At Farrington High, teachers are “pre-forgiven.” It’s not as strange as it sounds. It was the first step of many to make work a safe space for teachers to authentically collaborate and try new things.
“No one should be afraid, that’s what being pre-forgiven means,” said Principal Al Carganilla. “When it comes to curriculum, to innovation, to anything that evolves in their classroom.”
What does a program that has unleashed teachers in this way look like? Farrington’s includes:
- Teacher Leaders research and lead professional development (PD) in engaging instructional models at the school, and they’re paid for it. (The funding is dedicated in the school's Financial Plan.) Their team is the Teacher Leadership Cadre, or TLC.
- Teachers evaluate administrators on the effectiveness of their support.
- Administrators participate in the PD.
- All participants are trusted to self-reflect, self-assess, and self-adjust in their practice.
All the inspirational teaching phrases in the world won’t will this into being without an ironclad support structure. During the last two years that has been the work of TLC coordinator Jessica Kato and school strategic planner Cindy Werkmeister. Kato handles the pedagogical side, Werkmeister the logistics, and both support the TLC teachers in whatever comes up.
Kato worked on a similar program at Brockton High in Massachusetts, one that inspired Carganilla to build a replica but modified to fit Farrington’s needs.
“Our program is very PD-focused, it’s about elevating instruction,” Kato said.
Farrington’s teachers are polled to find out what they most want to learn or try, and the PD is tailored to address that. The TLC meets monthly on a Saturday in one of the team member’s homes to plan out weekly workshops for the month. The workshops are part of the teachers’ planned 40-minute non-teaching period, and aren’t subject-specific — everyone can participate and pick up new insight or skills.
For Werkmeister, who has been in her current role at Farrington for 14 years (and at the school for 27), the culture shift accelerated during the second year of the program. “There was almost no push back and teachers just started working together,” she said. “The TLC structure of weekly PD during non-teaching periods brought teachers from different disciplines together and relationships formed where they wouldn’t have normally developed.”
“Collaboration is now the norm.”
Year 1: Starting to shift
When starting something new, manage expectations. When the program launched in 2015-16, the modest goal was to start a culture shift where teachers were eager and engaged about their PD, rather than simply attending to comply with the teacher contract.
“We needed to demonstrate that the faculty as a whole, as a team, has an impact on education, that we’re taking control of our environment and deciding to be better together,” Kato said. A few notable settings in that first year that built interest among the teacher corps, along with a sense that this wasn’t a ‘flavor of the month’ in culture reform:
- Expectations were set collaboratively.
- More discussion and less lecturing, which created fertile conditions for collaboration — including panel discussions featuring Farrington teachers as experts.
- Each session featured an immediate takeaway, something that could easily be deployed in any classroom. So even if the discussion topic didn’t hit, teachers would still learn a new classroom strategy or technology idea they could use.
The newly formed TLC kept the focus of sessions broad — rigor. They did collaborative exercises on understanding rigorous discussion in different topics, how to create a spirit of teamwork on rigorous challenges, and more.
At the end of the year, a survey of 100 Farrington teachers showed strong progress — 97 percent felt comfortable sharing their ideas during workshops, 92 percent felt their feedback was heard and considered, 89 percent felt inspired to try new things in their classrooms, and 90 percent indicated they found the workshops to be valuable.
Also, the administrators had the opportunity to reflect on teacher feedback about satisfaction with their leadership on a scale of 1 to 5. The principal and five vice principals were all in a range of 3.3 to 4.6.
“It was a shift for the administrators, going from one of control to one of support,” Carganilla said. “But nothing could have been better for our school. I can tell you at the admin level we look hard at how to adjust to make sure we’re supporting teachers and staff. We focus on being a champion for all.”
Year 2: Project-based learning
With the “barreling ahead” effort of Year 1 behind them, and a good degree of success in meeting their goal, Year 2 offered an opportunity to flesh out the PD into formal tracks with teachers providing the direction. A faculty survey showed a clear majority wanted deep dives into Project Based Learning (PBL) over the runners-up: Critical Thinking, High-Level Questioning, Academic Discussion and Inquiry-Based Lessons.
The goal for 2016-17 was set: Increase understanding of elements of PBL and
inspire teachers to
explore some of these elements in lessons. Those emphasized words were going to put this culture shift to the test — would teachers feel sufficiently supported to try, fail, and try again? Is “pre-forgiven” real, or just a reform flavor of the month?
Teachers chose two key PBL strategies they wanted to learn more about — 5 Steps for Problem Solving, and Design Thinking. And then they stumbled across a puzzle.
“Part of PBL is real-world experiences and problems, and we found ourselves in this big debate about ‘what the real world was,’ what exactly do we mean by that,” Kato explained. “And we realized we should ask former students. We had groups of eight students rotating into each of the weekly sessions, and they gave short talks about the skills that they were really happy they had developed at Farrington, and those they wished they had learned. The pattern that kept coming up among the kids was communications skills — doing job interviews and resumes — language, confidence.
“The teacher response from that session was huge, they loved it,” Kato said. “For a lot of them, the reaction was, ‘I had no idea they needed more help with this.’”
Above, students discuss their interests and needs with Farrington teachers during a TLC workshop last year.
At the end of the year, 94 percent of the teachers surveyed agreed that they were inspired by the workshops that year, and 88 percent experimented with elements of PBL (another 7 percent said they didn’t, but they plan to this year). In addition, there was abundant evidence beyond the survey that collaboration and trust had taken root. Teachers were staying late after workshops to talk story, and they were willing and even eager to share knowledge and insight with their peers. And they were less afraid to fail and seek help from each other.
“We had a teacher who put together this project using narratives on Instagram —
Humans of Kalihi, Farrington,” Kato said, styled after the groundbreaking
Humans of New York account. “And the students were really engaged with it. But she was having a hard time grading it, she felt unsuccessful in that effort. So she asked if she could share with her TLC group to get advice.”
For Werkmeister, it’s this kind of sharing that has proven the culture at Farrington shifted.
“I've been at the school for over 27 years and I have seen the culture shift from one of teachers teaching in silos and one of compliance to one of openness and risk taking,” she said. “Teachers sincerely open up and share their struggles and ask others for suggestions on how to do things better. In the past, it was 'shame' to share what you were doing and if you did, people thought you were ‘tooting your own horn.’ It is not like that anymore.”
Werkmeister noted that teachers who genuinely feel empowered have a greater sense of self-efficacy, that what they do in the classroom can help kids learn despite society’s hurdles — poverty, racism, unhealthy environments. Though these hurdles are real, the argument that there’s only so much that teachers can do to overcome them becomes a dangerous crutch in communities impacted by them. Dangerous because, if teachers don’t believe all kids can learn rigorously, that can become self-fulfilling. And that holds particular import for Farrington, whose 2,400 students are 60 percent economically disadvantaged from a broad mix of ethnic backgrounds; 20 different languages are spoken.
The TLC program is starting to dismantle that crutch. Farrington’s faculty survey in 2011 showed 74 percent of teachers agreed that all students can learn at high levels. In 2016, that was up to 86 percent.
“Because this effort isn’t organized by department, because it’s interdisciplinary, teachers are hearing from other teachers who are making things work with a student who they may be having trouble with. So now it’s, “this teacher is” as opposed to, “this kid can’t,’” Kato said. “They can’t just sit there and be negative."
"As the teachers take control, the excuse mentality is stripping away.”
Farrington's TLC teachers during a team building exercise at the Coral Crater Adventure Tower this summer.
Year 3: Looking ahead
Farrington was named a Model School by the International Center for Leadership in Education, and the team presented their work to the National Model Schools conference in Nashville over the summer, which was well received. “You don’t really know if what you’re doing is actually ‘model’ when you’re just in your context here in Hawai‘i,” Carganilla said. “We got a lot of questions about the structure of the program, how we put things in place.”
The team also fielded a lot of questions about what this means for student outcomes. It’s too soon to say from an assessments standpoint, of course, but the team reports that the student engagement is on the upswing.
“The conditions are right, and we’re hoping that will translate to student achievement,” Carganilla said. “The enthusiasm is definitely there. There’s a lot of pride in our spirit and history and tradition. More students are taking Advanced Placement, we’ve expanded to seven Early College classes and there’s a wait list. Time will tell.”
Kato, meanwhile, has been working through the summer to get the third TLC cohort off and running. Teachers are voting on this year’s learning themes organized by the TLC (including communications skills in a nod to the student feedback during Year 2). TLC members did team building exercises including working in a lo‘i and helping each other navigate the
Coral Crater Adventure Tower.
The summer and the conference offered time to reflect on what was needed to keep the momentum going. For Kato, it boils down to providing TLC members more than just the financial support they get for their efforts.
“Lots of teachers are already great leaders because of what they do in the classroom, so I took for granted that if people are excellent teachers, they should be able to be excellent teacher leaders, too,” she said. “But your identity changes a lot in that role — the other teachers look at you differently and you start to look at yourself differently. The skills needed to be leaders among your peers must be refined and honed. The need for that support is something I’m a lot more aware of.”
The 2017-18 school year has started, and the school is taking the spirit of empowerment to the community this year with, “Be the Difference.” (See
this post from the first football game at the new Skippa Diaz Stadium.)
Making ‘Shift’ Happen, as the team captioned the program at the National Model Schools Conference, has been tough. Not everyone is eager to acknowledge they need improvement. But, of course, everyone can improve their craft — that’s the growth mindset.
“You’ll have to find it within yourself. It’s hard. This model starts the conversation that’s needed for all of us to grow,” Carganilla said.
“You have to lead from a place of vulnerability.”
For Kato, the program addresses a stark need in the profession. “Finding the answers within the teacher ranks, it’s important not just locally but in the national conversation as we continue to deal with teacher shortages. If you have a system where teachers have the opportunity to grow and develop, with pathways to leadership and career growth, and the administration values and compensates us for that work, that’s how you elevate the profession in a way that matters.”
Kato is sharing Farrington’s TLC journey on a
blog and you can follow the school’s progress via
#GovsTLC and on Instagram at