Thursday, March 27, 2003

Becoming the Change

As recently as the school year of 2000-2001Thomas More High School (TMHS) was still struggling with the concept of “full inclusion” of their Special Educational needs students. In an interesting development our current administrative staff were at one time special education teachers at TMHS. With the last Associate Principal being placed the administrative team decided to implement a new platform of education at TMHS. This development did not go without resistance. The change was to not only to proceed with full inclusion as its premise but to also develop a schedule that would allow for full inclusion into “coordinated arts” classes, or as some are to refer it to as “non-academics,” (at TMHS these include Family and Consumer Education, Band and Chorus, music theory, technical applications, art, computer, Health Applications and physical education). This division between academics and non-academics would prove detrimental in ensuing months.

Part of the discussion of resistance came from how would the existing special education structure support the students in the new platform. Concerns were expressed: how would students be “case managed,” or who would be in charge of who; who would provide the modifications and/or instruction to these students; how would the special education needs teachers coincide or assist with the teachings of the regular education staff; how would the inclusion of these students take away the educational processes from the regular education students; and ultimately who is responsible for who and what.

The platform developed in a sense was designed to cover all of these questions. The changes implemented were not entirely discussed with the existing staff, rather a vision was implemented by a team of administrators who had worked closely with each other for many years. Their vision envisioned a middle school design that incorporated “houses” into each grade level. These houses then would provide a time, a structure and place for staff team development. Each house would be responsible for a specific amount of students each year. Within each house would be a team leader, whom the house was named after, the house would then have a teacher representing each content area: language arts, mathematics, social studies, etc. Also included in the house are two cross categorical special education teachers and special education aides as determined by the house special needs population. This design would then provide teachers, services, and support for all of the students within the house. Each grade level is then divided up by these houses. The houses then coordinate with each other in grade levels to work on common curricular activities so that the grade levels are not entirely segmented but rather special teams within a larger team.

The first year this change was implemented there arrived a lot of strife and resistance by teachers who had been used to the previous methods. Part of the difficulties discovered was that now that the academic houses were separated out there existed a need for combining the house’s individuality with the existing coordinated arts. This then led to the coordinated arts instructors becoming a “house,” the difference in that this house now taught all of the students in the school regardless of house or grade level. What happened was that the academic houses disassociated themselves from the coordinated arts house. The regular education teachers decided that full inclusion would only be successful if the special education teachers were in the classroom with them at all times. This left the teachers in coordinated arts without access to assistance in modification, instruction, or planning.

To accommodate this need the administrative team decided to develop a position where a special education teacher would be hired to work with the coordinated arts house. This teacher would not only work with the individual houses in deciding where the aides would be appropriately placed but would also work with all of the teachers in providing modifications and other necessary support. This position was originally developed as a Limited Term Employment to determine if the position was even necessary, as the special education teachers in each house should also be providing services for each house and the coordinated arts house, as these were their students. The original LTE position ended up being a person who would walk into a classroom and play “disciplinarian” to students who were not behaving well. Support was not forthcoming from the individual houses nor from the other special education staff. It would seem that the entire full inclusion plan was deemed for failure.

“You must become the change that you seek in others”
Mahatma Gandhi

This is the setting in which I would enter. I can speak with clarity through hindsight on the change process from where I was brought aboard the TMHS platform. When it comes to the change process, I label myself as not only a trailblazer but one of those bell ringers so far out there that sometimes when people follow the trail I have blazed, they are considered innovative trailblazers themselves. My whole purpose for becoming an educator was to change a system that I did not believe had the best interest of the student at heart. I was approached by TMHS because they had heard of some of my blazing through networking within the education network.

The importance of this description of myself is that the administrative staff at TMHS were trailblazers themselves in their incorporation of their education platform through the Milwaukee School District. (They seem to have put the emphasis on the idea that if they could get the school board to follow along, that the teachers would be readily and eagerly to do so.) The other important note is that these trailblazers did not pay attention to the change process within their own school. Believing as it were that the their staff were trailblazers right along with them, at the very least pioneers. As it was discovered, not only were some of these people not pioneers but most were settlers, and the next majority would have to be the stay at homes. (There are always saboteurs but these will discussed later as they become integral in stopping this change process.)

When the administrative team and I originally sat down we discussed a plan. I was hesitant as I was becoming one of those trailblazers who kept getting burned. With my clarity of hindsight I believe that our principal is truly unaware that his school is not engaged in the change as he is, he describes a school that is working in absolute harmony where the vision is shared by all and everyone participates in the development of the vision. (Honestly, this seemed too good a school to pass up!) I agreed to join the staff and we proceeded to lay out a design for my position. The old LTE position was now agreed to be a permanent position but with a few changes. The role would be more of a peer coach who would go into the coordinated arts classrooms and instruct the teachers on how to modify, or instruct all students in a more constructivist, multiple-intelligence modality. The position would also be one that would bridge the two entities of “academics” and “non-academics” while assisting in the development and cooperation of the special education staff across the houses.

Either my principal lied or he truly does not see that his school does not share his vision. As a trailblazer I am used to and even indeed welcome the struggle to getting others moving in the shared direction. This is perhaps my underlying desire and motivation for becoming a teacher: to see that growth and change in others as they experience it. What I was to discover was the setting I have already outlined. This coupled with rather unfortunate occurrences, for example, Ms. Block, the woman who had originally had my position as an LTE had been rehired full time but not for that position, she did not seem to work out in that capacity but she carried with her experience and education that could be utilized in the school. She is an affable and well connected individual in her house and grade level and she is decidedly and outspoken about her having a different vision from our principal. This is unfortunate because she would become the biggest saboteur of this program, and has been very successful in tearing the system apart.

Ms. Block, for whatever reasons, has been on a personal vendetta against who I am or how my vision does not correlate with the school’s which does not correlate with the principal’s. This is a bit of irony for Ms. Block does not support our principal, but she restates that I do not, and therefore by her despairing about me demonstrates that she is indeed in support of the principal's vision without ever having to say that she is or demonstrating this. Her sabotage has been things such as she “saw Mr. Kay searching jobs on the internet” which led to rumors that I was “A). Quitting or B). Being Fired” this led to two things: some staff getting mad that I was not willing to put in time to support them, or that I did something wrong and to disassociate from me. Another example happened when during an Individualized Education Planning session it was determined that a student carry about an academic/behavior report that would be signed by all teachers and not just those in the academic house. This piece of information then spread about the schools as “Mr. Kay wants all teachers to fill out hourly reports on all students every day every hour.” This then concluded in an emergency meeting held by the house to figure out what to do with me since I was making their lives so difficult and troublesome. The other difficulty associated with Ms. Block is that when she was in the position I am in she would remove the special education students from the class and teach them an alternative lesson at an alternative setting. This is not what the full inclusion platform meant and was detrimental to the process. However, the remarks I get are “last year the person in your role used to take the kids out…”, or “the other person in your position did this…”

What I have discovered is that we have staff members who are “wannabe” pioneers. They believe in the concepts, they have knowledge of theories and best practices, and truly are engaged in how their children learn but are afraid of making that step outwards away from what they feel to be comfortable. Too often they are afraid of associating with me because of the flare-ups that we have had regarding our saboteur and myself. After all, ‘the principal and I are seen in his office engaged in discussion quite a lot, no telling how much longer I have.’

Perhaps the largest part of this problem was myself. When I was brought on I believed it was clear what my role was to be, it had been explained to me that the school worked in tandem towards this shared vision and in essence on the road from “A to Z” we were somewhere around “M” or otherwise in the middle. Because of this I came aboard believing that we were already at “M”, I discovered quite quickly that my role had not only not been shared but that this shared vision did not exist. Quite a bit of my instruction, assistance and discussion conflicted with how the houses were established or against their settling in principles. Discussion fell apart so poorly that at one moment I was talking with our reading specialist who had been in some classes with a friend of mine, an affable beginning, I mentioned that I had some “really cool” software that allowed you to develop “cloze” assignments pertaining to things that the student might be interested in. Her response was “I know what I am doing, I am working on my masters.” How ironic perhaps, we educators are eager to tell people that we are working on our degrees, and how important that is but then when we get them no one gives us credit for getting them.

The biggest problem has been defining what the shared vision is. We have a few trailblazers who are in denial, we have many staff members who are settlers because they are scared pioneers, we also have a powerful contingent of stay at homes who will sabotage at a moments notice as long as they can keep there piece of the educational pie. The first thing I have done is realized that often change happens a lot slower than we desire. I have realized that I need allies and have worked within my house in establishing this specifically by asking what needs or desires my house had that I could assist in. Secondly, since there has been a lack of support both from my peers and my supervisors we have established scheduled weekly meetings during our shared prep hour. Originally I met with these teachers on a needs basis, but by incorporating a scheduled time I can help them to focus on their own strengths rather than relying on me to come in to their classroom and fix things. I continue to provide support materials, articles, resources etc that I have or discover and present this in the time that we meet, (as our in-service schedules are already planned and full for the next year). Through these weekly meetings I have also been able to meet with the principal on a weekly basis and go over the weekly planning sessions. This has demonstrated to him that things are not always as he has envisioned it and it helps him to know where our needs are.

For our change to be successful we need more open dialogue, we need to remove the blinders and go out and mend the bridges damaged by the previous mistakes. I have asked one of our peer mentoring coaches to intervene on my behalf with my relationship with Ms. Block, I believe that by not having her or including her in the process of her removal from her position may be part of the reason that she wants to see me fail. Or perhaps she just does not believe in what we are doing, either way we need to connect and I know it begins with me. I would be beneficial for “teams” of teachers to work together outside of the house situation. The house format while wonderful often instills an “us vs. them” mentality.

The most obvious factor is that there was no discussion of the vision. We sometimes get caught up in what we believe in and cannot understand how others cannot see it and then we are dumbfounded when others do not share this vision. What this entails is clearer definitions, courageous communication, a needs assessment by the staff that is evaluated and processed as well as can be, alleviation of fear for fear is the most devastating element in change, an understanding that the change will not make your work harder, or obsolete, just different an understanding that things can change and will often. Humor helps, I am reminded of statement by Dennis Miller, “life is like riding a bus – it requires change.”