Celebrate, Support & Empower Teachers (Especially the Rulebreakers)

In the midst of the last week of school chaos, I find myself being very reflective about the year.  I am filled with deep gratitude and appreciation for teachers. I love seeing students walking to school with cards, flowers, and gifts for their teachers who deserve this appreciation and so much more. Do we appreciate and celebrate teachers enough through the school year?  Do our current methods of appreciation and support encourage teachers to stick with the status quo? How might we shift our support if we are hoping teachers will join us in reimagining learning for students? What would it look like if we supported and empowered teachers to no longer conform to an archaic school system?


As Ted Dintersmith details in his latest book, “What Should Could Be: Insights & inspiration from Teachers Across America”  innovative teachers all over America are bucking the system and showing us the way forward, they are refusing to conform to practices that don’t meet the needs of students.  While inspiring to read about these “rulebreaker” teachers, rule-breaking isn’t always received well within school communities. Education isn’t alone, most industries don’t welcome those who challenge their long standing wisdom or practices.  If we are going to ask our staff and faculty to intentionally challenge the way we have always done things, then we must also support and empower them.

Reflecting back on my time as a school leader, here are three strategies that I found useful to both support and empower teachers who were ready to shake things up:

  • Give Permission - As silly as it sounds give teachers explicit permission to question and rattle the collective mindset.  Teachers may experiment, but they are unlikely to challenge the status quo without the support of the school leader. And while talking about permissions, teachers shouldn’t ever need permission to: make the best instructional decisions for students in their class, be learners in front of their students, or take risks that benefit students.  This is only the beginning of what could be a very long list, but you get the idea. What permissions do you need to give your teachers?

  • Be Explicit About What Outdated Practices Can Be Left Behind - Remember that memo was that sent out 5 years ago detailing a testing protocol for math facts? Me either, but some administrators and teachers do.  With the best of intentions, they will follow the established rules until they are told otherwise. Explicitly communicate which practices can be thrown out to create space for new ones. Or even better, are there outdated practices you might encourage your teachers to question?

  • Provide Air Cover - The idea of air cover comes from the military world. It essentially means that aircraft are used to provide protection for ground forces when they are engaged in a difficult operation against possible enemy attacks. While teachers may not be physically attacked, those in our schools who are making changes can sometimes feel under attack from parents, the central office or even sadly, from their colleagues. Where can you provide air cover for those making changes at your school?

Knowing there are big challenges ahead for all educators, let’s support and empower our teachers to question rules, traditions, and practices.  A school leader questioning “the way we have always done things” can be very powerful, but imagine if EVERY teacher at a school was engaged in the same process. So yes, let’s celebrate our teachers for providing another year of learning for kids, but more importantly, let’s empower and support them to teach outside the lines. Collective and intentional rule-breaking can help us step into the universe of possibility.

What Rules are Getting in Your Way?

Challenge Rules With a Simple 1-2-3 Approach

It’s budgeting season, which means as a parent volunteer I am spending more time than usual at  in budget meetings.  The goal is pretty straight forward - plan a budget for the 2018-2019 school year that aligns with our school’s charter and is responsive to the needs to of our students.  We’ve had an incredible fundraising year, so you’d think these meetings would be fun and full of possibilities. Sadly, the meetings seem to be filled with what we can’t do, bureaucratic red tape, union rules and time constraints.  Quite honestly, they are some of the most frustrating meetings I have ever attended and I know I am not alone in experiencing this. In fact the majority of our k-12 educational organizations are strongly bound by rules and traditions. Instead of approaching new ideas with a “yes, and” attitude, it is not uncommon to hear all of the “yeah, butts” first.  I wonder how many times new ideas are shut down without a lot of dialogue because people see that the new idea might violate a rule, routine or tradition.

The culture of schools is radically at odds with the culture of learning necessary for innovation.
— Tony Wagner

For most of us, the rituals and routines of schools have become well-established habits.  We don’t even question them anymore or have any expectations that school should operate any differently than it is - especially when we are talking about making changes to a system that so many of us are products of.  But what if all of these rituals, routines and rules are actually get in our way? What if they are getting in the way of learning for students? What if they are getting in the way of our teachers who are trying to innovate?  Shouldn’t we do something to change them?

Let’s all channel our inner rule-breaker and see if it helps us make progress.  Go ahead... break a rule! We don’t encourage rule breaking lightly, but what if you took the time to look at the obstacles in your way and challenge them. They might not even be that big of an obstacle in the first place. In fact, what is the simplest thing you can reimagine that will have the most profound impact?  Is there something small, a practice or a rule that has bothered you at your school? If so, investigate it using a simple one-two-three approach:

  1. Identify one simple rule or practice getting in your way,

  2. Ask why the rule or practice exists, and

  3. Modify the rule or practice to make a big impact.

Here’s an example of a teacher who had great success breaking a rule.  Ashley Auspelmyer, the lead teacher of Studio D, a school within a school at Westwood High School, ran into a challenge with the established hall pass rule. Not uncommon, Westwood has a rule that states any student out of class must be in possession of a hall pass and each classroom is only given one or two hall passes to pass out at any one time. Yet, as an interdisciplinary school, the expectation for Studio D  is that students are not limited to a classroom setting; they are out and about talking to people as a part of their learning. How could Studio D support this type of learning, with only one hall pass for 116 students? After identifying the rule that was getting in the way of learning, Ashley printed 116 hall passes, one for every student in Studio D. In the future, Ashley hopes that this modification of the “hall pass rule” will lead to a culture change across the entire school, one that says we can trust our students to do the right thing. A bathroom hall pass rule seems like a small thing, yet it was a huge barrier to the type of learning experience they were trying to create.  

What rule, practice or tradition will you question?  I know the next time I attend a school budget meeting, I am going to actively work to turn any “yeah, butts” into a “yes, and…” by having examples of other schools who have found a way around the constraint in question.  I’d love to hear about your experiences. What rules, practices or traditions are getting in your way?

I'm Tired of Working in a Worksheet Factory

These were the words of a third-grade student as shared by Ron Baghetto, a creativity researcher, during his session on “Possibility Thinking” at SXSWedu.  I chuckled, captured the statement and shared it via Twitter. In most cases, worksheets represent the drudgery of learning in schools and this student comment captured that sentiment perfectly!

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What I wasn’t prepared for was the immediate reaction to this tweet.  Within minutes, there were hundreds of favorites, retweets, and comments from educators and parents who have witnessed a similar student response to worksheet learning.  The quick response both surprised and saddened me. Part of the reason I look forward to attending SXSWedu is that it attracts one of the most forward-thinking and optimistic groups of educators nationwide. Every time I have had the privilege of attending, I have felt like I found my people and yet even among this very forward-thinking group of educators the “worksheet drudgery” experience resonates.  I’m not intending to get into an argument about the merits of worksheets, sure there are probably some worksheets that are valuable(?), but we know most worksheets don’t equate to true learning. Yet we allow (encourage? ignore?) the practice to continue.

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Why?  If we know better, why aren’t we collectively able to do better?   Isn’t this an opportunity for us to impact change? I know we are focused on bigger education issues—equity, poverty, innovation, digital divide… the list goes on and on. But I can’t help but wonder how we can eradicate the drudgery of worksheets that students are experiencing daily.  Sure it’s a small change, but it is defining the learning experience for children in schools everywhere and it’s turning students off to school and more importantly turning them off to learning.

I’d love to hear about your worksheet experiences. How have you made an impact in this area?