In today’s episode, host Justin Reich continues our Subtraction in Action series with Nat Vaughn, Principal of the Blake Middle School in Medfield, Massachusetts. Together they discuss how Blake Middle School managed the pandemic by reflecting on the purpose of school, identifying what really matters for student’s education, and how to work through hard decisions about subtraction.
In today’s episode, host Justin Reich continues our Subtraction in Action series with Nat Vaughn, Principal of the Blake Middle School in Medfield, Massachusetts. Together they discuss how Blake Middle School managed the pandemic by reflecting on the purpose of school, identifying what really matters for student’s education, and how to work through hard decisions about subtraction.
Resources and Links
Check out Jal Mehta’s Book In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School
Subscribe to Jal’s podcast Free Range Humans
Watch our film We Have to Do Something Different
Check out Justin Reich’s book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education
Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley
Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley
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Follow our host Justin Reich on Twitter
Justin Reich: From the MIT Studios of the Teaching Systems Lab, I'm Justin Reich, and this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. We're here again for the third episode in our series on Subtraction in Action, the big idea behind subtraction in action is that schools are complex, people are tired after multiple years of pandemic, we're asking our educators, we're asking our schools to do a lot. There are a whole bunch of folks out there who would really like schools to do more, to have more programs, to have more accelerated learning, more remediation. And our idea is that for any of that to happen, schools first are going to actually have to do less, they're going to have to figure out ways to simplify, to reduce, to focus on the most important things, so people have a little bit of room to breathe, they have a little bit of space to think, they have a little bit of time to rest.
And then we can figure out what new programs we might want to add, and how we might want to go about doing it. If you're just tuning into our series, be sure to go back and listen to the first and second episodes. The first is an introduction to subtraction in action with my co-conspirator Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And then the second episode is an interview with a subtraction expert, Leidy Klotz, a professor of engineering at the University of Virginia, my alma mater, who's had some great insights and done some great writing on how people systematically overlook subtractive solutions to problems. Now, for this episode I had a chance to sit down with my friend Nat Vaughn, he's the principal of the Blake Middle School in Medfield, Massachusetts. And Nat provides some great insight into the challenges that educators are facing right now, and the ways that subtraction both large and small, can create space for positive change. I started our conversation by sharing our exploration of subtraction, and seeing how it resonated with Nat. Let's hear a little bit about what he had to say.
So Nat, thanks for joining us today, we're here doing this project called Subtraction in Action, and here is the idea behind it. Teachers are world historically exhausted, they are more tired than US teachers have ever been, but on at the same time in many places school is also not working the way we want it to work. Levels of absenteeism are high, relationship challenges are high, behavioral issues are high, just communities aren't functioning. Kids are at really different levels, they haven't learned what we hope that they learned over the last couple years, and they're still not learning all that we hope they learned this year. And so that's just a tough place to be, to have people feel like they're maxed out and what we're doing isn't working.
And our theory is that the starting point to trying to solve a problem like that is not to try to, as a first step, add more stuff, because it's hard to do innovation in a moment where everyone just feel totally maxed out. And that actually the place to start is with subtraction, to look at our schools, to look at our practices, to look at our curriculum and say, "What is it that we can stop doing? What is it that we can take away, that we can take off the shoulders of our educators, that we can hospice, that we could set aside?" And I wonder, what's your reaction to that as a starting point for conversation?
Nat Vaughn: Yeah. Well thanks for having me, Justin. I would say yes, yes, yes to all the things you're saying. I would agree, including myself feeling, how much more can we do? As I think about prior to March 2020, there were a lot of things we all knew that were not working well. And then that period of time certainly highlighted, I feel like the Wizard of Oz curtain was pulled aside. And I felt like for a little period of time we were kind of all on the same page, "This is our time, let's revamp it, and we're going to do it." And then, I don't know, fall 2021 it was just like, "All right, we're back. And yeah, we've learned, but we're not going to take anything away, and let's do this now, and do this." And on top of we've got learning loss and all these other things, and these gaps going on, and this feeling of truly it's not sustainable.
And that's what we're experiencing, and really trying to think about... And I would agree, a lot of it seems to be some of the unwritten curricula, and a lot of the practicing norms that we've been doing in school, and it's just this moment to pause and say, "Why are we doing this?" And some of the things we had to do because of COVID forced us into these conversations, which really trying to find those glimmers, and to hold onto to move forward. So that's been some of our conversations we're trying to look at as a staff as well.
Justin Reich: And is anything risen to the surface for you as things that you can subtract, as things that you can set aside? What are some categories of things, or what's at the top of your list?
Nat Vaughn: Yeah. I mean, I think one thing was when we really started to look at... I'll tell you actually fall 2020, when we were coming back to the hybrid model, we had to look at how we just did things, how do we transition kids to class? Can we build in some [inaudible 00:05:21] and things? And one thing that really came to light, and it was because we to had windows open, doors open at different times, so prior to that, middle school, we had this rule of no hats, hoodies was a big conversation, but our buildings were freezing, and so everyone's wearing winter hats, I'm wearing a winter hat.
Justin Reich: This is in Massachusetts in November, and December, and January, that kind of thing?
Nat Vaughn: Yeah, totally. The winter air starts coming in, we're going outside a lot as best we, can get kids outdoor classrooms. And all those kind of rules, well of course we're going to let kids wear their winter hats, and it did not change learning.
Justin Reich: You're telling me that students came to school with a sweatshirt with a hood on top of it, and pulled that hood up, and they were still capable of learning. That's shocking.
Nat Vaughn: Yeah, it's blasphemy, I know that. And it was just this piece of thinking about, wait a minute, what are we doing? And we've had at different times of the school, some teachers more lax than others and things like that. And I would say it was a thing that when we came back, it just wasn't a conversation. We got into to the warmer weather, and we had a little bit, "All right, we're going to bring that back." And it was just, "Why does it matter?" And so actually I have found it frees up time, because we spent time I would say battling with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders over honestly a hat, and let's not take that time. And the habitual things might go down the guidance counselor, assistant principal, it actually freed up time for us to look at things, and to look at kids differently. And what I found too, is it does give some kids some agency. I mean, that kind of small piece was a huge win for kids.
Justin Reich: And that was the agency that they had sort of inadvertently discovered during the pandemic. They were learning at home from their computers, and they could sit wherever they want, nap whenever they want, snack whatever they want, go to the bathroom whenever they want, and wear hoodies and hats if they wanted to. And so this was one little piece of that autonomy that you can keep while subtracting some bureaucracy, some rule enforcement. And it sounds like you're just subtracting some spaces for confrontation with kids.
Nat Vaughn: Yeah. And I would say too, it kind of gives a leverage point to talking to kids about culture. About saying, "We're not going to try to have these rules just for the sake of rules." Because it was one of those times, that when a kid would sit down, I often would say, "I don't even have a great argument why you couldn't wear your hat in class." I really didn't, it was just like, "Well, I don't know because the rule says, and it's tradition, and respect." But really, is it? And so I think it's a leverage point to also get kids more invested in their own learning, and feeling this is their space, because it really is their school, and trying to get into that culture.
Justin Reich: We did a lot of interviewing of teachers and students during the pandemic, and one of the main themes of emergency remote learning, the hybrid period, was just how much autonomy young people enjoyed during the pandemic. They went to the bathroom when they wanted to, they ate when they wanted to, they took little naps when they wanted to, and they wore what they wanted to. And it really raised some challenges for schools, about why was all of that autonomy seemingly not much of a problem when kids were at home, but it feels so important in so many schools to constrain that autonomy when we have students back in person. So Nat and his colleagues really wrestling with this idea of, what are the rules? This is how my good colleague, Neema Avashia, teacher in the Boston Public Schools frames it. What are the rules that we have that are about learning, and what are the rules that we have that are about control? And why do we have rules that are about control, and that are not about learning?
Hats And hoodies was definitely the lead example, but one thing that a lot of educators have thought about for a long time is this idea of voice and choice. That in a lot of traditional instruction the teacher sets out a series of expectations for what students should do and they do it. And there are other models which say, "Hey, for certain kinds of learning goals we have, there are a couple of different pathways, and I could actually lay out those pathways and let students choose."
And I think out of necessity there was a lot more of that during the pandemic, there was a lot more of a small portion of the day is going to be devoted to direct instruction, and then there's going to be a lot more of the day which is devoted to independent practice. And that independent practice or exploration isn't going to happen in the context of a classroom, where you're going to be expected to do math during math period, you're just going to have a bunch more free time that's available, and so I think that's another dimension of autonomy that young people were granted. Nat had some great thoughts on this. And then were there other things that hats and hoodies led to? What other sort of conversations followed from that, new spaces for subtraction?
Nat Vaughn: Yeah. I mean, it just freed up some of the conversations, even around things like... And it may sound like, wait, is any learning happening? But things like chewing gum, I mean, it frees up some of those things that I think... And we're not finding loads of gum underneath the teacher's desks, or the kids' desks. In the back of the auditorium seats, yeah, but it was there before.
I think also thinking about one thing from a subtraction piece truly that gets more into the air quote academic piece, is our material and our content. We knew in March 2020, that spring, there's no way we were going to get through material. I mean, we couldn't, and also how are we going to do it? It really pushed us to move along further towards, do we need to get to every piece of this content? Do I need to ask every question on the homework? What's the endgame here? So I think lessening that piece allowed us to more actually see where kids understanding truly is at on priority standards and power standards, that's one that I think is really been something that we can lean on a lot.
Justin Reich: And how has that conversation moved forward? So you're in the state of Massachusetts, there's the Massachusetts curriculum framework, you're sixth through eighth grade, so your math and your English language arts are being tested, but your science is not going to get tested until the high school, and social studies is not going to get tested at all. What does it look like concretely if I'm a teacher in Medfield Middle School, is essential administration coming up with power standards, or are a group of teachers coming up with them? Is it happening by grade, by department, by individual instructors? What does that look like?
Nat Vaughn: Yeah. I mean, we've been looking at our methods of assessment and feedback, and that had been happening. And looking at competency based reporting, and then how do we do that melding traditional grades as well. And a lot of that really thinking about, well if we're looking at that, we want to be more skills based, so we're looking at reporting on learning skills separate from understanding the content. So we had been doing some of the work, but this really pushed us to, "We have to do this now." And so I would say it's a combination from really we're fortunate that we have a 6, 12 department structure, and truly looking at priority standards at each content area, whether it's art, music, wellness, science, math. And what we try to get to is if you could say, "What is the thematic approach to this understanding of the material?" That at the end of the day, what do we really want to assess on?
So we have, depending on the department, the most number of priority standards is four, versus the 40 frameworks. And do they categorize under each of those? And that's what we're reporting on kids report cards right now, and they are the exact same priority standards on sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. And for some departments now the conversation is looking at the high school, because it really should be thematically what that's done. And again, we know this is going to keep happening, kids with interrupted absences, or attendance at school, and so these conversations of, are they ready to return? Well, where are they at with the priority standards? That's going to help us move forward in looking at how we assess and how we understand learning.
Justin Reich: So you probably have at least three levels going on, it sounds like changing something on a report cards, that's a building assistant principal kind of level. Choosing what it is that you're going to focus on on those report cards becomes a departmental goal, all the math teachers across the school, all the English language art teachers across the school have to do that within their department at the middle school, and in coordination with the high school, so that we're sending kids from the eighth grade who are ready to be successful in eighth grade.
And then individual teachers have to figure out in my science class, in my pre-algebra class, in my Spanish class, what exactly that looks like. But they're not doing that idiosyncratically on their own, in the sense of, "Hey, we're not going to get through a semester of stuff, let me just figure out what to cut and what to keep." They're coming up with some priorities with their colleagues, and then doing that, focusing in the curriculum, probably more independently if I'm a teacher who teaches Mandarin, and I'm the only one who's doing that, whereas all of the geometry teachers maybe are a little bit more coordinated in that.
Nat Vaughn: Absolutely. Yeah, what's been challenging is really benefit too of collegiality, and I know you've talked a lot about coherence at times, or a lot. In that way of thinking, it's been much harder for the singleton teacher that has Mandarin, they don't have the colleague to bounce off. Even within our world language department, Spanish teachers, there's five of them, french, a couple. But it's much easier to kind of benefit those conversations.
Now, at the same time the Mandarin teacher is kind of a one room schoolhouse, saying, "Yeah, these are the priorities." But our world language priority standards aren't dependent on the language, they cross... And that's been the kind of conversations within science, it doesn't matter which aspect of the science that we're doing, that has done that. I will also say, and it may not be a zero sum game of subtraction, but by doing that, it has allowed us to introduce other modes into teaching the curricula. So for example, one of the priority standards in our math department is, do they have a way to visually understand mathematics? That has allowed us to bring art into mathematics formally, and really what it's done is it's opened up more opportunities for students to show their understanding of the math. So I don't know if that's a subtraction, but it's been a opportunity gain.
Justin Reich: Well I mean, the point of subtraction at net, if schools are overwhelmed, there's got to be fewer things that they're doing. But the other idea is if the things that we're doing right now are not working, and we need to do some new things, if those new things are only additive, it's just not going to work because nobody has the energy.
But if you say, "All right, we're going to focus on these priority areas, and we're going to give you all some permission that comes from the district, that comes from the principal to cut some things. We're going to support you through that process, we're going to encourage you, we're going to collectively mourn the loss of these things that we used to spend some more time on, but now we're just not going to do it." But that's exactly what the subtraction is supposed to do, is create the space to say, "Hey, we might be able to engage some new students in some different ways, we might have some richer learning if we do some new things. But the new things can only emerge if the subtraction gives us the opportunity to focus on some things that we think are important."
Nat Vaughn: Yeah, Amen. I mean, I always hear about it. And I remember feeling this way too. All right, something has to give.
Justin Reich: I think it's important to be very clear that subtraction is hard, that everything in schools is owned by somebody, and valued by somebody, and what we've built in schools are often really complex trade offs between all the competing needs that we have schools do. There are a handful of truly terrible ideas in schools, actually, the pandemic gave us one of those, which was simultaneous hybrid teaching. The idea that a single teacher could at the same time teach a group of students in the classroom, and a second group of students who are learning remotely from their own homes. That was universally panned as a terrible idea, there was a little bit of a maybe reasonable bureaucratic rationale for it, that it was difficult to figure out the staffing of these groups. So maybe just have teachers teach everybody, regardless of where they are.
But teachers very early on made it clear that this was going to be a disaster, they made it clear once it happening that it was a disaster, and that practice did not survive long in American schools, and no one was sad to say goodbye to it. There are very few examples of schools that are like that, almost everything else is a trade off. One of the trade offs that I think about most commonly is there are many teachers, I as a social studies teacher would've been one of them, that would've really liked to see longer class periods. Big block schedules worked well for my teaching, a lot of what I wanted to do in my classroom was to orient people to a topic, to orient people to my classroom routine again. And then to get them doing the disciplinary work of history or social studies, to get them into primary source documents, to get them doing historical work, then to bring them back together to reflect on what they were working on.
And it's tough to fit all that into 42 minutes, and it's a lot easier to fit it in to 80 minutes, so big schedules, big blocks are great for me. But I would go talk to math teachers, and the math teachers would say, "These 84 minute periods are way too long for me. What I need to do in my routines in my classroom is I do some instruction, I do some demonstration, I have some students working groups, and then they need some time to do some independent practice, and to sort of cement what they learned." And it also is helpful to have some of that independent practice happening as homework, so that I can have a chance to look at that homework and see where they're at, and figure out how I want to tailor my instruction, doing that overnight is kind of helpful.
So these sort of shorter, more frequent routines work better for the math teachers. In my view, me and this hypothetical math teacher, those are not two different people with different views about what good education is, we just have different needs and values in our context, and so there's no optimal solution to that problem. And many of the things that we would want to take away in schools are like that, I wanted to take away some of our 42 minute periods and turn them into 84 minute periods, but for very good reasons there's somebody else who's really attached to those 42 minute periods for the thing that they value, and the thing that they're trying to accomplish. And then if we decide to try to do a little bit of both of those things, we say, "Well, let's have a six day rotation with three 42 minute periods, and one 84 minute period, and one day where you don't teach." Then you add this sort of additional complexity where nobody can ever remember if it's an A day, or a B day, or a magenta day, or a tangerine day, or something like that.
And so there are ways, that the most complex solutions that try to meet everyone's needs don't actually meet anyone's needs. But the core of the idea is that everything in schools, except for these handful of terrible ideas, are owned by someone, they're valued by someone, they exist because they support someone's vision of teaching. And when you take that thing away, there's somebody out there who's going to go, "You know what? I really needed that to be the teacher I wanted to be, and do what I wanted to do." And maybe the other problem is that the losses are felt immediately, the potential gains usually take more... Both of simplicity, just getting rid of things, it takes a little while to feel, now that that's gone, I have a little bit more time.
And then if you replace it with something better or something different, it takes a while for people to recognize, I'm a math teacher, and I've now figured out how I can use this 84 minute block to do some projects, or do some different investigations. But it's a lot of work to build that up, and those gains are felt at a distance rather than the losses which feel more immediate.
Let's go back to the conversation. Every school is working on trying to get better at something, there's always some sort of set of initiatives that are going on. And to some extent, those are the cards that you're dealt in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. And it sounds like you had a little bit going with thinking about competency-based education, if you're a school that's already gone from zero to one on competency-based education, then really moving forward with that March 2020, 2021, 22 is easier. It's harder in the midst of a crisis to go from zero to one, to kind of say, "Hey, now might be a good time for us to learn what competency-based education is." Could you talk a little bit about how your teachers reacted to picking up on this theme that you'd already been working on, or just what that shift during the pandemic looked like?
Nat Vaughn: Yeah, absolutely. So definitely a little bit of luck, and by no means is the pandemic luck. But I think the timing of where we were, we had done a fair amount of work, and definitely some mixed feelings from community and education about shifting things. But what really forced our hand was I vividly remember being on a [inaudible 00:23:04] call with area principals, would be Zooming every other day, "How are we handling this? What are we doing?" And because we didn't have locked into a traditional way of assessing kids, we already had moved away from reporting separately on compliance, for lack of a better word, aspects of feedback. Because kids weren't logging into Google Classroom necessarily, or hitting submit, or post. But it didn't change us reporting whether they understood the material, so there's kind of an aha moment. And we actually had ways to give feedback, so I think it kind of built in that mode of what that would be, and then when we returned, how do we do that?
So I think there was this feeling of, this is working, and knowing we're going to continue to have interruption. So I think that's an aspect that allowed us to... And I agree, double down. All right, there is something here, and it is helping us.
And I will say we're seeing that now with just kids mental health numbers are through the roof, younger and younger, and kids with interrupted absences. And because of our system, we've been able to give concrete data to families, because oftentimes a family might say, "I'm worried, my kid's not ready to move on to next grade." And we actually have the data based off our formal reporting system to say, "They have a decent understanding of the priority standards, they're going to be okay." And the priority standards are the same in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, so it'll spiral back, so I think it's given some data to it. The other piece I would say that we've been able to double down on, and very fortunate that our community continued to make the arts and specials a priority. Some schools made the thing of in-person learning was just going to be math, science, English, history, we had in-person every day on that. And we got feedback saying, "Wait a minute, we need this." But that what we know got kids through.
Justin Reich: And gets them into the building. I mean, you are not the only school district that I've heard talking about that at priority. That if you have limited in-person time, you got to ask yourself the question, "What is it, that when it feels more optional than it has ever felt before to come to school, what's going to get people into the building?" And double math for a lot of kids is not it that. I mean, as my colleague Jal Mehta says, "The most powerful parts of our curriculum tend to be those at the periphery." You ask kids, not only what their favorite part of schooling is, but what they feel like they learn the most from, and they're going to tell you that it's art, and music, and theater, and sports, their electives, the debate, the yearbook, all those kinds of things. So because we call those things special on the periphery, it can seem strange to move them into the center, but for a lot of kids that that's already at the center of their motivation for coming to school.
Nat Vaughn: Yeah. And I would say too, the other thing is it provided a lot of mirror moments for us. Often say, "All right, let's hold up a mirror, what did we do to get ourselves through the pandemic?" Music, arts, we picked up hobbies, we picked up baking, and that got us through, and thank goodness.
And why wouldn't we be doing that in the school day as well, and broadening that conversation? And yeah, we're wrestling with it still, there's the fear of learning loss, there's a fear of that. And I am much more concerned about the fear of... The learning loss, we're seeing more is the social interactions of kids and adults. And so I think those piece too, is we made time for outdoor lunch, we made time for recess, formalizing it. So again, to use your point, the net might be even, but we're going to borrow from here to provide snack time, we're going to borrow from here to provide kids the time, because they need it. They need the time to learn how to interact with each other, because if we don't give it to them they're not going to learn it.
Justin Reich: So one of the virtues of competency based instruction is that it makes very clear to learners, in its well practiced form, what it is that they're supposed to do. If you've made it really clear to learners what it is that they're supposed to do, what it is that they're supposed to learn, how they can demonstrate mastery, then A that just simply is good instruction, and simply clarifies the learning process and aims for students. B, it starts opening up some possibilities for students to be able to meet those learning objectives without all doing the same activities as each other. That you could say, "Demonstrate this competency for me." And you might learn that by reading, by watching videos, by doing practice problems, by doing a project, by other kinds of things, the pathway that you get there is not as important, as that you're able to demonstrate it.
And in fact, there's no shame in taking a long time figuring it out, that we want to focus not on, what grade did you get on the three quizzes leading up to this demonstration of mastery? But what was your final understanding of the topic? If you failed the three quizzes, and then are really good at the final, because you finally figured it out, isn't that more important? Isn't that sort of a better performance than someone who does a mediocre job on every quiz, and then the mediocre job on the final performance? Maybe in a grading point of view, the average would be better there, but it's not really what we're looking for. In terms of subtraction, I think one of the things that we should be looking at in schools is saying, "What are the ways that we can make our curricula deeper and less broad and shallow?"
It's possible to do that without competency based education, it's possible in all kinds of traditional ways of education to say, "Hey, let's go back to what we're teaching students, let's go back to our standards, let's go back to our curriculum guides, our pacing guides." And say, "How can we go into fewer topics more deeply?" The process of adopting competency-based learning is one way for having those explicit kinds of conversations that sort of include that curriculum deepening, that topic subtraction as well. Competency-based education is one pathway to get to curriculum subtracting, though is not the only pathway to get to those kinds of conversations about deeper curriculum investigating fewer things. Let's hear more from Nat.
Nat Vaughn: And I think really looking at just the systems that we have in place, is our systems going to support that? And some of us, we've been using the term pandemic, global, but there's also the individual pandemics that every kid, and we all are bringing in. We just don't know, those hidden pandemics that each kid's bringing in, so is our systems allowing for that?
And flexibility, and then challenging them. One other piece looking at that, not necessarily changing, we've been really trying to incorporate more diverse curricula, DEI work, culturally responsive practices. And I would say the initial piece is we've got to change our canon of literature, versus we can't change it overnight, how we're doing the current literature... The debate, do you keep Tom Sawyer? Do you keep To Kill a Mockingbird? Well, we can ask some questions, and get to an endgame of a richer conversation for kids, without necessarily changing the novel today. And I think that's the piece, is trying to help teachers understand, we're not asking you to throw out your love of a book, but can we ask a few questions differently about how we teach it? And I think that kind of time is a cultural piece, and that's just been a challenge, I'm very worried about bandwidth of all of us, we're tired. And so I think subtraction, let's lessen the expectations of each other right now for summer, we really need to recharge.
Justin Reich: Yeah, that sounds like a great subtraction to tackle. Again, because if we don't get the rest teachers very obviously need, then whatever it is that we are hoping to fill that time with isn't going to happen effectively anyway. Do we want to bring teachers back in the same way in August for the same PD, the same class prep, and try to pile on some more things to do? Or do we want to bring them back and say, "Let's just recharge, let's reconnect with our values of why we're here, and there is going to be time this year to think about some ambitious innovations, some new things that we been doing."
Nat Vaughn: Absolutely. A phrase that comes to mind, is just trying to create a space for that. And I think, again, if we can modify our expectations of getting through all the content, that creates some space for breathing, and it's going to serve us all better, I know it will, it's hard to do.
Justin Reich: So in many places around the country one of the, in my view, very legitimate gripes that teachers have, is that management conversations, policy conversations, are happening without including them. That people are not listening to teachers, when current practicing teachers are the only people who know what it's really like to teach during a pandemic. One of the advantages that administrators often have in their work is that they come to being a principal superintendent with 10, 15, 20 years of teaching experience, not always, but in a lot of cases. And teaching is a steady enough profession that what you learned teaching 10 or 15 years ago can be really helpful in lots of contexts. But I think there are ways that the last two years have been importantly different from the 20, 25, 30 years before that, and we just heard over and over again in a hundred interviews that we did with teachers that they did not feel listened to.
Not just as a gripe. I mean, everyone who works in a professional environment, or as part of a community wants to feel like they're heard, that's sort of a fundamental human need. But also that they had important insights which weren't being filtered into leadership, that was leading leadership to make bad decisions like simultaneous hybrid teaching, or other mistakes that folks took during the pandemic. So it is always a good time to listen to teachers. If there are leaders out there whose practice has not made a lot of time for listening to teachers in the last few years because they felt busy, because they felt a lot of demands, whatever it is... What's the joke? Yesterday was the best day to start, but today is the second best day to start. And I think when teachers are listened to, they will be able to say, "Here are some things that I do in my day that don't feel generative, that don't feel like they're connected to student learning, that are preventing me from accomplishing things that are really important."
And again, it's very unlikely that those things are going to be obviously trivial to get rid of, there's very little we do in schools that doesn't serve somebody's purpose somewhere. But the challenge is to host those conversations and communities, and to say, "Let's see if we can get some of our most important values out on the table. Let's listen to people, especially those in frontline, dealing with students, kind of roles every day. The paraprofessionals, the librarians, the cafeteria folks, the teachers, the counselors, all those folks." And say, "What is it that feels heavy, and time consuming, and less valuable now?" And let's take those things and weigh them against the list of our most closely held values, and try to figure out which of these things are the furthest away from our values that we could say goodbye to.
Maybe we don't feel good about saying goodbye to them forever, so maybe we're coming up now on the end of the semester, it's a great time to conduct some of these things as experiments. Say, "Well, we're not going to get rid of this PD, we're not going to get rid of this meeting, we're not going to get rid of this rule or practice permanently, we haven't committed to doing that. But we're going to do an experiment through Christmas, through the beginning of the new semester, which says we're going to try school without this thing, and we're going to see how it works for people."
Now is a great time to be thinking about doing some of those experiments. So I think listening to teachers, trying things in a way that lets you experiment and explore, see some success before you start committing to permanent changes. With almost any kind of initiative that we take on in schools, it can be very valuable to have a bias to action to say, "Let's try without this for one week, for one unit, for one marking period, for one semester." And then build and grow from there.
I'm Justin Reich, this is TeachLab, thanks for listening to our third episode of our new series on Subtraction in Action, and huge thanks to Nat Vaughn for taking time out of his busy schedule as a principal to hang out with us. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast and check out all the episodes in the series, you can also check out our new film, We Have to Do something Different at somethingdifferentfilm.com. You can attend the local screening, or sign up to host your own, learn more about screening opportunities, and check out the guide at somethingdifferentfilm.com. Be sure to subscribe to TeachLab wherever you listen to your podcasts, and if you like what you hear, please leave us a rating or a review. This episode was produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley, and the sound was mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe, until next time.