Some moments change us forever.
I became principal of Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in 2010. It was a school in trouble. It had one of the highest rates of arrests in the state of any middle school. It was a school where only one in three students was proficient in math and reading. I knew that there was only once choice: We had to improve. We had to somehow better serve the students that had failed for so long.
At my first staff meeting as a young principal of a troubled middle school, I told the teachers about my vision for the school. I saw a school that fostered learning and cooperation rather than disagreement and disputes. I wanted both teachers and students to be truly engaged in learning and with each other. Upon hearing that, a teacher stood up, and said, “No offense, but you need to get out of here. You do not know what you are talking about. That is not going to happen here. You don’t know us and you don’t know these kids.”
That’s when I learned how wanting change and providing the right environment to foster change were two entirely different things.
Today my team is collaborative and stable. We have seen an 84 percent drop in discipline referrals in just one year. Students are encouraging one another to be successful. After just half a school year, our students’ test scores grew 1.68 times the national average between the fall and winter. So what changed? The superintendent of the district asked me to investigate personalized learning.
After a bit of research, I was intrigued.
We chose to work with Teach to One, which was a fundamentally different approach to how past generations were taught. It combines resources beyond what any one school could afford and provides an individualized plan for every student. This sounded like just what our school needed.
Consider this. As a parent, I would never say to my two very different kids, “You are both going to eat green beans because all six-year-olds should eat green beans.” One of my kids would be thrilled. The other would sit at the kitchen table for hours, rather than eat green beans. So, if we can provide our own children with what they need, it made me wonder why we hadn’t been individualizing lessons for students.
After two years of individualizing math lessons for kids, in a radically different way, we’ve learned a lot about how to successfully make changes. Those considering a switch to personalized learning may not know where to start. Whatever learning model or program a school decides to try, there will be challenges.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Change requires support. A drastic change in our teaching philosophy produced some pushback. This work requires the collaboration of all stakeholders to be successful. For example, parents feared teachers would be replaced with computers. But no matter how good technology is, teachers make classrooms thrive and come alive. Technology, however, helps a teacher pinpoint the exact thing a student needs. It can do this for every student, every day, thus allowing the teacher to focus on facilitating and further refining the lesson, based on the work with the individual student.
There will be challenges. Even when everyone agrees to work together, any time you fundamentally change the way you teach, there will be implementation challenges. When teachers struggle, administration needs to listen to the challenges and help guide them to finding solutions that work for kids. And, as a principal, I needed to give teachers the space and time to work out the challenges to develop the sense of community needed to effectively evolve.
Get the support you need. For our change, we enlisted New Classroom’s instructional coaching team and technical support team, who were on the front lines with us. Modeling. Coaching. Strengthening. And we came together. It was important for us to admit what we didn’t know, where we struggled and to use a national team to help problem solve.
Encourage collaboration. When given time to work together, our math teachers focused their common planning time on specific, actionable strategies to improve student engagement. They shared these strategies, laughed about mishaps and helped each other work together. A real team. An effective team. They learned that together, they could control the learning environment far better than any of them could individually.
Consider the student experience. The model we chose mixes students who would not normally work together. Because of this, students got to know each other and now know when another student is struggling. We regularly hear students asking, “How did you do today?” or “Do you get it?” When students do well, they feel proud; they feel like they are part of something. This encourages them to continue working together. Our students now feel like they are active participants in their own learning.
Transitioning to a personalized learning approach can be messy and sometimes overwhelming. Some parents will not like the idea of individualized homework for their children. Children will struggle; even the smart ones. The program’s success depends on buy-in from all parties, from district leadership to each classroom teacher, parent, and student. But I truly believe it helped us turn around not only our math instruction, but the entire culture of learning at our school. The alternative of continuing to do what we always have done would have continued to fail our students. That was simply not acceptable.
This essay is by Alison Burdick, principal of Bennie Dover Middle School in New London, Connecticut, and was originally published on Education Week’s Learning Deeply blog.