Having the power to disagree: Building trust in teacher-powered schools

By Danny Flannery • Sep 17, 2018

I remember sitting alongside Ayla Gavins, the principal of Mission Hill K-8 School, a teacher-powered school where I was working as a student teacher. A month in and I was feeling comfortable with my students, with my cooperating teacher, and at the meetings I had been encouraged to attend. As we discussed a group of students’ behavior at our student support meeting, I put forward an idea to which Ayla responded by saying “I don’t agree with that at all.” I was struck dumb for the rest of the meeting. As we left I was kicking myself for not just listening quietly and knowing my place as a new student teacher, but I also know that I’m not a person who can keep quiet when I feel passionately about an issue.

As it turns out, my need to voice my opinion was not viewed as a flaw by the staff of Mission Hill but as a strength. Mission Hill K-8 School has over the years used their autonomy as a Boston pilot school to assemble a staff of tenacious, passionate, well-spoken teachers who are quite comfortable arguing for hours on end if they are not satisfied with the direction in which we are heading. As one of my colleagues recently said in a meeting, “this staff did not come together by accident”; we are committed to running our school democratically, recognizing that respectful and extensive debate is essential to our work as a democratic institution.

At times this form of discussion can feel exhausting. Do we really have to talk for 90 minutes about whether students should be able to wear hats inside the school building? Does it really matter that much if we use similar language about self-regulation across the school? In other words, is this issue really worth the argument? I often thought this way earlier in my time at Mission Hill, but what we’ve found as a staff is that these disagreements are often the indicator of a deeper issue which needs to be discussed.

In the beginning of last school year, we were discussing the daily schedule of the school, and Geralyn (a teacher of our youngest students) insisted that students not arrive at their classrooms until the official start of the school day at 9:15, instead of 9:10 as had been happening the previous year. At first I was exasperated that we were spending so much time talking about a five minute time difference, but as the back-and-forth continued I could see how much Geralyn cared about this topic. At one point she said “I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal—it’s five minutes—but when you have a class of three year olds it really makes a difference.” Because we dug deep into this issue, I had the opportunity to put myself in Geralyn’s shoes; if my 1st and 2nd graders arrive five minutes early, they get started on their morning work independently while I continue to prepare for the day. If Geralyn’s students arrive early, she has to help them take their coats off, get breakfast, and get settled in an activity. Her prep time is over. This conversation not only helped Geralyn get the prep time she needed, but it also helped the whole staff recognize a blindspot we had.

These disagreements happen all of the time at Mission Hill, and they uncover so many issues which we can resolve, bringing us closer together. When we are making decisions about our budget, curriculum, staffing, etc., we each bring different perspectives, misconceptions, and blindspots to the table which are revealed in our conversations. Were it not for the long discussions we have, these small issues could have the potential to grow into something more toxic which could hurt our community.

The school culture that arises from these disagreements is one of trust. Not blind trust, but the kind of trust where I know that if a colleague does not agree with my decisions I will hear about it, and vice versa. This trust helps us when working with students, as we feel comfortable advocating for their needs and we have the autonomy to make curricular decisions which are in their best interest. It is always a work in progress; just this past spring we talked at length about how our struggles with implementing schoolwide decisions have impacted students’ learning, and though it was an uncomfortable conversation it helped us put the issue in the spotlight for the coming school year.

As the teacher-powered schools movement spreads across the country (19 states and counting!), teachers will have the opportunity to craft their own school community in which students can grow and thrive. I believe a crucial element in these school communities is that everyone, from the principal to the new student teacher, feels empowered to voice their disagreement. For with disagreement comes discussion, understanding, and ultimately trust—well worth the time.

Danny Flannery is a 1st/2nd grade teacher at Mission Hill K-8 School in Boston, MA. He also works as a teacher ambassador for Teacher-Powered Schools, an initiative of Education Evolving and the Center for Teaching Quality. Find Danny on Twitter at @teacherdanny216.