What are you willing to fall on your sword for?

The title for this post is a quote from Judy Wallis. I had the chance to hear her speak at a literacy and leadership institute in 2012. She is an accomplished educator and scholar, working as a teacher, literacy coach, staff developer, university instructor, and literacy director for the last four decades.

Judy’s quote references the importance of shared instructional beliefs and how they apply to practice. She defines a shared instructional belief as “a statement that generally applies to the whole school or district”. These statements are what we as educators hold dear to our professional hearts. Or in Judy’s words, “What are you willing to go down for?”. Below is an example of a shared literacy belief in our school:

Shared writing is an excellent way to record common experiences and connect to reading.

Schools and districts can come to consensus on instructional beliefs by first examining several statements, noting whether they agree or disagree with each one (some of them are purposefully contradictory), and then discussing the results as a staff. For those beliefs that a group of educators find complete agreement on, they can own them and celebrate. At this point, these beliefs are expected to be applied to classroom practice consistently, assessed through instructional walkthroughs and teacher self-assessment. Once beliefs and practices are in place, I have found that teachers are more efficient and effective in selecting resources for instruction.

Unfortunately, too many schools and districts are working backwards. They select the resources, such as technology or a literacy anthology series, and then consider how these materials will be applied in the classroom. Beliefs come last, and are often influenced by the resources selected.

Used with permission, from Regie Routman's book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014)
Used with permission.

It shouldn’t be this way. Shared instructional beliefs are the non-negotiables in an organization. They filter out those who want to come in but don’t share the same values. Shared beliefs also draw interest from professionals who share your beliefs and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 7.01.09 PMIn addition, if a mandate or initiative comes a school’s way and doesn’t align with their shared beliefs, it is a lot less likely to be implemented into instruction. Shared beliefs raise a school above any one person coming or going, which helps ensure continuous academic success for students. Without shared beliefs, just about anything that comes a school’s way may be applied to practice, and maybe not for the better. With shared beliefs, fads such as test prep hit a brick wall when trying to infiltrate an organization.

So what are you willing to fall on your sword for? What do you and your staff agree upon without a doubt regarding instruction? If you are not sure where to start, join the All Things PLC (#atplc) chat tomorrow night (December 11) at 8 P.M. CST/9 P.M. EST for an hour long Twitter conversation on “Beliefs and Values”. There will be the opportunity to continue the discussion afterwards.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, also in Wisconsin (http://mineralpointschools.org/). He also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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