Busting Silos, Faculty Collaboration Change Learning Landscape at Hutchison School, Memphis

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Busting Silos, Faculty Collaboration Change Learning Landscape at Hutchison School, Memphis

After more than 55 school visits in the last 11 weeks, I feel I am getting pretty good at reading how committed a faculty is to embracing change.  At some schools, the vision of change is met with reluctance; at some with cautious optimism for the growth of bright lights.  Then there are the schools who greet a visitor with a fire hose of enthusiasm for what education looks like when the teachers understand how passionate student engagement drives their own energy, when the desire to always improve overcomes the inertia and restrictions of time, space, energy, and the ownership of knowledge.  I felt that fire hose at Hutchison School, both from the senior administrators and the faculty leadership.  This is going to be a long post, filled with examples of actionable programs from a school that has undergone a significant transformation in the last decade. I had several meetings with combinations of faculty and administrators so will be able to report on the mechanics of successful transformation, as well as exciting programs in Fine Arts, auxiliary services, student wellness, foreign language, and leadership.

Hutchison is an all girls preK-12 with about 910 students.  13-year Head Annette Smith said that when she arrived, the school was viewed as highly traditional, where “most of the teachers stood up in front of the students and many used outdated texts.”  An aggressive board hired her to institute significant change and “plan with courage”.  She, along with Assistant Head Laurie Stanton set high expectations for faculty professional development, provided support, and asked the teachers to get on board with a vision of student-centered learning.  They characterized the vision of what education should look like as:

  • Relevant
  • Interdisciplinary
  • Exciting
  • Engaging
  • Centered on how girls learn best
  • Physical space tailored to girls
  • Empowered faculty who own their program

Annette says that they had teacher attrition of about 30% over four years from faculty who did not feel comfortable with the changes, and they survived this transition. As a professional community they arrived at a simple mantra to “do what is best for the girls”.  They set up a Teaching and Learning Committee, sent members out to visit other schools, make recommendations, and report back to the full faculty and administration.  Along with studies of best practices in pedagogy, they recognized the need to change the school schedule. It took about two years of hard work to move through the process of fact-finding, reflection, feedback, recommendations, validation, and finally implementation of a major schedule change.  Like other schools that have done this, they initially saw the schedule change as a big deal, but in the rearview mirror recognize it as less disruptive than they had predicted.  This process kicked off a decade of change in how the teachers view their roles, their relationship to the students and with each other, and the classroom learning experience.  Most importantly, it kicked off a change in mindset of the faculty: how they view their job going forward.

I asked the academic leaders a question that I wish I had been asking for the last 11 weeks, but did not (will have to further quantify this in the future).  “Setting aside basic content that we all would agree is critical for students to progress to the next level, how much have you changed how and what you teach over the last 5 years?”  We discussed this for quite a while and I am confident that their answer is representative of the school.  Other than those foundational basics of content, most of them have changed virtually all of what and how they teach.  Teachers commented:

  • “Change is just a reality.”
  • “At this school, you can either get on the bus or not be here.”
  • “I have not looked at my plan book from last year once this year.”
  • “It is safe to cross divisions.”
  • “What other school has the Fine Arts Director and Athletic Director sit on the admin executive committee?”
  • “The basic skills students need to succeed are not 21st century; they are timeless.  The information is out there; students don’t need us for that.”
  • “A great teacher is in tune with the world and wants to be in tune with her students.  We just need to hire and support those teachers and let them grow.”
  • “Develop growth and change is easy.”

The schedule has time built in for faculty collaboration and PD is aimed at increasing cross-departmental and cross-divisional work.  They have a visiting scholars program that brings in outside experts to work with faculty on curriculum development, not just once, but with frequent repeat visits.  Teachers are starting to ask if it is OK to visit each other’s classrooms.  Faculty from one division present on their latest work to faculty in other divisions and division leaders are expected to keep their respective faculty linked in to what is going on with colleagues throughout the school.  The school organization chart has the board and the head at the bottom and the students at the top. Result: to a large extent, Hutchison has busted some of the most resilient silos of school organizations.

Some of the major changes the faculty have seen to instruction over the last five years:

  • More individualized instruction
  • More choice for students (books to read, projects to pursue)
  • Integrated subjects
  • Moving from patterns to Reggio-like program (early childhood)
  • Emphasis on digital literacy

I asked what allows them to be comfortable with change?

  • “I don’t have a textbook, so it is easier to change what I am teaching.”
  • “The students have changed and if we are going to be student, centered, that is where we need to go.”
  • “Strong professional development in new teaching methods.”
  • “Collaboration with colleagues generates change and also makes change more comfortable; you are doing it with your friends.”

I spent the rest of the day speaking with individuals responsible for some of the programs that have evolved in the last several years at Hutchison:

Tracey Ford came to Hutchison as an artist and ramped up the schools art program by hiring professional artists to teach.  They started a Certificate of Art program to celebrate the passion of students in the arts and demonstrate the importance of a healthy balance in the life of the students.  The professional artists were a big attraction, but most were part time employees and she wanted to make sure they would stay with the school. So Hutchison decided to open an Art Academy to offer after school and weekend classes to the general public.  They aligned development of the Academy with a major strategic planning goal of “increasing the school’s relevance to the Memphis community”.  Market research showed that the Academy was doing just that, so they took it up a big notch.  Now, as Director of the Center for Excellence, Tracey runs an auxiliary teaching program as large and diverse as I have seen in 15 years at independent schools.  Operating after school and on weekends in the fall, spring, and summer, last year they offered over 200 courses in art, athletics, leadership, academic enrichment, educational professional development, and parent-focused education.  They had 7,000 students enroll in one or more classes; partnered with a number of local companies and organizations; have converted their part time teachers to full-time; provide additional income to many Hutchison faculty who want to offer a course; and made a large contribution to the school’s bottom line.  In addition to all of that, the admission people love the fact that thousands of non-Hutchison families are exposed to the campus.

Pam Patteson is the Counseling Director and lead of the Navigation Team (once again, a structure with a name that you probably do not have at your school).  The team consists of the counselors, college counselors, learning specialists, athletic director, director of the leadership program, assistant heads of the middle and upper schools who coordinate student life, and community service.  Most of these are not direct reports to Pam; they are partnerships that comprise the team’s focus on “what is in the best interests of the girls.” While the team is large and comprehensive, most of the staff positions were in place years ago, but were not coordinated.  Pam says that it is critical that she and the Navigation Team are “approachable, visible, and present.  Our offices are not in a broom closet somewhere.  The girls know we are here for them. Girls, parents, and faculty know our roles and who to come to if a student needs support.”

Alejandra Lejwa is the World Language Team Lead, and she explained a unique program in the Lower School.  They have Spanish emersion in the Lower School before students select from Spanish, Latin, and Mandarin in Middle School. (They let French go recently and had almost no parent blowback on the decision.) They feel that with a true emersion in Lower School, students have the opportunity to become fluent in two world languages by the time they graduate.  In the Lower School, the science, reading, and Spanish teachers have teamed.  Two weeks after every science class, the Spanish teacher mirrors the same lesson to the students in Spanish. They learn a breadth of vocabulary and, Alejandra says, learn to transfer knowledge between curriculum structures.  They also are reinforcing science with the girls to ensure that fewer girls fall away from their interest in the sciences, as they get older. Lower School students also read some of the same books in English and Spanish classes.

In the Upper School, world language is “all about oral proficiency.”  The Spanish team uses only online textbooks, which are rich in links and resources of audio and video that the students can access anywhere so they come to class ready to talk, not learn vocabulary and grammar that they can do at home. They have adopted the oral proficiency interview as their main assessment tool. (I am pretty sure this is the same approach I reported on from my visit at St. Andrew’s School in Maryland.)  “It is real assessment; if they participate in class they will do well on the assessment and if not they will perform poorly.  They can’t study just for the test.  And the teacher and student get immediate feedback; there is no delay to grade a bubble test.”

Caroline Biatti is Director of the Hutchison LEADS program, which the school backward designed from the desire to produce a strong capstone internship opportunity for Upper School students.  From grades 8-12, the leadership team puts on a series of leadership focused classes and events and works with teachers to embed leadership themes in regular classes.  Students set annual leadership goals and maintain a portfolio of their leadership discovery and reflections.  While all students complete a leadership capstone 12th grade internship, some students choose to engage in a larger, three-year project in something about which they feel passionate.  They develop a vision for the project, partner with a local non-profit, and develop and execute a plan. They have opportunities to participate on a non-profit board where they are responsible for reviewing and awarding grant proposals.

Finally, I got to spend lunch with girls from both the Upper and Middle Schools (thanks, ladies!).  I solicited feedback from them on what makes them excited about going to one class and not another, advice they would give their teachers “so you want to get out of bed in the morning and really go to that class”.  Some of their comments:

  • “Discovering what I am interested in.”
  • “When I can teach myself rather than having things done for me.”
  • “I like it that they teach us how to learn.”
  • “When a teacher is passionate about their subject.”
  • “When we get to talk to each other and have good discussions.”
  • “When we don’t have to just do what is in a textbook.”

And this one from a Middle School student: “I think teachers are changing.  Now teachers are more like the lead learner in the class.  They are learning with us but they are just the leader.”  As usual, all we have to do is ask the kids and they will tell us all we need to know.  Hutchison is on a firm pathway of intentional innovation, grounded in strong leadership and structural change that is breaking the anchors of inertia, fear, misalignment of time, and silos.

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