For the past five years, every February, I have presented data to the school board. The purpose of these presentations was to use “data” to convince the school board that my job, and the job of the math interventionists in our district, mattered. I would show them all kinds of colorful charts in the hopes that they would “see” us making a difference.
“Look!” I would say. “All these kids went from red to green! Isn’t that amazing?! We matter! We are doing a good job! Right?”
Most of the time, the school board was thrilled with my colored charts. “Yay, Sarah! Look at all that progress.” Last February, one school board member, I will call him Mr. G, had a different reaction. He wanted to talk about the kid in the bottom row:
He said, “I am looking at these three words, ‘did not improve’ and I am thinking that tells me that you didn’t do your job.”
How would you have responded to this comment? What would you have said?
Honestly, I don’t even remember what I said. I probably said something like, “there are so many factors that impact student learning,” or maybe even “well, we shoot for 80 percent of students to meet grade level standards and look at all the students that did improve, look at all that green, blah, blah, blah, blah…..”
I left that board meeting fuming mad. I heard those words every second of every day for weeks.
You are not doing your job.
So many people told me to forget about that comment. They said, “he doesn’t know what he is talking about” ,”he is grumpy,” “he never has anything positive to say”, “you are doing a great job” “the interventionists are doing a great job”.
Those words rattled around in my brain for months. At some point, I reframed them as a question,
Am I doing my job?
My reflections became more transparent with every day that passed. I began to realize that I had created a monster, a data monster. I had conditioned the school board to expect colorful charts. Every year, my main focus was getting one more math interventionist position into the budget. What was the quickest way to show the board we needed one? Data.
The tricky thing about data is that I can pretty much make it say whatever I want it to. A few years back, we had a math interventionist who was only able to visit one of our elementary schools once a week. Come February, I made a bunch of colorful charts to show the board that the kids she saw on that one day weren’t making progress, but the kids she saw 4 days a week at her other school were making progress. The data I showed the board was real. It was based on screeners, common assessments, NWEAs, etc. I didn’t manipulate the data. I manipulated the story.
What was the story I was telling the board? It was a story about how the math interventionists job was to “fix kids”. I was showing the board a bunch of numbers and colors. I wasn’t showing them kids, teachers, and math classrooms. It makes total sense that Mr. G didn’t think any of us were doing our jobs. I had been spending years “showing” the board that our job was to “fix” kids. The worst part about the story I was telling is that it wasn’t true. If you follow me on twitter or have read even one of my other blog posts, you will know that I am not in the business of “fixing” kids. I hope you will also know that I am not in the business of “fixing” teachers. So what happened? How did the story I was telling become so far removed from the story I was living?
I think the gap was born out of simplicity, efficiency, and trust. I thought I needed to “sell” the board a quick and easy need for more math support positions. I didn’t trust that they would understand the uncomfortable truth of working with kids and teachers. The truth? We have been trying to collaborate, but collaboration is messy, uncomfortable, and rife with conflict.
This year, I decided to change the story I was telling. I asked if my first presentation could be early in the year. Last Wednesday, I started to tell a different story. A story that matched the truth about the work the math interventionists and I have been trying to accomplish.
We, as a math support team, have been trying to collaborate; with each other, teachers, parents, administrators, and students. Last spring, we created a vision statement:
Then, we started to draft a document that defines what math class should look like. Many of us had read Minds on Mathematics by Wendy Ward Hoffer. We used this book as an anchor when we defined the essential elements of a math class: Challenging Tasks, Collaborative Community, Intentional Discourse, Conferencing, and Reflection. Below is a screenshot from this document. Keep in mind, it is a DRAFT. We didn’t create this work in a vacuum. As a district, certain buildings and groups had done some important work in the past that is reflected in the chart we created. Some elementary schools had done learning rounds on the Common Core Math Student Practices and the NCTM Teaching Practices. The elementary and middle school teachers had spent time trying to answer the question, “what is a workshop model?” I have facilitated learning labs at the K-8 level during grade level meetings for two years.
As a team, the interventionists and I started the year with an agreement that all math interventions would start with, and be anchored to, classroom instruction. We re-defined the “data” we wanted to collect. Yes, we are still going to look at data from universal screeners and common assessments, but what else are we going to look at? How are we going to know if collaboration is making a difference? How are we going to know if we are doing our jobs?
We each created an excel spreadsheet that we will all use to collect “data”. The first page looks like this:
Yes, it also has a bunch of test scores on it. There are many columns to the right of the ones you see above. The columns you see above are the most important. The second page of the document looks like this:
Recently, we have noticed a glaring problem:
We never established goals and norms with some of the teachers we are collaborating with. We didn’t think we “had” to. Some of us have worked together in the past. We knew each other well. We had established relationships with these teachers. We never sat down and formally articulated norms and goals. We made assumptions. This was a bad idea.
Right now, some of us are feeling uncomfortable and frustrated.
- “I feel judged.”
- “I just want you to pick up my kids and work with them outside of my classroom.”
- “I don’t want you to see my kids. I will just work with them myself.”
- “There are too many adults in my room.”
- “I am doing all the planning. How do I get the teachers to work with me?”
- “How are we supposed to schedule this? I don’t have time to wait for a mini-lesson to end.”
- “I just need a break. I have 26 kids and I feel like I don’t even know them, yet. I have to share them with too many people. I just want two weeks with my students, just me and my students.”
All of these statements are true. All of them are valid. We are at one of many pivotal points in our journey. We are at a point where we can give up or reflect, revise, and move forward.
Even though we feel frustrated and uncomfortable, there are some wonderful things happening in our math classrooms. Did you see that collaborative planning doc above? It is awesome! Teachers and interventionists are meeting regularly to plan and teach children together. We are all trying to improve our craft. We are trying to do this work together. At my board presentation, I shared an example of this collaborative work. You can see it here. I also shared the struggles we are having.
We are all feeling incredibly vulnerable. This is good! Vulnerability is at the heart of true collaboration. However, feeling vulnerable is scary. We might need to back up; maybe slow down, ask for help, and be courageously honest. Collaboration is messy, uncomfortable, and rife with conflict, but it is essential for equitable and effective math support.