Sunday, January 3, 2010

"3 R's" Not Just for Students

The "00" decade just completed could easily be identified with the latest "3 R's" movement: rigor, relevance and - belatedly - relationships. A number of leading education researchers and consultants have been promoting rigor and relevance since the early 90's, but Bill Daggett and the International Center for Leadership in Education gave them added prominence by underscoring the criticality of relationships when it comes to learning:

If there is not a high level of positive relationships, students will not respond to higher expectations. ~ Willard Daggett, Leadership for Rigor, Relevance and Relationships, International Center for Leadership in Education, 2006.

While the Center's focus has been primarily on student-student and teacher-student relationships in the context of rigor and relevance, I contend that employing the 3 R's can be just as critical for the success of district and school staff.

Rigor in the classroom most often refers to academic rigor but just as easily could imply the rigorous expectations and standards for the adult staff necessary to operate a district, school and classroom successfully. Daggett uses Bloom's Knowledge Taxonomy to describe the levels of rigor in academics - knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation - each of which can readily be applied to our professional work life. As educational professionals, we have an obligation to hold ourselves and our co-workers to the highest possible standards when it comes to being, knowing, and doing on an everyday basis. This equates to professional rigor in which we constantly demonstrate a thorough, in-depth mastery of challenging tasks that expand our cognitive skills through reflective thought, analysis, problem-solving, evaluation, or creativity (Daggett). These can be accomplished through regular inquiry, self-learning, and collaboration, face-to-face in our work settings, attendance at quality professional development opportunities, and by expanding our personal learning networks (PLN) to encompass social networking across the internet.

Relevance for students refers to interdisciplinary and contextual learning situations directly connected to real-world problems ranging from routine to complex. Relevance for teachers and administrators implies establishing a vision and mission, and moving forward on school improvement and change initiatives that have purpose and are focused on the agreed-upon needs of that particular school and student population. Initiative-overload, all too common in many districts and schools, leads to the loss of relevance and lack of common commitment amongst the professional staff. When teachers and principals in particular see the relevance of an initiative or strategy to the desired end-results, they are more likely to be successful. As with students, educational leaders should not confuse staff excitement and activity with relevance. To be relevant, the work must be meaningful (Daggett) and connected to the vision, mission and improvement goals of the school. There must be congruence between the desired end-state and the work being done.

Relationships are critical to completing rigorous work successfully (Daggett). Members of the staff are simply more likely to personally commit to more rigorous expectations when they know the Board of Education, superintendent, and other educational leaders care about them and how well they do. We are willing to go out of our way and make physical, emotional and intellectual investments in our profession when we are encouraged, supported and assisted. Just as students will engage more fully in challenging learning when they have increased levels of support from the people around them, educational professionals are willing to step out of their comfort zones, take greater risks, and go the extra mile to help the organization achieve success when they know someone has our backs. Daggett goes further to identify the four types of relationships that are critical to success, modified here to focus on staff:

  • Relationships essential for supporting the teaching and learning process in the classroom.
  • Relationships among teachers, administrators and support staff that influence good teaching, support functions, staff development, problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Relationships that support and maintain learning and development in the profession, including those that extend beyond the school or district boundary.
  • Relationships with parents and the community.

While relationships change over time, the best way to cultivate positive, professional rigor, relevance and relationships is through collaborative behaviors, initiatives and structures within a school system. The old days of isolated "teacher-as-independent-contractor" did not value collaboration as a fundamental tool for school improvement. Staff maintained polite, social relations but each individual teacher and administrator were expected to function independently and solve their own problems. This worked out for they factory-type of school dominant in the 1900's but doesn't work for today's students. They are social, collaborative, and responsive to visual and hands-on learning situations that require the adult members of the school communities to replicate those same characteristics to be successful.

By focusing on building strong staff relationships in a rigorous and relevant professional work environment, we can take a giant leap forward in providing our students with the learning environments they need.

I'd be interested in exploring strategies that have worked or are working to increase and improve the "3 R's" in schools and districts.