How I Started (circa 2007)

I stumbled upon an archive of documents I created in 2007, my third year of teaching. Nested six folders deep inside a directory labeled “School,” I found a document called AP Lesson Plan - Introduction - Day 1. In 2007, I taught two sections of AP Psychology to 11th and 12th graders. This was the document I used to draft my ideas for starting that class. Looking at it, two things stand out to me.

First, I was much more intentional than I remember. In this lesson plan, I listed goals, materials, action steps, and student deliverables. The plan reads like something I intended to hand to someone else down the road, yet that was never my goal. I remember spending a lot of time writing plans like this thinking it would save so much time later in my career. It did.

Second, I didn’t review my syllabus on the first day of class. Instead, I performed a magic trick to get them thinking about the need for control in psychological experimentation. Along with the trick, I shared a long, obviously ficticious, story about hitting my head over the summer and awakening a clairvoyant; I could see the future. The trick backed up my far-fetched claim with some fairly convincing (or at least entertaining) data.

Their task was to identify aspects of my demonstration (variables) that would disprove my claim. I would collect their ideas on the board. When all ideas appeared to be exhausted, I would have them prioritize the ideas down to the one (independent) variable they think would be most likely to disprove my clairvoyance.

I remember being hung up on the difference between psychology, the science, and the kind of psychology my students see and hear about on television. I wanted to make an early impression that, by controlling variables, we can make educated predictions that test psychological phenomenon, and that this was the type of psychology we would be studying in my class: the kind that is testable and scientific.

I never assessed their understanding of experimental design; it wasn’t yet my goal. I simply wanted to demonstrate that clear, nerdy thinking about something as silly as a magic trick, could lead to deeper understanding. And, I wanted to have fun. This was, after all, my students’ first introduction to me, their teacher, and psychology, the subject they would be studying with me over the next year. I didn’t want this day to be about rules, processes, or my pet peeves. I wanted it to be about fun and science!

My first homework assignment for them was to do three things:

  1. Read and understand the entire syllabus.
  2. Give their parents my introduction letter.
  3. Return their signed parent statement by the end of the week.

The very next class started with a quiz over the syllabus. In hindsight, it was pretty nitpicky, but remember this was an AP class and I was trying to instill a high expectation. For most students, it worked. They came in with a firm understanding of my syllabus. For all, it sent the message that I would hold them accountable to the work I asked them to complete.

After quizzing them on the syllabus and answering questions on the second day of class, we’d get to know each other, employing a series of cognitive strategies until everyone knew each others’ names.

We’d start content on the third day, which because of block scheduling didn’t come until the second week of school.

That’s how I started my year as a teacher in 2007.

Teaching Accountabilty

Last month, at a staff meeting led by Matt Thompson, my team came to the conclusion that we need to close the year focused on accountability.

Here's the gist of the conversation that brought us to this conclusion:

If we are to see our vision of "graduating all students prepared for success in life, college, and career," then we had better do some serious work on accountability.

It was an honest moment of clarity for my group around the challenges that we think we face:

  • Some of our students do not hold themselves accountable for their actions. From this group, we hear a lot of excuses and see the slowest growth.
  • Most of our students do not hold others accountable for agreed upon responsibilities. When group norms break down, they simply break down.
  • We adults struggle with the exact same challenges.

It was the realization of that last bullet that hurt the most for me. As the school leader, I feel responsible for the systems of accountability that my staff and students work within. If our systems of accountability are failing, shouldn't I be held accountable for that failure?

The next day, I had a routine meeting with our "culture committee" to talk about our goals for next year. At the top of the agenda was to discuss how we would use a school-wide Advisory to improve the culture of our school. Our staff just recently approved reallocating some non-instructional time in our schedule to Advisory. We have approximately 25 minutes to work with every day in every grade.

The driving question for this committee has been "How do we structure a school-wide Advisory program that strengthens school culture without adding additional prep time for staff?"

At the start of the meeting, I brought up this accountability issue we've been experiencing and the group started talking about the evaluation system we use as adults as a possible pathway for teaching accountability to students. Someone suggested that we have students write SMART goals in advisory. Teachers could help students develop action plans and could use Advisory as time for students to collaborate on and share their goals. This, it was argued would provide ample opportunity to teach accountability.

Out of this discussion came the following three goals for our advisory program next year:

  1. All students and staff will create one SMART goal around the topic of personal accountability by the end of the first week of school and accomplish it by the end of April of that year.
  2. Groups of all students and staff will create one SMART goal around the topic of accountability to the school community by the end of the first week of school and accomplish it by the end of April of that year.
  3. Groups of all students and staff will create one SMART goal around the topic of accountability to the broader community outside of school by the end of the first week of school and accomplish it by the end of April of that year.

Our plan is to structure our Advisory around these yearlong goals, tackling them each on a different day of the week. For example, we might schedule our advisories like this:

  • Tuesday: Personal Growth Day – Every learner would spend 25 minutes working on and reflecting upon their personal SMART goal. Is their goal specific enough? How is it measuring up? Are they following their action plans? Will they complete their goal on time? On Tuesdays, teachers (as advisors) would work with students to help guide their goals while also collecting data on what additional supports are needed.
  • Wednesday: School Growth Day - Every Advisory would spend 25 minutes working on and reflecting upon their school SMART goal. What specific aspect of our school can each Advisory directly affect? What action steps can each individual in the group take to ensure the goal is met in the time specified. On Wednesdays, teachers facilitate group work toward the achievement of their Advisory's goal.
  • Thursday: Community Growth Day - Every Advisory (or groups of Advisories) will spend 25 minutes working on and reflecting upon their community SMART goal. What specific aspect of our community (or the world)) can people in our school directly affect. What action steps can we all take to ensure the goal is met? Etc.

While Mondays and Fridays have yet to be planned, we're thinking that Mondays need to be about making connections - whether through conversations, presenters from outside the school, or through activities - we want to dedicate time to relationships.

Fridays need to be about celebrations. We want to celebrate when individuals and groups meet their goals. We want to celebrate when great things happen. And, we want to just celebrate being together.

A larger goal, from my point of view, is to engage my staff and students in the same type of work from the top to the bottom. I want to lead a school of action: one where students and staff all set goals, create action plans, and use data to assess success and next steps. I want to be there when we celebrate individuals and groups achieving their goals. I also want to be there to support individuals and groups when their outcomes fall short of their goals.

If the result of this work is nothing more than rooms full of messy conversations about the challenges of meeting personal and group expectations, then I think we'll be successful. That will be many rooms full of messy conversations about accountability more than we have now.