Our Strategic Plan Shines Light on Teachers and Students as Change Agents

January 2017 was a pivotal time for St. Andrew’s School (RI). Faculty had just returned from winter break and the administration had just briefed them about the new strategic plan in a heady professional development session. The next day middle school teachers gathered for one of two team meetings held during the week to connect, collaborate, and consider creative approaches in the classroom. The atmosphere is typically genial, but this one was different. As the new middle school director facilitating the meeting, I noticed pairs of teachers huddled in the corner and overheard them discussing the potential impacts of the new direction. Amid the palpable tension, I reminded myself that change can bring uncertainty and jitters.
These faculty gatherings are part of a continuing effort to balance traditions with new ideas at St. Andrew’s. Our small coed, boarding and day school in Barrington, Rhode Island, was founded by Father William M. Chapin in 1893 to change the lives of economically disadvantaged children. Since then, we’ve evolved to offer myriad opportunities for students in grades six through postgraduate, all hailing from diverse domestic and international backgrounds. The 226 students enrolled have a wide array of learning profiles, a unique and defining feature of the school.  

Being a Catalyst

St. Andrew’s five-year strategic plan is the product of a lengthy review that included intensive engagement with the full community and data from the NAIS Trendbook. It also comes on the heels of new school leadership, as the head of school is in his third year. The plan centers on the expectation that St. Andrew’s graduates go forth as agents of change to make the world a better place. Although student engagement has always been the priority, this plan has given the school newfound clarity and direction about how it expects graduates to use and build upon their experience here. The strategic plan extends Father Chapin’s founding vision of an enduring commitment to service, action, and inclusion. To fully realize that vision, St. Andrew’s educators must become change agents themselves.
For teachers, this begins by identifying the methods that serve our students well, such as differentiated instruction and kinesthetic learning, as well as developing new expertise in personalized learning, growth mindset, and inquiry-based learning. With a recently endowed professional development fund for about $56,000 per year and a strategic plan that calls for more clearly defining St. Andrew’s curriculum and pedagogy, new opportunities for teacher growth await.

Infographic credit: Nancy Chaffee

Examining Research and Measuring Success

It has long been identified that the more individualized the professional development experience, the more invested the teacher is in the outcome. As the 2016 report “Moving from Compliance to Agency: What Teachers Need to Make Professional Learning Work” states: “Teacher agency is the capacity of teachers to act purposefully and constructively to direct their professional growth and contribute to the growth of their colleagues.”  
With education’s rapid evolution, teachers often wrestle with their own knowledge gaps. At St. Andrew’s, for example, faculty members are grappling with a student demographic that has shifted to include learners along a wider spectrum of strengths and challenges, while also working to incorporate school-wide technology initiatives, such as google classroom, into daily teaching. We will measure the effectiveness of our new initiatives by the degree to which they address the needs of individual teachers and the school at large.

Facilitating Team Meetings

During my first year as middle school director in 2016-2017, I carved out a space for teachers to engage in collaborative discourse, and I am continuing the practice this year. The purpose of these twice weekly, 45-minute meetings is twofold: to be on the same page about day-to-day school happenings and to inspire dialogue about individual and departmental needs for professional development. Ultimately, I want these gatherings to help create a bridge between me and the teachers — and invigorate a new dynamic among a group of educators who have been working together for many years.   
I find that this environment cultivates trust, opening teachers up to discuss their challenges and ask for help solving problems. Here we explore new instructional methods to help students learn better. For example, we discuss intentionally teaching growth mindset so students come to understand failure as an opportunity to improve.
For 2017-2018, middle school teachers have developed similar language about growth mindset so all students receive the same message. In addition, decisions to develop new project-based learning units for all math levels and adopt a new eighth-grade science curriculum, engaging learners through investigation, resulted from the conversations we began last year.

Director of Middle School Alexandra McMullen (c.) facilitates a faculty development session at St. Andrew's School (RI). Photos courtesy of St. Andrew's School

Sharing Teachers’ Stories

Our conversations have spurred several teachers to identify their plans for professional growth and how these fit within St. Andrew’s new strategic plan toward agency. Below, two middle school teachers share their PD philosophy and goals for 2017-2018.
Even after more than 32 years of experience, Chuck Gordon has found that there is still a lot to learn. These team meetings have helped him identify new ways to reach students. For him, developing students’ resilience is the first step toward having them understand how they can have a positive impact on the world. He’s exploring how he can incorporate teaching growth mindset into his toolkit of instructional methods, whether it’s through one-on-one coaching conversations in his math or history classes or delivering curriculum in his expeditionary learning course, Project Adventure.
“It’s opening up a door for me to go in a different direction with these kids. It is a matter of a mind shift. It is all about why we should change our mind. In 2017-2018, I want to find tools to start intentionally helping my students with developing resiliency. I would like to embrace the challenge to see what I can get out of my students and then move on. There is still going be frustration, on my part and the part of the kids, but this is a different way to look at it. This is how I have changed. I now want to know the reason behind why my students don’t want to push beyond their limits. What is preventing them from being more resilient? I want to engage them in a conversation about their challenges, to understand the process in which they learn.”
Chuck has realized that he, too, must embrace a growth mindset in the classroom, particularly after attending the Learning and the Brain: Mindsets Matter in Math Conference in April. He believes some of these reckonings have only come from age, wisdom, and experience, in addition to a shifting educational landscape.
I am in the sunset of my career in terms of time, as I have been teaching for 32 years. As a new teacher, I wasn’t really into professional development. I did my own, but I really didn’t set goals for myself around PD. If I needed to find something out, I would talk to others versus going to a conference; I used to find conferences overwhelming. I want to set goals now. I have shifted my mindset because education has shifted and the needs of our students have changed as well. They need grit to deal with what life will inevitably throw at them.” 
Mary Ann Murgo’s path is slightly different. A lifelong learner, she has always prioritized her professional growth during her 36-year teaching career — attending the New England League of Middle Schools’ Annual Conference each year and the 2017 Learning and the Brain conference on mindsets and reading.   
As Mary Ann crafts a new curriculum to meet the needs of multi-age learners and seeks to incorporate technology more intentionally into her teaching this year, she sees how her challenges mirror those of her students.
“As with anything, I need to be able to provide the structure for my students, and to walk the talk as well, so that kids feel good about what they are learning and realize that I am walking alongside them. This year, my greatest challenge is being able to incorporate the google classroom into my teaching. As this has become an institutional focus for this year, I need to challenge myself with this, as well as other new professional experiences, such as continuing to tweak our relatively new multi-age teaching model for our sixth- and seventh-grade English/Language Arts classes. When I think about a fear of failure, I know this is what my students feel. And that is a fear of mine, too. I need to embody the message of embracing a flexible mindset, just as I am expecting my students to do so. It is helpful to remember that we are all in this together.”
Mary Ann recognizes that she must evolve along with her students. “We are human; we are going to make mistakes. Reaffirming that as long as you are doing your best, that is good enough. Although I like structure and being clear with expectations and boundaries when I teach, I equally like to have fun and use humor, in a kind way, with my students. What drives my own professional development is that I know I cannot stay stagnant in what I am doing because nothing in the world stays the same. Even for me, as much as I love structure and all, I would’ve drowned had I stayed doing the same thing over and over again.”

Building a Steady Partnership

The stories of Chuck and Mary Ann inspire my leadership. I know that to motivate our faculty and practice during this school year and beyond, we need to strike the right balance between maintaining teacher autonomy, addressing department-based initiatives, and satisfying institutional goals. That means administrators must look to teachers as valuable partners in designing meaningful experiences and building a collaborative learning culture, while teachers need to assume administrators have the best intentions for institutional change that prioritizes the continued acquisition of new expertise. In the end, the goal remains the same for all of us: to prepare graduates to go forth into the world as agents of change.
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Alexandra R. McMullen

Alexandra McMullen is director of the middle school at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington, Rhode Island.