In today’s episode, host Justin Reich continues our series on Subtraction in Action in conversation with education leaders around the country. We reflect on the ways that administrators relate to subtraction, and hear stories from the field. Justin is joined by: - Beth Rabbitt, CEO of the Learning Accelerator - Nicole Allard, Executive Director of Educational Excellence and Innovation in the Vista Unified School District in California - Tyler Thigpen, Co-Founder of The Forest School in Atlanta, Georgia & the Institute for Self Directed Learning
In today’s episode, host Justin Reich continues our series on Subtraction in Action in conversation with education leaders around the country. We reflect on the ways that administrators relate to subtraction, and hear stories from the field. Justin is joined by:
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Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley
Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley
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Justin Reich: From the MIT Studios of the Teaching Systems Lab, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. Welcome back listeners. This is the fourth episode in our series on Subtraction in Action. And in today's episode, we're going to take a look at the way administrators relate to subtraction in schools. So for folks who were leading schools during the pandemic, they already have tremendous experience with subtraction because the pandemic required us to take all kinds of things away from schools. We subtracted buses. We subtracted schedules. We subtracted school buildings. We subtracted in-person teaching. We know that schools can change. What we need to do in a new way now is think about what were all the things that we thought were impossible to change, but actually we really can? And what are some of the things that we discovered we didn't have during the pandemic, but maybe we didn't need?
Very early on in the pandemic, I listened to a really wonderful panel by Zoom since we were all separated, that included one of the assistant principals in my hometown of Arlington, Massachusetts who said, "It used to be that we had 300 kids come together into a shared learning environment, and now we're trying to teach kids in 300 different environments. And that is hard and challenging and making us rethink school."
Of course, looking back on that a couple of years later, I think we're also seeing that there are real benefits for some kids in learning in those different learning environments that there are some kids for whom coming to school doesn't work really well. And being at home really does. Beth Rabbitt, the executive director of the Learning Accelerator, helped us think about what makes a school a school.
Beth Rabbitt: Having that location issue is both applies to learning virtually or remotely as well as I think for some schools and systems actually thinking about could we drop the notions of the boundaries of our school building as being where learning can happen. There's a school district in Minnesota led by Dr. Mhiripiri-Reed, that where teachers during the pandemic said, "You know what? Rather than staying hybrid, what if we just actually got a school bus and launched outdoor immersive kindergarten?" And so those teachers said, we're getting rid of the classroom, because that was the barrier to getting kids back fully. And so like, let's launch this. Hugely successful. And now I think they have five of those classrooms and they're thinking about how to expand that citywide.
Meriden, Connecticut had a similar response, which is the pandemic really caused them to look at the spaces in their community as learning spaces. They did, I believe, that they ended up spending quite a bit of time in their community parks in order to have kids back on campus in Connecticut. And it actually caused them to stop and say, "Hey, why haven't we thought of this before? How do we get rid of these arbitrary barriers of classroom walls and actually think about we could be gaining by in fact letting go of that notion."
Justin Reich: Say more about the kindergarten example in the buses. Are the teachers on buses going out to the community? Are the buses going out and picking up students and dropping them off at parks? How did that work?
Beth Rabbitt: Yeah, so what ended up happening in the early days of this program, it launched in the fall of 2020, was that the teachers... And this is in Minnesota, so not exactly the environment that we think of as being most outdoor oriented, although-
Justin Reich: It wasn't the panhandle of Texas. It wasn't in San Diego where it's 68 degrees in sunny every day.
Beth Rabbitt: It also wasn't 112 degrees. "But what they did was they said like, Hey, we have this local public park. Let's talk to our municipal department and see can we be there every day?" And so they started simply by getting students over that direction. And I think what they realized was, "Wow, there are more spaces." So what would it look like? In some ways it's a little bit Miss Frizzle, right? We're going out into the world to do our learning and we have this bus that can take us places. Now we also know young learners need consistent relationships and the safety of being able to have routines and so forth. So balancing that, but also having that sort of mobile mindset of every day could be a field trip and we can spend time outside. Because by the way, we know that playing in the outdoors is actually really important for our young learners.
Justin Reich: That's great. I'm a hundred percent in favor with that. My two kids went to school for a year in Vermont during the pandemic, and they were each issued at an elementary school, a five gallon bucket. And anytime they needed to go outside, they just tossed their stuff in the five gallon bucket. They walked outside, they flipped over the bucket, and their classroom was wherever kids made a circle of buckets. And maybe not suitable everywhere, but five gallon buckets are pretty affordable and they're pretty great seats for young people.
Beth Rabbitt: Completely. My school district here in Portland, Maine, obviously it was tough to do a lot of enrichment during the pandemic. We actually saw a lot of school systems go to much longer enrichment blocks for kids. So traditional schedule is like, I'm an elementary student. I have art, music, library, phys ed, and it's happening phonetically through the week. And what a lot of districts did was they said, "Actually, let's have kids intensely focus in certain enrichment areas for six weeks." And what we heard from teachers was, "Wow, I can suddenly do a six week project with a set of kids. What can we create that is just so much more deeper in terms of learning?" Here in Portland, they did most of their art outside and actually did most of their art with natural objects. It's a pretty cool way to look at all the assets that are around schools that oftentimes costs so much that they are drivers of inequity. And to realize actually there's a lot just like that is free that kids can use in the outdoor space.
Justin Reich: We saw in other districts where, as Beth Rabbitt was telling us, schools had to go outside if they had to choose between doing some kind of weird hybrid remote thing or making outdoor classrooms. For some of their youngest students, they made outdoor classrooms. And you have to think about teaching and learning really differently. But as you do that you realize, "Wow, some of this really works." And so part of our challenge moving ahead is not just returning to what normal was, because normal didn't work for too many of our students, but really trying to look back through the really difficult times that schools faced during the pandemic and say, "Okay, we did some really different things. Is there stuff that we can learn from some of these really different things?" We had a great conversation with Nicole Allard, the Executive Director of Educational Excellence and Innovation at the Vista Unified School District in California. For Nicole, knowing how to subtract begins with knowing your why.
Nicole Allard: So as a principal, I want to be a catalyst, I want to be an engineer and I want to be a storyteller. And I constantly live by that with everything I did. So for a catalyst, it was about catalyzing really powerful conversations for my staff. So what is our why? Why are we here? What is our work? Why is it important? Why does it matter? Why do traditional schools not work for our kids? And even though we're doing okay, how could we be better?
Justin Reich: So catalyst engineer storyteller, we're going to drill down into the engineering bit, and engineers are famous for making things go faster by adding bigger rockets or doing more stuff. But today we want to talk about the part of engineering, which is slimming down by making the submarine go faster, by taking some of the panels off the side, making the spaceship fly higher by getting rid of things or by slimming things down. As you were a principal at Mission Vista, can you give us some examples of things that you took away, some subtraction in that engineering?
Nicole Allard: Yeah. It goes back for me to knowing your why. So we were really crystal clear on why we were here. We were really crystal clear on what our work was. And when you do that, then it's easy to know what's important and one can, what can be left off. So it's almost like being in an emergency room and being able to triage really quickly. They have their simple rules. And so for us, we had our simple rules. We know who we were. We know why we were there and we knew what we were doing. And so we just tried to focus on the essential so teachers didn't get really overwhelmed by the non-essential parts of the work that can kind of wear people down and get in the way of what's really important. So I think for us, some of the things that we subtracted, we gave permission to teachers.
So I think the very first thing is teachers have a lot of fear. Teachers are all type A personalities, they're all perfectionists. They all want to do their job really well. They all want to do the best thing and they can for kids. And so part of it was we gave permission to teachers to let go of certain things so they could prioritize the work they really wanted to do and the work that they had passion on. I think the other thing, just mindset. So that's a mindset. Another mindset that we had to remove was the idea of the fear, when you try something new, when we're telling them you're going to go against what you've been doing for 5, 10, 15, 20 years.
And so we always told our teachers and we had a slide that we showed all the time that we're all in this pool together. And some of you are so excited by this work, you're going to cannonball in and we know it and we support you in your cannon balling. And so I think I would be remiss if I just talked about physical things we subtracted without really leaning into some of the mindset shifts that we had to subtract with the fear and the permission in order for them to even be in that space to do that work.
Justin Reich: So you you're trying to build up this psychological safety net. You're trying to convince folks, "Hey, there's going to be room to fail, room for things not to work. We're going to stick together. We'll deal with parents, we'll deal with school boards, we'll work with you.
Nicole Allard: Yes. And so it was about, we always have this whirlwind, COVID made the whirlwind bigger. And there's multiple departments that are trying to work together that always have been siloed. And we're trying to create some sort of coherence. So one of those things are what noise can you subtract in order for them to focus on the important and what whirlwind can you subtract? And sometimes it's little things, right? And sometimes it's bigger things. So one of the bigger things we did was we realized every principal meeting was focused on COVID. As a person who oversees teaching and learning in the district, that was really hard for me to handle. And I took my superintendent and I had a conversation with him and I said, "I'm really struggling. I know we have to deal with COVID. I know we can't ignore it, but how can we subtract COVID from teaching and learning? Because if we don't still focus on teaching and learning, we're losing years with these students."
And so what we did was create two different meetings and we subtracted the two from each other. So we have a leadership meeting that happens every month, and it's four hours, and it's in person and we feed them because community is important. And we drill down into superintendent's message equity conversations, culture conversations and teaching and learning. And that's it. And when my principal, or my superintendent starts to say something about COVID, I kind of give him that side eye look and the little wave of not right now. Then two weeks later we have what we call an operational meeting and that's when we go through the management of being a leader. So we'll hear from human relations, we'll hear from business services, we'll hear from health and safety. But subtracting those two conversations has been really powerful because it allowed us time and space to do both, the stuff we had to do, and the stuff we really wanted to do.
Justin Reich: So one of the things that I teach my students at MIT in a course called Education Technology Studio is that good design is always about balancing tensions. One of the things that we discovered during the pandemic, that school leaders discovered, is that it is not necessary for everyone in schools to be in the same place all the time to communicate to each other. There were some really important experiments that were done with having parent, teacher, family, teacher meetings happen remotely with experimenting with teletherapy, with having teams of people who work in different schools, the science department from across different schools to be able to meet virtually. And there are lots of circumstances where we discovered, "Hey, there are some really advantages of not making everyone drive all the way across town to be together with each other, but we can do more quick meetings." We can make the time cost of those meetings easier if we do them remotely. Beth had some great thoughts on this.
Beth Rabbitt: So Monterey Peninsula had a very typical experience of districts in California. So they were online for much longer than other parts of the country. Monterey is actually a very diverse district on the coast of California, large number of students who are learning English, large number of students whose parents were affected by job related losses and so forth during COVID. But what we heard time and time again was the movement of meetings of adults across a district online was an enormous time saver. So principals who normally would have to drive, say 40 minutes during the rush hour to get to another building, to have a 45 minute conversation with other principals and then try to get back to their school. So they were like, "Yeah, of course I can do this collaborative time." Similarly for teachers with PD teachers, were spending a lot of time in in-person directive, one size fits all professional learning experiences.
And a lot of districts realize like, "Hey, all of our teachers don't need the same things right now," particularly as it relates to some of this standup of technology. And so we saw a lot more efforts to personalize professional learning, to give people options, to allow people to get some of that time back, which was also really meaningful so that they can spend more time with students in the classroom or at a moment of, frankly, intense stress and burnout, more time with their families, taking care of themselves, connecting with colleagues, all those pieces. Seems silly, but that's actually a really important thing.
Justin Reich: No, it's silly at all. If people don't have the energy to try new things, it's really hard to make stuff be better. That's one of, I think, the most frustrating paradoxes of the pandemic for people who really are excited to see schools get better and operate differently is on the one hand, in the last two years we've seen more expectations about what school has to be just disappear. We've had more teachers tell us, "Look, I know how to change. We know that school can be different because it had to be different very quickly in a lot of ways for a long time, and we did it." But at the same time, teachers are also completely exhausted.
So it's like we discovered all of this possibility for change at a moment where it's really hard to use it because people are tired. Of course, I'm sure in the years ahead, one of the things that we'll discover, maybe we were already discovering now, is that if you take too many meetings in a school system and move them online, if you take too much of the communication that we're doing that we really lose some important texture, some important community building, some important informal communication that happens when we get people together face to face.
But I think it was really powerful for school leaders to discover that some of our in-person meetings really could be subtracted and thinking about, "Okay, what does that teach us about new ways that we can be communicating with each other, new patterns that we can develop that have a combination, a balance of in person and online communication?"
Beth Rabbitt: Well, one of the things that I love about Monterey is in embracing the idea that parents didn't have to come to school to be engaged with their students' learning, their schools actually started to really embrace the idea of having parents actually engage in learning experiences alongside the more traditional parent engagement. So they started doing something called Family STEM Nights, where teams of teachers would actually come together and do family Zoom. They would have sent a bag home of materials to kids and families. And they Zoomed in together to do STEM challenges and learning, which we think about what's usually required to get parents to be able to come in for those types of experiences. And simply by flipping it and making it much more accessible and allowing kids and families to engage from home, they got such better engagement. Because we're having real meaningful connected learning experiences with their parents and guardians, which we know is actually really associated with high quality learning experiences and building those skills for later.
Justin Reich: In fairness, that is an extra thing to do. But I think why it's a good reminder that the point of subtraction is to make more room for that. The point of it is to say, "Hey, we think we could get more students really excited about what we're doing and we could get more support from their families if we find this cool new way to engage folks in some out of the school STEM learning, as when things are super virtual like that." It's also probably not as hard for the teachers to be like, "Okay, there's going to be a little bit more self-paced whatever in the morning because I'm going to pull you all back at 7:00 PM tonight with your families to be able to do this kind of stuff together." But to some extent, that's the point of being able to think about subtraction. If you want to be able to do some cool things like that, you have to be able to find some things that people are not doing.
Beth Rabbitt: A hundred percent.
Justin Reich: We heard from a number of the people that we talked to that one of the things that they were trying to do is make communication simpler in their district, fewer emails, fewer meetings, more streamlined. And that strikes me as an exercise that we could all be doing in so many of facets of our work, in life, in schools, in universities. Nicole shared an example of this. Can you think of the last email that you almost hit send on and you were like, "Nope, I just don't need to send this to everybody." Can you think of anything concrete where you were really tempted but then you thought to yourself, "Oh, I don't have to do this?"
Nicole Allard: Yeah, I think every night we're still writing emails and so I'm catching up on all the things I wasn't able to do. And at eight o'clock, I could have sent an email to five middle school principals last night, and I almost did, and I wrote it out in everything. And I got almost to the closing line and I thought, number one, if I send this, they're all going to reply to me tonight when they should be with their families, or doing something fun. And number two, I would get better information if I just called them all on my way to work. And so I did not hit send, I deleted the email. I put a little sticky note in my car and I had quick conversations, which accomplished what I needed in 30 seconds, but then gave them three, five minutes where they could talk to me about other things that eliminated probably five more emails down the road.
So I do think it's important to kind of reflect before you hit that send button, especially when it's a group email. I think the biggest PSA I could give is stop replying all the emails. You talk about subtraction. Emails are the biggest area that you could fix pretty quickly that would make a huge impact with your people. Do you have norms for your emails so that you're not overloading inboxes and overloading people? So a quick, I always want to think about, is there something I could do tomorrow? Yes, blind copy people in email so nobody can reply all. Don't send an email if you don't have to. Minimize how many emails you send out to huge groups of people, because if you are sending out to everybody, there's a better way to do it than through email. And so really thinking about systems and structures that can support this, because we can sit here and talk about subtraction and we can sit here and talk about how important it is and the why behind it because there's so much, there's such a big why about taking things off people's plates. But we have to think of ways to operationalize it.
Justin Reich: Tyler Thigpen, the founder and principal of the Forest school, had another unexpected example of subtraction.
Tyler Thigpen: I haven't mentioned this yet, but this is what's come to my mind, Justin, is one of the things we subtracted is the ability. This is somewhat controversial, but the ability of parents to contact teachers, which we call guides. In most schools, in my experience, that's foundational and parents have got to have access to the teachers. But ours is intentionally learner led environment. And to keep learners at the center, we encourage parents to talk regular to their learners and our parent guide conferences are led by the learners themselves. And really in our environment, the parents are not able to email the guides, which are the teachers, and instead they email their direct reports. Which we started out with me, now we have heads of upper and lower school that they'll email. Our staff frankly, Justin, love it because they're not every day focused on responding to parent emails.
And instead, able to really deeply focus on the learning. It really does keep learners at the center. I mean, parents still have logistical and learning concerns, and we create a pathway for them to be able to air those out. But by creating the school-wide expectation that learners are in charge and they need to voice their concerns and advocate for themselves, I could just tell you right now, our staff, they're staying with us. You know what I mean? It's a sustainable gig more so than other school environments because they're not having to deal with as much. And I think in the last couple years of COVID where there has been just a tremendous amount of pressure on them to continue education, it's been a welcome reprieve.
Justin Reich: So how do your heads manage the volume of communication from those parents?
Tyler Thigpen: Well, number one is we say, "Have you talked to your learner?" And what do they say? And has your learner talked to their guide in their weekly check-in? We have weekly check-ins that learners have with their guides. That's really the vehicle for the learners to communicate that thing. And if the answer from the parent is, "No, not yet," then we put up a boundary. And we say, "Well, can you do that first and then we'll revisit your question?" And just that right there shrinks the number of communications exponentially.
Justin Reich: Yeah, that's great. And I think it's an incredibly important direction that schools and people doing parenting should be considering. A great example of subtraction and action.
So I do think all schools can be thinking about these questions. Technology makes it easier than it has ever been to send lots of information to lots of different people and stakeholders. But as much as technology has changed, human brains and human attention haven't. I was just reading some research about, focus group research, about why students are not responding to their emails in higher education and they say, Well, they get a lot of emails and most of them aren't relevant to what they're doing. There's a lot of information that they don't need and don't use. And so they stop reading them and miss information they do need, but just somehow kind of get over it. And so we've got to keep thinking about what's the right level of information?
But it's also the case that in a period, I keep talking to schools and districts and trying to find out how are you doing? And in the schools serving our most vulnerable students. I think there remains a real sense that the ongoing pandemic, that the loss and the grief that surround us is still a huge burden on young people's lives, a huge burden on families, a huge burden therefore on teachers. And so I think we remain in a period where the more we can simplify teachers lives and let them really focus on building relationships, creating really powerful learning environments, the best use that we can make of their time and attention. Let's hear another story from Beth.
Beth Rabbitt: So in Liberty Public Schools, which is just outside Kansas City, they made the decision to take coaches who had, prior to the pandemic been working through leaders at the site level to reach teachers and just actually attached them to schools working directly with teachers. And that did a couple things. One, it meant the district suddenly started getting a lot more information from teachers. And two, it actually TeachLab leaders up, so school leaders from having to do all the coordination. So that's sort of dropping of some of the barriers that have been created between adults and letting people work more flexibly and more directly actually supported a lot of the conversations you're talking about, which is about educators being able to come together and see themselves as part of a bigger system of learning that learners are experiencing.
Justin Reich: Since our interview with Beth, I've thought a lot about this decision by a couple of school districts to subtract by simplifying their administrative structure, that they would have coaches that worked in different disciplines, trying to get them to all be one team of coaches that for whatever reason in those districts, there had been administrative decisions to create some complexities, some differentiation in people's roles. And folks decided during the pandemic whether or not to make them simpler. And to have more people who are working on bigger, more common teams.
From my point of view, it's really hard to know whether those are good, sustainable, long term decisions. In school design, there are some things that we can figure out based on first principles. I think we know increasingly now that if you start school days later, you will get better outcomes with secondary students, that there's really not a lot of sort of complexity or nuance in those decisions.
If you wake up high schoolers too early, they won't learn as well during the day. But there are other things like this decision around how to organize staff where it seems like plausibly, there are a couple of good ways of doing things. I think there are even things that we see in schools where it's good to do one thing for a while and to do other things for another period of time that probably there's some real nuance disciplinary work that can happen if you take a bunch of coaches and break them up by age level and by discipline. There's probably some really neat collaboration that can happen if you fold all those people's roles together, but maybe you lose out of some of those other benefits. So I would say for schools like the ones Beth's talk about that did some administrative changes, it'll just be a matter of kind of looking empirically, evaluating how people are doing, getting feedback to see whether some of these subtraction really worked during the pandemic, but maybe need to be sunset afterwards and which one we might continue for a while or just have it become the way we do things.
I'm Justin Reich and this is TeachLab. Thanks for listening to our fourth episode on Subtraction in Action. Be sure to go back and listen to the other episodes in our series and subscribe to TeachLab so you don't miss our next episode. You can check out our new film, We Have to Do Something Different: Teachers on the Journey Towards More Equitable Schools, at somethingdifferentfilm.com You can attend a local screening or sign up to host your own. Learn more about screening opportunities and check out the guide at somethingdifferentfilm.com.
If you like what you hear on TeachLab, be sure to leave us a rating or a review. This episode was produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley. Sound mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe. Until next time.