When staff working in schools first begin to talk constructively about students, focusing on their learning and supports that can be put in place to help them succeed, it is not unusual for this conversation to lack depth, focus or avoid the essential question “so what can WE do to support this student?” When first beginning to engage in Collaborative Team Meetings, where students, not teaching, is the focus, it takes time and continued experience in communicating in this forum for the conversation to meaningfully evolve.
In an RTI framework that values collaboration and conversation, such as the Collaborative Response Model, we often encounter the following when teams (involving teachers, support staff, learning coaches and administration) first begin talking about students:
- Focus on a limited amount of students – when discussing individual students, team members generally have a lot of history and experiences to share. When first engaging in Collaborative Team Meetings, conversations can go on tangents, as various team members share their countless observations and narratives related to the student. We have witnessed initial meetings that lasted an hour and focused on the needs of 6-8 students, as people around the table took turns sharing their individual “war stories”. As teams become more accustomed to the format of the meetings and the need for efficiency, it is quite possible to discuss the needs and supports of twenty or more students in the same time frame. As the collective team gains experience working together, conversations become more focused and efficient.
- Focus on blame rather than action – consider this: assessments flag a student for discussion and the conversation turns to a litany of reasons (outside of the school) why the student is not experiencing success. If only the student was reading at night. If only the student arrived at school on time. If only the student had more support at their last school. And on it goes, focusing blame on the reasons the student is not experiencing success rather than what we can do to better ensure success. As team conversation evolves, the emphasis is placed on what can we do during the time the student is at school to provide support and increased time for appropriate interventions. Although there is a time when outside supports are needing to be considered, generally the focus of the team needs to shift to things within the school’s locus of control.
- Focus on deficits rather than strengths -when first beginning to talk about students, often the conversation quickly leads to everything the student can’t do rather than putting attention to what they can do. Although it is important to focus on areas in need of improvement to ensure the appropriate types and levels of support, framing it in a strengths-based mindset takes time and an intentional priority placed upon it. Two steps to help in this shift is using the start of the meeting conversation to focus on celebrations experienced (as noted in the collaborative team meeting record) and having leaders within the conversation ask explicitly about the student strengths when determining interventions, to ensure appropriate supports that consider the strengths of the child.
- Focus on programs not professionalism – in Hargreaves and Fullan’s text Professional Capital (2012), the authors value the collective professional knowledge of teachers and argue that schools need to develop processes and collaborative structures that allow professional judgment to thrive. In the early stages of talking about students, it is sometimes easy to place focus on the programs to provide the “fix”. Professional dialogue is limited. In time, it is important to recognize the professional experience and knowledge that is at the heart of a Collaborative Response Model and allow the collective capacity of the team to determine what is best for students. We have often said in Collaborative Team Meetings that “teachers’ gut trumps all”, meaning that professional intuition and experience is the best tool we have to collaboratively determine what is best for students.
We have found that it is common for conversations to evolve as schools grow more comfortable with Collaborative Team Meetings and high levels of sophisticated, efficient dialogue become more commonplace. The most important element of this phenomena is that in order for evolution to occur, schools must start talking about kids, establishing formalized processes and structures for this conversation and professional problem-solving to occur. Implementing a “Ready, Fire, Aim” mindset is critical, engaging in collaborative conversations and constantly refining the framework within which these meetings occur. In time, schools can utilize and further develop their professional capital to really make a difference responding to the needs of students.
Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers College Press.