And you have treasures hidden within you- extraordinary treasures – and so do I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and courage and devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small.
At the Corwin Learning Symposium in San Diego, all of the Corwin consultants had the privilege of visiting Health Sciences High and Middle College, the school founded by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. While surrounded by living proof that schools can defatalize the “established” life trajectories of so many brilliant and underserved kids, Doug’s final words to us were not about strategies, instruction, or skills, but school culture. He noted that Corwin does not have a designated service line devoted explicitly to helping schools develop positive learning environments, and the question he left us with was: Would people hire us for this work?
As someone whose research, coaching, and consulting work has been founded on the unshakable belief that educators are seeking depth, transformation, and human connection while on the job I can with confidence say YES. People will hire us for this work. People, in fact, are hungry for it.
There is no separation between teaching and life. The way you teach is the way you live, and too many educators feel the smallness of thinking that has permeated what should be the most generative endeavor of any human being. Often the focus in education is on the observable, measurable, technical aspects of teaching. These are extremely important, but we are tragically unbalanced if we spend the majority of our time in this realm. Teaching is a human profession and, as such, real transformation occurs at the level of the heart.
Deep Practices: Teaching from the Heart
My research and my work with teachers have always sought to answer the question “What do educators need in order to stay inspired and renewed every day?” What emerged from a number of studies and years of coaching was the concept of “Deep Practices,” which my colleague and I defined as “any action or choice that originates from the heart of the teacher” (Michalec & Newburgh, 2018). Developing deep practices means strengthening an educator’s sense of what we called the “ineffable qualities” of calling, presence, authenticity, wholeheartedness, and imagination. Intentionally developing these attributes in educators and school leaders creates a powerful foundation for positive school culture and climate. Indeed, every one of my studies has indicated that the consistent common denominator of strong school culture is having leadership and educators with well-developed deep practices (Michalec & Newburgh, 2018; Newburgh, 2018).
So, can deep practices be taught? The answer is a resounding yes! And no. I believe deep practices aren’t taught so much as unearthed. As a result, this type of work requires a different model of professional learning than what we’re accustomed to. Most workshops operate on a format that includes: introducing a new concept, providing tools and resources for understanding that concept, and then giving participants time to integrate the concept. This works extremely well for what Doug referred to as “instructional practices.” This is a powerful model of professional learning and has helped innumerable educators hone their abilities to better serve their students.
Developing deep practices, however, with the objective of strengthening culture and climate, is a much more personal endeavor. The approach to deep practices throws the “behavior first, student outcomes second, and attitude last” model of change on its head. In order to develop deep practices an educator must first get clear on her innermost values and set a vision for what integrity and authenticity look and feel like to her. From there, we can guide her to enact that vision by shedding or refining practices that don’t align with it (for more information on developing deep practices please refer to this article).
The Worthy Challenges of Implementation
There are a number of worthy challenges to implementing this work for the development of long-term, sustainable culture changes in schools. Parker Palmer famously noted that teaching “is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life” (Palmer, 1998, p. 17), which means that this type of work is intensely personal. Taking the lid off of an educator’s professional persona will expose her humanity for all to see. It takes a facilitator with her own well-developed deep practices to hold courageous space for the tensions, emotions, and challenges that arise during this work. If done well, the facilitator’s humanity will also be exposed, which creates a universal sense of vulnerability and trust. Ultimately, growth only occurs through meaningful pain, and if people truly want to transform their daily reality they’ll have to meet, with grace and honesty, the aspects of themselves that are holding them back.
Another challenge is in creating a sui generis model of professional learning that speaks to people enough for them to want to take a chance on it. At the outset of our research my colleague and I had long talks about the advisability of even embarking on the journey. Both of us had worked closely with program and teacher evaluation, and our greatest fear was that our theory of deep practices would be processed through the “if it’s not measurable it never happened” machine and spit out into discrete, technicized (Greene, 1988) digestible chunks for mass consumption.
There is a balance in this work to providing concrete deliverables without undermining the integrity of the work. Ultimately, we want to script moves for schools to create the cultures they want without telling them how the culture should look or what they should value. The last thing we want is for this effort to get boiled down to a checklist, or a technical “to-do” list that teachers will see as just “one more thing.” The point of this work is that it can’t be classified as “one more thing” because it taps into the very identity of the educator. If done right, deep practices become as natural as breathing, and just as life giving.
However, while we don’t want to take a reductionist approach, we still want every educator to walk away changed, with new perspectives, with renewed inspiration, and with concrete strategies that they can implement right away. No real change ever happens “in theory.” But developing deep practices is a long-term process. Therefore, like many of the other strands that Corwin offers, the deep practices model of professional learning would invite the establishment of long-term partnerships built on trust, mutual regard, and commitment.
Documentation vs Metrics
In addition to providing tools and support for educators to develop stronger school cultures we need to be cognizant of, and respect the need for, external validation and indicators of change. One way to navigate this challenge is to invite participants to take a wide lens when thinking about data. When doing this work in the past I’ve asked participants to pivot from the question “can it be measured” to “can it be documented.” As a qualitative researcher I have seen data take many, many different forms. It’s important that we coach educators not to narrow their focus or define their outcomes too tightly at first, because if they look myopically for one thing they may miss out on the actual changes that are occurring.
An example of this is if a school leader wants increased test scores as an immediate and direct result of the deep practices work. First, it’s likely that other things need to happen before test scores can increase. Perhaps students need to feel safe and welcome at school in order to take the academic risks they’ll need to raise their skills and content knowledge. Perhaps the teachers need to regain a sense of inspiration before they can create engaging lessons. It could be any number of things, but the point is that if that school leader judged the success of the professional learning by the immediate increase in test scores, she would miss out on the actual, positive changes that were occurring as an outcome of partnership.
Secondly, I would like to take this scenario one step farther. When educators and leaders tell me that “raising test scores” is their ultimate goal, I always encourage them to think more expansively. The objective of “raising test scores” is rooted in lack (our test scores aren’t high enough), and our students deserve better than to have ceilings born from a deficit mindset. The deep practices approach to professional learning is actually a terrible fit for this type of goal because its very nature resists being defined solely in quantitative terms.
When confronted by these types of goals I ask the educator or school leader to dig underneath and find their “why.” What would an increase in test scores indicate to her? What is the larger goal beyond it? This approach opens the door for gathering much more robust and student-centered data: “I want students to boost content knowledge and skills in order for them to have the best chance at a fulfilling life.” “I want students to be prepared for life after high school.” “I want students to love learning and come to school every day excited and engaged.” In aspiring to any of these goals the leader sets a vision beyond test scores and creates a path for a purposeful, positive school culture rooted in, and driven by, deep practices.
Live your life. Love your work.
While doing walkthroughs at Doug and Nancy’s school we stopped by a 10th grade English Language Arts Classroom. Soothing music was playing. Students were parked at laptops taking a test. The teacher was calmly circulating, answering questions, making sure students had the resources they needed. At one point I looked away to study the quotes on the walls, and when I looked back I was struck by the sight of the teacher being embraced by one of his students. No tepid side-hug this: what I witnessed was a full-on, joy-filled bear hug. Arms were clenched and huge, toothy smiles cracked both faces wide open. It was a hug as spontaneous and exuberant as it was brief. If I hadn’t looked up at just that moment I would have missed it.
A hug. From a teenager to an adult. On a TEST day. I was dumbstruck. I also got the impression, from the absolute lack of reaction from anyone else, that this happened a lot.
It was not the first of such hugs I’d seen that day. When Doug invited us to join him during passing time, the space of that ten minutes was a constant parade of hugs. Students would walk by, casually hug him, answer some questions, and keep walking.
This type of school culture, where students are both loved and held accountable, did not happen by accident. At the same time, if we mapped backwards to define all of the concrete practices and leadership moves made by Doug and Nancy, that list would come nowhere near to telling the whole story. There was something palpable, some deep integrity that breathed through the fabric of that school that we could all feel. In our debrief one attendee said, in awe, “students here are treated like human beings.” And the crazy thing is, we all nodded our heads, equally awed. Because it is a given that being treated like a human being at school is something so rare, so unheard of, that when it happens we’re so excited and humbled that we remark on it as an extraordinary phenomenon.
I want to point out that this was not an either/or scenario. Doug and Nancy didn’t sit down and decide between student achievement and a vibrant, loving school culture. This was a both/and scenario where Doug and Nancy crafted, with care, artfulness, and unequivocal integrity, a school that would treat students like the brilliant, capable human beings that they are. This school was not an accident. It happened by design. And it doesn’t have to be rare.
Teachers are desperate for the deep supports (Newburgh, 2018) that will keep them renewed and inspired every day. Their urgent need is apparent in our attrition rates, our teacher shortages, and, perhaps most telling, in the hundreds of teachers we’ve encountered who have “burned in” on the job (Valtierra, 2013).
Culture and climate doesn’t just happen. True transformation occurs at the level of the heart, and often educators just need the permission and resources to attend to their hearts in this: the most human of professions. They want this work; they need this work; and we can deliver it for them.
We are not small thinkers. We are expansive, transformative thinkers. We see the treasures hidden in every teacher and every student we encounter, and we have the capacity to help people unearth those treasures. We can touch hearts and make widespread, sustainable change for ourselves, our educators and our students.
The clock is ticking. The world is spinning. And the charge has been laid before us. Let’s answer.
Greene, M. (1988). The Dialectic of Freedom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Michalec, P., & Newburgh, K. (2018). Deep Practices: Advancing Equity by Creating a Space and Language for the Inner Core of Teaching. Teacher Education and Practice, 31(1).
Newburgh, K. (2018). Teaching in good faith: Towards a framework for defining the deep supports that grow and retain first-year teachers. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-14. doi:10.1080/00131857.2018.1537878
Palmer, P. (1998). Courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Valtierra, K. (2013). Beyond survival to thrival: A narrative study of an urban teacher’s career journey. Dissertation. University of Denver.