This is How You Empower Educators to Transform Education
Voices from the Field 19 June 2018
By Tim Quealy, Avalon Charter School
As evidenced by the diversity of content we produce on a weekly basis, it is our mission to show the limitless variety of learner-centered implementation throughout the United States. In the following article, Tim Quealy, Program Coordinator and Advisor at Avalon School, provides insight on one of these unique methods through Avalon’s work as a member of the Teacher-Powered Schools Network.
If we truly want students at the center of the new educational paradigm, we must change the entire framework in which those students live. In 2001, with the support of EdVisions and their model, Avalon School opened its doors with a vision for transformation in the foreground. First major change? No principal and no administration.
If we were going to give students agency and autonomy, the teachers needed agency and autonomy themselves. If we were going to give students choice, teachers needed it, too. These are non-negotiables for any environment within the Teacher-Powered Schools Network.
At Avalon, all decisions—defining and improving the learning program, determining the budget, handling student issues, and making personnel decisions—are made collaboratively among the teaching staff. This powerful model is grounded in the understanding that those who work directly with students should have the ability to make the decisions.
When we choose to employ this level of autonomy, we must also choose to be accountable for our outcomes. This inseparable combo—accountability for autonomy—is one that we have willingly and enthusiastically accepted for the last 17 years. And, it’s safe to say we won’t be changing our minds anytime soon.
What Resource Allocation Looks Like with Teachers at the Wheel
One of the primary decisions we must make every year is how to allocate our own budget. This is inevitably done with students in mind. When the state government heavily reduced school revenue in Minnesota, Avalon teachers chose to freeze our own salaries and benefits.
We understood our own budgetary constraints and where we could reasonably cut spending with the least impact on student learning, and we acted accordingly. When the budget restrictions were lifted, we were able to revisit our compensation.
When students voiced concern that not all students were comfortable using traditional gender-defined bathrooms, we set aside money to build an all-gender bathroom. For several of our students, this represented the first time they would use a restroom during the school day since they entered a formal education system.
When we noticed student need for more mental health services, we hired a full-time social worker. We hired a second the following year and a part-time position another year later.
When teachers are able to define their outcomes—and have the agency to determine how to meet them—they are more willing to accept an increase in accountability.
Program Coordinator and Advisor
Over and over again, we choose to allocate our resources with students at the center. For years, we have preached that students have the ability to create anything they want as they design their own education, and for years, we saw their brilliance and creativity shine through.
However, after some introspection, we also realized that some of the student projects we held most high—often physical products of wonderful hands-on learning—came from the students with the resources and access required to create those products. Almost immediately, we decided to build our own shop space and hire an industrial arts teacher: both were in place by the end of the semester. A frequent and favorite stop as I give tours of Avalon, the shop is constantly filled with engaged, hands-on learners, regardless of access.
In a more traditional, top-down district, any one of these decisions may have taken years to move from identifying needs to implementing solutions. At Avalon, it took a single meeting to convince our staff, and all of the best reasons had students at the center. Teachers everywhere are often the best at identifying student needs; we need to give them the power to solve them, too.
Why Choosing Who We Work With Makes All the Difference
Avalon teachers choose whom they will work with, what their working conditions will be, and how they will be evaluated. Teachers at Avalon serve on hiring committees, act as peer coaches and mentors, and handle all personnel decisions.
When the state required 35% of a teacher’s evaluation come from student data, teachers at Avalon were able to design measurable outcomes that were meaningful to them and would have the greatest impact on student achievement. Our teachers tied the evaluation requirement to student progression through a rubric for project-based learning that they designed themselves.
We were able to ask ourselves, “What do we want for our students? And what would help push us there?” When teachers are able to define their outcomes—and have the agency to determine how to meet them—they are more willing to accept an increase in accountability. It makes as much sense for adults as it does for kids.
While these types of initiatives can happen in any school, when the push comes from the teachers themselves, buy-in and authentic engagement are far more likely.
Program Coordinator and Advisor
Similarly, when the decision-makers are those working most directly with students, they also have a unique and important vantage point when in comes to identifying the professional development required to improve their practices. Who knows better than a teacher in determining what help they need to better serve students?
For example, when issues of equity were brought forward by students, teachers at Avalon chose to spend almost all of their budgeted professional development funds on an intensive, year-long training on race, racism, and whiteness and have continued to emphasize this work (and put resources behind it) in the years that followed. This last year alone, staff chose to spend money on trainings around Trauma-Informed Care, Bystander Intervention, and the link between Cognitive Development and Social Media.
As a staff, we tried to identify places where privilege, bias, and inequity have become embedded in our building, questioning some long-standing practices and assumptions through the lens of equity. If we use public transportation, what does that mean for access, especially for our younger students? What experts and connections were we bringing in from our community? Who did they represent and who did they serve? What types of learning experiences were we valuing? Why do we honor an unpaid internship at a local non-profit but not paid work experience?
These probing questions led to several programmatic changes. To improve access for families that couldn’t drive their sixth graders to school, we added staff hours to supervise the train commute to and from downtown St. Paul. We applied to the state to become a work-based learning site so we could value and validate the incredible real-world learning that occurs through employment.
Because we wanted to continue our learning, we also chose to split some professional development time into affinity groups, and white staff formed a study group centered around critical readings, working to apply those lessons to our daily work with students. While these types of initiatives can happen in any school, when the push comes from the teachers themselves, buy-in and authentic engagement are far more likely. We were the ones who decided it was important, after all.
It often feels like the state creates a new mandate for our students every year that pushes us to consider a more traditional approach…And, every year, we choose to remain committed to student-centered, project-based learning.
Program Coordinator and Advisor
As a teacher, these conversations have helped me understand some ways that my own whiteness and bias can impact my work with students. What works and artists do I value and share with my students? What expectations do I hold, both for behavior and for quality work? Which families was I more likely to call? What opportunities did I push onto my students? What outcomes did I find acceptable? While I continue to work to understand the impact of race, racism, and whiteness on my own practices, I’m grateful for my colleagues as they push me, and our school, forward.
In all of our schools, we need to find ways to create more space for teachers of color and to bring their voices to the table in a way that is both genuine and authentic. Teacher-Powered Schools can be one of the most effective ways to do this.
How We Have Access to an Adaptable Learning Program
Although the freedom to have my voice heard when it comes to resource allocation and my professional development is amazing, nothing beats the freedom in designing our Learning Program.
Since its inception, Avalon’s core curricular pedagogy has always been Project-Based Learning. In our project-based model, students, with support from staff, direct their own learning. They design every facet of their education. With each project, students decide what questions they will explore, how they will demonstrate understanding, when it will be due, and how they’d like to be evaluated.
In this way, students navigate through the required academic standards the state has outlined as they progress toward graduation, while leveraging their own personal interests and unique learning styles to create an experience that is meaningful to them. This journey culminates in the Senior Project, a year-long, 300-hour project that ends with a 30-minute presentation on a topic of their own design.
It often feels like the state creates a new mandate for our students every year that pushes us to consider a more traditional approach, whether it be a new required test, a change in accountability, or an increase in the number of required content standards. And, every year, we choose to remain committed to student-centered, project-based learning.
When the decision-makers are those who work directly with students, they can create truly learner-centered environments.
Program Coordinator and Advisor
While the majority of student work is completed through independent projects, students at Avalon can also choose to enroll in teacher-led seminars. Responding to student needs, teachers can choose which seminars they’d like to teach (and how they’d like to teach them), which organizations to partner with, and what opportunities and extracurriculars to bring in.
When students expressed a desire for more chances to collaborate together, staff changed our seminar structure to include more cross-curricular Deep Dives in which students work together through interdisciplinary projects.
When students expressed a need for more authentic experiences, staff designed a seminar that led to the creation of a student-led tech help desk, as well as working to expand our internship opportunities. Student book clubs, all-school reads, and field trips have all been created directly from student interest by the teachers that work most directly with them.
These are just a few examples of how teachers at Teacher-Powered Schools are given the freedom to choose policies that put students at the center. When the decision-makers are those who work directly with students, they can create truly learner-centered environments.
For students to thrive, schools need the stability and longevity required to build an environment around the unique needs of the community of learners. Teacher-Powered schools provide that. While our teacher retention is staggering (95-100% from year to year), one of the most powerful aspects of a Teacher-Powered School is actually its ability to withstand any attrition that does occur.
While many of the student-centered policies and practices highlighted are happening in wonderful schools across the country, too often these are reliant on charismatic and visionary leaders, administrators, or even state legislatures. And, too often, we’ve seen those student-centered environments regress as that leader or initiative flickers out.
If learner-centered environments are going to continue to burn brightly, the mission and vision needs to not live with a single leader but with the teachers themselves. With this consistency and longevity, students can remain at the center. The shift toward student-centered education must be made in tandem with a shift toward teacher-powered schools. When teachers have the autonomy to make choices, they will choose to transform.
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