Good evening, I hope you are doing well. I love fall, it’s my favorite season, so it makes me happy to see the leaves starting to change color and know that we are in for a visual treat over the next few weeks.
Thank you for the feedback on the Coaching Letter I sent out last week about Portrait of the Graduate. It is clear that the self-assessment that I attached has legs. Someone I talked to today called a good dipstick, and that struck me as exactly the right metaphor—not an in-depth or exhaustive diagnostic exercise, but a good way to do a quick reflection on the status of the work of improvement. Interestingly, I think one of the things that it managed to do was make clear that the Portrait of the Graduate is not an end in itself. I know that some people really balk at the terminology, and I understand that because education is already so stuffed to the gills with acronyms that it’s hard to see how another one could possibly be useful. But the self-assessment quite deliberately embedded Portrait of the Graduate in the district’s mission and vision, intending to show thereby that it is really just a different way of constructing a vision statement, rather than a whole separate layer of work. And the other rows reflect the work of school improvement more globally, not just the narrow first step of painting your portrait. I’m attaching the “dipstick” again for your convenience.
Also, the description of the work that goes into designing, planning for implementation of, execution, assessing and adjusting the PoG in the last Coaching Letter also turned out to be useful. A colleague sent me video of one superintendent reading the paragraph out loud to a design team by way of conveying to them how much work there is in the work. Which we sometimes forget. So many plans are to-do lists which completely understate the scale of what it takes to redesign and rebuild a system. I’m attaching the paragraph that describes PoG as well, in case it is useful to you in helping a team or audience unpack all the facets of the undertaking. When I wrote it, I wrestled with whether to bullet it out, but decided against it, thinking that the visual density of the text would help to express the density of the work. I hope that comes across.
This afternoon I had the distinct pleasure of working with a group of high school department chairs synthesizing two big ideas that I talk about a lot—backwards mapping from the Portrait of the Graduate, and developing a learning goal. I’m attaching a photograph of that—I know it’s beyond geeky, but honestly, I think I do my best work on classroom whiteboards. They did a tremendous job of articulating what they want teachers to learn in order to be able to create very different classroom environments—in this case, how to ensure that the students are doing the intellectual lifting in the classroom, rather than watching teachers flex their own cognitive muscles.
I’m hoping to do very similar work with middle school teacher leaders from three different schools tomorrow. Because one of the things I have come to understand over the last few years is the importance of investing in the leadership and capacity of teacher leaders. But I have a hard time explaining exactly why that is, so that will have to be the subject of another Coaching Letter—after a lot of reading and thinking. In the meantime, you may wish to check out this article from Ed Leadership. Or maybe don’t bother, because it strikes me as really unhelpful. So if you do read it, see if you can figure out exactly what it is saying about why teacher leadership is important for improving outcomes for students. Barth’s construction of teacher leadership seems to be very technical—e.g. running better faculty meetings—rather than asking people to come together to do the work of designing strategy or building capacity in themselves and others. Meh.
And so in closing, and to connect back to what I said earlier about trying to convey the complexity of the work, I’m attaching another PowerPoint slide, one of my favorite quotations: “In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high hard ground overlooking the swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solutions through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution” (Schön, 1987, p.3). I am not interested in teacher leadership that makes the lunch line move more quickly or meetings end on time, although those things are important. I am interested in teacher leadership that involves getting into the swamp and wrestling alligators—I want to take on the messy, confusing problems that defy technical solution and I want to do it with the people who have, after students, the most to gain or lose.
I imagine my dad has counted the number of mixed metaphors in this letter and is shaking his head. Enjoy the rest of your week. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106