The Power of Empowering: “Winning Ideas”

There is nothing more transformative and critical with regard to innovation and change than true empowerment. This is certainly not a groundbreaking concept, and it is one that I’ve written about many times over the years. School leaders often talk about the importance of empowering teachers and staff to lead true change, yet often pull back and/or do not provide the space for this type of change to occur. I’m never shy about sharing the great work that is happening daily at DFHS. I love to share not because of what I’m doing as a leader, but rather the great work that is being led by our teachers and staff. As a school that truly embraces an “IB for All” philosophy, what has set us apart is the fact that teacher voice is a very real thing. At DFHS, teachers are looked upon as the professionals who have the best perspective on what works and what change is needed. Teachers provide feedback, insight, and are given the space to take risks and create. Although there are far too many examples to list here, the many posts on this blog provide a small sample of how that has looked and turned out for us over the years. 

One “ritual” that I did away with during my first year as principal was the archaic faculty meeting that had an administrator standing at the front of the room reviewing procedures and information that could just as easily be shared in an email. Instead, faculty time at DFHS is used for teachers to work with colleagues on curriculum, assessment, and of course new learning initiatives that can further them professionally. We do set aside three full faculty meetings a year so that we may come together as a school community, reflect on our school-wide goals, and share the work that is happening across our school. We do this before the first day of school, after the first semester, and at the conclusion of the year. 

Prior to our most recent midyear meeting, teachers shared (via Google Docs) their work with regard to our school-wide goals around service learning and student wellness. The Doc was extensive! After taking some time to review these initiatives at the opening of our meeting, we transitioned to a group challenge using the following essential question: “How, if at all, does our school (and system) inspire staff and students to be independent thinkers prepared to change the world?” Based off our district-wide vision statement, this question became the jumping off point for the following group challenge:

  1. Review the Google Doc with your team (see above).
  2. Generate a new “winning idea” that will further inspire students and staff to be independent thinkers prepared to change the world. (10 minutes)
  3. Tweet the idea to #DFHSIB21
  4. Prepare a 1 minute elevator pitch. Select a speaker. 

The goal of the task was simple: to come up with new ideas for our school that would build off the work that we’ve done to this point. In doing so, each team was instructed to come up with realistic concepts with consideration to our existing system and resources, and to be “positive, practical, and purposeful.” Each team got to work immediately, and the results were pretty amazing: 

Group 1: Day of Service (CAS Field Day)(Tom, Sarah, Kelly, Marion, Georgia)

Each department brainstorms 2-3 service-based learning activities that can be offered to students. Students can sign up for these activities, similar to how they sign up for MAC Field Day activities. This can perhaps be done on a half day or during the first few periods (1-4) on MAC field day. *At an IB Training for CAS, we saw a variation of this. The Senior DP students planned an IB Field Day for incoming DP Candidates with team building activities and student-led info sessions to help the juniors get started. This counted toward their CAS portfolio as well.

Group 2: Enhanced Grading System (Paul, Kelly, Frank, Craig, Mallory)

Examine our numerical grading system in an effort to change numerical grades to rubric bands (perhaps A-F, or markband numbers aligned with MYP rubrics). Each teacher would set the expectations at the beginning of the year: “this is what an A looks like, this is what a B looks like.” Students could also have a say, increasing ownership in grades. This might alleviate some of the stress associated with grades, while allowing for a more holistic set of standards. 

Group 3: “Real World” Connections and Scheduling (Cristin, Danielle, Terence, Scott, Jim)

Invite former students or community members to DFHS to talk about different career paths.  Although we promote the traditional college path, there are many successful individuals in our families and in the community that have inspirational stories that did not include college. We might also explore the idea of flexible scheduling in the morning to allow more students to attend the BOCES program. 

Group 4: School-Wide Service (Adrienne, Maria, Will, Radene, Maureen)

Use our early release days to focus on a school-wide charity, building a sense of empathy, community and school spirit. The initial kick off would be MAC Field day and maybe an end of the year celebration at the CAS Field day. This concept was brought up by another group as well. 

Group 5: Interest-Based Learning (Michelle, Andrew, Mary Alice, Jillian, Adrianne)

Dedicate one day out of each month to create “pop up courses” for students to choose from a menu of topics to learn about/to teach themselves. This will allow students to interact with teachers collaboratively and for them to have a chance to learn about information that is an extension of our existing curriculum. In addition, it will allow for teachers to take the students out of a traditional classroom setting. 

Group 6: “Life Skills” Classes (Rebecca, Connor, Keith, Erica, Paulette, Liz)

Create a “life skills” class. This could run once a week or monthly. Topics would include stress management, gratitude, mental health, drugs & alcohol, resume writing, etc. 

Group 7: Leadership Elective (Megan, Michelle, Kim, Nicole, Richard)

Creation of a Leadership Course Elective. This course would give our students the tools needed to become “Independent Thinkers Change Worlds.” The course would cover what is needed to be a leader as an individual, in a group setting, and in a diverse and global world.  

Group 8: Extended Instructional Blocks (Laura, Justine, Neil, Stephanie, Danielle, Tim)

Use early dismissal days for extended instructional blocks. Teachers can use this time to develop hands on activities, passion projects, service learning, Edcamp, etc. During lunch periods, we can offer activities in place of having students sit in the commons because it is typically their lunch. This might include yoga, career day, senior alumni or a community service activity.

Group 9: Edcamp For Students (Michele, Maria, Jessica, Donna, Lisa) 

Use half days as an Edcamp for the students so that they may sign up for activities that they are interested in. This might include yoga, mindfulness, “Gym Guyzz,” aqueduct cleanup, making lunches for the homeless, organizing fundraisers for specific causes, etc.  This would further allow us to bring awareness to mindfulness and service learning within the school day while providing students with choice.  

Group 10: Service Learning (Mike, Sarah, Kelly, Dana, Serena)

Create an elective called Service Learning somewhat modeled off our special needs Life Skills class, where students will use the UN Sustainable Development Goals as the structure for the course.  Each year students could tackle four goals, one per quarter. All students can have an opportunity to select this course so that they are further inspired to serve beyond the walls of our school.  

As I planned the group challenge, my hope was that we would find one or two “winning ideas” to further develop as a staff. By the end of the meeting, my thoughts had shifted to thinking that there is no reason why we can’t do all ten. Our next step is to get back into teams to further develop these concepts. Empowerment and ownership are powerful, and the results can be extraordinary. It’s just what we do here at DFHS, and it’s why we continue to inspire staff and students to be “independent thinkers prepared to change the world.”


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