading list. I wrote a grant to get books about teaching boys. Whereever I saw teacher interest that matched with the goal of engaging all students, I did my best to pursue it in the name of hte team.

I sat on hiring committees to do my best to adhere to the espoused meritocratic values of giving a person a job.

4) I was defeated but indefatigable.

I lost a lot this year.

I brought up an issue of disproportionality in department awards, and I lost.

I wanted to hire a particular person with skills in backwards planning and culturally responsive teaching, and I lost.

Yet my protestations in these moments (rooted in values of fairness) lingered. They shaped conversations down the road. In other words, always put up a logical fight. 

5) I tied my reasoning and arguments to shared foundations and trusted sources.

When I made arguments, I referenced the school’s mission. I used key abstract concepts like self-respect, harmony, and unity. I referenced authorities like Zaretta Hammond, Jim Burke, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Accountable Talk. People may not like me, but they respect authorities. 

6) I sought to understand the professional curiosities of my colleagues, and then I advocated like hell.

I have a colleague named Nick who is a savvy young teacher. He is interested in portfolios. He and I met a few times to work on portfolios. I lent him James Mahoney’s Power and Portfolios. Together we created the LA 9 Portfolio assignment. 

I wrote grants to buy texts to supplement our department's rigorous reading list. I wrote a grant to get books about teaching boys. Wherever I saw teacher interest that matched with the goal of engaging all students, I did my best to get resources.

When I learned that teachers were interested in making thinking visible, I volunteered to lead several sessions exploring those techniques.  

I passed along books like Choice Words, They Say / I Say, and Jennifer Fletcher’s Teaching Arguments. Sharing texts with teachers builds a collegial relationship, respects autonomy, and creates a foundation of “this job is hard, and we are always learning, and maybe this book has something for you. And maybe you can teach us what you learn from it.”

7) I strove to be courageous and talk to people in person, even after disagreements.

I have done my best this year to be direct about my positions, when I disagree, and what I believe in. It’s easier to bitterly write an email; it feels easier to let bad feelings fester. However, engaging in face-to-face in tough conversations prevents engaged disagreement mutating to disengaged rift. Disagreement can lead to compromise, which can mean progress towards shared goals. A rift means the status quo persists.

8) Once I knew the system, I prioritized where to put my energy.

I learned I couldn’t change certain aspects of the school, at least not yet. I identified where I could make the most impact in making a more engaging school and jumped in head first. Once I learned who would be on one my teams for next year, I gathered them immediately and we jigsawed work to do over the summer around syllabi, independent reading, pre-assessment work to begin the work of alignment. This team represents my personal best hopes for doing work that will help the most marginalized students. Plus, it's going to be fun!

9) I know that some teachers don’t like me, and I don't care. I also know that I’m not perfect, and I don't claim to be. But I do claim to be an accomplished teacher.

I have forgone the need to be liked by all. I do try to behave in ways that would get me respect from all. This means that I do my best to be forthwith, attentive, that I try to create forums for all to be heard, for people to learn, and I try to keep our work focused on shared values and goals.

I also try to make it earnestly clear that I am learning myself. I attend trainings, talk about what I’ve read, and share struggles. Rather than take on the identity of a good teacher besieged, I do my best to share my story that I, too, am on the journey of honing my craft.

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These strategies sometimes felt like half-measures, but they did result in positive change. Now students have graphic versions of Shakespeare and all students can feel confident they understand what is going on. Now several teachers use visual tools to understand how and what students are thinking. Now 9th-grade students will walk to each LA class having some uniform experiences. Now a few of my colleagues are looking into National Board Certification. It's all incremental, but collections of small actions embody Bobby Kennedy's quote that "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." Rather than standing up at big times, this year I found it useful to stand up at "little times" and to do so again and again and again.

What other strategies do you all have for making progress in systems that are pretty dang solidified? I'd love to hear. 

  • English Language Arts
  • Professional Development
  • Teacher Collaboration
  • Teacher Leadership
  • Teacher Tools
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