Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.

A Good Mind

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My son and I have taken Tae Kwon Do together now for almost a year. He joined so he could engage in an extracurricular activity that would also benefit him down the road, in areas such as self-discipline and healthy habits. I joined to lose a few pounds as well as to stretch out an ailing back.

We both have graduated to our next levels. This means we are that much closer in our learning progression toward black belt – the ultimate prize. What it also means is that our next short term goal (a red stripe for me and red belt for my son) will require a longer interval between testing dates.

Thinking back to my initial test for yellow stripe, this event occurred after only two weeks of training. The forms and techniques were simple. Success was essentially guaranteed.

Not so now. The techniques and forms asked of each of us is a challenge every time we enter practice. So what keeps us going? How will we, especially my young son, stay motivated to achieve that next goal, which is at least four months away?

Our master instructor often addresses this during practice. While we are sitting down and stretching on the floor of the dojang, he will make comments like “You don’t need to be the greatest athlete to be successful (in tae kwon do). But you do need to have a good mind.”

So if it is mostly mental, what does it take to develop a good mind? Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Mariner, 2012), explores this question. He is a journalist who looked for answers to why some kids succeed against great odds while others do not.

For instance, Tough visited and observed students in highly volatile areas within the city of Chicago. What he learned is that, in spite of these kids’ tough situations, some overcame the obstacles they faced through positive relationships with others, especially parents. In fact, he found that “parents can overcome histories of trauma and poor attachment; that they can change their approach to their children from one that produces anxious attachment to one that promotes secure attachment and healthy functioning” (38). This is promising. Even if we as parents have made mistakes in the past, it may not be too late.

But what if parents do not make these changes when warranted? How do we as educators handle these situations? The author relates this knowledge to how schools might attempt to help students develop better habits of mind. As an example, Tough highlighted an inner city chess club advisor, Elizabeth Spiegel. Her middle school students regularly win both individual and team awards at the national level. Her secret? Besides an incredible amount of chess knowledge she has attained, she also provides her students with unflinchingly honest feedback about their performance. She isn’t mean with her observations. Spiegel is just very direct and specific about where her students can improve for their next competition. Her goal is to help her students think, as well as to encourage the idea that they can always improve.

Back in the dojang…

In spite of our lengthened time before our next testing date, I am starting to now see how those that came before us were successful.

First, our practices are reliant on our community. There is no shame in being a white belt, because everyone started at this point. If someone is struggling with their form, a higher belt is assigned to that person to perform it together, as a shared demonstration. If there is more than one belt color that needs help, another student is place in between each of them. They then execute the same form together. When practice is not in session, we have several opportunities to celebrate, such as at tournaments and family gatherings. There is no shortage of trophies and food. These positive relationships keep us together during our individual struggles.

As well, our practices are all about growth. We don’t look back at a time when we were not successful. Rather, a focus on that next step toward becoming a green belt, red belt, or whatever goal is the aim. The feedback we receive from the master instructor is always about our actions and never about ourselves as a person. Even if the mistake was “upstairs”, the response from our teacher is still focused on our habits of mind. Are we lacking focus? What is going on right now that is preventing us from being present? Whether physical or mental, we have total control in making adjustments to better our performance.

Why does this matter?

In school, so much of our time is wasted on focusing on goals that are not attainable in the near or distant future. Standardized test scores and other forms of summative assessments are outcomes of excellent instruction. But they mean very little to learners in the here and now. When a school attempts to become proficient in a matter of one year after receiving results that indicate underachievement, it is like going from white belt to black belt. It is not going to happen that fast. That goal is only attainable if a school were to alter the system itself. This would mean cheating the assessments, which has become a reality for a few schools and districts.

Instead, schools that are the most successful create a culture of continuous learning toward attainable goals. They develop a climate where it is perfectly acceptable to admit one’s areas of need and seek help in becoming better. Schools that make large and regular gains see the success in one area as a result of a collaborative effort from many. Feedback given and received is visible, transparent, and focused on what we are doing and can do better in, instead of nebulous goals that are unattainable and irrelevant to students’ learning lives.

As I embark on my fourth year as an elementary principal, I plan on coming in with the same mindset of wonder and enthusiasm as I did when I stepped into my first classroom. Cultivating a climate of trust, collective responsibility, and hope will be my first priorities. I am confident that the other important mandates will fall into place.