But are you an island?

Last year, at the end of one of my presentations on proficiency sequences, during the question-and-answer period, a participant paid me a compliment. They told me how impressed they were by my attention to detail and how usable my proficiency sequences seemed to be. My cheeks flushed slightly, and I expressed my gratitude for sharing the comment with me. Feedback is so important. Then, they added something else to their compliment. It’s great what you are doing and all, but are you an island?

I’d heard that question before. When an observer asks if I’m an island, they are asking me if I’m alone on this assessment journey given that so many teachers have stayed on their traditional paths. There’s always a sort of, it must hard tone. Sometimes when I hear the word island, I also hear a tinge of melancholy and pity. You poor thing, all on your own, doing so much work. Do you even sleep?  At other times, I hear resentment and annoyance. Why on earth would you think what you are doing is right? If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

But as a matter of fact, the island analogy highlights what I’ve come to understand and appreciate about my choice to take on progressive assessment and learning practices. I am an island, but I’m not lonely.

Educators who are islands are those educators who take on progressive ideas on their own, intrinsically motivated and engaged, unfazed by outside forces bent on condemning their actions as a deviation from the usual, the norm, the traditional. They do their best thinking alone. They aren’t cut off from educational society, but instead are a group of hidden gems, finding their own reasons to teach in a different way, assess in a way they believe so strongly in, and are committed to their self-proclaimed trajectories.

I am very comfortable as an island. It’s just me, my resolve, and my imagination. The three of us take journeys exploring the BC curriculum, unpacking every corner of each standard. It’s like a scavenger hunt, piecing together new criteria and language. Together, my resolve, imagination and I have built a mindset of possibility where ideas fester and swell into a beautiful infection contagious to students who long for a classroom where equity is the dogma, uniqueness is appreciated, and mistake making is rewarded.

I seek out loneliness and boredom. It’s true. It is through moments of solace that interesting learning opportunities percolate and crefully constructed proficiency sequence criteria illuminate a breadth of possible lessons plans and student-centered projects. A pause in time as I’m mindlessly watching reruns of my favourite show or enjoying the trees blowing in the wind on my acreage, or snuggling my cats as they purr on my lap, tiny speckles of ideas collide, quickly disappear, and sometimes sprout. In these moments, there is no one who can argue with any fantastical idea. I can be as persnickety about my ideas as I like. And with a swoop, I can throw caution to the wind, letting great, wondrous ideas either be carried away by eager students who long for something other than monotonous tests, tedious worksheets, and dreary assignments, or grab my pen to write to connect with other educator islands.

Students are my fan base. Fans will tell you with their body language, performance, and behaviours exactly how they feel about an idea. Islands are in tune with their own inner critic but are more sensitive to the critic who plays with their new ideas and learns in front of them. We’re incredibly reflective. Reflection and restarts eat up copious amounts of our time. We’ll sacrifice long hours to please our fans.  Educators who aren’t islands often misunderstand these sacrifices for overwork or perfectionism. But really, it’s a conscientiousness, a thoroughness, a desire to change historically engrained notions of what is possible to profound and endless possibilities.

When my energy does get low and I feel like I need a battery boost of sorts or kickstart, I look for other islands.  If I cannot find another island in physical proximity, a single tweet or Facebook post, brings many islands together. Together, this archipelago is incredibly powerful and strong. There is still the safety and security of being my own island, but then there’s also the reassurance of the archipelago that in times of distress and tribulation or desire for collaboration, all I need to do is stand at the place where the white sand meets the water and look outward. There in front of me will be another spectacular island on the same journey as me.  That feeling that there are more out there on similar journeys is comforting and uplifting. They are supportive and kindly critical. They are exactly what I need when I need them.

Let’s move away from my journey for a moment and discuss those who are not islands. If I’m an island, these other educators are the mainland. To many who are part of the mainland, being an island seems perilous. The mainland, for some educators, with their task specific rubrics, categories in grade books, firm day-to-day lesson plans, zeros, and firm due dates, is comfortable. These educators do not worry about the archipelago educators who thrive on progressive assessment and unique learning opportunities because all they need to do is look in three directions and see other educators all steadfast and content in what was and is traditional.

To those of us educators who are part of the archipelago, the mainland is also far away. No tectonic shifts have brought these educators any closer, however small oceanic eruptions have sprung up new islands, new members of the archipelago. There are some new teachers, fresh out of student teaching. They are keen, observant, and willing to try new things. There are also a few educators who have thrived on a peninsula, partially connected to the tradition on the mainland by an isthmus while also dipping their toes into small assessment ideas that happen to float by from the islands of the archipelago. Some of these educators suddenly find themselves breaking away from the mainland, and instead of getting swallowed up by the sea which they have been warned by some on the mainland, manage to grab a life raft and are adopted into the archipelago family.

There are some educators from the mainland who come to the edge of the cliff and look out towards the archipelago. But as they gaze across the water, they don’t see anything but vast ocean, blazing sun and big sky. The enormity of what is beyond the mainland is too overwhelming, too daunting, too scary. Some even contemplate and listen politely acknowledging that somewhere beyond their own comfort and predictability there are new assessment adventures to behold, a possible new approach to teaching, but as quickly as the thought bubble forms, it bursts, either pricked by another educator on the mainland or by their own fear. There are simply too many educators on the mainland, too many calls to return and not deviate from the norm, and not enough courage to detach themselves and take the plunge into a more modern teaching and assessment reality.

I understand the mainland because I used live there. I’ve lived far away from the beach. Struggling just to survive as a new teacher meant implementing ideas from educators nearby. I hadn’t developed my own pedagogy yet, so I adopted the pedagogy of my neighbours.

As I grew more comfortable in my own educator skin, my sights shifted from adopting what made my teaching easier to what could make more of an impact. I moved away from the center of the mainland and explored the different corners of the mainland. I built a repertoire of ideas and started manipulating them, making them my own.

When my own children entered the school system, my viewpoint shifted again. I was no longer not only entrenched within the education system as an educator, but a participant as a parent. It was problematic at times and sometimes beautiful.  My perspective widened to the broad scope of the entire educational system, and I could see, so clearly, the educator I wanted to be. I wanted to be an entertainer, enlightener, and I wanted my students to feel like they achieve what they had been told was impossible. Some of my students had been told they couldn’t write, couldn’t act, and couldn’t be creative. Some of my students were told they should be segregated from their peers, should take special education classes, and should plan to repeat a course because they were so far behind. I knew I needed to leave the mainland and become an island.

From my island perspective, some educators on the mainland teach in the same way and expect their learners to learn in the same way as it has always been done for years and years. That isn’t to say that they were and are poor educators. Not at all. In fact, I’m often inspired by many of the teachers on the mainland. There are some lessons and units that stand the test of time. There are some teachers so crazy good at explaining. Their passion is contagious. I’m envious.

What I hear more so, now, from teachers on the mainland, though, is so much criticism of today’s learners. They are lazy. They cheat. They have no motivation. They don’t hand anything in on time. They don’t attend. What I don’t understand is how the word, they can be used so emphatically. It feels like a one-sided blame game. Islands, like myself, think to themselves, if only they looked around and inward, they would see how small shifts could end some of these problems.  When students appear to be lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling, I ask myself, what can I do to change that? How can I motivate them? How can I create a learning opportunity that will be interesting at least and engaging at best? How can I instill hope in these students who feel like school is hopeless?

I can see how creative educators on the mainland are. I appreciate how brilliant they are. I notice how connected they are or want to be to their students.  If only they matched their care, creativity, and thoughtfulness with a practice that focused on the individuality and the differences of the students.

I hear it so often. The students in my class understand the material. They just didn’t show it on the test. I have to move on even though some students aren’t ready. Every student needs to do every assignment; it’s not fair to those who do them all if I only use a few from one or two. If I don’t make it worth points, they’ll never hand it in. 

These are educators on the mainland whose thoughts drift above them and into the atmosphere. Eventually, those of us islands see all these comments build into enormous thunderheads, eventually becoming black and ominous. When the storm comes, there are torrential rains. And we know that a student has left the mainland and headed out on their own. They’ve given up.

Some educators on the mainland don’t understand that fair isn’t always equal. Islands get it. Students will not kick up their heels if they do more assignments than another or if one student needs a more dramatic intervention over another. That’s a construct fabricated by educators who believe all students fit into the same box and should do all the same assignments as everyone else. Students want to view the teacher as the person who should serve them in any way they can if they are struggling. They will kick up their heels but if they feel that they are misunderstood, if their extenuating circumstances aren’t treated differently that those who don’t have extenuating circumstances.

Where do we go from here? Is it possible to build a bridge between the mainland and the islands of the archipelago?

There will always be those educators who will not only remain on the mainland, but also build an underground shelter and take refuge, feeling attacked by progressive educators simply because they share the same oxygen. We can’t do anything about those educators.

We can engage in constructive conversations led by our leaders who believe enough in assessment as a change agent and less on data, that students should be able to show their learning in different ways and should be given more opportunities to do so. Leaders have the power to use their budgets to invest in highways of communication between educators on the mainland and the islands. They need to fly in islands who are making radical shifts and proving their work is impressive and impactful. Encourage conversations and give all educators the platform to listen and discuss.

Leaders need to make it transparent that change is needed. Then, they need to hand over time and space for educators to be the instruments of change.

Let me clear. As an island who has seen how progressive practices impact learning and is constantly retrofitting to meet the needs of individuals and overhauling my practice so students have opportunity and can feels success, archaic traditions that no longer serve our students cannot be an option. Period. Creatures of comfort existing happily far inland need a helpful shove to come closer to the edge of change.

As an island, I’ve seen shifts in perspective happen when I’m given the space to share my why and my how. Nudging an educator from the mainland into a conversation with an island is only part of the process. Educators on the mainland need to know their voices matter. They need reassurance that if they put the labour into overhauling their practice, there will be a reward. They also need to be warned that change takes time. They need time, space, and mentorship. They need to be informed that small shifts are better than no shifts at all.   

I’m a proud island. I feel rewarded everyday for being an island. An island is not akin to disconnection. The work I do behind closed doors of my classroom pervades the students I teach and learn alongside with. My archipelago family of educators keeps me on my toes and motivated to this work. And there’s plenty of room in the ocean for more.


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