My belief that consensus building is the most successful way to move forward with large initiatives transformed from philosophical belief to pragmatic understanding and true belief because of an interesting series of events.  Previous to these events, on many levels I believed that the best way forward was consensus building, knowing that that multiple minds will develop a better, more comprehensive outcome than one mind.  Working against that, I had this fear that some of my teachers, wouldn’t want the same thing or have the same vision and therefore the initiative or idea wouldn’t happen or be successful.  I was conflicted about building consensus and it came down to me trusting in the process.

So, opportunity, as so often happens, presented itself.  At the end of first semester two boys, twins, you know the ones who fulfill every stereotype imaginable: social, charming, babies of the family, following in the footsteps of older valedictorian siblings, the kinds of kids who prefer to have fun over studying and who drive you crazy because of unfulfilled potential, but who you can’t help liking.  Well, it was brought to my attention that the twins were both failing Spanish Ab Initio, a course both boys were required to pass in order to graduate.  Examining why they were about to fail this course (which miraculously we were able to avoid with some incredible last minute intensive work by their Spanish teacher), I discovered that the boys had not been attending our After School Learning (ASL) program.  They had not attended ASL even though their Spanish teacher had, on numerous occasions told them they had to go.  Students can volunteer to go to ASL, but most often it is mandated by teachers or in Student Support Team (SST) meetings.

What we realized is that there had been no teeth in the ASL program; students never faced consequences for not attending.  Realizing this, I made a quick, seemingly smart decision to change this and attach consequences, detention, to not attending mandatory ASL.  I had a quick stand up faculty meeting to announce the discovery and fix.  All teachers had to do now is send us a quick email saying a student did not attend mandatory ASL and we would take care of the consequences.  Problem solved, or so I thought.  As someone who sometimes learns their lessons the hard way, I quickly discovered, thanks to the teachers who told me about their issues with this quick fix, that this was a much bigger and more involved issue than I had previously realized.

So we made ASL and student success the focus of our next HS faculty meeting.  We began by having teachers, do some small group cooperative brainstorming on what was and wasn’t working and on suggestions to help our students to be more successful.  Teachers shared out their thoughts and ideas and then voted on what was most important to them.  We compiled this information and shared it with teachers.  Somehow, all of this information led to a vision for that came to me in my sleep (a regular occurring pathway to success for me).  This plan/idea: a Student Success Center (SSC), was shared with department heads who in turn shared it with teachers asking them for thoughts and feedback at their weekly department meetings.  After meeting with department heads to listen to feedback, improvements were made to the plan.

Somewhere along the way in this process I realized that the only pathway for the SSC to be successfully realized, was when teachers had ownership in the plan, process and decision.  Relying on some of my earlier ropes course training I decided to have the teachers vote on implementation of the plan using the fist-to-five consensus method.  For those unfamiliar with fist-to-five, it works like this:

To use this technique the facilitator restates a decision the group may make and asks everyone to show their level of support. Each person responds by showing a fist or a number of fingers that corresponds to their opinion.
Fist: A no vote – a way to block consensus. I need to talk more on the proposal and require changes for it to pass.

  1. 1 Finger: I still need to discuss certain issues and suggest changes that should be made.
  2. 2 Fingers: I am more comfortable with the proposal but would like to discuss some minor issues.
  3. 3 Fingers: I’m not in total agreement but feel comfortable to let this decision or a proposal pass without further discussion.
  4. 4 Fingers: I think it’s a good idea/decision and will work for it.
  5. 5 Fingers: It’s a great idea and I will be one of the leaders in implementing it

If anyone holds up fewer than three fingers, they are given the opportunity to state their objections and the team addresses their concerns. Teams continue the Fist-to-Five process until they achieve consensus (a minimum of three fingers or higher) or determine they must move on to the next issue.

So, at the next faculty meeting, we brought up the new proposed plan for the SSC and ran a fist-to-five vote.  The results showed no fists, but some 1’s and 2’s along with 3’s, 4’s and 5’s.  Everyone discussed their thoughts in an open dialog, both reasons for and against.  The meeting became quite emotional, though people were emotional, I found myself incredibly impressed by the level of professionalism displayed by the faculty.  Not once did anyone get personal or attack another person or their statements.  Because of the emotions involved, I decided against taking another vote again that day.  Teachers were applauded for sharing openly and honestly and were told that new information would be compiled and shared with teachers soon along with next steps.

At this point, two strategic decisions were made.  First, the vote and follow-up discussion had included all the teachers.  Though all the input was valued, I decided that the next vote would include only the teachers who would be returning next year because those would be the teachers most affected by the plan.  Second, we had individual discussions with some of the teachers who seemed most opposed to the idea.  The discussion was not to force anyone to change their mind, but instead is was to listen and explore their concerns in more depth.  This proved to be very valuable on two fronts, one, teachers felt appreciated that we were genuinely interested in their concerns and, two, some of their thoughts helped us to improve the plan.

So, using this information, we tweaked the plan again, shared with faculty and voted for a second time at the next faculty meeting.  I am happy to report that the plan was approved by consensus. Moving forward we know that all teachers are invested in the plan and will work towards its success; we know that the plan was much more comprehensive and hopefully effective because everyone was involved in the creation of the plan and final decision to move forward with the plan.  Best of all, personally, experience had shown me that through trusting my teachers and taking a risk, consensus is the best way to move forward with large initiatives, especially those that directly involve teachers.

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