Community is everything. If you’re not convinced of that by now–in April 2021–principal Elias Villa and instructional coach Nicole Lalumiere-Weaving will make you think again. For these Weaver Middle School educators, it didn’t take a global pandemic to understand that everything must be built on a foundation of trust that is bolstered by evidence of care and concern. While this is always a work in progress for these educators, creating a thriving community is at the core of every decision they make.
Weaver is located in a rural community in Merced, California, which is part of a swath of agricultural land known as the world’s breadbasket. This diverse community is growing and Villa and Lalumiere-Weaving are poised to ensure that its diverse population of learners, 85% of whom are socio-economically disadvantaged, have every opportunity to grow and learn in a deeply caring community.
As devoted as educators are to their students, Weaver leaves nothing to chance. “We are explicit about what we mean by a ‘culture of care.’ We have a group of caring educators, committed to meeting the needs of every student. We know that many of our families are facing challenges and our students will absorb the heightened anxiety.”
One of the driving strategies at Weaver is restorative practices. Every educator is learning how to facilitate conversations that offer students a chance to share what is happening in their lives in a safe and supportive community. Students are learning to articulate their emotions while building empathy for one another–the same is true for the adults in the room.
“Our staff is not just learning about restorative practices, but they are using the strategies themselves. This is how we build community amongst ourselves. We’ve started book studies that deepen our understanding of a topic, then we get in a circle, just as our students do, and we talk. We bond. We learn how it feels to get vulnerable. At Weaver, we don’t ask our students to do anything that we haven’t done ourselves,” explains Villa.
“We allow kids to have a space to talk and to hear each other. They will talk differently in a circle than they will on the playground. They need a safe space to have an opportunity to hear one another. We want everyone to know what it feels like to be in the company of good humans. This is a place where kids have respect for one another and most teachers seem happier. Our teachers model what a positive and respectful conversation looks and sounds like,” says Villa.
“Connection before content is our guiding principle, shares Lalumiere-Weaving. We know that teachers are overwhelmed and kids have a whole new world to navigate. There’s a lot to do. So, we want everyone to trust that not only is it okay but it’s essential that you can show up as a human first. Trust that you have time to do the tasks that need to get done. Start with the heart first. The more heart, the more purpose and meaning,” she adds.
“We give teachers permission to take time each day to make those personal connections. One of our goals is to continue to increase attendance. School has to be a place where kids want to go. A place they feel cared for–where someone is really listening, where they feel heard and seen. School should always feel like a comfortable place where our students want to be. When students connect with the adults, they want to do more work,” says Villa.
Weaver Middle School is part of the “Schools to Watch” network, which is a program of the Institute for Excellence in Education (IEE). This national network provides an opportunity for schools to grow and share best practices as well as a supportive place to share challenges. As Lalumiere-Weaving points out, “The cool thing is that being recognized as a School to Watch is not an end point, it’s a beginning point. The message is: ‘We like what you’re doing and we want to join you and follow your journey.’”
One of the areas of focus for Weaver is engendering goals and future orientation among students. At the foundation of this is “Seeing that every kid is a person of worth and dignity and allowing them to make choices,” explains Lalumiere-Weaving. “Often, as adults, we want to control what is happening; we try to avoid that temptation and instead create an environment where choice is not only available but encouraged.”
“In Homeroom, students reflect on their learning and take charge of what they need to do to grow. They write their own plan of action. This goal setting and reflection builds learner agency. Thrively has really helped students feel that they’re a part of the school. Our kids get to know themselves, which has been crucial for all that we do, from goal setting, to restorative practices. Our students have become much more self-aware and reflective, and our teacher uses this information to help students become more empowered learners,” explains Villa.
Student empowerment is supported by several outlets for exploration in the arts and sciences. The award-winning band and the drama department, which sells out the annual Disney musical every year, are community treasures that highlight the persistence and drive of Weaver’s young performers. Students who do not find their passion in music or theater are encouraged to find their passion in sports, the Greek Olympics, and in hands-on science and math. Lalumiere-Weaving explains, “Our teachers are so passionate about their subjects that they have created a place where kids feel like it’s cool to learn new things. In English, the theme was window and mirrors–‘what are you reflecting to others and what are you seeing in another person’s world?’”
“We’re never just going to teach students and give them a quiz. We ask questions and provide the space to think about them, in writing and out loud. Think, talk, listen, triangulate who they are as they relate to others. Interactive conversations help students search for understanding and meaning. Our teachers have thoughtful, meaningful discussions that center on ideas that are relevant to their students and, in turn, students search for answers to big questions,” shares Lalumiere-Weaving.
“Teachers want to be authentic, but they need a roadmap. We spend a lot of time recognizing one another’s contributions, listening to one another to seek understanding. We don’t have one approach for our students and another for our educators. Everyone is treated with respect and dignity. We are always in a constant state of growth and this can only be achieved with support in a nurturing environment that places a culture of care as a top priority for the entire community,” emphasizes Villa.
Weaver is making great strides, but Villa and Lalumiere-Weaving emphasize that there is ample room to grow and to learn. Weaver educators are striving together to create a culture that reflects their shared values and goals and each day is a testament to that pursuit. Every child has a genius and they deserve to thrive!
Human Potential is Limitless. We know this to be true. We know it because we feel a surge of adrenaline that covers our bodies in goosebumps when watching humans attempt the seemingly impossible. We root for the underdog because we know what it feels like to be a David up against a Goliath, and, when we prevail, we get a nice ride along the dopamine superhighway–and it feels good. What if you never felt those goosebumps or that dopamine surge? What if it were easier to wear off the jagged edges of high expectations for yourself and live safely? What if experience told you that it made more sense to hide than to proclaim: This is me! This is me, and I am trying!
What fosters this sense of agency and positive learning identity that allows for such emphatic proclamations? At the core, it is the relationship that teachers have with their students. When students don’t just feel but have evidence of being known and valued they feel safe, and safety is the nutrient-rich soil from which all robust and healthy growth emerges. As with any relationship, interactions have to be rooted in true interest and concern and they have to be reciprocal–human being to human being, rather than keeper of knowledge to seeker of knowledge.
Years ago, when I was a teacher in a Title 1 school in Los Angeles, my go-to strategy was Shared Inquiry. What I discovered was that my role wasn’t to guide my students to achieve a particular understanding of a text, but to grow their curiosity through my authentic curiosity about their perspective. I would encourage them to share where their ideas had come from and to say more, delve more deeply. With each inquiry, a student’s confidence would grow. It was magic, and it was so simple: All I had to do was make the time to ask. Not so easy though, right?
So much is expected of our educators today because we know so much more about everything from neuroscience to the long-term effects of trauma. Each child brings a range of experiences to the classroom. What can teachers do when they carry large rosters or serve students with wildly varying needs? Consider for a moment Dr. Edith Eger’s question: “How do you spell love?” It’s a four-letter word, she reminds us. Ready? “It’s spelled t-i-m-e,” she says. How do teachers find time in a day that requires so much of them? With the 1,500 decisions that teachers make a day, where do they find the time to authentically inquire, build meaningful relationships, and engender trust?
Teachers, by the very nature of their work, have become models of efficiency. Watch your colleagues standing at the physical or virtual door, taking the time to look in each person’s eyes and welcome them. Teachers who use collaboration interfaces like Thrively might note how a group member brought a new idea to the team. “Something Miguel said yesterday inspired me to share this article with your group.” Or, “I was curious about an idea that Jazmine shared and I wanted to ask the group to explore that today.” These interactions only take a moment, but they are evidence of care, concern and genuine interest, which are all essential elements of trust.
A culture of trust provides a solid foundation upon which all learning is built. Imagine a space where a student knows that she can be vulnerable, make wild hypotheses, color outside the lines figuratively and literally, push boundaries, feel those goosebumps that attend exploring the unknown, feel her pulse quicken, and get the dopamine surge that comes when her curiosity is encouraged.
We can create a place of limitless possibility when we make the time ignite our own sense of wonderment and awe about the humans sitting right in front of us. What are their strengths, what are their dreams and aspirations, what makes them laugh, what makes them think? Everyone deserves to feel the excitement of discovery and who better to build that launch pad than a trusted teacher?
Jane Patterson – Senior Vice President, Customer Success, Thrively
I am a first-generation college graduate. Reared by self-educated intellectuals and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneurs, I have learned that intrinsic motivation is the key to personal fulfillment. What motivates us? What inspires us? What piques our curiosity? What moves us? I attribute my success in life to my mother and my 4th and 5th-grade teacher, Gene Howard. Mr. Howard knew that social-emotional growth underpinned current and future success. He encouraged me, saw the best in me, and was the person I could rely upon in turbulent times. Gene Howard would be proud—but not surprised—that a girl from challenging circumstances earned her undergraduate degree and doctorate from UCLA and joined Thrively to spread this message: Every child enters the world full of promise and brings their intrinsic strengths to the conversation. I join Thrively with gratitude and a clear vision of what is possible for our young people and for our collective future.
Our scholars are starving. They are literally being starved daily. And their starvation is a direct cause of the very schools that they attend. Now, if I were talking about food, I guarantee that there would be a march/protest/crowd with torches headed to every school, everywhere. But for some reason this starvation goes without much protest, inside and outside of schools.
Our scholars are starving from MalCreativeNurishing! Plain and simple: our scholars have had creativity and creative thinking taught right out of them. The very design of our education systems, with its narrow focus on testing achievement and ‘academic’ progress, has stripped the opportunity for our scholars to express themselves creatively, to explore ideas innovatively, and to look at problem solving through a lens of failing to succeed. We are an educational society of right and/or wrong…no other options apply.
The solution to this epidemic: give scholars opportunities to think creatively, to be kids, to fail, to play…to not be a number, a score, a grade, or a classification on a piece of paper.
How do we, as educators, do this? Find opportunities to bring creative thinking and experiences into the learning day and environment. Whether it is a 30-day 5-minute challenge or full blown Project Based Learning experiences, our scholars deserve it.
It is not easy work…at first, but the pay off is HUGE. Because creative thinking floods dopamine in our brains and EXPLODES into wonderous things. This ‘reward hormone’ builds confidence and perseverance…deluge the brain with it and it will pay off all day…all month…all year!
This is ALL about allowing our scholars to find their creative streak and to find their joy in learning. Remember CREATIVITY IS NOT INNATE! It is learned and can be developed. Everyone can be creative; just like building muscle we build creativity by practice and doing every day.
What is creativity? The first thing that comes to most minds is the creative arts: painting, dancing, music…. We need to push past this idea that creativity is only the arts. Creativity is EVERYTHING and EVERYWHERE. Every simple thing you do, every minute of the day, takes a choice of creativity.
In 2016, the godfather of creativity in learning, Sir Ken Robinson defined it this way: the process of having original ideas that have value. It differs from imagination, which is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to your senses. I think of creativity as putting your imagination to work. … You can be imaginative all day long and never do anything.”
In order to inspire this in our scholars we must do one simple thing: understand our own creativity. We all are very well versed at looking at our scholars and understanding their creative drives, their learning styles, what makes them tic, and what engages them but do we ever really look at ourselves…deeply? In order for us to truly bring creativity to our scholars learning experience, we need to deeply reflect on our ‘teaching style’ which is not unlike learning styles. We all have our distinct ‘style’ of serving up learning in our classroom, whether it virtual or in-person. And just as learning styles guide our instruction, teaching styles also influence how we deliver our learning experience.
IMPORTANT NOTE OF DISCLAIMER: I am NOT, by any means, making fun of our profession. I fall into MANY of these categories, at different times of my career but also at different times of the day. Each of these styles have wonderful benefits and they have their challenges. Celebrate your teaching style. Embrace it. Find your Voice. Be able to laugh at ourselves. Be reflective.
So here it is:
The YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE Teachers
The Perfect Classroom Teacher: If your classroom is ready for Classroom Beautiful or Classrooms of Instagram…you know who you are.
The Over-Organized Teacher: If you are in love with lamination, color-coordination, labeling, bins, filing cabinets, bulletin boards, and ‘do not touch a thing without asking!” …you know who you are.
The Super Teacher: If your classroom looks like Walt Disney and the best of HGTV had a baby, you have more energy than can be bottled, and loved by every single one of your students…you know who you are.
The Over-Achiever: If you must have your class first at everything! …you know who you are.
Creative Challenge: take a deep breath and allow for the imperfection of creative learning. Start with 5 minutes and let go! Also know that over structure can inhibit creative thinking, so you owe it your scholars. When they have ‘perfection’ modeled for them they begin to feel that perfection is expected of them…preventing the opportunity to grow from failure.
The BOUNCING All Over The Place Teachers
The High-Energy Teacher: if you are a teacher that seems to have more than the energizer bunny. Gone viral in the morning, dancing on the desk by lunch, and filming videos for class tomorrow all before you leave for the day.
The Crazy Teacher: if you have the reputation of being known for expecting the unknown, with a sprinkle of the impossible.
The Cool Teacher: if you KNOW what is cool, on point, on fleck…you teach with Tiktok. You are adored by staff and student, alike.
Creative Challenge: You might be thinking that this is RIGHT up your alley, but you are going to need to push yourself to tone it ALL the way down, just for a few minutes. Your energy is infectious, and it leads to great things but by taking a back seat to your scholars you will let your scholars fine their own high energy, creative minds. You might need to practice this ahead of time, it will be hard at first but worth it!
Kicking it OLD School Teacher
The Know-It-All Teacher: if you have been around the block, done it, seen it all. Not only can you serve it up, you live it. You know ALL the best practices…you might also be the reason staff meeting go longer than they should.
The Get-off-my-lawn Teacher: if you have ever used the phrase “well, back when I started teaching…” or have ever talked about ‘teaching being better back in the day’ before technology (or just about everything) ruin it.
The Drill Sergeant: if your classroom is one step away from a military recruiting office where you might have ‘raised your voice’ once or twice.
The Hell, Fire, and Brimstone Teacher: if the lack of teaching cursive, The Iliad and The Odyssey, the scientific method, and formal debate will be the fall of modern society.
The Tyrannical Teacher: if there is only ONE point of view…yours. If you do not care about what other people think of about education, or for that matter, you.
Creative Challenge: I want you to know that you have permission to let go. Let go of the old ideas, the old routines, and the old habits. Allow yourself to be a scholar again, to let your hair (metaphorically) down. 2-5 minutes a day, that is all and then you can go right back. But I challenge you to do this creative thinking alongside your scholars and see how it feels.
Lead with Fear
The Hard-Ass Teacher: if you demand high standards, setting the bar high, because teaching above everything else is what you do; you have no time to be friends with your students. Respect is earned. Stern does not mean without heart; it just does not show up in your classroom.
The Control Freak Teacher: if every inch or minute of the day is scripted and plan, there are not moments for disruptive questions or varying of the plan. The RIGHT and WRONG of the day.
Creative Challenge: You have a heavy load to carry here. There is a reason you have decided to remove creative thinking out of your day. Maybe, I suggest, that you try this 30-day challenge with just yourself to go through the process and discover your why?
The Stressed-Out Teacher: We all hit this point in the year, usually November and February. We are human, too! If you are already counting down to summer break.
The Burnt-Out Teacher: if the dark circles under your eyes take spackle to cover, if numbness has replaced joy, if coffee no longer last.
The Forgetful Teacher: if the demands of the day have sucked the memory cells out of your brain. You know where everything is, or should be, but you cannot find anything. If you forget the daily schedule, especially when it has not changed in year.
The Apathetic Teacher: if you were once the Cool Teacher, or Fun Teacher, or Crazy Teacher but the stress of it all have made you give up inside.
Creative Challenge: OK, we are ALL here. For this reason, alone, we all the perfect teachers to do this work. We need to rediscover the Joy and Creativity of teaching, the reason we are all here. Find a group of teachers feeling the same way and start a ‘creative classroom challenge’ for just you! Find and spark your joy again.
Gives TOO Much
The Suck-Up Teacher: if you LIVE for the moment when other see you teaching, especially the principal. If your students look at you like “who are you?” when someone walks into the room because the honestly do not recognize the teacher you have just become in front of them.
The Highly Concerned Teacher: if you care deeply ABOUT EVERYTHING! If your students know they can get you off topic by asking about…well, just about anything but the curriculum.
The Heartfelt Teacher: if you have ever cried during Read Aloud. If you lose sleep at night thinking about ALL of your students. If all your student, past and present, are ‘your babies!’
The Supercoach: if you are a Rockstar teacher and love to share your experience. If you can explain how to do something and come into a classroom the next day to do a demo. If you do the same thing with your student.
The Activist Teacher: if you are the model of ‘the right choices in life’ and make it your mission to ensure that every one of your students KNOWS what to do and what not to do to show improvement in learning and directions in life.
Creative Challenge: Very much like the ‘Old Schoolers’ you are stuck in routine. Deep rooted routines. Breaking this is going to be a test to your psyche BUT push through it. For your scholars BUT also for you. You might discover a new you inside.
The Fashionable Teacher: if you spent more than 20 minutes getting ready in the morning, you are always on point in your appearance, you might look at other teachers and wonder if their electricity was working that morning…if the world is crumbling down around you? You will always look like you have it all together.
The Hot Teacher: if student flock to be in your class but retain nothing while there, but they are always staring in engaged, jaw dropped, gazing.
The Buddy Teacher: Not only a new teacher but newly out of school…super close to their student’s age! More of a bestie than someone your students will look to for learning.
The Shy Teacher: if you are incredible passionate about teaching, have the skills of a master teacher, know every new, researched strategy for inspiring learning…and no one knows it.
Creative Challenge: You are in the best boat to do this work. You already have your scholar’s attention so harness this power…for creative good. Your scholars will do pretty much anything you ask…they won’t even question the why…and will burst with dopamine and creativity in seconds!
The WE HAVE ALL BEEN HERE Teacher
The Talkative Teacher: if people avoid you in the halls, not because they don’t like you but because they know it’s going to be an hour-long conversation, a vortex, but your students have learned to foster this into ‘less time to work.’
The Rebel Teacher: no matter what the principal says needs to be happening in your classroom…it’s never going to happen.
The Late Teacher: wait, huh? What time is it?!
The Repetitive Teacher: if you take a 5-minute lesson and are able to stretch it out for 30 minutes, reiterating the same ideas in 10 different ways.
The Swimming-in-Papers Teacher: if you have ever hidden a stack of papers under your desk, found a stack at the end of the school year in a cupboard, or just plain have stacks of student work…everywhere.
Creative Challenge: if you fall into this group, it is temporary. I suggest that you dig deep and find your other teaching style above and embrace that other side of you. Except the Swimming in Paper Teacher…if you find the solution please email me…for a friend.
And there is ONE last group that we all think about being or are…. The Test Prepper
The Test Prep Teacher: if your whole goal for the year is that state test score, or your building sores, or just scores. You are praised each school year for achieving the ‘impossible’ and you know the secrets for getting those scores.
Creative Challenge: if you fall into this group you are missing out on a HUGE secret. If you elevate the creative challenges for your students will naturally increase those scores. Creative challenges elevate confidence and develop a problem-solving lens that can’t be taught from a text book or worksheet. AND you and your students can have a blast getting there!
We are our own stumbling blocks to feeding the creativity starvation. Once we discover, embrace, and love our own teaching style, we will explode creativity back into our scholar’s learning. Feed the hungry. Blast the dopamine. Find your joy so you scholars can find theirs. Sing your creative voice so your scholars can join in on the chorus. But most of all: give yourself permission.
Final thought: We’ve looked at a lot of different ‘teaching styles’ and many of these styles may have challenged our idea of what we think teaching looks like. But I’d like to offer up a different type of challenge. I’d like to challenge you to think about a word. It is amazing how much power a single word can have. Take for instance: the word ‘feedback.’ I recently asked for some ‘feedback’ on a presentation I did and the return reply? We don’t give feedback. We only give FEEDFORWARD! The power of changing just one word, one simple way to look at something we all dread. So, I ask you to think about this: let’s honor our title of being a ‘TEACHER’ but let’s rethink the power of a new title. Why? Let’s rethink what we call ourselves. What if we called ourselves GUIDES, or EXPLORERS, or VOYAGERS, or even a PIONEER? Think about it: I am a SCHOLASTIC PIONEER! How are those superpowers now?
Jamie Ewing is a Thrively EdInnovator, Elementary STEM/Science Educator New York City DOE, 2019 Microsoft Innovative Educator, 2020 SpheroHero, Prezi Board of Advisors -Education, 2019 LittleBits BitStar, 2015 Henry Ford Innovative Teacher of the Year, 2014 MOHAI Teacher of the Year, 2013 Academy for Arts and Science National Innovative Teacher of the Year, NSTA Outstanding Science Text Committee 2016-2019, NSTA Nominations Committee