Sunday, January 22, 2017

Support in change

One thing I'm learning fast is that I'm doing a lot of hard things this year.  Going in, I knew that designing a game that teaching advanced tech while simulating the world and exploring Grand Challenges would be tough to facilitate.  I also knew that an intervention math class that is aiming to pull kids to accelerated levels of proficiency by the end of the year, while managing a huge variety of personalities and behaviors, was going to be draining and tricky.  There have been tons of bright spots in the year, but not right now.

In our Grad School prompts this week, Jen asked us to reflect on our support team and the role of trust in change.  Both fit together nicely with how I get through each day.

When I started teaching in Byron, I was a year-long intern working under math teachers Rob and Troy.  They were core support throughout that first year and the many years to follow.  They had a ton of useful experience to draw on, but usually, they just asked me the right questions and facilitated my own learning.  For this, I could never repay them.

More recently, I spent a larger fraction of my day teaching intervention math classes.  With Independent Math (self-paced, computer-based curriculum), many of my students were also in a Study Skills course.  I was constantly connecting with those teachers for strategies and support.  I also had a lot more behavior and emotional problems, so I spent a lot of time connecting with the office team.  When I started co-teaching last year for the Basic+Intermediate Algebra course, collaboration went from a nice support to daily life.  Ashlee (SpEd) and I constantly helped each other think through the challenges we faced in the classroom.  Because things were so difficult for both of us, we constantly reached out to our instructional coach, Andy, our principal and asst. principal Steve and Malia, and a number of peers across the building that we looked up to.  Our support team formed because of our problem and all the people who cared about us and our students.  Now, as I teach a class with different (and I think harder) challenges with Brandon and Rachel, I again can't imagine doing it alone.  Their teaching skill supporting me each day is huge, but the emotional support of doing something challenging with others you trust is very powerful.

I also have a somewhat separate network that I turn to in pushing forward with radically new innovations in the classroom.  I was fortunate to be granted time to work with Matt Weyers and the awesome teams he was with during two years of PBL pilots.  Matt continues to push me and help me think through my own course designs.  Around the same time, I was a Digital Learning Coach under our tech director++, Jen Hegna, who is a force of nature with innovation and pushing deeper learning forward in the district.  She has individually encouraged me, provided crazy amounts of feedback, and helps spark a number of ideas.  My graduate program and all that it pushed me to think through is her fault.  Support has also come through our admin team -- they feel like bulldozer drivers sometimes the way they just plow through barriers.  I can't think of a district where an idea can be pitched and a 2 credit class can be on the books in under a month, and then by the next fall, a 3-teacher interdisciplinary course based on it is already taking its place.

A third network, the robotics program, has been amazing.  When I started, there were a couple crazy adults that joined late in the year to help.  Now, there is an army of parents, alumni, and community members that make our team and everything we do just hum along.  The team is so powerful that I was able to step down as head coach this year, be replaced by someone without specific experience in FRC or robotics, and our team is doing better this year so far than we ever have.  I love working with and learning from this group of fantastic mentors.  I also really love working with the group of kids that have been part of the program for many years -- I have deep trust for them, and over time, have earned their trust.  Despite all of the adult support for Grand Challenge Design, I told my robotics students to take the class (a HUGE schedule killer) and 13 of 17 did it without seeing any plan.  If that isn't trust, I don't know what is, and I am more motivated than ever to follow through with that in GCD this year.

Outside of school, I am incredibly thankful for my wife who loves me even when I'm not that lovable.  As a bonus, she pushes me, gives me ideas, and creates time and space for my own passions.  The emotional support network of my friends in Rochester and my family back in Wisconsin enable me to take all the risks that I do.  The wider network of friends from college that helps me think through my ideas and reflect on tough questions is also amazing.

My support teams across the board are built completely on relationships.  At school, change happens quickly because of mutual trust -- I know what is expected of me when trying something new, and everyone involved knows that I will do what it takes to will something into existence.  I spend a lot of time talking to people in any given day, mainly because I need to in order to do my job well.  In most cases, I have lived up to others' expectations and built a track record of working hard and caring for kids.  I am also usually good about building a track record of caring about my peers and helping when I can.  This creates trust.

Do I think trust is necessary for change?  No.  Is it necessary for fast change?  Absolutely.  Rational people will eventually change when they believe that the new way of doing something is better than the old way, assuming they have the time and support to learn the new way.  You don't need trust to come to that belief, but that means you have to experience it yourself.  In a high-trust environment, I will try something just because you say it is awesome.  You will give me permission to take risks without proof that I know what I'm doing.  This lets innovation and new ideas take-off in an organization.  In a culture that is focused on student learning and growth, not just new-ness, all of this innovation will be constantly evaluated and tweaked as groups of peers push each other to improve.  Trust is the catalyst that gets everything moving.

As I push through the challenging spots of this year, especially with a new baby about to be born any day, I am SO thankful for the people in my day-to-day and the extended team around me, those listed above and the countless others who are pouring into me daily.  I don't have all the answers, but because of all of the people I trust that surround me, I don't need all of the answers.  I just need to be open and honest with my challenges and be willing to listen as they help me do what is best for our students.


  1. Andy, this is well said. I have always wondered how you handle it all, but your support team speaks volumes and answers that clearly. I definitely agree with you on that trust is needed for fast change. I truly think trust is something that eventually builds over time and as it builds then change will occur. Keep working hard, it's paying off!

    1. Thanks, Kirsten. I see a lot of the same in what you've done at the middle school already. Passion for kids and hard work do a lot to build your credibility, but when you add your openness for working with other staff collaboratively, it really moves that to trust and opens a lot of future doors for what you're capable of doing for students.

  2. Great post Andy! You are such an innovator, it's amazing to hear about everything you do with your classes! I think this is such an important blog topic because it can really inspire other innovators out there and encourage them to bring "crazy" ideas to their admin. If you have a trusting support system, anything is possible!

    1. I hope you feel confident in continuing to push forward with all the middle school awesomeness that you're leading -- there are a lot of people lined up to support you as well. Just keep asking!