This column was submitted by Colorado’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, Sean Wybrant, a Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs District 11.
After an eight-week long project in a senior English class, one of my students had this to say:
“If I would have known we could actually do this, I would have engaged earlier. There were so many opportunities I just missed. I didn’t think we could get it done, so I didn’t want to try,” [Billy] said.
It was easy to understand why he felt overwhelmed.
Over the year we had been working on owning our identities, learning how our sense of self was impacted by the world around us, and then used our understanding of literature and self to impact the world in tangible ways. In the last quarter of the year, the students decided to use our newfound power to help their peers understand the perils and realities of driving drunk or under the influence of drugs after one of our students was seriously hurt in an accident.
This wasn’t the first time I tried to do a massive project with students that went outside the clearly defined lines of traditional content or the established approach to English instruction, but it was the one that changed my perspective of why it is important to understand policies and work to change them instead of just circumventing.
The Dangers of Circumnavigating Policies
The project started with students’ simple idea, “Let’s bring in a guest speaker.” That quickly turned into, “Maybe we could have a few guest speakers.” The project continued to grow until we decided to put together an entire day’s worth of activities that included a mock crash with a demonstration of emergency medical response, a series of lectures in the auditorium, a catered lunch from pizza companies, a live radio station broadcast, and four different driving activities from three police departments.
I had no idea the difficulties we would run into to cordon off part of the parking lot, or that we needed to get cones from the transportation department of the district, or that conducting a mock crash on site where the local fire department would use the jaws of life to cut a car apart before our eyes would need approval from administration at every level, or that having a radio station come out to our campus was something that requires media releases, or that I would need to justify students using their cell phones in class to call the various organizations/speakers/government agencies we had to talk to.
While some of these seem like obvious, “Of course you would need approval for that!” components, think about all of the pieces and parts that we could have done (and did) without prior approval or the various in-classroom components we could have done with little-to-no oversight. Think about all of the policies that I “didn’t even know about!” (*cough*) or potentially avoided (*cough*). Instead of owning the opportunity to advocate fixes for those policies for the benefit of everyone we just got things done, and in the end we had a great event.
The next year when a smaller group of kids decided to do the same event as a separate activity, I found that many of the policies and procedures were the same as the year before. Ironically, even though we had run a positive, life-changing event some elements of the project were even harder to navigate the second time because I had circumvented some policies to get things done and so new ones were put in place.
That was the moment that changed my perspective.
Finding out that I had created a situation that made it difficult for me to repeat a great event made me think about how over the years my actions in circumventing policies, while good for my kids, probably had unintended consequences for me and everyone around me. I can remember thinking to myself, “I have probably been making this harder for everyone else too without realizing it…and unless the trailblazers change the system, the system doesn’t change…”
Avoiding Policy Barriers Only Delays Systemic Change
For the first years of my career I dodged and weaved through policies like a seal in the ocean, turning on a dime to find a new way to do things I was told I couldn’t in policies I disagreed with. I was like [Billy]; I didn’t work to change the system or engage because I didn’t think I could get it done. That avoidance just led to a lot of missed opportunities and more rules/procedures.
Now, I ask for permission. Always. Not because it is easier or safer. I ask permission knowing that it will be harder in many cases and will carry in some ways just as much risk.
When my students want to engage with a topic or project and I know we will run into procedural and policy barriers, I steel myself for the difficult path of pushing forward the policies even if I know how to circumvent them, because unless the teachers who have the credibility, the voice, and the power to change the policies work to change them there will be no change.
When we recently wanted to make a multi-age, multi-school club and found out it was against policy, we worked to have the board policy changed. When I want to bring in a new technology, I now write my plans to push forward our technology processes the way they need to be written to open up the opportunity for everyone in the district.
We are currently working to get Donors Choose approved as a resource for schools and teachers; I hope to have this policy changed by the end of the 2017/2018 school year and have been working on it since 2015. There have been countless phone calls to our budget office and our procurement department. There have been emails — so many emails. Slowly, we are making headway. Sometimes it takes years of work.
It has been a struggle every time, but now when I look at a new teacher coming in with innovative ideas about engaging and inspiring students, I can feel confident knowing that their path will be just a little easier.
As you start this school year, join me in teacher leadership and stop begging for forgiveness. Ask permission. Fight to better the systems in your way. Use your teacher voice to create a path for others. Rise. Take on the challenge. Lead and change the rules.
Actionable Steps For Pushing On Policy
- Get Clarity: Be clear in the outcomes you want to achieve and the student benefit of those outcomes. You need to be clear on what you are hoping to achieve or it is difficult to ask the right questions. This is the most important step.
- Start Small: This makes it easier to establish a track record and to practice advocating for policy changes.
- Ask with Intent: Contact the people in the departments you need to who can help you understand what policies exist and why they exist. You might be surprised at just how many times you assume a policy or rule exists because you have heard other teachers complaining about it and it simply doesn’t.
- Steel Yourself: If a policy truly does exist that would prevent you from being able to do something specific that really would benefit students, get your mind in the place of doing hard things for the right reasons. View this is a great example of modelling grit for your students.
- Make a Plan for Change: Whatever you do should be done well, and that takes time and planning. Figure out how the policy came to be, who is responsible for the policy, who you need to advocate for/to, what they value, and why they might be reluctant. Then, plan in what order the work needs to be done.
- Do the work: Policies don’t change overnight. It takes work. You might have to speak at a board meeting or schedule time to invite your leadership into your room. You might need to write an email that needs to be worded just right. You might need to do something very different than any of those.
- Celebrate successes (or iterate your process): If you successfully change a policy or rule, celebrate! Then, share with others how to do whatever opportunity you opened up. Others can only follow in your footsteps if they know they can. Help them understand. If you aren’t successful, modify your approach based on what you have learned, and repeat the cycle.