Guest blog by Lizbeth Bennett, English teacher and department head at Legacy High School in Mansfield, TX.
The Legacy English department has been likened to a dark horse rising as our CBA scores hit the top of the charts. Believe me when I say that we didn’t arrive here overnight; that we have been on a long, difficult journey and it is that journey that has made us great.
Let us compare our journey to Lord of the Rings. In our own “fellowship,” before the EOC reared its head, the English department struggled to form cohesive teams. Much the same way that Frodo needed guidance and protection our students needed guidance through the murkiness that is standardized testing: We were told to plan together, work together, and ultimately develop a unit test that everyone’s student would take each six weeks. It was this test that would determine if we were teaching the TEKS equally, but without any further directives, everything fell apart!
- Experienced teachers who felt undervalued, showed up to meetings, but didn’t contribute. They closed their doors and did what they were going to do regardless of the majority.
- Teachers new to campus, weren’t enthused either, feeling that they knew best which direction to take their students, hoarding their outsider’s perspective and experiences like Gollum and his “precious”.
- Which left behind a handful of teachers, who paired up and tried. We survived the year, but were no better off for having been teamed. In fact, if anything, we were drifting further from one another (see the “fellowship” yet?).
While the “fellowship” fell apart, we trudged forward and tried again. Perhaps that motivation came from a disbelief. A disbelief that teaming couldn’t possibly be this difficult; that collegiality was just around the corner. We were wrong. We epically failed at working together and trying the same activities, or assignments. Some teachers were more creative than others, some more practical, some too afraid to try anything student-centered, some so analytical that the very idea of a creative activity led them to panic. Despite all of our differences, we kept meeting. And the year was not a total waste: two new faces emerged from their classrooms and opened their doors. Was it everyone? No, but it was the beginning of something, a whispering of things to come. These two teachers saw something and they wanted to be a part of it, so maybe it wasn’t an epic fail, but it wasn’t victory either.
Year three of journey found us scattered in every direction and everything changed that year.
For the first time, Legacy was not in second place. Our low scores put us dead last in our district. We failed to see that the purpose behind teaming, which was to try new things. We were comfortable with our book units, our old methods of teaching writing. The EOC was unlike anything we’d seen, requiring students to write more than one style of essay. An immense undertaking. We knew then that as the test moved up the ranks, we would be watched closely. (And you must’ve seen this coming), the ever watchful eye had turned its fiery gaze on us now.
The next year, our journey to the mountain continued as our new principal, Dr. Butler introduced Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). English found itself having an edge: we were used to teaming, even if it wasn’t perfect. The sophomore team felt the pressure this year. My own classroom felt like a revolving door with different administrators constantly observing, even my own department chair at times. We needed to change our approach. Our small team, just three people, myself included, threw everything out. We started fresh with new texts, speeches, poems, drama we’d never taught, novel excerpts. We shelved our favorite book units, even our beloved Shakespeare. We opted for new pieces and we took students to templates for writing essays and short answers; we conferenced with students, stressing their strengths and weaknesses right up to the very day of the exam.
Though we didn’t recognize it at first, we were team building, playing off of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. As a Pre-AP teacher, I shared techniques with my teammates and hand-held on-level students through amazing practices! We reinvented the wheel and we were exhausted. We were not the only ones. The freshman team was out to prove themselves as well. And the scores were good again, only now we knew what it would take: ingenuity and the free space to work together towards it. In a way we had to fall apart so that we could be put back together in a different way. Sometimes failure is necessary. Remember, with or without the “fellowship,” the ring was still destroyed.
In 2014, I took the lead as department chair and I was looking for a way to improve our PLCs. I needed to bring everyone together; I needed to be Aragon uniting the people of Middle Earth (but without the facial hair). I wanted the teachers who didn’t have buy-in, to believe in the process. I wanted the Level Leaders to have a directive. I wanted to provide “teeth” to what we were doing so that it wasn’t a vague approach. Dr. Butler brought in Solution Tree for our professional development that August. And everything clicked.
She walked us through creating norms for teams, what a PLC should look like, and how to troubleshoot. It was everything I’d been looking for. I met with my department and introduced 4 simple norms:
- Time: Don’t dominate the meeting. Start and end on time. If you need extra time to prepare, do it before hand.
- Attendance: the whole team plans together. No one should partner off and plan ahead for an entire team.
- Communicate: (A.K.A. Lay on the table) if you don’t like something, say so, otherwise too bad. You don’t get to close your door and try something else.
- Level Leaders: Do not plan without your team. Meetings are arranged by level leaders; if you need to meet more than once, communicate.
NOTE: Perhaps I can get these inscribed on a “one” ring!
I modeled the PLC for the sophomore level, which grew to be my largest group that year (6) and my most mixed group of teachers: a brand new teacher, a veteran with no-buy in, a veteran new to high school, a veteran with too many ideas, and the lone AP teacher with the single section. And then there was me: the Pre-AP teacher. I brought a creative element that was missing (and another piece of the puzzle began to come together). I took a back seat and asked my people what they wanted to do. See a Level Leader is there to guide and facilitate and manage people, not design all the lessons by her/himself. I valued their insight and feedback. We brainstormed, plotted two weeks at a time, and divided tasks. I documented all of this on an agenda that our supervising administrator could see using Google Drive. We referenced the agenda as well, so that moving forward we could see what we’d talked about and who was responsible for each task. We created roles so that someone was the Time Keeper, and someone else the TEK expert, and so on and so forth. Essentially the same techniques that we used in the classroom for literature circles, translated to team building. I’m not saying everything was perfect, I’m saying it was better and the scores proved our hard work was paying off. It’s no different than the “fellowship” balancing their skills between the marksmanship of the long bow and the brute strength of the axe.
This year, I like to believe we’ve tossed the ring into the fires of Mordor. I’ve made strides to balance out the teams, so that each member plays one of these roles (sometimes two):
- Creative Teacher: I want a creative person in each team, someone who could bring new ideas to the group; usually the Pre-AP/AP teacher.
- Technology Expert: I wanted a technology person, someone who wasn’t afraid to use an App, to pilot the lesson using technology, to troubleshoot in order to pass on the knowledge to their team. This was crucial in order to implement technology, since most people are afraid to fail in front of their students, or to try something outside of their comfort zone. Let’s face it, students are more tech savvy that some of us. This method took away some of the fear, some of the excuses.
- Practical Teacher: I needed a realistic, practical person, someone who wasn’t afraid to say, “This won’t work. Look at the calendar,” or to ask, “How do we get them there?”
- Analytical Expert: I wanted an analytical person, someone who could look at the data, read the TEKS and keep the group on the right path.
Essentially, I wanted balance. This meant moving some teachers into new areas. This meant some hard knocks as teachers resettled. This worked!
But more important than everything else we had to respect and trust each other. That I’m afraid takes years. Being in the struggle together, developing bonds and friendships takes time, like a “fellowship” thrown together in a time of great need (let’s face it, they failed the first time to protect Frodo). To help, I was determined to point out everyone’s strengths, so that each member of our department felt like they had something unique to contribute and it was highlighting those strengths through cards, cheesy Dollar Tree awards, gummy bears, and badly baked chocolate cupcakes that helped create tighter bonds.
There is no one thing that made us great as a team, no trick, or switch. It was the journey. It was the hard work, grit, perseverance, determination and peaks and valleys that drew us together and the wisdom to see it. We have failed before and no doubt we will struggle again, but if we have one secret, it is that we have a great wizard amongst us: an appreciation for the journey. I hope you have a wizard on your journey!
Thank you to Lizbeth for giving us her insights to why their English department is so great!