Identifying our Spheres of Influence as Change Agents of Equity, Language & Literacy

by: Sarah Ottow, Confianza Founder, Director & Lead Coach

"You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time"  -Angela Davis


Where To Begin

As a coach focused on equity for language learners, I am constantly supporting educators in the issues they are concerned about.  So many issues, in fact, they often don’t know where to start.  They say, “There are SO many issues I need to address?” “Where could I possibly begin?”  That’s when we pause, take a deep breath, and simply take stock of all the issues we are faced with for both English Language Learners (ELLs) and Academic Language Learners (ALLs). 

A helpful framework to “braindump” all the challenges we are faced with in our practice can be the Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence, codified by Stephen R. Covey (1999) and largely shaped by the psychological theory, “locus of control” by Julian B. Rotter.  I was introduced to this framework as an undergraduate student studying psychology, yet it didn’t mean much to me until, years later, as graduate student studying urban education while also teaching in a diverse classroom, I learned how to enact social justice in my work using this circle approach.  Since then, I have brought it into every role I’ve had in schools--as a teacher, as a coach, as a district leader, as a non-profit project director, as a teacher trainer, as a consultant. I also use it as a habit of mind in my personal life! In fact, I’m such a fan of this way of thinking that I proudly wear a small diamond circle necklace gifted to me by my former graduate student cohort in Worcester, MA their end of this teacher residency program. Through our year and half together engaging in action research, they heard me ask again and again, “Is that within your circle of influence?” "Is that something you can change or can you shift the focus to something you can change now?" Needless to say, they got to know the circle quite well! 

The Action Cycle I created when founding Confianza is an action research-based process used by individual educators in our online courses, by coaches in our coach-the-coach programs, and leaders in systems-wide change.  The first questions of the ACT step are: 1) What is the issue I need to address? and 2) What will success look like? 

Focusing our Energy on What we Can Control

Covey explains the circles as “an excellent way to become more self-aware regarding our own degree of proactivity…[and a way] to look at where we focus our time and energy” (p.81). I find this approach especially useful when working with educators, including myself, so we can truly be sure we are focusing on an issue that we can actually influence.  We determine what issues in our practice that we focus on are within a Circle of Concern or, as it is also know, a Sphere of Influence.  Covey says when we examine the things are concerned about, we can discern what we have control over and what we don't have any control over, resulting in more proactive empowerment. This essentially means that we assign two different places, or circles, for our concerns. One--the circle of concern--contains the issues we cannot control. The second, smaller circle inside the circle of influence--is where we put issues we can actually impact.  And where we focus our energy largely explains whether we tend to live life more proactively or more reactively.  


People who focus on only their circle of concern tend to be reactive, worry a lot, blame others, and don’t necessarily accomplish much change.  On the other hand, people who focus on what’s within their circle of influence, tend to be proactive, positive, and, since their energy is spent enacting change, they can actually expand their circle of influence!

Serenity Now!  If you’re thinking to yourself, “This sounds an awful lot like the serenity prayer"--

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

...then you’re right!  This way of thinking through what we can control and what we can’t is really about finding serenity, or even a sense of equanimity, the feeling of calmness despite outside challenge, like being inside the eye of the proverbial hurricane.  It’s so we can ride the storm and seek clarity to address our challenges effectively and efficiently.  It’s not about complaining about the issues or blaming others for the things we can’t do anything about--that's reactive, and not living within our sphere of influence.  Finding what we can actually influence is really about sanity, a lot of educators tell me! They say that once they learn how to do this as part of our work together using Confianza's Action Cycle, that this approach spills into other parts of their life and they become more proactive and positive overall.  


Without going through the exercise of finding your circle of influence, we may, with the best of intentions, plow right ahead with a priority issue that we could perhaps not even be able to make any difference with.  So how exactly do we use the circles?

Here’s how I recommend using Covey’s framework. First, draw a big circle with a smaller circle inside it.  Then, on sticky notes, “braindump” all the challenges you are faced with that impact your students. In other words, What are you concerned about?  What would you like to change?  What keeps you up at night? Get it all off your chest!

Here are some actual challenges from educators I've worked with and some may resonate with you:

  • We need better collaboration between ESL and Special Education and/or General Education teachers and a co-teaching model that works
  • We don’t have a curriculum program for our ELLs new to the country (Newcomers)
  • Students have more oral language than literacy in their first language (L1)
  • We don’t know students’ language history or educational history
  • We have a lot of transience with our students and our staff
  • Our kids need more social-emotional support, especially with issues of trauma and acculturating to school
  • How do we keep students engaged and focused?!
  • Our phonics program doesn’t seem appropriate for students learning English; it’s mainly focused on sounds and doesn’t provide visual support for vocabulary development
  • I am a content teacher and I'm on my own with over 200 students in my classes throughout the day; I don’t even know who my ELLs are or my ESL Specialist
  • We know that many students will experience the “summer slump” and slip back in their reading when we start up again in the fall every year
  • I am an ESL teacher and am not sure what my role is in helping other teachers who aren’t teaching academic language explicitly to ELLs
  • Teachers don’t know the cultures of their/our students
  • Families and students need help with norms to succeed in American schools
  • We spend too much time testing and not enough time teaching
  • We need to know what community agencies may be able to help support our families in poverty and many are homeless
  • We have to teach new content standards (Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards)
  • How my middle school schedule is set up, I don’t get collaboration time with other teachers so we can support the same students--ELL, Special Education and any student getting extra help--it's all so disconnected for the students!
  • Some of my students have gaps in their educational background and I don't know how to respond or get them caught up
  • I have students who were born in the US but are still in ESL in 7th grade
  • Our school culture lacks bilingual resources, including office staff, interpreters and translators

Clearly, we have many issues that we face in school!  And I’m sure the list could go on and on.  You may have a few to add to this list. Yet the act of putting all of the concerns down on paper can be helpful and a necessary first step for finding the priority issue to tackle  With all the issues literally out on the table, we can see what we’re dealing with inside our “circle of concern”.

Discern What you Have (Some) Control Over

Once we know what we’re dealing with, we can then slow down and discern what, of all our issues that keep us up at night, can be placed inside our circle of influence. Of all the things we want to change, we need to figure out what we can do, or what we can actually change. This requires taking apart the challenges we previously listed to determine if they are completely out of our control, or, if in fact, we could revise them to be something we could actually influence!  We can then put those issues inside the smaller circle, the circle of influence.

If we look at a few of the issues listed above, we find that there are many here we have little to absolutely no control over:

  1. Students have lack of literacy in their first language (L1)--unless we have a bilingual program or L1 support in our program
  2. We have a lot of transience with our students and our staff--unless you are an administrator who can help with attrition issues for staff
  3. We know that many students will experience the “summer slump” and slip back in their reading--unless you are able to provide summer services
  4. We spend too much time testing and not enough time teaching--unless..well, this is a big one!
  5. We have to teach new content standards (Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards)--again, this is a big one, too!
  6. How my middle school schedule is set up, I don’t get collaboration time with other teachers so we can support the same students--ELL, Special Education and any struggling student--unless you can actually change the schedule, meet before/after school or use technology to communicate asynchronously
  7. Some of my students have gaps in their educational background--well, we need to meet our students where they are and build off of what they do bring!
  8. Our school culture lacks bilingual resources, including office staff--again, if you are an administrator or someone who can influence systems, this may be a bit out of your control, but be aware that EL families have rights to these services under federal law

Systems Issues  

Many of these issues listed above are simply issues that we cannot change.  We cannot necessarily control what students to bring to us, like their literacy and language backgrounds, their trauma and the conditions of poverty (issues #1, 2, 3, 7 above).  In public schools, we take all students as they are in the service of democratic schooling. Also, the hiring of multilingual staff and collaboration time is not always something we cannot influence as teachers (#6, 8), although we could ask and offer ideas to the leaders who can influence these issues!  Plus, we cannot change the fact that our current schooling model is focused on policy-driven, large-scale, summative assessments that can take up a lot of instructional time and may not measure the growth of a student accurately (#4). Along with this is the fact that we have new standards to teach whether we like it or not (#5).

You see, if you break down your issues, you can see that you yourself may not be able to directly influence these larger things.  This is what we refer to as “systems issues”--that is, it’s an issue within the larger system outside of our classroom or our direct role as a teacher, teacher leader, coordinator, coach, administrator.  There are certainly systemic issues at play in our schools, which, can be argued are microcosms of our society in general. Systemic issues like racism, poverty, school design, assessment measures tied to policy, values about immigration, and fear of change are things we can safely say that every educator is dealing with in some way either directly in their classroom, their school and/or their community.  We can advocate for change through our leaders, yet we may find that by focusing primarily on these issues, our efforts may be futile.  That doesn't mean that we don't fight for school change and even social justice.  We do.  At Confianza's social justice through anti-bias schooling is the foundation for all we do.  To make actual meaningful, sustainable change, we need to channel our energy for change into what we can actually do about it.  



Reframing Issues to be Inside our Circle of Influence  

Many issues of concern from our “braindump” can be reframed to be something that we can place inside our circle of influence. Let’s look at a few:

  1. We need better collaboration between ESL and Special Education and/or General Education teachers and a co-teaching model that works Questions to consider in reframing: What time do teachers have together for shared planning?  If there is no time for shared planning, can general education teachers share lesson plans with specialists ahead of time to better align student goals?
  2. We don’t know students’ language history or educational history Questions to consider in reframing: What information is gathered during the intake process--i.e. Home Language Survey? Diagnostic data?  Can we “dig deeper” by interviewing the student and/or family?  What other educators can help us get more data about students' stories?  Do we have a team approach?
  3. I am on my own with over 200 students in my classes throughout the day; I don’t even know who my ELLs are or my ESL Specialist Questions to consider in reframing: Can you work with your grade level or department colleagues to see if they know?  Can you reach out to the district ELL office? What kinds of data is available to all teachers--i.e. online student information that may have student language levels?
  4. Families and students need help with norms to succeed in American schools Questions to consider reframing: What has been done to provide access to all families and understand their strengths and needs?  What could be done? How does the school define family engagement, especially for culturally and linguistically diverse populations?

The goal at this point is to find the place within your issue that you may be able to influence.  At this step in the process, the issue that you diagnose is something you can change for the better for an individual student or a group of students.  The challenge is to refocus your concern and even lack of control over your situation into a place of empowerment about an issue important to you, and, most importantly, action that results in change for students.  

What’s more is that the situation that you focus our energy on, may, in turn, positively influence the conditions of the larger system. For example, in #3 above, a classroom teacher needs more information about his ELL students.  This happens a lot with teachers I work with. Content teachers aren't always empowered to learn about ELL students and differentiate their instruction accordingly.  The systems issue there is that our schools are not necessarily focused on all teachers being language teachers yet.  There may not be a mechanism, a system, in place yet for all educators in a school to access information about English learners--their home languages, their language proficiency levels, perhaps what accommodations may work for them.  And to compound this, the ESL Specialist may not be accessible for all sorts of reasons.

In this case, the classroom teacher will have to do some detective work to figure out what student data exists. I’ve seen teachers in this situation work with the ESL teacher and often even the district ESL department to set up a way for all teachers to access the necessary information to get to know their students.  The whole culture of shared ownership over ELL students changes one teacher at a time.  In this way, through addressing one situation for one teacher, the actual whole system, improves.  As Covey points out, if we work on ourselves instead of spending energy worrying about conditions, we can, in turn influence the conditions themselves!

In Conclusion: Start with Where You Are

This step of the Action Cycle is to get a handle on what question you are asking, the question that helps get at the root issue you're trying to address.  The next step is to analyze multiple measures of data before you create your action plan and assess your impact.  This step may be the most important step, however, because it forces us to slow down and really unpack what is going on so we can focus our energy in a direction that makes actual change for us and for our students.  However, even when you go through the whole Action Cycle, the inquiry is not done! We will be continuing to ask what else we can do to improve schooling for our students. After all, just as we are never done learning, we are never done improving!

 To Further Your Learning:

Improved Student Learning through Teacher Inquiry about one district's use of this framework to help improve collaboration and student outcomes

Want more? Check out Confianza's Change Agents for Equity Program and see our set of professional learning offering options.




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