Empathy MapOver the last four years, I’ve provided sustained support to 5 rural, 2 suburban, and 3 urban school districts as they’ve aligned curricula, instructional practices, and assessments to the Common Core Learning Standards for English Language Arts.

Last week, as I began work in a new district, I was invited to chat informally with teachers, administrators, and parents about all of those experiences. They wanted to know where things went well, where things went off the rails, and most importantly, to what I attributed these outcomes.

It’s difficult to establish causality, and I said as much. I wasn’t comfortable naming specific schools, teachers, or administrators either, and so I didn’t. They own their own stories, and they aren’t mine to tell. It was interesting to reflect on that question and on the work of the last four years though, and I enjoyed sharing examples of the diverse ways teachers capitalized on many opportunities and handled some of the more common challenges that nearly every district has faced. It was easy to speak to approaches while protecting confidentiality.

So, the truth is that it hasn’t been easy anywhere, and in some places, people are still feeling far less than satisfied than anyone would like. Much relies upon local decision making. When all is said and done, the Common Core is what a community makes of it.

In my experience, the teachers who have had success implementing the Common Core share these characteristics. As a facilitator, I think it’s important for me to distill whatever learning I can from this discovery and work to replicate it elsewhere. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that lately.

Three Characteristics of Teachers who Succeed with the Common Core Learning Standards:

1. They’re sensitive to the fact that we all maintain cognitive biases. These teachers are strong enough to approach their learning and work with the standards as skeptics, but they’re wise enough to understand cognitive bias, and they’re sensitive to the damage it can do.

I’ve written about confirmation bias and the curse of expertise before. The teachers who are most successful are able to tell when critics of the Core are making solid claims and when they’re allowing cognitive bias to cloud their thinking. They’re careful to reflect on their own reasoning as well. These teachers aren’t frightened by what some people say or by what’s happened in other places. They’re eager to do good work for the right reasons in their classrooms and schools and adjust as they go, in response to what they learn from their kids and from one another.

Their Common Core may not be your Common Core, and they don’t need anyone to tell them what to think, because they’re doing a careful job of it all on their own. They also don’t need anyone defining what they do as damage, especially those who aren’t in their classrooms. They know how to teach with the standards in ways that engage and empower kids, even if others don’t. They are also a little bit tired of being painted with the same brush.

2. They can distinguish a script from a vignette and they don’t reject ideas on principle (see my first point): When others propose uncommon solutions, approaches, or ideas, they are willing to take them for a test drive before dismissing them altogether. These are the people who embrace appreciative inquiry and who know enough about quality curriculum and assessment design to make purposeful adjustments to the plans that others share rather than flushing them entirely. They know that a written plan isn’t a script, that the point isn’t to read lines and perform, and that modifications will be necessary in order to meet their students’ needs. Incidentally: their administrators know this too, and they support them as they work toward informed and flexible implementation.

3. They are determined to succeed. They have a vision of the graduate they’re hoping to produce, of the professional they are striving to be, and of the culture they want to be a part of. They know what kind of time and energy will be needed to align their vision with others’, and they make very productive use of every opportunity they are provided. These teachers are savvy. They know that congeniality is the enemy of kindness, and they do not go gentle into any good night. They aren’t afraid to voice their needs, to ask for more time, or to request better help. They’re simply strategic about garnering support for their efforts. This is what makes them successful.

One of the first things I plan to do with the new district I’m supporting is reflected in the photo at the top of this page. This is empathy mapping. It enables educators to ground themselves in a deeper understanding of their students’ strengths and needs prior to design work. It also enables me to ground myself in a deeper understanding of the teachers and administrators I serve prior to facilitating initiatives as well.

Protocols like these help cultivate the three characteristics I’ve shared above. If you’re the person responsible for leading change inside of any system, I can’t recommend approaches like these enough.

Let me know how this one works for you.


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