I learned to play checkers at my grandparents house before I started school, and I learned chess in high school.
Just the other day, while waiting for seat at Cracker Barrel, I played my twelve year old in her first game of checkers. It was a rather one sided victory, and it was a simple strategy- surround and conquer.
A day or so later, a friend was talking about challenging his niece to a game of chess and described some of the complex strategies and diverse moves that he used to beat her.
As these two classic games and the memories I have of them rattled in my head, I began to see comparisons to how we approach our campus and classroom culture. I tend to see educators either play chess or play checkers with issues like discipline and development, and I also tend to see one approach being more impactful to student learning and to staff development.
React or Prepare
I think the easiest difference in approach to see is the react (checkers) vs prepare (chess) model. In playing with my daughter, I noticed we both simply reacted to what happened. There was a minimal amount of planning- simply a "they did this, so I do this" style of play. In chess, one needs to think multiple moves ahead. Traps can be set. Not that checkers cannot be played this way, but it is more common to see the reaction style.
In school culture, we either react to a situation or we prepare for many. We often think that discipline must be a reaction based response, but in truth- if we have not already formulated a potential response to a situation, we can make significant mistakes. Most of the time when I lose my cool or say something I regret to a student, it is based on a reactionary mindset- I have not prepared and strategized a response. Reactionary discipline is all too often emotional in a bad way. You can also practice preparedness by teaching expectations. My current campus has attempted to do this with our Cougar Qualities- teaching students what good character looks like.
But it is not all discipline- we can react to or prepare for new developments. If you have a lot of leaders on campus, are you reacting to their requests to serve, or preparing opportunities for them to step up? When there are curriculum changes, do you wait until the last minute to implement or brainstorm as far in advance as you can?
There will always be reaction responses- even in chess. But the more we can minimize those in the moment decisions, the better prepared we are when they cannot be avoided.
Different Roles or the Same Role
One of the more complex elements of chess is learning that each piece behaves differently. Much like your classroom. (OK, that analogy literally writes itself.) For some, this is a reason to stick to the simple, every piece does the same thing game of checkers. But does it lead to real stimulation and growth?
We have long heard that not every student is the same. Each has unique strengths, weaknesses, interests, abilities and quirks. Yet too often, we treat these varies chess pieces like common checker discs. We force our knights to move forward, not in the L pattern they succeed in. A rook can cover the width or length of the board, yet we make it move a space at a time. If we adopt a chess mindset of the classroom, we can allow our students to find and pursue their passions and strengths, instead of standardizing their learning to fit a simple mold.
But the diversity is broader than that. If you are a campus leader, do you treat all your teachers the same? Sure, there must be equity, but if you treat a staff member capable of moving multiple spaces at once the same way you do a single space mover- is that benefiting them? Is it benefiting your campus? You have teachers with unique gifts- find ways to incorporate them in your leadership of the campus.
Another comparison worth noting here is that checkers campus leaders often use the phrase "there are not titles here." They mean to say we all work together and no one is more important than anyone else. But in practice- try to do something a department head or admin would do and see what happens. See, there are no titles on checkers pieces, but there are kings. And kings have more authority and exercise that authority when a regular checkers disc makes a move. But a chess minded campus leader is not afraid to admit that some people have responsibilities and obligations that carry more or different weight. And if someone wants to take that on, they will strategically find a place for them.
Proficient or Prestige
You ever noticed that there are Chess Grandmasters, but no Checkers Grandmasters? Both games involve levels of difficulty and strategy, yet chess is seen by most as the superior intellectual game.
If you are playing campus checkers, you can still have an great campus culture. You can be- to use a term co-opted for teacher evaluations- proficient. But if you want your campus to be something truly special- something that other campuses and other districts look to for inspiration (think Ron Clark Academy)- you have to play campus chess.
Be innovative, not isolated. Be relational, not just rigorous. Be strategic, not just satisfactory.
LEADS is a College Station ISD program that takes a small group of students from the 5th to the 8th grade (currently) and pulls them out from school once a month to receive leadership training in communication, people skills, grant writing, project development and more. These Ambassadors go back to their LEADS Teams on campus to create a campus project with the intent to positively affect the campus culture.
It was day two of meeting with our Ambassadors.
The nerves were a little less this time, but the concern did linger that the student's exuberance from the first meeting may have faded.
No need to worry.
The students immediately fell into engagement and interaction across campus lines. Our first activity was a team building exercise where students had to get their entire team across the room by walking on two 2x4s. It challenged them to exercise patience, persistence, balance, and communication. One student shared that balance was important because you needed to make sure you did not spread yourself too thin, and another mentioned the importance of balance in interactions with others. The importance of communication in the exercise really set the tone for the day.
Jill Butler and Bunnie Muncie of Wellborn Middle challenged our students to communicate clearly and effectively when speaking with administrators, and provided video examples of the etiquette and expectations of these meetings.
Ambassadors then were divided into four groups with one person from each campus. They had ten minutes to prepare a proposal to the "principals" (Our LEADS teacher Innovators). The issue to address- how to help students who were homeless. We wanted them to see it is a big problem- but a small thing to help can go a long way. The "Principals" questioned and proposed problems to their plan that they then went back and brainstormed, then followed up with the " principals."
We are in half days now, which means the time flies by fast- but each day is a joy to be a part of. And since it is a student leadership program- what better way to close this out than to share what some of our Ambassadors think about the program?
What will you see today?
As you walk your halls, stand before your classes, greet at the door, navigate the cafeteria, coach, teach, correct and encourage- what will you encounter?
A student who is always late.
A student who is sick a lot.
A student who gets all A's and very little sleep.
A student who cannot seem to stay in dress code.
A student with a scholarship.
A student who cannot afford a meal.
A rebel. A conformist. A wallflower.
A teacher who is struggling.
A teacher who is thriving.
Someone "walking on water."
Someone trying to keep their head above water.
Someone in over their head.
What do you see in these situations? You may envision specific people. You WILL form opinions based on your perceptions- that you cannot control. Whether you embrace your perceptions or not...that you can control. Perception is reality- how you see the world is how it is real to you.
Do you see...
A discipline problem...or an opportunity?
A lost cause...or a need for someone to care?
A superstar...or someone putting on a good show?
A genius...who still needs to be told they are doing well.
Your perception is your reality. But it also can become the reality we empart on our students and fellow educators. Be careful. What perceptions do you need to act on today? What perceptions do you need to re-evaluate?
If we see a discipline problem walking down the hall- are we going to expect the worst? Then we will get it. Instead, see opportunity.
If we see a dress code violation- are we going to call them out with judgment? Then we will alienate and entrench them. Instead, see a chance for kindness and compassion.
Your perception is your reality-- but it does not have to be theirs.
Last year, I had a teacher friend from another district contact me about issues they were having with their administration regarding their use of flexible seating. This teacher was a math teacher, and had been using their flexible seating for some time and seen improvement in student performance. Yet, they were consistently knocked on evaluations because the admins felt the flexible seating hindered the educational environment, creating inequity. However student scores and morale were up...
I wish this were an isolated incident of innovation being pressed down, but sadly, I hear too often of teachers and administrators taking innovative risks and being shut down, ignored, or- as in this case- essentially punished for the attempt.
And the same time, I read blogs and articles and Twitter feeds championing the need for innovation. I hear administrators challenge teachers and fellow admins to take risks and try something new.
But if this is the common culture of education- why do we not hear about it, see it, or celebrate true innovation?
It starts with the definition. When I hear innovation, I think something that has a significant impact on campus or classroom culture, instructional practice or design, or technology. The key for me being SIGNIFICANT. But I have seen things as basic as a new review model labeled as innovative. For me, innovation is transformative, and a new lesson or worksheet is not transformative. It may be a risk, or a new attempt, but it is not innovative. Yet for some it is. And the issue is that it is difficult to determine which definition is the one being used on your campus. I think it is important to define for your audience what innovation means TO YOU when you define something as being that.
Experience Carries More Weight
Innovative educators are in line behind those with years of experience. Sure, we complain about the dangers of the tenure track at higher ed, but we reward years of experience before we reward QUALITY of experience. An innovator may pack into five years what another has stretched into fifteen, but when promotion to leadership time comes, it is often years that trumps what happened in those years. There is a subtle undercurrent in education that it takes time to develop the craft. " You have to earn it." And you have not earned it until you have done it a long time."Others have worked for it longer than you." I work with some amazing young teachers with less than five years of experience that are breaking new ground in education daily- and I know of veterans who have not changed lessons in years, maybe decades. We need to credit good ideas, whether they come from new teachers or experienced ones.
It's Who You Know
Recently, a new teacher made the news in our area for creating a student run coffee cart for her special education students. She knew a local celebrity, that celebrity shared the teacher's post, it caught media attention and off it went. That is great for this teacher, but that idea has been present on my campus for several years. My wife has done the same thing with her students in the past. I can think of about a half dozen other similar programs that never got that attention. This is not shared with the intent of belittling the innovation of this teacher but to point out that a local celebrity shared innovation and word got out. Are you someone who has the power to share innovative teaching- and if so, are you?
We are Scared
Change is terrifying. As teachers, I think we sometimes fear innovation because it may mean a change to our status quo. Dynamic new ideas and individuals can mean upheaval- too much too fast. That is a real concern, and I in no way advocate change for change's sake. But if there is innovation that brings sound practice, increased student performance/engagement, and more effective/efficient design- why should we fear it?
"Howdy, I am Time and I am an educator's favorite reason for why things do not happen."
Time is a legitimate issue- I get it. I am teaching six periods with four preps in three distinct content areas. I lead a debate team, a TED Ed Club, and a psychology club for my campus. I am on the SEL Team and CIP Team. I am the district head of a new program that is servicing five campuses- none of which I am on. And I still find time to innovate. I do not say this to brag, but to say that we make time for what we care about. If you care about innovation- you will find a way to seek it.
Finally, there is a mindset that innovation is just not important. It is the flashy buzzword of the moment. After a while, we will return to the tried and true methods- we think. Some educators dig in their heels for many of the reasons above and refuse to change.
I cannot change their minds. And neither can you.
You control your thoughts and actions. Unfortunately, many educators find themselves working under leaders who have a mindset block against innovation. Or perhaps worse, they have set the bar for innovation so low that they cannot even see the true innovation when it happens. To these, I hope that you can find a tribe of educators to connect with- to inspire and encourage and to ignite your passion to change.
But do not give up. Keep striving, keep building.
Never stop innovating.
I teach Psychology, Sociology, World History Honors and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team, sponsor the TED Ed Club, and I am the Lead Innovator for LEADS CSISD (A student leadership empowerment program for 5th-8th graders). I am an aspiring administrator.