Access granted

Recently, I was chatting with one of our staff members about accessibility to our buildings. There is much work that has been done, and still more that we can do to make our conference facilities and grounds even more usable by all those who visit us to learn and lead. While our conversation was about physical accessibility, primarily, it got me thinking about how accessible we make the learning process to those we serve. While I believe this is always a work in progress, I do feel strongly that we are regularly able to live by our mission, “Service and Innovation through Partnership.” Here are four ways that we partner with the teachers, leaders and staff members we serve to help make the learning process more accessible for everyone.

We truly listen. The importance of listening to others must be foundational in the work that we do. The only way we can really deliver on what people need is by understanding those needs, and to do that we have to listen, and listen well. There are multiple ways that our organization listens to the needs of educators. For example, we conduct regular needs assessments through phone calls, face-to-face conversations and email reach-outs. We hold an annual professional learning summit where districts share their learning plans for the next year, connect with other districts for assistance and work with us for regional support. We also regularly build effective listening strategies into our conversations. Whether it be paraphrasing, asking clarifying or probing questions or adopting a listening stance, we believe that effective listening is a key to providing an entry point to learning.

We validate all who enter our conference space. No matter how people enter our workshop space, they will be greeted with a “Welcome” or “Good morning.” Whether a teacher is coming in excited for a session that day or an educator is deep in thought about a challenge they faced that morning, we believe in acknowledging everyone who enters the building and helping them put themselves into a learning frame. Along with a greeting and small talk, we provide breakfast options for most palates, coffee and hot water and ample facilities. Connectivity is easily available, and we attempt to provide for any request a participant has. The thing is, when we treat people as the individuals they are and work to meet their needs from the time they join us to the time they leave, we remove barriers to learning that might have been present otherwise.

We modify modes to learning. While the vast majority of learning opportunities we provide occur via face-to-face methods, those in-person learning opportunities often look very different. Flexible room layouts, workshop space of different sizes and shapes and different technology tools allow facilitators to shape learning in a way that best fits participants. Collegial circle gatherings, where participants and facilitators generate the agenda, blend in with our more traditional workshops, where educators learn from the expertise of a facilitator or presenters. In a number of cases, our workshops take place in-district, allowing for the observation of work taking place in a school or providing an opportunity for model lessons, with a facilitator sharing their expertise in coordination with a co-teacher or teachers. We also provide opportunities for blended and online learning, in some cases for educators and in others, for students. And, we are still searching for more ways to empower learners to learn; we don’t believe we have exhausted the modes to learning out there.

We connect people and resources. We tend to ascribe to the Amazon model of making connections (though without quite as creepy a listening factor). Based on data we collect from conversations, facilitator feedback, workshop evaluations and a number of other sources, we connect people to each other and educators to resources that we believe will be an excellent fit for needs. Sometimes these connections aren’t strong enough and they don’t last, and many times they are precisely what somebody was looking for. Regional education service agencies always have the goal of making life easier for educators by providing needed opportunities for continued growth. If we are able to do that, then we’ve hit the ultimate outcome of access to learning by providing the tools to fill a gap that will allow people to cross to the next part of their careers and lives.

I recognize that these aren’t the only ways to grant access to learning. And, they aren’t necessarily the access priorities that every organization needs to focus on. Speaking personally, though, these four have played a huge role in helping me strengthen my effectiveness as an educational leader, and I believe that they have helped others in our agency do the same. Much is always on our minds as educators. At the forefront should always be accessibility; how we provide access to learning is just as important as what that potential learning might be.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:www.fredende.com.

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