Understanding and Removing Barriers

Grant Wiggins, a visionary education reformer who has made a tremendous impact now and will continue to do so even after his recent passing, and was one of the developers of “Understanding by Design” (with Jay McTighe), shared a powerful “guest” blog post of a learning coach mirroring two students for a day each in her school (it was later acknowledged to be written by Alexis Wiggins).  Here was the initial plan for the process from Alexis:

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

The post was telling as it shared how much Alexis struggled through the process of “being a student”, and it led her to the following three key takeaways:

    1. Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
    2. High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.
    3. You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

Now the point of sharing this is not to challenge the ideas that she shared (as this is from the perspective of her school at the time), but to think about the process.  This is not the norm for many students in schools around the world, but as leaders, how do we know this?  Do we often make assumptions in what is happening in our school, or do we actually experience something different?  One of the toughest groups to teach in the world is other teachers, and to go from that viewpoint, some of the expectations we have on our students, is not something we could handle for an hour, let alone, a full day.  The one quote from the blog post that really resonated for me, was when the student was asked about her perspective in class:

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, and how little of their learning they are directing or choosing.

Can you imagine going to a place every day where you felt your voice didn’t matter?  That part shook me.

The power of this post was not only in what was written by the author, but also the comments (there were 285 as of the time that I referenced this article and probably they will continue to receive more), that came from a variety of people, including students and educators.  The comments had a range of stories shared from personal experiences as a student, and struggles to accommodate something different as a teacher.  The reality of the learning environments that happen in our classrooms, are that they are not only created by the teacher, but the entire school.  If this is what school looks like for our students, what are we doing as leaders to help support to create something new?

The Impact of Our Decisions

One of my own thoughts as a central office administrator, was to be in our schools as much as often, to support our educators.  If you really love education, this can never happen enough, but I saw this as crucial to the work I was doing.  If my decisions had an impact on classrooms, then I better experience and see the impact of those decisions.

What I would often do is take my laptop and sit in a classroom in a school for anywhere between three to six hours, where I would get to the point that the teachers and students did not even notice I was there.  That way I could really see what their experiences looked like.  What I struggle with in our mobile world, is how reluctant we are to take our computers as leaders and do some of the administrative work in our classrooms?  I could answer my email a lot faster in my quiet office, but there are so many reasons why I would rather do it in the classroom.

What needs to be clear in this process is that I was not there to evaluate the teachers.  In fact, it was more to evaluate the environment that was created by the school district.  What I had noticed is how much “other stuff” teachers had to do, to make things work.  Whether it was going through an arduous logon process with students, or constant issues with WiFi, they looked less like teachers, and more like magicians.  From an IT department perspective, Internet is often “fast” and the logon process is quick, but times that by 20-30 students in a classroom (if you are lucky), and you have many frustrated educators that go above and beyond to create powerful learning opportunities for our students.

If we want “innovation” to happen in our schools, we have to be willing to sit in the environments where it is going to happen, and be able to not only discuss teaching and learning, but also do everything in our power to remove barriers from those that we serve.  One of the things that I have noticed in education is that we do not need “managers”, but we need “leaders”.

The truth is we need both.

We need leaders to have a vision of where we can go in our schools, but the “management” part is about making sure we have what we need to get there.  Stephen Covey (paraphrased) said that we manage things, but we lead people.  The educators that we serve, need the “things” to work if we truly want to create a “culture of innovation”, and support in creating an environment that we would truly want to be in as a learner ourselves.


  1. Thank you George for another insightful post. Your question about “imagin[ing] a place where you felt your voice didn’t matter” shook me as well. Student voice is not about giving students the opportunity to say something but more about providing the environment for them to be heard. In my experience, students felt most acknowledged when their ideas were embraced by others and translated into action. To invite critical thinking, sometimes it is not a product or performance that needs to be transformed but the environment itself. I wrote a blog post about this recently: https://sites.google.com/a/ycdsbk12.ca/lagamba/blog/lucky-seven.

    One of your takeaways about “high school students sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes” really resonated with me. Learning spaces do not always need to involve collaboration, but a culture of engagement should be implicit. Interactions take on more meaning if learners feel compelled to contribute. If a student is voraciously raising their hand to be heard about something, how often do we ask why? In terms of the dynamic of the classroom, how often do we reflect on the type of instances that seem to spur whole-class involvement?

    I highly encourage educators to monitor who is asking the most questions in the classroom. When I first did this as a beginning teacher, any presumption that questioning was balanced in my classroom vanished. It was a defining moment for me to actively focus on asking fewer but more profound questions so that the majority of questions elicited came from students. When asking a question, I also made it a point of giving a few extra seconds before I would let anyone respond to it. The uptake of this was that more students raised their hands when they were given the time to actually reflect on their response.

    August 2, 2015
  2. Dr. Norma Lent Auerbach said:

    High School Principals should be in the halls walking around if need be with a member of the security staff. Your presence is a deterrent to many problems plus you’ll see the same “trouble makers” in the hall every day at the same time and can re-direct them to where they belong. Also, stopping in to classrooms to say hello, especially when the teacher is sitting down and the students are doing seat-work is a good time to make yourself known. Don’t forget to visit those classes where the teacher is absent that day. The time for principals to catch up with their telephone calls is once the students are out of the building. In the meantime, you need to be visible. Perhaps you can even get some teachers who have a period off to walk around with you once in a while. It’s amazing how much attendance you can take in the halls!

    August 3, 2015
  3. Jean Satterfield said:

    As a new principal in two different schools early in my career, i visited classrooms everyday. At first i was asked why i was coming into classrooms and I replied that i did not know the students or the teachers and this was the best way for me to get to know the school. I always left a follow-up note stating positive behaviors on the part of the students and teachers. After a few months, the staff and students started to trust me and even missed me when i was out of the building.

    At one point a new superintendent stated to principals that they did not have to visist but should look at the test results. I countered that if a parent or student should come an complain about a teacher based on my frequent visits I could truthfully say that i had been in the classroom numerous times and had not seen the behavior cited.

    Of course over a long career there were a few teachers who had problems that were noted in muy visits. If the behavior did not change i could document the concern because i was a frequent visitor.

    Daily visits harken back to “managing by walking around” and the “three minute walkthrough”

    August 5, 2015

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