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Staff Culture and Climate

PD Screenshot 2014-11-04 17.28.10

Staff Culture and Climate 

By: Jessica Huang 

There has been a lot of discussion in education circles and mainstream media about how to hold teachers accountable.

Do we fire teachers whose students don’t do well on standardized tests?
Do we reward teachers whose students do better?
Should we give teachers a curriculum to teach, including a script of what to say to their students? Or better yet, perhaps we should mandate a policy and curriculum that has worked at one school for all the schools in the district/county/state so we can make the same gains.

Real accountability comes from first being accountable to families and students. Real accountability also comes from making teaching a public act — being explicit to teachers, students, and families about what good teaching looks like. When teachers are fired because test scores aren’t high enough we only drive skilled people from the profession. When we script a teacher’s curriculum, we remove all individual accountability and authority. Teachers can say, “I followed the script” even if the curriculum is out of context or completely ineffective for their students. When all stakeholders of the school community can reach a consensus of how to describe and define good teaching and good curriculum, when we make classrooms public spaces, and create spaces for student-centered feedback to teachers, we raise the bar for everyone.

What you will often hear at June Jordan School for Equity is that teachers love their job, and this work, although tough and challenging, is work that they want to be doing. At June Jordan, there is a collective drive that even on the worst of days, gives folks an energetic boost to their challenge of the moment. This helps staff at June Jordan see a dilemma as not their personal mountain, but as the community’s dilemma, and in that way it becomes something that many people come together to help solve,.

At June Jordan, every staff is challenged to be the best they can be every day. An important part of this philosophy is that we do not ask students to do things that we do not participate in ourselves. For example, if students need to see failure as a learning experience, then teachers also see failure as a learning experience. If we ask students to work in groups, collaborate, and help others, than we expect our staff to work together, collaborate, and help others. If we expect our students to be able to mediate conflicts and communicate well with each other, we expect our staff to mediate conflicts and communicate well with each other.

Before each school year starts, our entire staff attends a two-day retreat. Not only do we gather to talk about big picture vision and discuss philosophy of education and instruction, but we eat together, play together, and laugh together. The quality and nature of all these interactions creates a positive foundation and feeling of camaraderie among the entire staff. We introduce various rituals and techniques that help our productivity serve us in the goals that we have and do not continue meetings, committees, and rituals that no longer serve our school’s development at the time. Schools are organizations that grow organically, based on the newness of the staff, the synergy of staff to work together well, and the new initiatives that are planned for the next year. All three of these factors have large impacts on how a staff needs to be supported from year to year.

Many of us have experienced school climate where adults in the school treat each other just as badly, if not worse, than young people. A climate of mistrust develops that results in feelings of disenfranchisement among the staff and the administration – closed doors, whispers, eye rolls and lack of enthusiasm. Many times, this climate which is borne from a cycle of oppression, results in poor education for children, activating a compulsive downward cycle of more top-down control, restrictions, and micro-management in the teaching staff. It’s a wonder that the UBC (union-building committee) is where many teachers go to feel supported in their school, and not to the administrators whose job it is to support and empower teacher to build capacity to be the best educator they can be. When teachers are well-supported and empowered to be the professionals they are, when they are asked to contribute and take responsibility and leadership roles, when they are consistently challenged and supported to take on the next phase of school development, then they will and are fully qualified to lead in amazing ways.

The classroom is the center of the school. It is the place where the most interaction takes place between adults and students. It is where students develop growth or fixed mindsets. It is where confidence is built or torn down. School leaders need to see the capacity-building of staff as the number one thing that can change culture and solidify a school’s vision. When teachers collaborate together to develop the best lesson plan for students, something magical happens in the classroom and to the teacher and students. This magic is what we hope to capture through the Art of Social Justice Teaching.

“No Excuses” or “Restorative Justice”?

If you have any interest in school discipline, you definitely need to listen to this week’s episode of the radio show This American Life. The episode, called “Is This Working?” (#538), provides context around racially disproportionate discipline practices and then explores how discipline works on two extremes of the spectrum—a “no excuses” charter school and a “restorative justice” school.

Although I am no fan of the “no excuses” movement, it is the “restorative justice” school in the program that really scares me.  Like many schools implementing restorative practices, this school seems to have misinterpreted “restorative” to mean a lack of boundaries and consequences. As the reporter notes, “All this talking can look just like total chaos. There are kids in the hallways all the time, there are fights, there’s random screaming inbetween classes.”

The failure of the school’s approach becomes most apparent when two teachers take a group of students on a field trip on the New York subway. A student named Nelson, who has a long history of inappropriate behavior at school (but has good relationships with his teachers, which is the misguided goal of schools like this), gets bumped on the subway and gets into a confrontation with a man who turns out to be an undercover cop. One teacher, who says he is scared to see Nelson in handcuffs, tries to “talk it out” with the police officer, but the cop ignores him and arrests Nelson for assaulting an officer.

The students understand that their teachers are disconnected from the real world and unable to create real safety. The reporter describes their attitude toward their teachers: “Your funky little [restorative justice] system is cool when we’re in school and all, but don’t try to take it and apply it to our world—you’re in over your head.”

Many of us are in over our heads when it comes to school discipline. The “no excuses” approach is popular because it is simple and clear cut. But even when implemented without racial bias, it can be dehumanizing and push students out of school. Moreover, it’s not clear that imposing extremely strict discipline leads to the development of self-discipline.

Especially in the liberal Bay Area, many educators prefer the increasingly popular “restorative” approach. But when implemented without clear limits and real consequences, restorative justice is more damaging than zero tolerance. It leads students to believe that they can “talk things out” over and over again, and never develop the self-discipline needed to survive in the world. This is an especially dangerous belief in a poor or working-class neighborhood where there are swift and often severe consequences for mistakes.

What we really need is for schools to take the middle path between these two extremes. Of course schools should use restorative practices like talking circles—it’s a traditional human approach to conflict. But like all effective communities, schools also need clear boundaries and consequences (including suspension and expulsion for serious offenses) that are implemented equitably and in ways that help students learn to be their best selves.

One way of articulating this balanced approach is the idea of the “Warm Demander” teacher. As Lisa Delpit writes in Multiplication is for White People, “Warm demanders expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”

We know from experience that being a true Warm Demander teacher, or school, is much easier said than done. In our early years at June Jordan, we mis-interpreted “social justice” to mean something similar to the “restorative” school in the radio show. Thanks to our former Co-Director Darrick Smith, we re-framed our approach. Now we have school-wide guidelines for how to be a Warm Demander, both in the classroom and when it comes to school-wide discipline practices.

We still struggle to find the right balance and are always looking for other teachers and schools to be critical colleagues in this work. If you agree with us that there is a “third approach” between the two extremes described in the radio show, please get in touch so we can collaborate.

Losing Touch

Many new teachers struggle with how to address student disruptions in the classroom. Often they err on the side of permissiveness and undermine student safety, or else they neglect the importance of authentic human relationships. But when handled properly, minor disruptions can provide an opportunity for teachers to set the right tone for the class–one where safety is established via clearly enforced boundaries set in the context of a caring community. This balance is the essence of the “warm demander” teacher. Continue reading

Creating a Taxonomy

Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion is one of the main sources of inspiration for “The Art of Social Justice Teaching.” The book, which took the U.S. education world by storm four years ago, describes a “taxonomy” of 49 specific teaching practices used by “champion” teachers. The techniques are illustrated with videos, so new teachers can watch expert practitioners before trying the techniques themselves. Continue reading

Introducing The Art of Social Justice Teaching Project

There is a narrative about U.S. education today which lays the blame for many of our challenges at the feet of our public school teachers. The centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s education policy is forcing school districts to evaluate teachers based on student test scores. Mainstream media reports claim that firing bad teachers is the key to saving American education. “Bad Teacher” is even the name of a 2011 Hollywood movie that grossed over $100 million at the box office.Newsweek art of SJT

This is not a new problem—historically teaching was “women’s work” which paid poorly—but the devaluation of teachers has intensified over the past half-century as U.S. schools have moved toward a more authoritarian model based on perceived economic and national security threats. As schools become more standardized and obsessed with data from bubble tests, good teachers are leaving the profession, and new teachers are being trained in bureaucratic approaches which fail in the presence of actual students.

Over this same time period, economic inequality in the U.S. has skyrocketed. The top 1% of Americans earn nearly 25% of total income, compared to less than 10% in the 1970s. Major corporations control the media and politics, democracy is eroding, and more people feel disconnected and discouraged about the future.

Instead of using teachers as a scapegoat to distract from failed economic and social policies, we should be asking our teachers to help reinvigorate our democracy. This requires two shifts in our collective thinking—we must remember that teaching is an old art form, not a formulaic process, and we must see classrooms as catalysts for social justice.

“The Art of Social Justice Teaching” is a project that provides resources, training, and inspiration to guide new educators and reconnect seasoned educators to their craft.

We are based at June Jordan School for Equity, a small public high school in San Francisco with some of the highest college-going rates for low-income students in one of the wealthiest cities in the nation. Our results are not the product of techniques we invented; we simply strive to follow the tradition of excellent teaching that has been common in American working-class communities for ages.

Like great teachers of past generations, we reject simple, technocratic approaches to schooling that do not reflect the actual complexity of human brains and social relationships. We believe that classrooms should be places of love, hope, and excellence—places that reflect the full depth of the human experience, where students can develop themselves as intellectuals.

Like the progressive pioneers of public schooling, we believe that teaching must be rooted in an ethical framework which supports and strengthens the American democratic tradition. Teachers should support parents’ efforts to raise their children with good values, and schools should be training students to be leaders for justice in the world.

At the same time, we understand that teaching is a very practical art, and that philosophy only takes us so far. Our work is grounded in video examples of actual teachers in real classrooms, with all of the accompanying complexity and challenge. We describe specific teaching moves as well as guiding principles which allow teachers to adapt those moves to their own students’ context.

In essence, what “The Art of Social Justice Teaching” does is provide a forum for teachers to create humanizing spaces which improve educational outcomes for students and help prepare young people to be leaders for democracy. Whether you are a new teacher who is excited about your students’ potential to change the world, or an experienced educator feeling frustrated with wave after wave of ineffective “reforms” which undermine real learning, we hope you will join us in this struggle.