At the school where I teach, it sometimes feels like we’re constantly running around plugging leaks instead of developing longer-term solutions to the problems we face. I’ll admit, pausing to think of larger repercussions isn’t easy when you work with hundreds of students with different needs, who often need answers right away. After all, during the school year the job of a teacher is 24-7. But with the reprieve of summer I ask everyone to take a breather to think of the mechanisms, platforms or channels we need in our schools in order to implement big-picture, lasting ideas.
As helpful as administrators can be, I worry that they are sometimes so mired in the day-to-day logistics of running a school that they overlook necessary, sustainable improvements. It’s easy to go with a “quick fix” when conflicts arise because there’s often not enough time in the school day to sit down and plan out a longer-term strategy. Conversely, more outside feedback on school operations, including for charter schools that are not regulated by a larger district, could lead to dynamic improvements.
Case in point: About five weeks into this past school year, both of our self-contained sixth-grade classrooms were overcrowded, approaching 30 students each. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the space or staffing for a third sixth-grade section, so our administration offered a different solution: We selected roughly one dozen self-motivated students to form a new class that would rotate for subjects among the seventh- and eighth-grade teachers, learning accelerated curriculum for science, social studies and language arts. While this plan effectively downsized our classes, it wasn’t perfect. The other seventh-grade sections were deprived of the benefits of working with some of their highly motivated, example-setting peers. We also face a bigger problem now as the sixth-graders move on to seventh grade and need to be grouped once again into two classes. The third sixth-grade section will be in classes with peers who have yet to learn the seventh-grade material.
I’m hopeful that my school will identify a solution that allows all of our seventh-graders to be in appropriate classes, but I wonder if we shouldn’t have sought a different plan last fall and avoided this dilemma in the first place. Perhaps outside feedback could have provided us with a different, more effective idea. I mentioned in my last blog post that principal evaluations are one way to create a better, more consistent learning environment for students. These evaluations could provide more than just feedback on management style — they could be a great opportunity for an outside organization to provide administrators with concrete suggestions for improving school structures. Schools could also benefit from more immediate feedback that comes in other forms, too. In cases like our overcrowding problem, an experienced educational professional could have been called in to advise and possibly suggest a strategy that was successful at another school. Or, an unbiased observer could have pointed out that despite our desperation to find a solution, we would likely regret this plan in the future.
Another great example of beneficial external feedback from this past school year: Two members of Charter School Partners attended staff meetings at my school to help provide grade-level team management and review of testing data to better inform classroom instruction. Teachers said they appreciated their presence, but some wished it had been more consistent. I’m sure that there are many other areas of school operations where an extra set of eyes could help identify not only more problems that need to be fixed, but more potential solutions that have worked at other schools. Whether the feedback comes from formal evaluations or informal advising, this kind of collaboration can lead to bigger-picture improvements that dramatically change a school’s effectiveness.
Christina Salter is a MinnCAN School Reform Blogging Fellow.