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How to Stop the Sky from Falling


In education, it seems like the sky is always falling. News outlets enjoy printing bad news but rarely come out with inspirational stories about what is going well in schools, and unfortunately, the general public tends to pick up on the same cues. True, there is plenty of room for improvement in classrooms everywhere (some more than others), but the ways in which educators react to complex challenges may completely alter the course of what occurs next. By placing increased focus on what works to each school’s advantage rather than only looking at what is wrong, it is possible to engender far more enthusiasm from leaders, teachers, and students for making positive change.

Do a “Good Things” Walk-Through

Frequently, school walk-throughs are built around a goal or initiative that is aspirational rather than already present. For example, if school leaders want to ramp up literacy data by incorporating more language production across all content areas, they might form teams to move through the building and observe how often kids are visibly making contributions to class. While well-intentioned, the problem with this approach is twofold. First, when teachers are not visibly implementing the spotlighted approach within the snapshot during which they are observed, the walk-through is perceived as a “gotcha,” or a trick designed for deficit thinking. Second, looking for one thing that may or may not manifest takes the focus away from other desirable teaching practices, distracting observers from appreciating the myriad good things that might be happening in the classroom. Therefore, instead of going in with a pre-set agenda that requires seeing a particular teaching strategy, consider doing a general walk-through to look for excellence, taking note of what elements of skillful teaching can be shared with the rest of the staff to best benefit everyone.

Let Teachers Share Success

When administrators see exciting strategies in action, they understandably want to celebrate success and elevate what effective teachers do, perhaps via recognition in front of the entire staff. While the impulse and intention of sharing good work is admirable, it would be a shame to inadvertently silence a teacher’s voice. Instead of describing what someone does or giving them an award, let teachers explain their practices in front of colleagues by providing both the time and the opportunity. Staff meetings are an ideal setting for this type of professional learning, or perhaps teachers can design a screencast or one-sheet summary of their work if face-to-face meetings are unavailable. Either way, the best people to speak to teaching methodology are the classroom experts, not leaders who see anything second-hand. That way, the nuances of the strategy, as well as the context behind it and possible areas of complication or missteps, can be shared along with what is evident on the surface.

Ask for Solutions

It is a human trait to love kvetching. However, in professional settings, venting grows quickly unproductive when no solutions are offered up to mitigate whatever dysfunction is present. No meeting or conversation, whether with fellow leaders or with staff, should simply present a problem. Instead, discussions about what needs improvement are ideal when framed as an exploration of answers or possible next steps. It also doesn’t hurt to have some ideas for solutions on the back burner, though holding them until everyone has a chance to share their thoughts is wiser than steering thinking in one direction by leading the conversation too actively. It might be hard to stay silent and listen to the ideas of others, especially when someone is sure they know how to repair any missteps with their own line of thinking. However, as we know from the application of present and active listening practices, what people learn when they force themselves to keep their mouths shut can be nothing short of revelatory.

Talk to Kids and Teachers Together

When schools gather voice about any topic, groups are usually separated based on their roles. For example, students may receive a survey in their classes while teachers receive a parallel questionnaire to complete in their email inboxes. Instead of only receiving information via pre-loaded questions that speak to varied viewpoints, consider gathering combined focus groups comprised of both teachers and students that incorporate open-ended conversation protocols. Sometimes, less strictly guided discourse reveals more than a survey. For example, if teachers and students are prompted to talk to one another about attendance and how it influences performance with a moderator present to keep the discussion productive, both parties will likely learn more from one another, as will any school leaders or process observers in attendance.

This time of year, it might seem like the sky is falling as performance data begins to dip and newspapers report dire test score results. However, resisting the urge to mobilize by rashly entering fixit mode and instead making room for more positively focused change not only keeps school environments more functional and empowering; it also brightens the overall landscape by letting people do what works best – collaborate for the best possible solutions from multiple perspectives.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS