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Liberating the Schoolhouse
Posted on Apr 30, 2008
But some teachers didn’t like being asked to make decisions they were not used to making. Despite their complaints about administrators holding all the power, many teachers actually wanted a principal who would make decisions for them. Taking on more responsibility meant more work. Some teachers interpreted Infante’s collaborative strategy as laziness. During a two-day meeting at a Disneyland hotel, one of the teachers took me aside and said, “Julie just wants us to do things she doesn’t want to do.” I asked Infante what she thought about what the teacher had said. She was undeterred: “Telling them what to do would have been easy for me, but it would have given them an ‘out.’ I wanted them to work at it, to try out some ideas.”
Infante steadily shifted an increasing number of decisions to the teachers and sat quietly at meetings while they worked them out. At a meeting with the UCLA coaches to get their perspective, Otterness told me, “Before long she was just sitting back like a fly on the wall. She didn’t say ‘yes’ and she didn’t say ‘no.’ She would participate in the discussions but she would leave the decisions to the teachers.” The other UCLA coach, Barbara Linsley, like Otterness a former teacher, remembered how Infante set the tone: “If Julie had anything that she wanted to share, she was the last one on the list, so the teachers got their stuff done first.”
Infante also hired two new assistant principals who shared her philosophy and they became part of the team. Over a cup of coffee in the faculty lounge, a teacher said of the new administrators: “They’re very supportive and they believe that change comes from the bottom up, not the top down. They jump right in and share the workload.” But Infante knew that jumping in and sharing their workload would not help the teachers take more control. Angela Salazar, one of the new administrators—a self-described “take charge” person—was frustrated because, with the whole group involved, making decisions was “slow as molasses.” She told me soon after being hired, “I jump in feet first. ... I want to just take over ... and say ‘This is how we do it.’ Someone has to take charge and boom, boom, boom, let’s go.”
Salazar said she offered to help the leadership team do “mundane stuff, just to take it off their hands. I have an office job, but they have to teach. I’d ask, ‘Do you want me to type that up for you? Would that help ...?’ I typed all the survey questions because it’s got to get done. I don’t mind. I like this stuff.” But what Salazar had not yet fully grasped was that the teachers had to take care of the details themselves if they were to truly take ownership. Infante guided Salazar, much as she had been guided by her former principal, pushing her ahead to work with the leadership team and then pulling her back when she felt Salazar was intruding on the teachers’ learning. Infante’s steady guidance began to pay off. Later in an interview Salazar acknowledged: “I think that Julie was right, that it’s got to come from the teachers.”
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Teachers had been conditioned to look to authorities for answers, and when it came to making serious decisions, shedding this expectation was difficult for many of them. One teacher recalled, “At first, there was a big empowerment question. Everyone looked to the principal for answers to almost every question they had. They’d ask, ‘Can we do it?’ She’d say, ‘Go do it. It’s your thing!’ ” As the teachers began to realize that decisions they would make would affect their colleagues, they began to worry. As one said, “What should we do? We don’t want to make mistakes” that could make things more difficult for the other teachers. Another teacher conceded, “I had trepidation when we began. But once we got past the basic learning about how to run meetings and started to apply it, setting priorities for the school began to make sense to me and it felt good.”
The issue of improving student discipline was an early test for the leadership team. It was a difficult transition for the teachers to realize that they already had the knowledge and authority to solve this problem. They looked to the UCLA coaches for direction but the coaches refused to help. “When we started discussing how to solve the discipline problem, it was just the beginning of expanding their professional roles,” explained Infante. “The teachers couldn’t see that the steps had to come from their own experience. They just couldn’t see it.”
Despite Infante’s reticence with her teachers, she was otherwise outspoken, a quality that got her into trouble with the board. At issue was the hiring of a new athletic coach in 2004. Infante had established a selection panel of teachers, parents and students that recommended a candidate to her. She took the name to the superintendent expecting the decision to be approved. But an influential school board member wasn’t happy with the choice, so the superintendent told her to hire someone the board member wanted. According to Bill Sterling, a veteran teacher and member of the leadership team, “Everybody knew it was a political job done by the board.” Infante had been put in an untenable spot because going back on the panel’s recommendation would undermine her position with parents, teachers and students. It wasn’t the first time Infante had run into what she called unprofessional behavior from the board, but she describes this act as the “final straw.”
Infante applied for a job in another district, where she became a finalist. I recall how upset the teachers became at an offsite meeting when Infante told them she might leave, citing the long commute as a reason. Despite the teachers’ dismay and anger at what felt like a betrayal, she never divulged the real reason, preferring to keep it between herself and the superintendent. The superintendent offered to talk to the parents for her, but Infante refused because it would look like she wasn’t running the school. “I’ll take the heat,” Infante said she told the superintendent. “I’m respectful of the chain of command, and I’d never disrespect him in front of people,” said Infante, “but behind closed doors we had a candid conversation.” However, this independent, though respectful, behavior didn’t project the kind of “team player” image the board wanted, and it cost Infante support in the long run. It is ironic that she would be faulted for being a poor team player given that, as events would show, her very strength was in teamwork. She decided to stay on at Baldwin Park High School.
In early 2004, a year into the project, Sterling and I surveyed the entire faculty in the school cafeteria to find out how they felt about the changes. The results were not encouraging. Most of the teachers still blamed everyone but themselves for the school’s poor performance. Ninety percent said that most of their colleagues were “high-quality” teachers, but less than half (46 percent) agreed that administrators (including Infante) were effective. Ninety-two percent of the teachers blamed the students, saying they lacked motivation, and 84 percent faulted the parents as being uninvolved in their children’s education. More than two-thirds of the teachers (69 percent) thought the school’s greatest weakness was the students’ lack of discipline.
Infante and the leadership team took the results seriously, making the improvement of student discipline their top priority. The leadership team formed a subcommittee to better define the problem and consider solutions. Their new confidence in solving problems caught Infante’s attention. She knew that if the teachers succeeded in devising a new discipline policy, it would represent real progress. “Right away I came back and talked with my two administrators in charge of discipline and told them, ‘You better schedule a meeting with the leadership team as soon as they call because they’ve done their homework. They’ve put a lot of time into it and they’re expecting to work together,’ ” Infante said. The leadership team and the administrators met a number of times, exchanged e-mails, and “before you knew it we were all on the same page developing a new discipline policy. It was definitely a trust-builder,” said Infante.
The burst of confidence among the teachers was palpable. One said, “Finally we have an administrator who says, ‘OK, go ahead.’ And basically that was extending us the trust that, ‘you are professionals, you can handle something besides unlocking a door and walking out.’ And teachers rose to the occasion, doing what needed to be done. If this continues we could probably reform the whole school.”
As their confidence grew, the leadership team began organizing their colleagues to visit classrooms at Baldwin Park High School (called “walkthroughs” in education parlance) to observe how students were learning and to start a schoolwide conversation about how to improve.5 It was a dramatic change from how walkthroughs are usually conducted, by administrators who focus their attention on teachers. Under pressure from No Child Left Behind, districts are increasingly mandating that administrators spend more time in classrooms. But Sterling, who left teaching in 2007 to become an administrator in another district, told me over lunch that when walkthroughs are used as means of control they undermine teachers’ professionalism. “Spending time in the classroom is the new mantra for every administrator in California. Our association tells us that we have to spend 50 percent of our time observing classrooms. The word comes from on high to do it. ... There is no training and the exercises are meaningless. No records are kept, and nothing happens with data. Administrators just do it to keep an eye on the teachers, to make sure they’re teaching.”
Infante and the UCLA coaches had something very different in mind. By insisting that teachers organize and conduct the walkthroughs themselves, they would ultimately have to take responsibility for the quality of teaching. Infante knew that she could have developed a rubric about the elements of good teaching, but she also knew that the teachers should create it themselves if their knowledge was to be used and if they were to become committed to the result. She accompanied the teachers on the first walkthroughs to show support, but, she said, “Then I let them do it for themselves. I purposely backed off though I’d go to the debriefings afterward to hear what they were learning. But they were running the show.” Her strategy paid off. The teachers started their own “Critical Friends” lunch and after-school meetings, a reference to a popular way of structuring dialogue to discuss teaching and the work students were doing. Infante noted that the seemingly insignificant step of showing teachers how to run meetings was now informing the teachers’ leadership of the school.
Linsley recalled that while teachers were doing classroom walkthroughs, they were thinking about student discipline. The UCLA coaches gave the leadership team members readings on new ways of teaching and nudged the conversation to help them see the connections between teaching and student discipline. According to Linsley, “They began to see that there was more than one way to tackle the discipline issue. They began to see that it was tied to the quality of teaching.” Infante recalls, “At first they didn’t see the connection; they just thought a teacher had to stand up with these rules and the problem would go away.” She continued: “Then they saw the solution was being good instructors who engaged their students actively in their learning. They came up with that. It was one of those ‘aha’ moments for me, ‘Ah, they got it!’ They realized that if you taught bell to bell with engaging lessons, the discipline issue takes care of itself.”
As the leadership team expanded its attention to other issues—improving the instruction of students who spoke little or no English, encouraging parents to become engaged in their children’s education, and aligning the curriculum with statewide tests—a new consciousness of the school as a community began to emerge. “I think it was when the teachers realized that each of them had a role to play in helping children learn English,” said Otterness. “That was the breakthrough. Previously everyone had been isolated. They’d refer the large number of children with language problems to a single teacher who had been given the job. They blamed others, saying ‘it’s not my problem, it’s yours.’ But there came a recognition that the whole school was involved, administrators and teachers together, and it became ‘it’s our problem.’ ”
Another issue was how to better align what was being taught with statewide standards and the annual test. A group of teachers came up with an idea to develop a bank of standards-based questions for world history and U.S. history. They would administer a final exam and the students would be asked to review their own performance. Together they would discover the teaching techniques that helped students learn best. The teachers acknowledged that the idea of using tests to diagnose what students learned was not a huge innovation, but the process of engaging the students in an evaluation of their own performance was a radical shift from past practice, in which students were treated as passive recipients of information.
As the teachers began to make decisions together, they began to develop a new sense of authority in the classroom. One teacher told me in a hallway conversation, “This kind of thinking is totally different from what we’ve ever done!” The teachers knew that the district would demand changes because students’ test performance was so bad, and now, with control of the process, they figured out a solution they thought would work. With their new authority, teachers began to model the same collaborative behavior that had been established between themselves and the administrators. Another teacher who joined us, added, “Instead of teachers complaining, ‘Oh we have to create this test,’ they’re already doing it and they’re excited. They want to do it.”
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