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My school shifted to a new grading system and new grading software this year. A number of us in the building had already made the shift to standards-based grading a few years ago, but many in the building had not. Last year, our principal announced that the whole school would be switching to what we have named Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL) for the 2015-2016 school year and, the week before teachers were to meet, that same principal took an amazing opportunity to help run the district.

So we arrived Monday for a tearful farewell and then promptly got to work on learning how to make this shift from traditional grading to PBL. To say it was messy would be an understatement. There were teachers in all stages of preparation having very different displays of anxiety–some shut down, some shouted out, and others mumbled gallows humor under their breath. It occurred to me later that we are experiencing the kind of anxiety and fear that our must vulnerable students feel on a daily basis. What a great gift for us to be reminded of this feeling first hand. I’m sure many of us, if not all of us, have created lives that very rarely push us to do things that make us feel uncomfortable or fragile in front of others whose respect we seek out. In this way we were freshmen last week.

I also connected our varied emotions to the PBL roll out to the system itself. It is a system based on on the fundamental belief that if we are learning challenging material, then not all of us will understand perfectly right away. Some of us will be further along because of our prior knowledge of the system and others will be just starting out. Our message to students in our system is that it is the learning that matters most, not the day/time at which you learned it. Similarly, if we gave a test to teachers yesterday on their knowledge of PBL and its application some would perform well and others would struggle on certain parts. It would not at all tell us how smart these people are, but rather it would tell us where they are in their understanding and application of the system. This is incredibly useful information. We would provide the supports they need to better understand and then we would check in again to see where they are.

Our system is based on Marzano’s 1-4 scale. Right now, some teachers are at a 2 (developing) and moving to a 3 (achieving). I likely started at a 3, but might not have developed as fast as they have and I remain at a 3 at the end of the week. It doesn’t matter that I arrived at a 3 earlier than others, it matters that we are all moving to our goal of a 4. In the classroom, the more students who move to a 3, the more the entire room rises and each person can improve the understanding and application of those around them. In short, I am better when my colleagues are better. I already see this happening in the kinds of conversations we are having as a staff. They are more focused on how students can show their learning and not behaviors and class rules.

If we are confident enough to be vulnerable in the classroom and talk about how our new learning helped us better understand the anxieties that students face every day and helped us live our belief that we learn as much from failure as we do from success, the young people in our care will respond to this and true community can be the outcome. I am excited to see it happen.

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