An Assets-Based Approach to School Leadership: 3 Ways to Create a Positive Climate
It’s time to start looking at our schools through a new lens- an assets based lens. What do I mean by this? I means that we should focus on what our students and teachers are good at, rather than constantly dwelling on what they need to work on. This type of environment is better for everyone involved- it boosts morale and creates a more positive atmosphere in the school, while also helping students achieve more success academically.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits of having an assets-based school environment! This blog post will also address specific ways that campus leaders can reframe their thinking and create and assets-based mindset.
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What is an assets-based approach in education?
An assets-based approach in education is one that focuses on identifying and celebrating the strengths of the school community, rather than dwelling on deficits. Problems are still solved, but they are confronted first by looking for assets.
What are some advantages to asset-based teaching and learning?
There are many reasons why having an assets-based approach in education is important.
First and foremost, it creates a more positive atmosphere that energizes students, staff and administrators. It also helps students and teachers to feel more connected, which means they are more likely to do better academically.
As a teacher, you’re sure to run into lots of learned helplessness in your student population. Here’s how to combat it, one kiddo at a time.
Why Assets-Based Education is Especially Important in Title 1 Schools
As assets-based approach is a way of thinking that is especially beneficial for title I schools, which often have low self-esteem and focus on their shortcomings rather than their strengths.
Because title 1 schools are often struggling to meet high academic expectations and get scored numerically by their state departments of education, it’s not uncommon for hardworking, multicultural schools to become focused on their “D” rating to their own detriment.
Leveraging the strengths of students, teachers and administrators can help to shift this mindset. It also helps title I schools to feel like they are a valued part of the larger community, rather than an underperforming school that needs improvement.
An assets-based approach is also necessary because these types of schools tend to have more discipline problems. Read more below about how campus leaders can take an assets-based approach to student discipline.
Title 1 schools are also more likely to have struggling first year teachers filling their classrooms. One way to help these new teachers is to provide them with more support. This can be done by coaching them on the use of their strengths in the classroom, and helping connect them with other educators who share similar strengths.
An Assets-Based Approach in Teacher Coaching
Teacher coaching is one of the most challenging leadership tasks on campus. Teachers, as professionals, value autonomy and prefer to rule their own domain. This is certainly understandable, as teachers go through a great deal of training and preparation to pursue what they often believe to be a “calling.”
They also undergo a great deal of pressure to cover their content and produce high test scores. It is hard to feel successful implementing someone else’s plan, so it’s not uncommon for teachers to chafe under restrictive, deficits-focused coaching methods.
Assets-based coaching helps administrators identify where their teachers are successful so that they can continue building from there.
In order for coaching to be successful, it is important that the teacher see the coach as someone who has their best interests at heart, and can help them navigate through these difficult waters.
How can we make sure that our coaches are seen in this light? Here are some ways coaches and administrators can right the ship with regard to teacher/coach relationships.
Here is a really great resources for coaches looking to take an assets-based approach with their teachers. Instead of just a textbook, it’s a workbook meant to help coaches who manage tricky relationships with teachers.
Informal Evaluations of Teachers
Whether the evaluation takes the form of a walk-through with a sticky note, or a formal observation and rubric, teacher evaluations can be a mine field of miscommunication, disappointment, and anger.
One way to ease the tension around teacher evaluations is for administrators and coaches to look for assets, rather than deficits. For example, which would you prefer? The statement “You did a good job of keeping your students engaged in the lesson” or “Anthony was distracted and disrupting his table-mates.”
The sandwich method of feedback, popular at many campuses and used frequently during the observation debrief, asks administrators to sandwich a deficit in between two assets, but any professional can see through this strategy, and it does nothing but minimize the the value of their strengths.
Avoiding evaluation templates that leave ample space for weaknesses and requesting changes can help, too. Looking for strengths, and attempting to build on those, guarantees that teachers will continue to feel inspired to make progress.
If the feedback form is almost entirely positive, teachers still won’t assume they have no room for improvement. After all, test scores and behavior problems will almost always fill out the rest of the story if the teacher has much to learn. Most teachers intuitively know where they need improvement; what they lack is an idea of which changes to make and how to execute them.
Coaches should meet with teachers after an observation and get their input on what they believe went well and where they struggled. As the relationship develops and stays focused on the positive, teachers will trust coaches enough to ask for help in their areas where they know they struggle.
Coaches will then know exactly how to help. By not overstepping onto the teacher’s sense of autonomy, and by addressing the challenges that are most important to the teacher, they can make small, measurable changes in the classroom.
Once a trusting relationship is built through an assets-based approach to coaching, teachers will willingly look for new places to grow.
One of the assets-based approaches that I have seen used in my school allows teachers to observe their peers on a regular basis, with no formal evaluation attached. This is completely voluntary and coach-facilitated, but it is an excellent resource for new teachers who need to witness other teachers being successful under their same circumstances.
Peer observations are often successful because teachers are voluntarily taking ownership of their own classroom challenges, and looking to peers who aren’t there to watch for deficits. It’s a one-way street, and it can lead to fresh ideas and better problem solving.
Teacher Lesson Planning
When schools take a deficit-based approach to teacher coaching, they often rob teachers of their autonomy by taking over their lesson plans entirely or by micromanaging lesson planning.
How does this become standard practice on a campus? Typically, a teacher will have poor benchmark scores or bad classroom management that spills into the hallways and creates grade-level wide chaos. In an attempt to protect the school from bad ratings provided by state agencies, coaches and administrators will flood the classroom, schedule meetings, observations, and provide feedback.
These leaders will often restructure a teacher’s block, ask that lesson plans be completed 1-2 weeks in advance and posted on a Google Drive or emailed to the administrator. They’ll send in coaches to model best practices in teaching, and ask the teacher to adopt district-level lesson plans rather that crafting their own lessons.
Administrators at the campus and district level do this because they don’t trust teachers to produce high quality teaching that is laser focused on standardized objectives without writing everything out. They may well have reason to doubt some of these teachers on campus (particularly new teachers) but they should let observations, debriefs, and test scores do the talking, not the quality of a teacher’s written plans.
Micromanaging or taking over lesson planning can be completely demoralizing. Teachers who have been trained well, or who are years into their careers, are more than capable of planning their own lessons. They often will not write to the level of detail that some administrators think they should, but that doesn’t mean they can’t execute beautifully in the classroom.
Collaborating with peers on lesson planning, or working with a coach trained in an assets-based approach can only enhance the quality of their work.
When we take a strengths-based approach to lesson planning, it allows teachers to focus on what’s going well instead of constantly feeling like they’re under the microscope.
So how does an assets-based approach to lesson planning look? When teachers claim that certain aspects of their lesson plan work well for both students and the teacher, it’s because they view that particular part of the lesson as their strength. When teachers stay in their areas of strength, kids and teachers thrive.
An assets-based approach to lesson planning requires that teachers be trusted to create lesson plans that work for them and their students, without posting them publicly. They should be held accountable for high quality teaching, not for the ability to write overly detailed plans. Teachers’ time should be valued, because when teachers are given the gift of time, they will often spend it wisely.
Confident teachers operating in a positive, professional environment are more willing to take risks and learn new skills for the classroom. Coaches and administrators should trust the teacher’s instincts, and offer little more than minor tweaks or ideas for small but meaningful improvements.
An Assets-Based Approach in Student Discipline
Too often, teachers and administrators see students one-dimensionally with regard to their behavior.
- A child who could be celebrated as high-energy and encouraged to the teacher’s “errand runner” is instead punished for being unable to remain seated while working.
- Students who are perpetual talkers are not seen as having a gift for gab and the ability to communicate effectively, but instead they’re given detentions or sent out of class. We can give students the option to work in partners or independently when possible. Of course, there are times where students need to know the expectation and adhere to it, but teachers should ask themselves if they’re working WITH a student’s temperament or against it more frequently.
- A student who is slow to join groups, fearful of new situations, and prone to overstimulation are perceived as weak, rather than sensitive. These sensitive types are often highly creative and empathetic.
Students with assets such as empathy, leadership skills, creativity and so on should be celebrated in school. It is the testing demands under No Child Left Behind that have caused us to expect all students to fit into one uniform expectation for performance.
Every child has strengths – and here is a post about discovering any child’s strengths (yes, even that one).
When we take an assets-based approach to discipline, it allows us to see the whole child. It is then that we can begin to understand why a student is engaging in a certain behavior and work collaboratively with the family to find a solution.
Struggling with classroom management? Check out my post here for some practical help.
Looking for the Good in Every Child
When teachers look for the good in every child, they will certainly find it. I’m not saying that teachers should look the other way when students are disruptive or make bad choices. They still need to be held accountable, but they deserve a lot more than just punishment from their school community.
When teachers focus on incentivizing positive contributions to the class environment – whatever form it might take – they form meaningful relationships with kids. Kids are then more likely to participate in class, respect their peers and teachers, give feedback and take risks. When kids feel safe to be themselves at school they will flourish.
Culturally Affirming Schools
Another advantage of an assets-based approach to education is that it’s naturally inclusive to kids and families of all backgrounds.
For example, when we focus on assets, it gives us a chance to celebrate the home language and unique dialects of our students and their families. Students who speak more than one language should be encouraged to share their abilities and experiences with others.
Students may celebrate different holidays than teachers, but when we validate their experiences and ask questions about their heritage and traditions, we create a safe space for all kids to be themselves.
An Assets-Based Approach in Academics
Today’s public schools are highly dependent on standardized testing to assess a student’s ability. Frequently, the deficits that appear in benchmark tests throughout the year drive lesson planning and small group instruction.
As teachers, we focus on the area of need because that’s what drives student achievement data. When a child is struggling in math, for example, they may not perform well on benchmark tests throughout the year. Throughout this process of assessing students’ needs and providing instruction to address their deficits, we are often blind to their assets.
An assets-based approach to academic would look first at what’s going well, or at the very least, what’s going least badly. This focus on assets allows us to build from a student’s strengths, rather than constantly trying to remediate their weaknesses.
How do we build on academic strengths? During data analysis conversations, teachers should look first to what went well. If a group of students were successful on a vocabulary question, teachers might discuss what sort of instruction took place that led to mastery, and how they can build on that teaching strategy for other objectives.
If a certain teacher had test scores that were far higher than her peers on a benchmark assessment, administrators might celebrate the growth by making time for fellow teachers to observe the teacher using a particular strategy – if they so choose. Similarly, even if a new teacher’s students performed poorly overall on a standardized test – but mastered one type of question – administrators should spotlight that success, as well.
When teachers, coaches, principals and district-level administrators focus on assets rather than deficits, they will have more success in the classroom and in building relationships with students, staff and families. This sort of community building is essential for creating a positive school environment in which all students can thrive.
An assets-based approach to education is inclusive, affirming and facilitates innovation, risk taking and growth.