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Inner and Outer School Change Work

In our world, there is a pervasive emphasis on achievement, outcomes, growth, and strategies. With school change work, we often see a kind of “turnaround” mentality— where there is an expectation that when we implement or “roll out” a program or initiative, we will see immediate results.  As part of this approach to change, educators feel tremendous pressure to focus on classroom strategies and the ways we are going to take action day by day. In the midst of our educator workshops, when there is an activity focused on our own inner work, educators often say—“but wait, how do I take this to my students and my classroom?” This inquiry and impulse towards action is natural and important. But at times, this perspective becomes a kind of blind spot —as all of our focus is directed outward into action, instead of inwards into shifts in our attitudes, behavior, and social and emotional capacities. When we also incorporate inner change work into our school culture change process—we shift not only what we are doing, but how we are doing it.

Let’s take examples from the work of cultural responsiveness. Often, in our desire to become immediately culturally proficient and do this work “right”—we look for materials and lesson plans that we can bring to our classroom.  While these strategies (such as, displaying diverse images of peoples and cultures and including a diversity of authors in our curricula) are absolutely essential—they are not the totality of the work. In fact, if we only focus on those strategies or think about cultural responsiveness as a list of tasks to accomplish, we may miss the much larger picture—which includes the ongoing inner work with our own attitudes, biases and worldview that impact our teaching on every level.

Or, if we are wanting to develop social and emotional learning (SEL) capacities in our students, but haven’t really developed our own SEL capacities—we may find ourselves emotionally triggered or reactive instead of responsive and resourced—sabotaging the very relationships we need to create with our students to support their learning.  We can see a similar tendency playing out with mindfulness. If we focus solely on bringing in mindful moments or exercises into the classroom and don’t cultivate mindfulness in our own lives and practice, we don’t fundamentally shift our pedagogy or way of being. Without this emphasis on our own inner lives, the changes in our behavior and in our schools are likely to be more superficial and less effective.

When we wish to create whole school change—it is essential that we focus on working as much on our inner capacities, dispositions and awareness as we do on the specific strategies we bring to our daily work with our students.  When we integrate inner and outer work, we begin to see and experience the powerful changes in pedagogy, practice, and culture that we long to see. This requires patience, trust, and, at times, a shift in our focus. Our presence as educators — our attitudes, perspectives, behaviors, and capacities—are just as essential to the classroom as our curricula.  When we recognize this, we shift not only our pedagogy and practice, but also tap into our creativity and joy for teaching.

Below are some tips for developing a self-reflective practice that supports the “inner” dimensions of our work.

Activities for Observing Ourselves

  • Notice when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed and consciously make time to take care of yourself in some way.
  • Make a list of areas of your professional life that feel particularly challenging right now. Commit to getting help or support from a colleague, friend, mentor, or coach in at least one of those areas.
  • Begin a practice in the classroom of noticing what energizes and inspires you, what challenges or depletes you, and what deepens your understanding of yourself and your teaching practices.
  • Note what is working and not working in your teaching. Track lessons and approaches that are particularly successful. Build on these successes for future lesson planning.
  • Become curious about your own worldview, beliefs, and perspectives (around culture, race, class, personality, style, and so on). This may include joining a training or study group on cultural responsiveness.
  • Create a learning community with other educators in which each person gives and receives support, guidance, or feedback. This group could include colleagues from your school or other colleagues in the field.
  • Schedule regular time (daily or weekly, if possible) to reflect on your own teaching practice. Consider setting quarterly goals and sharing those with a colleague. If possible, meet to discuss how you are doing with your goals and where you might need support.

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