Falling Back on the Habits of Mind: Interview with Debbie Perez

The Habits of Mind and the Four Attributes of Personalized Learning (Voice, Co-Creation, Social Construction and Self Discovery) were vital for weathering the disruption of the school year during the pandemic– and improving as a school district as a result of it– as Debbie Perez outlined in an interview with Bena Kallick

Debbie is the Director of Professional Learning and Contemporary Instruction for Humble ISD, a sprawling school district with over 45,000 students on 45 campuses near downtown Houston. Here is what she shared with us.

Self-Discovery and Social Construction

One of the first things that Debbie recognized about school leaders, and the support they provided for teachers and students, was that assumptions needed to be checked at the door. 

When leaders, teachers and students were struggling, it was very easy to come up with seemingly obvious solutions– but sometimes not only did they need to dig deeper for solutions, they also needed to fully engage to understand precisely what those problems were in the first place.

Perez notes: 

“Prior to the pandemic, we understood very well and could really speak to the pulse of how things were going in the classroom, because we were present. We had focus groups, we really understood and knew the direction that we were going for our district. And when the pandemic hit, we had to force ourselves to not make those assumptions and really dig deep and talk to our students, talk to our teachers, talk to our leaders and be present in that environment to reassess what kind of support we have to provide for them…we needed to engage them more in not just sharing what the problems are, but also trying to figure out how together we can create solutions. Because at the end of the day, they were the practitioners now. And we were learning from them.”

Voice and Co-Creation

To assist in combating assumptions and working towards co-creating solutions, Humble started official voice groups at the outset of at-home learning, where students voiced the concerns and problems they were having with the systems put in place during the virtual learning experience.

Those early groups demonstrated that students were valuable not just for their feedback and insight, but for problem-solving and co-designing together with school leaders. 

From there, a student voice Campus Ambassador group comprised of 125 students representing all the high schools was formed. Students took part in designing sessions, leading sessions, or sometimes just participating in the sessions.

“I want students to not just be a voice and not just give input but begin to really create solutions for our districts. And if they’re going to be a true Campus Ambassador, that means that they’re not just coming to the district and giving feedback, but they’re really leaders. They’re thinking of problems that we’re experiencing, and how can we together– as a district, as students– really work to solve that problem.”

Falling Back on the Habits of Mind

The challenge now,  Perez explains, is understanding how best to impact instruction and structures in the classroom so that students are motivated to self navigate and actively lead through these large projects. She relies on the Habits of Mind during this process.

Thinking flexibly was a huge skill that as a team, we had to get really grounded on. And it’s work that we still need to continue to do as we develop leaders… to really allow myself to think from the perspective of a teacher, of the student.”

“And then of course, the managing impulsivity, because I’m a task oriented individual…how to step back as a leader and go: Okay, if we’re really examining the landscape of where we’re trying to go, what are the voices that are going to contribute to this? And how does the way that I lead through this process actually get us to that success?”

“The more I practice, the better that habit is going to really emerge when it’s really necessary.”

Though these voice groups were created out of necessity due to the pandemic, Perez is dedicated to keeping the why and the vision in mind as schools establish their new normal. The leadership within her school district will continue to value and benefit from student voice, as they support students in taking center stage in their learning experiences. These voices will also help find opportunities for the creation of structures and systems so that the individual campuses of Humble ISD feel less alienated, more like a family.

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