Daring Greatly: A Principal Reflects on Risk Taking Teachers

By MARK SONNEMANN

Don’t Look Down!

Before I begin here, I want to be honest about a few things. The first is that as a white male, my understanding and experience of risk in society is much different than that of people of colour, or people who are ‘different’ in any way — sexuality, gender identification, socio-economic background etc. and this means what I write is contextual — it is true to me, but is not meant to define or explain their experiences, or to trivialize them.

The second is that I have never written about my faith before in this kind of forum. Perhaps it is the culture I grew up in, or the dynamics of my own family, but faith has always seemed to me to be a deeply private and personal relationship. Faith is, in my experience, about giving oneself over to the belief in something that cannot be touched or seen, and this is tainted and twisted if it is imposed by either a system or another person. I talk about it here because, hopefully, I want to share why faith is central to my vision of education and why I have chosen to work in a Catholic School.

Lastly, this, and everything else I write, is part of the journey I am on. While I think I am good at what I do, I am not even close to perfect. I have days where I am grumpy, days when I am not as accommodating to the the needs of my students, staff, community, days when I am tired, days when I am stressed, or scared, or feeling inadequate. I have blind spots and assumptions and bias that influence my decision-making — I try to be cognizent of them, but that doesn’t mean that I am always successful. Writing is, for me, a way of taking just one more step on the journey I am on, and hopefully to connect with fellow travellers. I don’t consider myself an expert (I am actually ambivalent about educational uses of this term), and I don’t want my writing to ever be seen as ‘instagramming’ my intellectual life — you know, where you only show people the smiling and perfectly framed and curated and beautiful parts of your life. You should be skeptical and questioning about what I write — I welcome these discussions- for who is truly and completely honest with and about themselves when they share?

This post was written because of something that someone else wrote. Not long ago, I read Abe Moore’s:

In it, he talks about teaching and learning from a position of uncertainty and risk because it is the right thing to do for our students. Honestly, I was both blown-away and ashamed at the same time. As an elementary administrator in Ontario I have the luxury of security and time. It is easy for me to sit at my desk and ponder larger questions in education and their possible implications for kids and families — but the impacts of this thinking and the actions that flow from it have real effects on humans — and sometimes that gets lost or forgotten.

After reading Abe’s post, I started to wonder about risk-taking, and about faith, and about learning, and that lead me to ask the following questions:

How have I modelled and supported and rewarded risk-taking for staff and students? How does faith inform and support a culture that values risk? What does ‘risky’ teaching and learning look like?

Let’s start with the last question first. For me, risky teaching is about control and pathways and outcomes. Risky teaching is about re-framing your context as a teacher in the classroom so that you are no longer the locus of control, regulation, information, and individual decision-making. This stance is ‘risky’ for teachers because it jeopardizes (in their minds) their ability to be accountable to content and standards that guide their work. ‘Guide’ is too benign a word here; it should be said that to many in the teaching world, these accountability measures have more in common with Procrustes than with Sacagewea…

In any event, when a teacher pulls back from these ‘levers’ of accountability and control in the classroom, there is no guide or set positions. Though I don’t play any instruments, I would compare it to the difference between playing guitar and playing the violin. With a guitar, there are frets which represent semitones which makes it easier to find the ‘right’ note, but with a violin you essentially have to visualize and memorize where they might be. Teachers who are risky have to experiment with their classroom and pedagogy and really understand all the learners in the space (including themselves!) and there is no way to do this that isn’t messy and slow at the outset. I think it is the time spent finding these teaching ‘frets’ that teachers most stress about — they too keenly feel the pressure placed on them by administrators, parents, and curriculum and believe they cannot afford the time. In education, anyone would tell you — there is no time to waste.

Imagine then, how risky I think that Abe Moore is when he engages in this kind of teaching when he doesn’t know if he has a job at the end of the year….awesome and incredibly brave — but I digress.

Risky learning on the other hand, is learning where the outcome is not known. Sounds obvious, I think, and before I thought about Abe’s article, I might have said that uncertain outcomes would be a precondition of all learning journeys. However, I wonder how much learning is really ‘risky’ anymore in this context. Think about it: how much of what you work on with your students, or that you see you kids do is designed to be open-ended or interpreted by students, and how much of it is a runaway train going full speed from point A to point B with no deviation? When the system avoids risk, and to a large extent is built to preclude it, is it any wonder that we cannot get students and teachers (and administrators) to take risks themselves? Risky learning happens when we create a question, or a task, or a situation where how the students engage, where they go with it, and the ways in which they connect with each other and you to communicate their experience is uniquely individual and unpredictable. This does not mean, I would stress, that it isn’t safe, or supervised, or appropriate. Those are red herrings that are often used to discredit risk-taking in the classroom. Risky learning can be hard to measure and evaluate through traditional means, and rarely begins and ends neatly and at the same time for all students. It is the antithesis of a standardized test.

So how have I, or have I, supported a culture of risk-taking in my time as an administrator? If I use my own definition for what risk-taking is then I should be able to point to ways that I have helped teachers find more of that scarcest resource, time. To be honest, I would consider myself to be less than successful at doing this. I think I am supportive in terms of resources and instructional guidance and collaboration, even in being in the classroom, but I don’t know that I have every intentionally done anything that has given time back to my staff. If I am making excuses for myself, I could say that I don’t have the time to spare to release teachers, or that I don’t have the budget to be able to bring in occasional teachers to provide extra release — but that seems like the easy way out. It is always easier to say we can’t do something and move on then it is to grapple with the problem and do the messy work of trying something. So here goes — here are some ways that next year I plan on giving time back to teachers:

  1. Using our summer meeting date to focus on building a vision of risky teaching and learning. Agreeing on the ‘why’ and creating pathways for educators to figure out the other W’s (and the ‘H’!) in ways that make sense for them and their learners.
  2. Take care of the ‘outside’ influences and pressure s — make sure through my communications with parents and stakeholders (newsletters, open houses, interviews, notes home, Parent Council) that I am explicitly supporting ‘risky’ teaching and learning, and that I am the first point of contact and the most articulate and passionate defender of this vision of our school’s classrooms.
  3. Take on teaching two combined classes for two periods twice a week. This will allow me to get to know my new students, keep my instructional skills sharp, and allow two teachers to work on co-planning or to build in opportunities for feedback sessions with their students for 80 extra minutes. I will likely do this in 3 or 4 week cycles.
  4. Prioritize release time expenditures that allow for collaboration and planning to support the risky work. This won’t be tons of money, but if I am smart with how I allocate things, it should make a difference.
  5. Build in time for feedback sessions with my teachers individually to make sure that I am supporting them by sharing my time.
  6. Don’t make timetables for classes — small thing, but I wonder how much different (and more risky) our approaches might be if we didn’t spend so much time counting minutes and listening to bells. The school day will be what it is. I could even see changing the whole idea and form of recess and breaks, but this would take the effort and support of the entire staff. We’ll see.

That’s enough, I hope. I also hope that as people start to think differently about time that they may have some suggestions for me, or things that they can do to support their peers. Imagine a school where everyone was working to share time and give time to one another — what would that feel like?

Finally, I’ve come to faith, and its connection to risk-taking. For me, learning is a journey, and a path that I take steps on each day. Pope Francis talks about walking and journeys in this way:

“Walking is an art; if we are always in a hurry we tire and cannot reach our destination, the destination of our journey. Yet if we stop and do not move, we also fail to reach our destination. Walking is precisely the art of looking to the horizon, thinking about where I want to go, and also coping with the weariness that comes from walking. Moreover, the way is often hard-going, it is not easy. … Yet, always keep this in your thoughts: do not be afraid of failure, do not be afraid of falling. In the art of walking it is not falling that matters, but not ‘staying fallen.’ Get up quickly, immediately, and continue to go on. And this is beautiful: it is working every day, it is walking humanly. But also, it is terrible to walk alone, terrible and tedious. Walking in community, with friends, with those who love us: this helps us, it helps us to arrive precisely at the destination where we must arrive.”

— Address to the students of the Jesuit Schools of Italy and Albania, Paul VI Audience Hall, June 7, 2013

This quote speaks to my faith — it in many ways sums up my approach to life and living in community. It reminds us that as humans we can sometimes get lost or lose sight of our goals, that sometimes we will rush and ignore the people and beauty around us, that sometimes we will get tired, that there will be times when we fall down. But, and this is an important ‘but’ — but we cannot ‘remain fallen’ — we need to get back up, to help others up and to walk alongside them in community.

It also, I think, speaks to the nature of the human condition and to learning — that each of us takes steps — large or small, fast or slow, difficult or gliding, each day towards some goal that we can only somewhat fully apprehend. And that on this journey we will all make mistakes and fail, and that this is normal and natural and part of being human. Failure is an opportunity for me to put my faith in action, to either reach out a hand in support of another, or to ask for help, or to brush the dust off myself and carry on. Risk is, in this context, something that my faith allows me to embrace and face with confidence, though not without anxiety and sometimes fear (I am only human after all). I hope that this confidence comes through in the way that I lead my school, and I hope it is part of the culture that I try to create for staff and students.

I will conclude with a sentiment here expressed by Theodore Roosevelt. I would make the pronouns gender neutral — anyone could fill any of these roles, and men are not the only ones who take risks or criticize risk-takers:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: We welcome Mark Sonnemann as a new and significant contributor to Community Works Journal. His thinking is on the mark, and his writing engaging and clear headed.

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