Continuity and Change

Yesterday’s talk with Dr. Pearl Rock Kane was all about change in schools. Throughout the discussion we were asked to reflect on how change can be implemented in our schools. I tweeted out that I feel fortunate to work in a school where I don’t think that I need to change the school culture. While there are things that we as a team of teachers could do better such as holding students more accountable or encouraging them to be more independent and take more personal responsibility for their work. Overall, I believe in the culture and the vision of Greenwood College School as a progressive, supportive educational environment that truly aims to meet the needs of all types of learners and to provide a warm, open, inclusive culture for students. So change isn’t something that I really need to bring to Greenwood. As the school embarks on a major building project over the next two years, perhaps what Greenwood needs most right now is continuity.

I thrive on change, which makes me a good fit for Greenwood, as it is a place where things are always changing. From the timetable to the adviser program, to the courses we teach, to our approach to teaching them, our practice is constantly in flux. As a young school, we have the advantage of being free from long-standing, entrenched traditions that can often hold a school back.

KunderaHowever, during a conversation yesterday at break with my fellow Klingon, Evan, I was reminded of the necessity of stability. We discussed how structure can provide freedom. This is something that I have long struggled to truly understand. Evan and I are opposite in many ways – he finds freedom in structure and tradition, whereas I search for freedom by resisting structure and tradition. However, what I am growing to realize is that for many of my students, structure and continuity are required in order for them to thrive. Evan reminded me of a book which we both enjoyed reading, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

A key dichotomy in the novel is the struggle between lightness and weight. Lightness referring to the fleeting nature of life and the desire to live in the moment, while heaviness connotes attaching deep meaning to life’s events. Based on the philosophy of Nietzsche’s of eternal recurrence, this “weight” found in deep meaning can provide either freedom or burden. In the novel, Kundera writes:

“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.”

and

“Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.”

These two quotes, while discussing the challenges that an individual faces in determining whether or not to embrace or reject inevitability, also illustrate the challenges that schools face as they grow into more established institutions. First, as illustrated in The Human Side of School Change: Reform Resistance and the Real-Live Problems of Innovation by Robert Evans, stability, tradition and well defined school culture provides comfort and continuity for members of the community. Many participants in a community depend on this consistency in order to make sense of their daily lives. These people illustrate that “Happiness is the longing for repetition.” However, at the same time, schools that find themselves too deeply entrenched in old ways are often unable to change with the times. They move forward through the “power of inertia” and may not be effectively meeting the needs of all students.

DonQuoteWhen I return to Greenwood, I will be thinking of ways in which our school culture remains constant, and hoping to use some of these traditions and values to help ground myself, my students and colleagues during this time of tremendous change on campus. I know that the administration has similar hopes for the next two years and hopefully we will come out of this building project with a better sense of our culture and traditions, while also holding on to our ability to be agile, embrace change, and seek constant improvement in our practices as educators.

During this same conversation, Evan and I also discussed our personal goals of encouraging students to embrace failure. We are both aware that our as new teachers, we are reluctant to let our students fail and we recongnize that one factor which plays into this is our desire to be liked by our students. However, in reflecting on our own influential teachers, we both agreed that the teachers whom we “liked” the most were the ones who challenged us the most. When I think of my colleagues at Greenwood who are most respected, they are usually the ones that are the toughest on students, holding them accountable to a very high standard.

This brief, 10 minute talk with a new friend and colleague helped me articulate some changes that I aim to make in my practice next year:

  1. Find points of stability at Greenwood and in my own practice and try to understand where they come from. Tradition is valuable and can be used as a point of reference for implementing change. In my classroom, I will review my lessons carefully to find techniques that worked well while also looking for opportunities for improvement. At Greenwood, I will try to emphasize the positive attributes of our culture and create a stable environment for my students while they live through a period of immense change on campus.
  2. Engrain more structure into my practice, knowing that this structure can create freedom. For example, in the High Performance Landscape Guidelines unit in THJ4M, I should provide more structured learning opportunities, and then carefully refine the framework that I use for project-based learning during the competition unit. Perhaps I need to incorporate a couple quizzes or tests to help students with their recall, in order for them to internalize the key points.
  3. Hold students accountable for their work and for their behaviour. I need to set high standards and expectations, especially at the start of the school year, in order to challenge my students and push them to the next level. My courses tend to be seen as the “fun” courses, where students can find success on many levels. I need to think carefully about how I can keep this feeling of fun and allow all students to find success while also being rigorous and ensuring that all students are being challenged. What we learned about change today says that change happens slowly, and that the small things really matter. Will pointed out that dress code is one area in schools that can have a big impact, much like the broken window theory. I know that I am guilty about letting students get away with uniform infractions and perhaps I need to be more diligent in this area, as it can send a message to students about my expectations for class.
  4. In our school, the constant pace of change can lead to teacher and student burnout. We need to slow down, and look deeply at what we do, and slowly implement changes over time. I know that the administration is congnizant of the pace of change and that they are working to roll out new programs in a manageable fashion. In my new roles as Social Sciences Team Leader, I will be mindful of my colleagues time and energy levels throughout the flow of the school year and take Don’s advice:  Think big; start small; keep the end goal in mind.

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