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This post is the second in a series on classroom-centered teacher leadership. The first part on crafting a vision is here.
It’s estimated that teachers are responsible from 1,500 to 3,000 nontrivial decisions every day. And yet, many of us don’t feel in control of our classrooms. Depending on the school we may have some of the most important decisions on curriculum, classroom management, and assessment made for us. But that doesn’t have to mean we can’t see our selves as leaders of our own classrooms.
Whether or not you aim to impact things at the school level and/or beyond, teacher leadership begins with owning your classroom.
Leadership — whether it’s of a Fortune 500 company, presidential campaign or your classroom — begins with articulating a vision. As a teacher, this can mean reflecting on what you see as the purpose of education. It also comes from clarifying what you want your students to know and do by the end of their time with you.
But a successful vision can’t happen unilaterally. To make your vision a reality, you have to invest the people who will be doing the work with you: your students and their families.
Step 1: Collaborate to Create the Vision
Building investment starts by including the other members of your classroom community in creating a vision. You can’t create a vision for your classroom without understanding what your students and their families want out of their education. By creating a shared vision with the members of your classroom community, you will also get investment you cannot get from a top-down approach.
Surveys are a great way to start this process. By getting to know your students and their families — their interests, theirs skills and hobbies, their dreams and goals — you can piece together a shared vision. Whether families emphasize sharing their culture, learning good work habits and discipline or something as specific as fluency with times tables, these are ideas that should form the basis for your vision.
As useful as I’ve found surveys, home visits have been an even more valuable tool. This will be the third year I use home visits in my teaching, and I consider them the most transformative practice I’ve added to my work (and research agrees!). I have learned a great deal about my students through these visits. They’ve also shown my students and their families a willingness to view them as partners in the work I do.
This partnership is great for strengthening classroom management and curriculum planning, but more than that it’s the foundation for enacting the vision for your classroom. I use my home visits as another way to learn about my students, separate from surveys. But I also use home visits to dive deeper into families dreams and hopes for their children.
Once I’ve had the opportunity to listen to these ideas and reflect on them, I can share my own vision for the teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom. Sharing this vision through home visits means that families are deeply invested right from the beginning of the school year. It also ensures that when families and I talk about education and school work, our language is aligned in the classroom and at home. This makes for a more powerful and resonant message.
Step 2: Create Excitement
Once you’ve invested students and families in the creation of your classroom vision, the next step is to launch the work. As teachers, especially those of us in elementary classrooms, we know that the first weeks of school are crucial for establishing rules, routines and procedures. But these same rules, routines and procedures are only as meaningful as the classroom vision they are in service of.
We often think of this as creating classroom culture or community. My school uses a modified version of Responsive Classroom’s First Six Weeks of School to do this. As I prepare for my first day of school this year, I’m going to be thinking about how this culture serves my larger vision. By talking about the way we work, play and treat each other in service of becoming master learners and change makers I intend to invest my students more deeply in our classroom rules, routines, procedures and overall learning.
Investing students also means talking explicitly about our shared vision. I may not use the same language to describe this vision for my third graders as I would for myself or other adults, but the underlying tone will be the same. The message will be that we are here to work our hardest, to learn as much as possible, so that we can change the world. Our first read alouds like As Good As Anybody and Destiny’s Gift and class discussions will be centered on this message, and will get students invested and excited about the pursuit of this vision from day one. Whether you're ready to tie in your vision on the first day of school or the third week of school depends on the timing of your home visits and/or surveys, but either way, your vision can play an important role in your early classroom community building.
Step 3: Clarify Everyone's Role
All this work to invest others in the creation and launch of the vision might sound overwhelming, but like many worthwhile classroom efforts, the initial extra work makes the rest easier in the long term. Still it’s important to keep the conversation going throughout the year. It is important that everyone feels included and they know they have a role to play. I work to remind my students to they're responsible for achieving our class vision as much as anyone. For families, some roles may come and go - like chaperoning field trips or assisting with class projects - while others, like checking homework, or giving feedback on my teaching will remain constant. By making sure everyone feels included, and responsible, investment will continue past the initial phase.
Throughout the year, keep your vision at the center of parent-teacher conferences, regular phone calls home and class meetings. If possible, do a second round of home visits in the early spring. This is to remind yourself as much as for your students and their families.
We all know the work we do in classrooms is challenging, and even sometimes demoralizing. Ultimately owning the leadership of your classroom isn’t about creating more work, but rather deepening your own connection to the work you already do. Simply put, creating a vision for your classroom is about articulating a purpose for that work and investing others is a way to remind yourself that you’re never alone in doing it.