Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Mountaintop Reflections: What Do You Do When Opportunity Knocks?

April 04, 2014

In the late 1800s, American poet and state legislator, John James Ingalls penned a short, powerful reminder on the importance of seizing the day. In the poem Opportunity, Ingalls uses personification to implore us through Opportunity’s voice; “I knock unbidden once at every gate! If sleeping, wake – if feasting, rise before I turn away.”

I was reminded of Ingalls’ words some 114 years later on the snow-capped mountains of Snowbird, Utah, where I joined more than 300 teachers at the 2014 Snowbird Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2  - pronounced EE-Set two or EE-Set squared) conference. For two and a half exciting and inspiring days the energy and creativity of the ECET2 experience was palpable. In fact, reading the blogs and tweets from my fellow participants was so inspiring that I couldn’t pass up my own visit from “opportunity” to share my own reflections on the experience. In doing so, I hope to give readers a better idea of the impetus behind not only this year’s ECET2, but past and future ones as well.

When I came to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the summer of 2011, it was with some trepidation. I hadn’t closely followed the foundation’s work while I was the Chief Academic Officer of Boston Public Schools. As a consequence, I walked through the door with a sneaking suspicion that the foundation was responsible for doing a lot of things “to” rather than “with” teachers. I soon found out that quite the opposite was true - there were examples everywhere of close collaboration with teachers. For example, there were the 3,000 teachers who opened up their classroom doors for the Seminole MET study

 We encourage one another to stretch and realize that our potential is fluid, not fixed. Teachers present to their peers on issues around their own practice.

There were the thousands of teachers who were rolling out new Common Core aligned tools called the Literacy Design Collaborative and Math Design Collaborative; there were the thousands of teachers joining emerging teacher voice groups designed to ensure that teachers’ voices were heard on issues of policy and practice, and the emerging efforts with the national teachers’ unions to connect teachers through online professional development platforms. It soon became apparent to us that we needed to find even more ways to elevate and celebrate these teachers as well as connect them to one another.  ECET2 became an effort to do exactly that. There are several key ingredients that have made these ECET2events unique experiences for participating teachers, from the first convening, in 2012 through today’s events and the future regional ECET2s that are being planned all over the US. I’m convinced that it’s the following six core ingredients that make ECET2 special, and that their combination is what makes teachers respond the way they do.

Ingredient #1, Relational-Trust:  In one of my favorite educational books of all-time, Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement, Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider wrote that, “Schools are networks of sustained relationships. The social exchanges that occur and how participants infuse them with meaning are central to a schools functioning. Moreover, the character of these social exchanges is especially salient in times of broad scale change.” I distinctly remember how much that spoke to me as a young school leader when my superintendent at the time, Dr. Vicki Phillips, who now heads the foundation’s K-12 work, gave the book to all the principals in the district.

Schools have a year to build relational-trust between adults and other adults, and between adults and students. We only have two and a half days at ECET2convenings. But that doesn’t keep us from making relational-trust a goal. I saw it being built at Snowbird through formal and informal channels, like when Gina Bianchini facilitated colleague circle introductions and protocols that enabled teacher leaders to open up to one another and make commitments that came alive right there in the Utah mountains, and that live on today through the Mightybell platform. I am convinced that ECETsends teachers back to their school communities looking for ways to ensure that similar experiences can, should, and do exist in school communities throughout the country.

 Ashleigh reminded us that it’s not only important to have a growth mindset towards students, but also towards ourselves and our peers as teachers.

Ingredient #2 - Growth Mindset: Another one of my more recent, favorite educational books is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. This book – a must read for educators – is all about focusing on people’s potential more than what they are capable of today. Again, in many ways this is the philosophy behind ECET2. For example, the 2014 Snowbird ECET2participants were selected by previous ECET2 attendees who saw their potential. The growth mindset is also inherent in how the convening unfolds. We encourage one another to stretch and realize that our potential is fluid, not fixed. Teachers present to their peers on issues around their own practice. Complete strangers join each other in colleague circles that engender collaboration, support, and a problem-solving ethos—things all professionals need in order to grow.  Teachers even sing together after only knowing one another for a few minutes with no alcohol involved!!

One of the best examples of growth mindset in action this year came when Ashleigh Ferguson, Mathematics teacher at Millikan High School in Long Beach, CA, stood up and spoke to nearly 350 peers about her deep commitment to ensuring foster children are brought out of the shadows of our school systems. Ashleigh confessed the challenge she faced in speaking to so many new colleagues, but in just a few minutes of stretching herself, she shined the light on an often forgotten population of students, and moved the room in a deep way. Ashleigh reminded us that it’s not only important to have a growth mindset towards students, but also towards ourselves and our peers as teachers. How can we expect our students to be vulnerable and grow, if we’re not in environments that enable us to do the same?

Ingredient #3: Intellect and Heart: Many of us went into teaching based on a combination of intellectual and heart / emotional drive. I decided to study English because I fell in love with literature in Junior and Senior High School. But what took my motivation to a whole new level was watching other students experience the same joy I got from literature and writing. If there’s one thing effective teachers understand, it is the power in this combination of the intellect and the heart. (A must-read book on this topic is another of my favorites, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. ECET2aims to stir both the intellect and the heart, while ensuring that real problems of practice are being addressed. For example, there was great feedback at Snowbird on the strategies and skills for making change happen in their schools which were shared by teacher Maddie Fennell and educational thought-leader, Rick Hess in the Cage Busting Leadership session. I was able to sit in on the Education Connections: Teachers of English Language Learners Collaborating around the Common Core session, where practitioners and researchers led conversations about how to engage ELL students in content and language acquisition.

ECET2 is also an opportunity for teachers to reconnect with why they went into teaching in the first place.  At Snowbird, this came through in small and big ways. I wish I had counted the number of teachers who approached me to relate how much ECET2 had helped restore their hope in the profession, their practice, or their impact.  This sentiment also came through powerfully in the teacher stories shared by Jon Spencer and Jozette Martinez. Jon moved us all as he talked about keeping it real in Realville and the importance of keeping your word, no matter how far you have to drive. Jozette reminded us that sometimes our very existence as teachers is a sign of progress in defiance of stereotypes.  She also reminded us how important it is not to take ourselves so seriously that we can’t just breakout in song – if that’s what it takes to connect with and move our kids. DON’T STOP BELIEVEING!

 

Ingredient #4 -Time to Collaborate: My graduate professor, Richard Elmore used to say, “Isolation is the enemy of improvement.” And if there’s one thing we know about higher performing countries where the teaching profession is more respected and elevated, it’s that their teachers have more time to collaborate about their practice and about student learning. This is a true challenge in our country, and the foundation is and has been looking to spur innovation that creates more opportunities for peer-to-peer collaboration. This type of authentic collaboration around real issues of practice has always been a staple of ECET2. However, I am delighted that we have become more adept at extending that collaboration beyond the convening in ways that are relevant to teachers’ lived experiences through the colleague circles and the Mightybell platform. ECET2 LaJolla in 2013 – when these colleague circles really took off, produced results nothing short of remarkable, including teams of teachers building the following:

-          “Support the Common Core” video for parents

-           Informational pamphlet on the CCSS to distribute to parents

-           Participation in a social media panel in NY and an ongoing effort to tell positive stories about the teaching profession in mainstream media

-           Development of a Universal Design for Learning peer coaching system

-           Series of five videos showing common core teaching in K-3 classrooms

-          An e-book called “The Common Core Survival Guide: Literacy in Science and Social Studies Classrooms” to aid teachers in the CCSS transition

-          An online platform on “Developing Student Discourse: A PD Resource Bank”

Ingredient #5 - Teacher Leadership: The more I study the evolution of other professions, the more I’m convinced that if we’re going to elevate the teaching profession in America, it is going to have to happen through the leadership of great teachers. ECET2 is all about  supporting  that leadership. 

As Barnett Barry, Executive Director of the Center for Teaching Quality says, “We must recognize the expert teachers that we have currently in the profession and give them opportunities to spread their expertise.” 

The foundation is doing this on so many levels. Here are just a few:

-          LDC/MDC  

-          Teacher Advisory Council

But along with this existing work, the foundation, along with its partners, are interested in finding additional ways to ensure we go beyond simply asking teachers to take on more leadership role(s) with little to no additional time or compensation. I am not suggesting that teachers look to be paid for every additional role or responsibility that they take on. However, I am concerned that if we do not develop more sustainable career pathways and differentiated roles within the teaching profession, we’ll continue to see talented teachers pack up their expertise and exit the classroom, and too often, the profession.

 I joined more than 300 teachers at the 2014 Snowbird Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2 - pronounced EE-Set two or EE-Set squared) conference. For two and a half exciting and inspiring days the energy and creativity of the ECET2 experience was palpable.

To be clear, there’s nothing “wrong” with that decision (i.e. principalship), which I and thousands of other teachers have made. However, the structure of the profession forces too many teachers to make these decisions without providing them with other options that would enable them to remain deeply connected to students, their peers, and practice. The 21st Century Teaching profession must do what other elevated and respected professions do: enable its practitioners to take on differentiated roles without needing to shift to administrative responsibilities, or worse, exit the profession.

Ingredient #6 - Professional Treatment:

                “The best teacher is the one who NEVER forgets
                                what it is like to be a student.
                “The best administrator is the one who NEVER forgets
                                what it’s like to be a teacher.”
                                                                -Nelia Connor

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works with teachers and educators to support effective teaching and teachers, but in the end it’s the teachers who have to make transformation happen in the classrooms and schools with their students, peers, leaders and families. It is so important for us at the foundation to never forget that. Teachers are professionals, and the foundation is committed to treating them as such. We, and our partners, do this in big and small ways.

In closing, I am so excited to see what other innovations and ideas come from the ECET2 teachers, not only those who gathered in Utah this year, but also those who gathered in LaJolla, California in 2013 and Scottsdale, Arizona in 2012. I am convinced that their impact will reach far beyond their individual practice to improve and elevate that of their peers and ultimately the profession itself, and in the end; kids benefit.  As John James Ingalls wrote on behalf of Opportunty in his poem, “…they who follow me reach every state mortals desire, and conquer every foe…”

 
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