Essential Conversations for the Innovating Teacher: A 3 step plan for when you’re trying something new

I must do this in my classroom.

Have you ever said that to yourself? Teachers can go years following a traditional approach.  Eventually, though, a certain idea may grab us, and we have to try it.  For me, it was teaching my freshmen English class without grades.  For you, it could be any number of new approaches, philosophies, technologies or materials that you want to be a part of your classroom.

When it comes to small changes, like a new lesson or a new article to share with students, it’s OK to just go for it. You’re a trusted professional and should be able to experiment, within reason, in your practice.

But when it comes to the more massive changes, something that affects the entire school year, it’s best to have a deliberate, well-thought-out plan. An important part of that plan includes conversations with the essential stakeholders: students, parents, administrators and yourself.

Let’s take a breath and make a plan, before we go rushing into things.

Who am I talking to here?

You might be a teacher in the Teachers Throwing Out Grades group who has decided to try the no grades classroom.  A first year teacher who wants to use some of her ideas from her student teaching to experiment with the curriculum.  A teacher who has used traditional methods for the last 5-10 years, but has had a summer time professional revelation and is trying something completely new this year. Maybe it’s project-based learning, a flipped classroom, a new socially conscious angle for your curriculum or a new take on classroom environment.

What are your fears?

The typical fears that come up in back-to-school dreams are at play here. You fear a simple and straightforward “no” from your supervisor or other administrators. You fear criticism from your colleagues, you fear rebellion from your students (aren’t we always fearing that in the back of our heads? Just me?), you fear a flood of parent phone calls, emails, and meetings with the previously mentioned parties.  Also, you might fear that first day, when it’s just you and the kids, and it’s all on you to put this new idea into place.

What are you hoping to achieve?

Hopefully, your goal is simple: there’s something you’d like to try because it is going to improve student learning outcomes. If this is not the reason that you are trying this classroom innovation, it might be best to stop here, do some written reflection or talk to a confidant, and reconsider the whole thing.

What steps do you need to take?

Here are the major conversations that you may want to have before making a major change in your classroom. These are based on the conversations I had before trying out the no grades system:

Who: Talk to administrators, especially your immediate supervisor.

When: Before the school year starts.

What: You can explain:

  1. How your actions relate to the school policies, goals and philosophies. Or, if they differ from these, argue for why this exception should be allowed. Remember that improving student learning outcomes should be the major push for this change.
  2. How you’ll be communicating about this change with parents
  3. How research or logic supports the change
  4. Your contingency plan. Sometimes, a pilot program is a flop. Sometimes a new tech roll-out doesn’t go as expected. What will you do in that case? Have a plan for that and articulate it clearly.

Who: Talk to parents

When: During Open House, Back to School Night and/or Fall Conferences Night. Additionally, make yourself available for phone calls or in-person meetings for parents who have extra questions. My philosophy is that I’m doing something different, it can be a cause for concern, and my job is to communicate well enough to alleviate those concerns.

What: You can explain:

  1. The reasoning or rationale behind your decision.
  2. Your research…but, I suggest that you avoid using too much edu-speak. Talk straight and be honest.  
  3. How this change is going to help their children learn more.
  4. Any differences that this change might cause to typical parent expectations. For example, when talking to parents about the no grades classroom on back to school night, I made sure to bring up our district grade portal on the projector and show them how they could find the narrative feedback left on their child’s assignments that would tell them how their son or daughter was progressing.

Who: Talk to students. Here, throw out all the edu speak and talk in their terms.

When: On the first day of school, whenever you go over classroom policies and expectations, or whenever this new program or idea is going to be introduced. Also, make a plan for revisiting this conversation several times throughout the year, and anticipate student confusion about your new idea. I revisited my assessment philosophy and my reasons behind the change before every progress report and grading period to ensure that students had a firm understanding or my ideas (no, I know what you’re thinking, it wasn’t brainwashing).

What: You can explain:

  1. How this class might differ from others they’ve been in.
  2. How this change will affect homework, grading or in-class expectations
  3. Your sincere motivations behind making the change. Again, emphasize your goal of improving their learning.

This list might change depending on the type of change that you are trying to make in your class. For example, if you are the first class in your school that is implementing a 1:1 program, it is important to open the line of communication with the tech program and ensure that you will have adequate support.

What can hold you back?

It’s easy to not act when we’re afraid. This is why we hesitate to pick up the phone and call the friend that we’ve neglected to call back. This is the reason we put off diving into that one stack of assignments, which might not have turned out as well as we’d hoped. This is the reason we keep to ourselves, shut our doors and hold stuff in when we should share it.

The opposite approach is necessary when making a major change in the classroom. Open up the lines of communication, and work to keep them open throughout the school year. This is not the time go for “forgiveness over permission.”

It’s time to step up, have the important conversations, and communicate openly and honestly. It’s an investment in the year-long success of you and your students.

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