When I was in the classroom, all of my instructional decisions were guided by tests. How would my kids do well on these tests? That was the true and only marker of their success, right? Also, that’s how I was evaluated as an effective teacher, and so testing was always top of mind. This notion that the test is the end-all be-all was ingrained in me since my first day in the classroom; at this point, everything my principal said was gospel and an absolute truth. So, the end of year state test was my guiding light and my North Star. I never stopped to think about how my teaching would help mold my kids into the people I wanted them to be because I never had the time to, and no one ever pushed me to prioritize that line of thinking. I also thought that doing well on tests would just get kids there.
I wonder how my school experience would have been different if we, as a school, spent the summer talking about and planning for how we wanted to shape our students’ learning experience. I know we want them to be “college-ready” but that’s the end-goal. How do we get them there as a school? How would we want to describe their journey along the way to graduation, preparing them to be college-ready?
Truthfully, what if you didn’t have a test to guide our thinking? As a school leader, instructional coach, teacher, paraprofessional — what would be your North Star if tests didn’t exist? What do you want your kids to know and be able to do at the end of the year? How would you make “smart” instructional decisions to reach those end goals?
Do some research. Ask yourself and co-workers at your school — what is our vision for excellence? If they are able to all verbalize the same thing, please let me know where you work — I want to visit! More than likely, you will get a variety of answers because you actually haven’t had this important conversation as a team and a school.
Have this conversation. If you stop and think about who you want your kids to be and what you want them to achieve at your school and ultimately in life, that is a great starting point. From there, you can plan for the kind of learning experience you want to create for them. If you all agree that you want your kids to grow up to be “lifelong problem-solvers,” you need to think about the intentional moves you are going to make as a school in order to make that happen. It starts from day one and continues every day after.
This is a really hard thing to do. But, after starting the conversation, the planning doesn’t happen alone. Bring your team together — teachers and leaders — and intentionally go through the process of creating a vision of excellent instruction for your school. You are planning for the journey, not just the destination for you kids being “college-ready.” You will talk about what you want teachers classrooms to look like and feel like when you walk in them. You will talk about what you expect students to be doing and feeling as they sit in every teacher’s classroom. You will be forced to watch videos of how instruction currently exists at your school and how you would change it. What are the things you want every person who visits your school to say about your kids, your teachers, and the learning experience that is happening across the entire school.
The process of agreeing will be messy! This is good. This means you all care that much.
The process may seem long, but the end product is really meaningful in so many ways. Now, having seen this process play out with several schools, it is incredible how the visions differ. Schools are forced to dive much deeper into the daily actions of every person at their school and how every action contributes to the greater vision of what they ultimately want kids to achieve.
Start the conversation to realize what needs to be done. Tests will continue to exist and be prioritized, but remember that you determine your North Star. After all, Polaris (aka the scientific term for the real North Star) is just one star in the Dipper. Find yours.