Focus on Belonging
Academic Leaders need to ask daily: what can I do to make sure that my team feels valued, and has a sense of belonging at my school? A recent McKinsey & Company report showed a disconnect between why employers thought their employees were leaving and why they actually are leaving. The report highlighted that employers need to focus much more on employee’s sense of belonging, employees: “didn’t feel valued by their organizations (54 percent) or their managers (52 percent) or because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging at work (51 percent). Notably, employees who classified themselves as non-White or multiracial were more likely than their White counterparts to say they had left because they didn’t feel they belonged at their companies.”
Re-Recruit Your Team
It is time to re-recruit your current employees. And yet, January and February are notoriously challenging times in independent schools. Consider what you might do as an Academic Leader to connect deeply with everyone on your team, and reserve time in your calendar now to prioritize those connections. A recent Harvard Business Review article suggested three keys to re-recruitment: spend significant time with each of your employees to understand their motivations and ambitions; make sure that they see their positive impact on the organization and the difference they are making; and make sure that your conversations are on-going, not one and done.
Get Your Job Descriptions Current
Jobs have changed during the COVID pandemic, but most schools have not, in turn, altered their job descriptions. Academic Leaders will want to make sure that their job descriptions reflect the changes that occurred during the pandemic, including possibilities for job flexibility, the technological acumen required to manage new systems, compliance with local or school health and safety policies, and willingness to take on additional duties as assigned.
Check in With Your Attorney
The pandemic hasn’t only changed job titles and descriptions–it’s also brought about changes in hiring and employment regulations. As you review openings and positions, it’s a good idea to check in with your attorney before the hiring season begins. A short conversation will help you to understand national and state requirements, and to avoid any pitfalls that could arise in the interview and decision process. More than in any other year, a little foresight and preparation can avoid costly mistakes.
MAXIM #1—Every opening is an opportunity
MAXIM #2—Know thyself as an institution and a culture; keep these things in mind:
MAXIM #3—It takes a school to hire a teacher
MAXIM #4—You can always get what you want
MAXIM #5—Check it out
MAXIM #6—Induction matters
MAXIM #7—Good teachers can be made
MAXIM #8—School culture is everything. Do all that you can to make yours both inviting and welcoming.
MAXIM #9—Not everybody wants an office
MAXIM #10—Needs matter
MAXIM #11—Old dogs actually like to learn new tricks
MAXIM #12—All things must end
The author begins with a quote (originally tweeted in 2017) that was the impetus for his investigation of Cognitive Load Theory:
I’ve come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know - Dylan Wiliam
Lovell’s deep dive into the literature and theory led to this book, which begins with providing an understanding of the five key principles of CLT, followed by practical application and strategies.
Lovell explains the five principles that underpin CLT in terms of A, B, C, D and E:
These five principles can help instructional designers consider intrinsic load (the core learning that should occupy students’ working memory) while they seek to reduce extraneous load (associated with the manner and structure of instruction).
While the author says that the theory section can be skipped I believe it is an essential review. This section is, perhaps, one of the clearest descriptions of the role of working memory I have encountered. The author explains the ways in which an understanding of cognitive load can help to increase the efficiency of working memory. Included in this description are specific descriptions of intrinsic load and extraneous load. Academic leaders should not skip this section!
To manage cognitive load in the classroom, teachers and instructional designers should look for ways to reduce the extraneous cognitive load using elements of design and structure, while optimizing the intrinsic load using a variety of solid instructional strategies. The book includes bolded key terms and text boxes, allowing for quick access, review, and application of strategies, such as pre-teaching and segmentation, to a detailed description of the modality effect to expand working memory capacity. The strategies included apply equally to those planning for a classroom of students or a conference room of professionals. Reading this work can not only help us be better teachers and leaders, but can also offer insights to help the readers better understand themselves as learners.
In a 2019 Medium post, The Absurd Structure of High School, Bernie Bleske wrote, “I have 20 students entering my classroom every hour. The frenzied pace is failing everyone.” He further adds, “We are married to a system that has not been properly re-evaluated for 21st century capabilities and capacities.” Our yearly school schedule hasn’t changed either: nine months of six hour days stretching from September to June. As Bleske further argues, “If the goal [of school] is maximum content conveyed, the system works marginally well, in that students are pretty much bombarded with detail throughout the day.”
A quick look at the website Unlocking Time offers a variety of scheduling templates. I applaud the writers for thinking through how different schedule strategies may offer students the opportunity to “follow their academic interests or learning needs.” We need a school schedule that maximizes student learning but does not maximize content acquisition. As Yuval Noah Harrari and Russell Brand discuss in their Penguin Talk, The Future of Education, “schools should not be delivering information but helping students build a map of reality.”
Put your student hat on for a moment. Think about the student’s user experience. What schedule works best for their learning, not for our delivery of content?
I recently watched Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are and became deeply interested in third culture kids (TCKs)--so interested, in fact that I reimagined the teenage protagonist in the TV pilot I’m writing. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth van Reken is the bible for TCKs, and it's a fascinating read. Ruth van Reken describes the intersection between the home culture (“first culture”) and host culture (“second culture”) as an interstitial or third culture, comprised of the shared commonalities of those living an internationally mobile lifestyle. Pollock et. al. write, “the TCK frequently builds relationships to all the cultures while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is [often] in relationships to similar backgrounds.” When a TCK leaves one culture and moves to another, they have some time to assimilate to their new culture.
I started to think about TCK culture switching and how it may relate to both school schedules and a student’s user experience. Let’s assume that a student has six forty-minute classes in one day. Each time a student enters a new classroom, they enter a new learning culture. That culture may be defined by the teaching style (discussion, lecture, project-based or challenge-based), the classroom population (mixed grade levels, single grade level, mixed ability), the subject matter, and even the teacher’s personality. Students then need to make six cultural shifts in one day. With all that cultural shifting going on in one day, where is the space for students to learn? We expect them to enter class, “settle down,” shift cultures, engage in learning, and then shift out of that culture.
How does the learning then take precedence over the cultural shifting? We could spend hours trying to hack out the “perfect schedule,” only to uncover problems later on. Instead, we need to shift from a culture of the schedule to a culture of learning.
How do we do that? While participating in an action research project that focuses on self-directed learning, I did a deep dive with students about “how they learn best.” I received a variety of responses but the universal theme was “no one has really asked us before.”
As a teacher, I am also limited by the school schedule. I move in the same blocks of time my students do. I am also required to culture shift multiple times during the day. My culture shifts include extra help sessions, faculty meetings, student support meetings, clubs, advisor, class coverage. The number of culture shifts I make in a day is substantial.
1. Ask your students “how they learn” and “what school schedule would work best for them.” This is their user experience, not ours. They should be part of the conversation.
2. De-silo our courses. Students make a daily trek from class A to class B to class C. Why couldn’t we have a combined physics and data analysis course?
3. Flexibility is the key. Does every student need to be “in class” for forty-five minutes? Could the daily schedule be two three-hour blocks? One block is a three hour lab (I would love this!) and the other block is student-directed learning.
4. Does every student need to be “in school” for six hours a day? Could half the day be spent outside of school? Perhaps students are working at a local non-profit for the morning (think philanthropy, entrepreneurship, social justice, community service) or at the United Nations (I’m in NYC so it’s a natural connection; think global issues, citizenship, SDGs).
5. And finally, eliminate homework (or at least make it meaningful). After students shift through multiple cultures during the day, we then ask them to repeat that process of culture shifting with homework in different disciplines after school.
It’s time to not only shift the culture of the school schedule but to shift the culture of school itself.
There are aspects of gratitude that take us to a different level from happiness, aspects that I would say make the practice of gratitude deeper, more affirming, and even more important than the pursuit of happiness. Unlike happiness, which could be perceived as an individual pursuit, gratitude by definition involves more than one person or being. It requires us to look outside ourselves.
A study at the University of Virginia supported this notion. Participants who were asked to recall something good that happened to them reacted by wanting to tell others how great they felt and wanted to celebrate; they were self-focused. By contrast, those participants asked to remember something that someone had done for them wanted to share with others the other person’s kindness; their reaction was other-focused.
Because gratitude is “other focused,” it helps us to build social relations; to form friendships – in sum, to create societies through something psychologists “reciprocal altruism.” Reciprocal altruism is the principle that if someone does something nice for you, you tend to do something nice for them in return.
This “other-focused” quality of gratitude implies steps that take us beyond potentially self- focused happiness. To be grateful, we have to acknowledge another person’s gift to us. When we are grateful, we are indebted. Likewise, we may need to admit that we must depend on others. These are not conditions that everyone wants or would choose. However, if we look at them in a different light, and apply “reciprocal altruism,” we realize that these conditions encourage us to pay forward the good deeds. When we are grateful, we want to help others as we have been helped. From this perspective, gratitude implies humility. By acknowledging others’ gifts to us, by being indebted and dependent on others, we create a web of humanity connected by good deeds and gratitude. That sounds like a pleasant society in which to live.
Being grateful takes effort, particularly if we want to move from occasional feelings of gratitude to living in a state of gratefulness – moving from gratitude as an emotion to gratitude as a virtue, the virtue Cicero called “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” The benefits of living in a state of gratefulness are many. As Emmons says, “grateful thinking fosters the savoring of positive life experiences and situations, so that people can extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from their circumstances.”
My message to all of us – Let’s count our blessings!
(Originally posted on Common Sense Leadership)
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)