Moving Beyond "In Spite of”

While it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to bring a speaker as well-respected as Mike Schmoker to the district, what’s most important is what we do from here. That work begins today. We can’t look to anyone but ourselves to effectively prepare our students to meet the challenges they will face in life, work, and post-secondary pursuits.

There were two points from the morning keynote that resounded with me: quality teaching makes all the difference and effective teacher teams plan, teach, assess, and improve together. My opportunities to reflect with all of you Friday afternoon have left the phrase “in spite of” nagging at me all weekend.

First, quality teaching makes all the difference. It’s easy to default to a position that blames the problems in our classrooms on factors outside the classroom. We can say some children come to us under-prepared. We can point to the less-than-supportive, sometimes-damaging home environments in which some of our children live. We can balk at what the teachers who had these students before us neglected to teach.

We can blame a system that forces us to work in isolation, creating (in the best scenarios) islands of disconnected excellence. We can blame policies, practices, and biases that place undue emphasis on test scores. We can blame higher education, saying their slow evolution holds back our own. You could each add your own list of crippling outside factors to mine.

At the end of the day, none of this blaming does any good. In fact, the reality is that great teachers still get great results—in spite of all these factors. We have to push every outside factor out of our minds and put every ounce of our collective and individual energy into what we can control.

Secondly, effective teacher teams ensure both what and how we teach are of the highest quality, resulting in high quality student learning. These teams plan lessons and units together. They teach these lessons and units together. They assess their impact and adjust instruction accordingly—together. They look closely at examples of student work to move their focus beyond instructional intentions to get real about instructional results. They make adjustments to increase the likelihood that our outcomes match our intentions. This process is happening in isolated pockets, but it should be the norm. All teachers should have a team to support continuous improvement. 

I can point to examples of excellent teachers. I can point to examples of highly functional teams. Unfortunately, they all exist in spite of a system that doesn’t support them. They exist in spite of a lack of time and opportunity. They exist in spite of meaningful and informed support from school leaders--myself included. It’s time that we move beyond a system in which good things happen in spite of. It’s time that we create a system in which these things can thrive. Now is the time to change the system that relegates our work to “in spite of” conditions. Let's work together to create and capitalize upon teacher collaboration time to ensure the best possible learning experiences for our students. 


  1. I have an idea that the frustration that you were hearing Friday is a reflection of how far it seems Schmoker is from what we've been working on. Narrow, well-focused curriculum sounds like the opposite of ICC. Crayola curriculum feels like a slam on authentic assesment. I think many of us agree with much of what he said. It just feels like a big swing of the pendulum.

  2. Thanks, Jeff. I've been pleased with the number of people who are truly questioning and thoughtfully considering what we heard Friday morning. It's great to hear that the message sparked a sort of cognitive dissonance, as that's where the really valuable work can begin.

    Any outside voice-whether it's Dr. Schmoker, the Iowa Core, or any other perspective-can only take us so far. I support getting information from as many sources as possible, but I recognize that meaningful growth and progress only happens when we who are most closely connected to our context begin to operationalize it in a relevant way. That always means filtering, sorting, assimilating, and applying.

  3. I so appreciated the message last Friday. He had a good solid message, collaborate, read, write. I have been inspired to try a couple of new things already!

  4. I'd love to hear more Cindy. Sounds great!