Cultivating a Culture of Risk-Takers Among Teachers

The focus of any school must be on the student, but emphasizing teacher success pays dividends throughout a school’s culture. Specifically, by encouraging teachers to take risks, we model this positive behavior for students who will need it throughout their academic careers and beyond. Here are five ways we cultivate this at Bernard Middle School.

One-in-Three Strategy Spotlights

Staff meetings can too often become sit-and-get nightmares for teachers already overburdened by our educational system, so we changed the focus of ours. We have empowered teachers to be change agents by acknowledging success in the classroom with the entire staff. In each meeting, we ask several teachers to informally share a brief description of one successful lesson, tech tool, or classroom routine in three minutes or less. These “one-in-three” spotlights have built a culture where teachers eagerly seek out new opportunities for risk-taking in the classroom from their peers, as well as improved cross-curricular connections transforming classrooms into interactive learning labs where innovation is the focus.

Learning Walks

Learning walks are brief, informal opportunities for teachers to get into other classrooms. Teachers are invited to participate in a five-minute walk during their planning period, during which we visit another classroom to observe peers in action. We leave positive notes at the end of our informal observation to celebrate the successes taking place, providing immediate positive feedback for host teachers. These events help teachers gain additional tools they can use in their classrooms and build relationships between teachers that have led to collaborative efforts for project-based learning activities.

Emphasizing Continuous Professional Development

We have seen significant growth in our teachers through the integration of intentional professional development and modeling instructional strategies. We recognize that teachers are at varying stages of their journeys as educators, so we began to create the space necessary for their personal exploration of new strategies and tools with which they might not be familiar. By modeling myriad strategies and tools at every faculty meeting, integrating hands-on, relevant experiences for our teachers, and showing that it’s okay to make mistakes, we encouraged teachers to try new strategies and created a culture in which it’s encouraged to reach out to principals and colleagues for assistance.

Sowing Seeds: The “Yes, and…” Strategy

The most fundamental piece of encouraging risk-taking is to let teachers know they can and should take risks and that we are here to support them. When a teacher has an idea for something new and approaches our administrative team for help, we always try to say yes, and then brainstorm with them to come up with beneficial “and” statements—“Yes! And how can I help you implement that?” If appropriate, we talk about the potential for expanding the idea to other classrooms or grade levels, and give teachers an opportunity to present great new ideas during professional development. By having a “Yes, and…” mindset, we not only encourage teachers to take risks and try new things, but also constantly demonstrate that we support them in their efforts and seek out the additional benefits that these new ideas bring to the table.

Every Classroom Every Day

I strive to visit every classroom in my building every day so I can provide immediate, constructive feedback to teachers. In planning conversations, we discuss potential strategies and methodologies the teacher might implement in their curriculum, even if it’s something they’ve never tried before. Over time, through encouragement of risk-taking in developing new ways to implement our curricula, we have found this results in a snowball effect of positive experiences for teachers and more engaged students as our classroom environments remain innovative and energetic. Perhaps as important, this strategy gives teachers access to a supportive administrative team on a daily basis so that we can problem-solve together and fail forward in collaborative ways.

Fostering Relationships

Supporting staff in nontraditional ways results in the creation of space for teachers to step out of their comfort zones. We support staff morale by introducing fun and creative ways to use technology during staff meetings and laughing together during holiday parties and icebreakers. By being present during and outside of the school day, we build relationships that empower teachers to comfortably explore their interests. Though we might see them every day, we make sure we get out of teachers’ way as much as possible so they feel safe to take risks that speak to their personalities, their students, and their teaching styles as they grow.

As our teachers are encouraged to take risks and innovate, we found our school’s classrooms to be more dynamic, energetic, effective classroom environments. As a principal, one of the most important things I can do on a daily basis is to continue fostering this risk-taking behavior in my staff so that they can model it for our students.

What strategies do you use to create space for your teachers and students to innovate their educational experiences?

Lauren Cumming proudly serves as the Principal of Bernard Middle School in St. Louis, MO. She is the 2019 Missouri Assistant Principal of the Year.  Follow her on Twitter (@MrsLCumming).

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