Autonomy at Oakland International High School

This week’s blog post is written by Toby Rugger, a founding teacher at Oakland International High School. Toby writes about his interdisciplinary teaching team – which consists of an English, a math, a history, a reading, and an Arts/PE teacher – and both the decisions they make as a team and the decisions the whole faculty makes together.

Team Autonomy: Team meetings

7mzr7wlyWe always start our Tuesday after-school interdisciplinary teacher team meetings with “The Good, the Bad and the Personal.” In this ritual, before discussing serious issues on our agenda, the teachers on our teaching team check in with each other about something good happening in our classes, something bad happening in our classes, and something personal that’s happening in our lives. I like this ritual because taking time to reflect on the positive and building inter-personal relationships with other teachers are two things that enable me to get through all the “bad” things we face when teaching. The fact that we created this ritual ourselves just serves as a small example of how teacher ideas are heard and incorporated into our school on many levels. After this ritual, our team leader asks for items for our agenda; when the agenda is set we often have conversations such as this one:

Teacher 1: “So, what are we going to do about Frank getting out of his seat all the time? It’s really distracting other students and is driving me crazy.”
Teacher 2: “Call his mother and have her come in.”
Teacher 3: “I think we should have a team meeting with him.”
Teacher 1: “In my class, I already told him he needs to ask for permission before getting out of his seat. I think we should all tell him that.”
Teacher 4: “I agree, I’ll tell him that we spoke and that all teachers expect him to do that.”
Teacher 2: “Sounds good. Is that all? Great. Now, the next student we were going to talk about was….”

Whereas in other schools, some issues such as this might be resolved by a trip to a guidance counselor, in our team meetings, these issues are often (but not always) quite quickly resolved in brief, 2-minute conversations such as the one just described. Our team meets on Tuesdays in a weekly team meeting which start at 3:45, usually with cookies I’ve gotten by sprinting to the café and back, and end whenever we are done, usually between 4:30 and 5:30. During our meeting, we discuss many issues, but mostly students, school issues, and problems that have arisen, and together we support each other and work out solutions. Sometimes we save student issues for the next day, Wednesday, since we often have time during our whole-school professional development meetings (two and a half hours long) to discuss student issues for an hour. Then, on Thursday, our team leader meets with the principal and the other two team leaders to get further support on issues that we aren’t able to resolve. Through these frequent team meetings, we grow as a staff, share different strategies for resolving problems, and, when our team solutions work, we all share a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment with our colleagues. The end result is that teachers learn and grow through this collaboration, which is one of the major goals of the Internationals philosophy of localized autonomy, accomplished in this case by team decision-making.

Faculty Autonomy: Lunchtime at OIHS

At Oakland International teachers have duties which we, quite literally, call lunch duties. Unlike the lunch duties at many schools, however, our lunch duties are a reflection of our power to make school-wide decisions.

OIHS doesn’t have enough support staff to monitor the cafeteria but, because fights sometimes occur at lunch, teachers wanted to create a system in which staff would be more present and able to monitor different areas of the school in order to cut down on lunch time problems. Having taught in the school for three years, I was determined to improve monitoring of the lunch line since cutting the line sometimes led to fights. We also wanted to decrease messiness in the cafeteria and littering on the soccer field. Three of us brainstormed different tasks that would be needed at lunch and created a proposed schedule in which different teachers would perform different duties one day a week at lunch. I gave the proposal to our leadership team, who showed it to the principal. Together they tweaked it and it became part of our school culture. I had no idea if my proposal would be accepted, but it was definitely empowering to be able to make a suggestion and have it reviewed and implemented.

Team Autonomy: Improving student learning through greater consistency across content areas

I can think of two examples that stand out for me regarding how teachers have come together to make important decisions that have actually affected the school as a whole. The first came at the end of the first year of our school, when we were a team of about six teachers, and were reflecting on how the year had gone and changes we wanted to make in the following year. During the course of the school year, it had become apparent that students were sometimes confused about basic procedures in classes. Their confusion was natural, because basic procedures differed from class to class. For example, where one teacher would call the introductory activity a “Do Now” another teacher was calling it a “Warm-Up.” Some teachers told students their grades every two weeks; others gave grades every two months. The confusion was even more extreme because during the first year of our school we had only had 9th graders (we were adding a new grade each year), many of whom spoke little or even no English.

6bakzw7iAs a result of this confusion, teachers got together and decided that consistency was needed to reduce the confusion of students trying to move from one procedural system to another, period after period. Consistency, we decided, would allow students to better focus on the content they were supposed to be learning. To create greater consistency, teachers agreed that it would be good to come up with a “binder system” that was already organized for students after our principal, Carmelita Reyes, and I shared an example of a binder system we had seen at a workshop. In our binder system, students are given a binder with a section for each class. Each section is already labeled “Science,” “History,” “English,” “Math,” or “Reading/Art.” Each class section looks identical, and students are given identical pink “Do Now” paper and identical yellow “Objective and Agenda” paper. By color-coding different papers, students who speak little English know what page they are supposed to be on, and teachers can easily see if a student is on the wrong page. In addition, all teachers write an assignment number at the bottom of every handout given to a student. This way, a teacher can say he or she is collecting, for example, “Assignment 43.” Before we started numbering assignments, we found ourselves waving sample copies of what we were collecting in front of students, or saying, “Please take out the assignment with Karl Marx’s picture at the top,” which, as you can imagine, new learners of English could not easily understand. All in all, it is due to the fact that teacher autonomy is a key part of the Internationals approach that we were given time to discuss our concerns as teachers and we were able, ultimately, to create this binder system. The system is still in use today and a similar system has been adopted by San Francisco International, our second Bay Area sister International.

Another way that teachers have come together to create consistency across classrooms is through what we call our “Class Customs.” I remember visiting Prospect Heights International H.S. once and being impressed when students began to fill out a certain graphic organizer (called a K-W-L chart) without a single word of explanation from the teacher. The teacher had written a K-W-L chart on the board (what we Know, what we Want to know and what we’ve Learned). It was a twelfth grade history class. When I told the teacher I was impressed by their independence, the teacher said, “Well, they’ve been seeing the same chart since 9th grade. I actually was their 9th grade teacher and moved up with them each year.” While not every teacher has the opportunity to move up with his or her students, consistency across the class is clearly a good thing. When I returned to my school, I felt even more strongly that consistency was important, and I supported our school in our decision to create “Class Customs,” which were five types of graphic organizers that all teachers in the school made a commitment to use during the first month of school. By recognizing the importance of consistency for students and exerting our right to make school-wide decisions, we have improved the speed by which students can understand what they need to do in a lesson that includes one of these five “customs”. Rather than spend time trying to understand how to do something, students now have more time to focus on what they need to learn as a result of our commitment to identifying and discussing important issues among all teachers at the school and coming up with strategies to resolve them.

In the Internationals network, all teachers have the potential to influence the governance of their school, by discussing students on a team level, creating consistencies in procedures and curriculum schoolwide or teamwide, and by making suggestions about how the community can be improved. All of these examples illustrate how the fourth principle of the Internationals Approach, localized autonomy, is important at OIHS in helping teachers be empowered to make decisions. By encouraging teachers to make decisions on a schoolwide or team level, teachers gain valuable leadership skills and become more invested in the work that they do and, at least in my own case, feel more committed to continuing to work with a school where they can make change.

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