If you found yourself here, reading this blog post, I imagine you might be a bit of a teacher nerd like me. You could talk teaching all day. You just can’t get enough educational research and innovative pedagogical ideas. You are a sponge, soaking it all in. You may have identified some things in your educational community that you think could be updated. In fact, you would love the opportunity to lead PD for teachers at your school!
Right now, you may not hold a formal leadership position at your school. Perhaps, you are part of a leadership team or you serve as the chair of your department or the leader of your grade team. Maybe you aren’t currently in one of these “teacher leader” positions.
Can you relate to this? Yes? Well, read on, rockstar. This post was made for you.
So, you want to make some changes, but aren’t quite sure what you can do. I see two paths forward, depending on your context.
Path A: Talk to your administrator(s).
Some building leaders are all in on shared leadership and would be happy to give you the positional authority you need to tackle whatever problem it is you are looking to tackle. Some administrators will be open to the idea of shared leadership, but maybe they hadn’t ever thought of a teacher taking on roles like leading PD or starting a new committee or serving on a decision-making body. You know your leaders best, so, assess the situation, and decide if this route is an option for you.
If you’ve got a supportive administrator, prepare yourself for the conversation. It’s best to go in with concrete talking points, and they shouldn’t necessarily be a list of the problems you want to solve. Now, if you know this person(s) and they are always complaining about the issue you want to tackle, by all means, call it out, team up with them, and knock it out!
Most likely, there is a reason the problem hasn’t been addressed yet—it may not be on the leaders radar or there may be division in the staff about how to address the problem or debate about whether the problem is even a problem. In this case, I would frame the conversation as a professional growth or passion project.
For example, “As you know, I love teaching, and this year, I’ve tried some things that have been really great for student engagement. I’d love to help my colleagues think more about more ways to increase student engagement. What do you think is the best way to do that? I’m happy to lead a PD workshop or start a small PLC group of interested teachers.” This raises a common goal (student engagement—who doesn’t want to raise student engagement?!) and frames it in a way that is not threatening. You’re not advocating a whole system change (which, frankly, may need to happen). Instead, you’re suggesting something small and manageable.
I find the magic word here is “pilot.” When in doubt, suggest a pilot project. If it gets traction, you can grow the project, and if it flops, it was only a pilot. Only a few teachers were involved anyways.
Path B: Use appreciative inquiry to spark grassroots change.
Appreciative inquiry (AI) is an approach to change that comes from the positive psychology field. It involves talking about individual and collective capacities (achievements, strengths unexplored potential…) to generate change. The 4 stages of AI are discovering the positive, dreaming a better future (grounded in a positive present/past), designing how to magnify the positive, and working towards your destiny by generating hope, building on strengths, and creating opportunities & processes to learn and adapt (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005). You don’t need a formal committee to try this out.
To try this out, gather a couple of interested colleagues (or if absolutely no one is interested, join forces with teachers from other schools—go to our Time for Teachership Facebook group and see who’s interested! Start with discovery. The positive deviance approach is a great way to try this out. Basically, you identify what is working.
This approach is described as “[enabling an] organization to amplify uncommon behaviors or strategies discovered by community members...develop some activities or initiatives based on these findings and measure outcomes. The PD approach brings about sustainable behavioral and social change by identifying solutions already existing in the system,” (“Basic Field Guide to the Positive Deviance Approach”).
Let’s say you’re interested in reducing the number of discipline referrals. Look at the data, and ask: Is there anywhere where this isn’t a problem? A particular room, type of classes, time of day? What’s going on there? If there are no positive deviants in your school, ask to investigate another school. Are there similar schools nearby that are doing better on this issue? Could you visit or chat with teachers from that school to figure out what’s going on?
Pedro Noguera just shared an example of this at iNACOL’s 2019 conference. He spoke of an elementary school that struggled with behavior management and food fights during lunchtime. They visited another school in the same neighborhood that didn’t have behavior problems. They quickly noticed they served lunch “family style” instead of the typical stand-in-line and fill up your tray style. Positive deviance is powerful. (Here's the link to that talk.)
This may take a culture shift, and while you may not get the whole school on board, people will notice your small group’s positive energy and outcomes that result from this work. Welcome new converts in! While some may resist a different way of doing things, remember people’s resistance to change, is often coming from a fear of loss (Heifetz et al., 2009). If we can frame the change as valuing what the community (and individuals) have to offer and simply amplifying that, it’s a lot easier to take in.
Here’s an organizational culture question to ask of your team: “What would our organization look like if it were designed in every way possible to maximize the qualities of the positive core and enable the accelerated realization of our dreams?” (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) What would it look like to consistently seek out positive deviance and spread that around?
It may look like visiting other teachers in action, regularly reviewing & tracking data on the identified problem. It may look like mini success shares, in which teachers share what has been working really well in their classes. It may look like keeping all of these successes in a shared Google Doc somewhere for when others express interest in checking out all of the good stuff you’re doing.
Whatever path you choose—talking to an administrator about getting onto a committee or starting a pilot project or informally launching an appreciative inquiry to find positive deviants, you’ve got this. Change is certainly hard, but don’t let that stop you from believing things can get better. They can, and you can lead the charge. Seek out fellow teacher nerds and learn together! Your commitment to lifelong learning is what fuels you. Feed that fire!
If you haven’t already, check out the Time for Teachership Facebook Group. Your fellow lifelong learners are just waiting for you to reach out and start a conversation!
Go, lead change, you brilliant educator, you.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.