Should I Go Rogue or Follow My School's Approach to Literacy?

Telling Secrets

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At one time or another, most teachers have gone rogue in their classrooms.  We have been asked to do something that we don't want to do and thought, 'nope'.  This doesn't impact things too badly when we've gone rogue about only 1 box of tissues from the office a time or not signing for that extra box of lead pencils, but it can have significant impacts when it comes to substantial areas of our teaching.  

There are many reasons that teachers go rogue. They could be change weary, overloaded, don't feel that they should be 'told what to do' or there could be a mismatch between the philosophy of the teacher and what they are being asked to do. 

As a leader, I was never very fond of people going rogue.  I believed that it was my responsibility to ensure consistency and equity across all classrooms and a teacher deciding not to follow through on a whole school (or whole team) approach compromised student learning and wellbeing.  I viewed that as long as what I was asking was not illegal, immoral or unethical, and was sensitive to the workload and needs of teachers, then I should be able to have an expectation that things would be followed through. I think that most of us would agree that all of that sounds reasonable. 

But what happens when you are a classroom teacher being asked to do something that you view to be unethical? What if you are being asked to teach sight words as whole shapes or teach 3 cueing to beginning readers?  

The answer might lie in finding ways to create a win-win between what you know about structured literacy and what your school is asking you to do. While it might feel like instructional gymnastics, can you tweak practices to make them more explicit? Can you open a dialogue with your leadership to discuss possibilities? 

If you are a leader, you do need to lead.  Nobody benefits from wishy washy decision making.  However, it's also important to listen to your team's thoughts on meeting student needs and what they need in order to grow students' results.  Classroom teachers are often knowledgeable about structured literacy and simple ways to achieve strong results. 

Whichever perspective you are taking on this issue, open communication, open minds and respectful dialogue get you a lot further than closed doors and brick walls. 

It can be really tempting to go rogue when your school approach doesn't align with the reading science, but you might just be closing off opportunities for influencing change that you would otherwise have. 

Looking to support your team to grow in practice as you pursue school improvement in literacy outcomes?  The Evergreen Teacher is here to help. 


00.00 What is going rogue?
Hello everybody. My name is Jocelyn, and I'm so pleased to welcome you to the Structured Literacy Podcast. Today we're gonna talk about the prickly issue of should we go rogue.

Now, if you haven't heard of going rogue, here's what it means. Basically, going rogue means not working with your school's whole school approach. It means that you usually nod or smile, or sit quietly in training or meetings. But when you go back to your classroom, you close the door, and you teach in whatever way you'd like. Regardless of what your school's decision has been about, how you all should teach.

Now, it may seem like a pretty straightforward issue to either say, well, yes or no, but as with all things, there are many aspects to think about, and we're gonna cover some of them today.

00.55 Why would a teacher go rogue?
Firstly, let's have a think about why teachers go rogue. And there's lots of reasons for this. Some of them are well-intentioned, some of them not so much. Sometimes teachers can be change weary, so we've got the roundabout, and the next thing that comes and, you know, people think,  I'm so tired. I really can't process another thing. I feel like I'm in survival mode,  so what I need to do is just do the thing that helps me feel comfortable.

Another reason that teachers go rogue, and this, I think, relates to the change weary one. It's really about being overloaded because change and learning new things takes energy and time. It's not just physical energy but emotional energy, cognitive energy. And when we don't feel like we've got anything in the tank,  sometimes it's just easier to pretend that this new thing isn't there and go our own way.

Sometimes though, people have a view of teaching that goes something like this. I am a teacher. This is my classroom. What happens in these four walls is up to me. I own what's happened. I should have autonomy, and if you ask me to do something else, you are not respecting me. Therefore, I'm going to take my own respect, and I'm gonna teach in a way that I want to. I think that that is actually a very real thing that exists in schools, and I know that we don't all feel that way, but sometimes that's why people go rogue.

02.22 A fundamental mismatch
Finally, and the main focus of our podcast episode today is that there can be a fundamental mismatch between the way a school requires teaching to occur and the philosophy or understanding or approach of the individual teacher.

02.43 A leader's perspective
There's two perspectives of this. We're gonna start with the leadership perspective, and I can talk about my own experience here. As a leader, I felt that I was responsible for the performance of my school, and it didn't matter whether this was a small school where I was a teaching principal with 21 children or when I was assistant principal of a large school of several hundred children, I had a sense of responsibility, and therefore I felt that I needed to lead. I needed to work with my team, yes,  but ultimately I had to make decisions, and part of that was ensuring that we had consistency across our classrooms.

I actually found it really frustrating when people would go rogue. I also felt that it was really unprofessional. But don't get me wrong; I'm not talking about that natural variation in instruction that exists because we are individuals. We all have to be ourselves. We're not robots, we're not automatons. We have to be able to bring some of our natural flare to the teaching and have freedom within boundaries to support the students in front of us. I'm talking about the literal closing of the classroom door and what we had agreed on in principle as a team not being followed.

But it's not always that someone just, you know, has a bad attitude. Sometimes, people are not well equipped; my view is that if it's a situation of a can't, someone doesn't yet have the knowledge and skills and capacity to teach in this way that I'm asking them to, that my job as a leader is to provide them with support and training and to walk with them on their journey. To not expect perfection, to not expect overnight revitalization of everything in their classroom, but walk with them step by step. I have no problem doing that. The challenge comes when it's a won't. When it's an, I could do this thing, but I'm just choosing not to. In that case, that's a performance issue, and it needs to be followed up as one.

With my leader hat on, none of us are self-employed. We work within schools, our leaders have to lead. We have to build whole school approaches, so we can't just simply say, no, I refuse to do that thing. But, I also know that we need to be open to the thoughts, the suggestions and experiences of the team around us. People have indeed gone to university for four years, and as we know what they learn, they could be a little questionable around structured literacy, but teachers are professionals. They have experience, they have,  professional viewpoints that are valid and that we really should be using to engage in dialogue. It's a sign of a good leader to listen to the people around you, particularly if we've taken great pains and gone to great lengths to hire people who are good performers. Let's listen to them.

But even the good people who we find, that sounds very judgmental, doesn't it? I mean, the people who we feel are a great fit and they're high performers, even for those people, they, they do need boundaries, and so it's around providing the parameters of the boundaries that are going to be set, but also,  being able to enable wriggle room for professional judgment.   It's not an easy thing, is it? Because there's this fine line between providing boundaries and enabling wriggle room for professional judgment. That's not what we're talking about when we talk about going rogue.

08.24 A teacher's perspective
As a teacher, I was really fortunate to never have to work in a school where I was required to use balanced literacy practices. Part of that was I got lucky. Part of it was I specifically sought out those schools who embraced structured literacy, and I moved vast distances to go and work in them, and then I became a school leader, so I got to drive the change agenda.

I know that there are teachers listening right now who are required to use pedagogical methods that they know are not in children's best interests. Now, I haven't always loved everything I've been asked to do, and sometimes I thought it was quite silly, but as long as I was not being asked to do something that was morally or ethically questionable or illegal,  I really just needed to do what was asked of me and do it to the best of my ability.

 But I know that for teachers who are on the bus, being asked to teach in a way that runs opposite to structured literacy does become a moral and ethical issue. We understand the implications of not teaching students to read and write well, and the emotional turmoil for us is very, very real because we know what the long-term effects are for children to not develop strong literacy. Now in this situation, there is a fundamental mismatch between what we believe and what we know, not believe in the sense of,  you know, fairies and unicorns, but believe in what we know from the science and what we're being asked to do. There's a real question about how we manage and maintain our own well-being.

08.24 How can I make change happen?
The first thing I wanna say to you is don't go rogue. Here's why. When you go rogue, you take yourself out of step with the rest of your school. If you are looking to positively impact change in your school, you need to have open lines of communication and relationship. Going rogue takes you out of all of that.

One of the things you can do is make these significant important changes for your strugglers. So perhaps you're being asked to use practices that are questionable, and you know the difference between,  what is recommended and what you're being asked to do. But there may be room for you to use decodable texts with your strugglers to make the changes for them. This is not going rogue it is making reasonable adjustments to support students, and that is actually required of us by law. There's the Disability Discrimination Act that requires us to make reasonable adjustments and support our students. If you can get these adjustments written into that student's individual education plan or whatever it's called in your state,  that could involve cumulative phonics, decodable text, the way irregular high-frequency words are taught,   by having it in the IEP, we can communicate it to parents, and it's there in writing. It's so important for those students, first and foremost, to be able to make those changes. Sometimes that's actually the avenue through which we can start to make change and influence those around us because when it comes to strugglers, people are often more willing to let you do different things when the results are really poor. So if you can get runs on the board for those kids, then that will be amazing.

10.11 Find the win-win
The second thing to think about is instead of, how do I fight this? How do I make a win-win? Where are the opportunities for me to both teach in a way that sits morally and ethically well with me and meets the needs of the boundaries that my school has put in place?

If you are asked to do group rotations instead of whole class teaching, and you are able to use that to do phonics lessons or use decodable texts and remember that doesn't have to be a bright, shiny book. That could be a passage on a piece of A4 paper, then that would be a good thing. Switching out that guided reading, where we're looking at strategies, where we're looking at three queuing, switching out the practice, but still using small groups, I would class that as a win-win.

If you have to use the school sight word materials, teach the words by using the method that unpacks the sounds or the phonics. This way, we can help children understand the phoneme-grapheme correspondences. We can also group the words according to spelling pattern. You're still using the material, you're not, gonna spend a lot of time on, in and at and on because they can just sound those out, but for those truly irregular ones, you can unpack those sound by sound.

Do you have to do a benchmark assessment? And I know that a lot of you do. Well, think about it this way. Yes,  it's not a reliable assessment, but it does provide you with an opportunity to spend some time with children and observe their reading behaviour. You can turn a timer on and note from year one how many words per minute they're reading, you can just time for one minute and then put a note on the paper, mark on the paper and say that's how many words they were reading. So it's not gonna be as exact as a norm reference to assessment for sure. However, it will enable you to monitor an indicator of growth, and of course, we know that rate is not the only measure of fluency, but it is one that can be objective. You can also have a think about the errors you are seeing not from that MSV approach but from the question of what's actually causing the errors from a structured literacy perspective, so is it that the student's not reading all through the word,  is that coming about because they actually don't know the code? Are they struggling in multi-syllable words? Is there some work on morphology you could be doing? What else are you seeing that you can respond to in your lessons? So is it going to be the same as a norm reference assessment or screener? No, it's not, but you can look at it through the lens of your knowledge and actually gain some useful information from it.

If you have time, use those screeners like DIBELS or Acadians, at least on your strugglers, so that you can have some data that's reliable to help identify and support. them. Do you have to teach comprehension strategies or follow the whole school genre focus? Well, you can do that, you can use a text-based unit that we have in The Resource Room, and that will absolutely focus on particular genre. We've got our persuasive text unit coming shortly. You can also put those strategies to work,  within the context of those units. This is actually one of the easier ones to find the win-win in because there will be comprehension, but you're just gonna be teaching through a text nice and explicitly and do all the other things explicitly as well.

13.41 The bad news
But you know, sometimes it's not possible to create that win-win situation,  and we just can't make it happen. Sometimes the expectations of our school are so tight that there is zero wriggle room when it comes to three queuing or the use of levelled text for novices. In that case, I am really sorry to say it, but it might be time to start looking for another school.

If there's an enormous mismatch between the way that you know is evidence-informed and is shown to be the best for the most students,  and what your school is asking you to do,  the toll on your well-being could be considerable. Don't underestimate that. Don't think if I was a good teacher, I'd just be able to push through, and everything would be okay. If there is not room for dialogue, for win-win, look after yourself, please.

14.35 individual teachers and teams can positively influence
Remember, though, that individual teachers and teams can positively influence a school's shift to structured literacy, especially if you can use data to communicate the effectiveness of your approach. Many a school's journey has kicked off because one or two teachers have embraced structured literacy, have been able to communicate effectively about the impact on students, and have done that in a way that had their leadership sitting up and taking notice. You will get so much further in your efforts if you connect with leadership and communicate through data.

Perhaps you might be able to ask permission to work on a bit of an action research project where you are able to collect some data across a couple of classes you're not asking for everyone's and then examine the results and look at,  what was our impact in teaching in this way? How many sight words in air quotes were the most children able to learn if we break them up into their categories if we align the common spelling patterns if we teach through the phonics? What does that look like? What's that difference?

  If you want to help someone see the value in what you're wanting to share, identify what the challenges are, and then share short and simple clips with things that are a solution. You could share a Tuesday Tip or something else off our YouTube channel that's really short. It could be a blog post. It could be one of these episodes. Something that is easy for them to understand that is low stakes and light touch. Many people have told me that they've forwarded videos from our five-day email programs to colleagues and that that's really been able to start the journey for everyone, and that's extremely gratifying for me. It makes me,  so pleased to hear that our work is of benefit to other people.

You can help address leadership's concerns around cost, around parent response to change around the perceived reduction in the focus of meaning. Now, we all know that nothing is further from the truth than this myth that when you bring structured literacy in,  meaning is no longer a focus. The research is so clear on how important meaning is. Or you know, that other one about, oh, the children are going to be bored. So you can help address those concerns in a light touch, gentle way. Sometimes that involves inviting the leader to observe a lesson that helps to respond to those preconceived ideas about what structured literacy is, especially if the message your leader has heard has been all around you know that structured literacy is only about phonics, and the kids are all bored, and it makes them hate reading. If you can demonstrate that that's not the case, you may be able to open a dialogue.

You can find like schools who your principal respects who are on the bus and showcase their efforts. And this one might be a little bit cheeky, but there's nothing like using a little bit of FOMO that fear of missing out to prompt people to action. So if there's a school who your school looks up to and they are on the bus, then just gently pointing out, oh, look at what they're doing. Isn't that interesting? Might be enough to help open a dialogue as well.

17.54 Collecting data is not going rogue
Now, these things that I've described are not going rogue. Remember going rogue is shutting your classroom door, shutting everybody out and doing whatever you want, no discussion, without consideration for the whole school approach and actually, without professionalism. These things that I've shared with you today are about supporting students, supporting our own mindset and well-being, and supporting our colleagues and school community to grow in practice.

18.27 In conclusion, where your focus goes, energy flows.
So to finish us off today, I'd like to remind you that where your focus goes, energy flows. If you are putting all of your cognitive and emotional energy into things that you cannot control, you are likely missing an opportunity to positively influence and impact student outcomes, particularly for our most vulnerable students.

Control the controllables, find the win-wins and keep the lines of communication open with the decision makers in your school. Frankly, open lines of communication and working together goes for leaders as well as teachers. There is that saying together everyone achieves more, and that is so very true. Collective efficacy is powerful,  reaching that point where we have collective efficacy around structured literacy can take much longer than we would like. But as long as we are moving forward, as long as we are bringing people on the journey, then we know that we are gonna do great things for kids.

Thank you so much for listening to another episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. If you are looking for more information about how to bring all this to life in the early years, remember that my new book, Reading Success in the Early Primary Years is out and available wherever you find good books, and I look forward to bringing you a new episode next week. Thank you so much everyone. Bye.


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