Transforming Education - From the Perspective of the Classroom, School, the District, and a Publishing Partner
(Note: This post is co-authored by Chris Weber and Nathan Lang, and guest authors Jason Anderson and Weston Kieschnick.)
Now, more than ever, serving all students means equipping them with the skills and attributes necessary to succeed in the world. The Economist Group(2014), for example, reports that the top-five skills that employers seek in potential candidates are (1) problem solving, (2) team-working, (3) communications, (4) critical thinking, and (5) creativity. These skills represent more than the lofty ambitions of the 4 Cs of the 21st century; they represent the reality of today’s societies and economies and must increasingly and immediately be heavily represented within classrooms and schools.
The four of us have served as classroom teachers, site administrators, and senior district leaders. We now serve schools for a large educational media organization, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
As school and district leaders, we enthusiastically embraced the notion that collaboration is key—silos are simply incompatible with progress, and high levels of learning for all are impossible for those who choose the path of isolation. Teachers must collaborate with teachers, both within their similar grade levels and courses, and vertically with adjacent grade spans and interdisciplinarily. General education and special education staffs must serve all students in innovative ways. Non-classroom teaching staff and classroom teaching staff must reject the “way we’ve always done things” mentalities. Administrators and teachers must collaborate vulnerably and embrace new roles and new approaches. District offices must humbly serve schools, providing guidance, allowing for focus, and leading the teaching and learning transformations. And finally, traditional publishing companies (and we work for the biggest and the best) must move beyond selling and serving as vendors to become partners in progress.
In the same way students cannot be successful without great teachers; great teachers cannot be successful without meaningful partners. This includes administrators, parents, teacher colleagues, and yes…“vendors.” Schools and districts must release their prejudices (we had them too, as school and district leaders), and seek to codevelop and coevolve with external organizations, all on behalf of crafting more engaging and contemporary learning environments for students.
Like so many educators, we changed our roles within the profession because we believed (perhaps naively) that we could make a broader positive impact on students and staffs. Despite the role change, we are still you. We are parents. We are teachers. We are coaches. We are devoted to kids in much the same way we were when we first became classroom teachers. We believe in kids, and we believe in the notion that the right tools in the hands of passionate and talented educators can produce meaningful results. That belief still drives us to pursue this most-important-of-all profession as we seek to transform challenges into opportunities.
A pursuit of a broader impact brought about this irony: Once educators assume leadership roles and leave the classroom, we lose touch.
Therein lies a challenge: How do site administrators, district administrators, and those who serve schools from outside traditional K-12 environments stay current and deeply connected to the needs and challenges of students, staffs, and schools?
The answer to this question lies in the collaboration space. Without meaningful partnerships, it is impossible for anyone in education to stay as connected as we need to be. Without it, an administrator can’t possibly stay truly connected to the ethos of a classroom teacher. In the same way, a classroom teacher is challenged almost daily to tap into the psyche of a building or district administrator. Similarly, we are challenged to stay 100 percent plugged into the needs of every stakeholder at all levels—classroom, school, district, state, and nation levels. That’s why collaborative partnerships are essential. Each subgroup possesses niche expertise that can bring value to the other. When that expertise is shared, within a trusting and focused environment, kids benefit.
We begin to imagine a productive, thriving, and collaborative community:
Through innovative, nontraditional partnerships, we could collaboratively:
I love teaching. I love observing and coaching teachers. It's true. I love it. It feeds me. I want to be in your classroom. I want to walk the corridors of your school. Yes, you. I want to see you try to utilize iPads or Chromebooks with your students for the first time. I want to see you take your first crack at using a Learning Management System with Google apps for education. I want to see you make an effort to get kids utilizing digital content to problem solve and create new products. It's in these moments that I see you grow, and I joyfully observe and coach as you move along the proficiency spectrum in your craft. You become a better teacher than you were the day before, and I love that. Because it's in these moments that I know your students stand to benefit most from your work. I'm humbled by your efforts and grateful for the gift you are to children.
Here's what I don't care to see: Immediate "Success"
- I don't care to see you successfully teach your "favorite" lesson
- I don't care to see you successfully teach the lesson you've taught the same way for the past 20 years.
- I don't care to see you successfully do what you've always done, the way you've always done it. Even if it's incredible. (And I'm sure it is.)
Why don't I want to see these things? Because in these moments there is nowhere to grow. I can't help when you showcase mastery. As such, our subsequent coaching conversations will do nothing to help your kids. We can't prioritize our desire for validation from observers at the expense of developing a new skill set.
Show me a moment in your classroom that is new, where the potential for failure and success are separated by a single choice. Why? Because failure is the most spectacular teacher. And if you experience it, failure will give you more than I ever could.
We shouldn't shield ourselves from the potential for failure. When we avoid innovation in our classrooms in favor of familiarity, we choose safety over students. We choose insulation over innovation.
Instead, we should wrap ourselves periodically in the presence of failure (or its potential) so that we can feel it and understand our power to emerge from it. When we do, we are wiser, more adept, and victorious over its power to cripple our progress in a profession that means more to the world than any other.
If we choose the status quo over risk, we create a reality that is contrary to the truth we speak to our students. The truth that learning is powerful. That anything worth learning is challenging, and that failure in the pursuit of learning and growth is not forever; it is feedback. If the adults in their lives don't model this publicly, the fear of failure and the reluctance to immerse in the experience of learning will engulf students in their adult lives and render them helpless in the face of an otherwise marginal bumps in the road. So for the sake of your teaching and the sake of their learning, get out there! Try that thing that terrifies you in the classroom. At worst, you'll fall flat on your face. (Been there, done that!) At best, you'll immerse yourself in learning and growth, becoming a better teacher than you were yesterday.
We have all been there. The professional development session that didn’t meet our needs. Our needs were not met likely because of three “effects."
1.) The Zoo Effect
2.) The Car Mechanic Effect
3.) The Phone Book Effect
1.) The Zoo Effect. This is the place where zoo lovers may diverge in their thoughts and feelings. As an adult visiting (the experience changes when it’s about the kids visiting and experiencing the animals), I can’t handle visiting the same zoo more than once. Been there, done that, right? Yes, the animals are cute, but the gift shop is overpriced, you still haven't seen the Lion (is he ALWAYS sleeping?) and the same camel will be staring at you in the same pen when you come back to visit. Next time, you'll help the zookeeper do the barn owl talk, because it’s the same one you’ve heard.
In looking at our past PD experiences, we might not have felt challenged because we had already interacted with (and potentially mastered) the concepts previously at the level we were asked to engage.
2.) Car Mechanic Effect. Your car makes a noise it’s never made before. You take it to your mechanic, Mitch. You attempt to replicate the noise it makes (always awkward). Mitch the mechanic takes a look, diagnoses the problem, and tells you the solution. This is where most of us nod our heads like we understand what the mechanic is talking about. In actuality, we’re clueless. Behind our backs we cross fingers, hoping the cost for the mystery fix is south of an appendage.
Parallel this to PD you have experienced. You may have had a surface understanding, but because you had no context or prior knowledge (nor did the facilitator provide background to build that knowledge), it was difficult to engage with the content. You're having a mechanic moment. You get it...sort of. Not wanting to be exposed in front of your peers, you smile, nod, and hope the PD conversations don't cost you your reputation.
3.) Phonebook Effect. You see a big bulky square shaped object wrapped in yellow plastic on your doorstep. Enough said right? You chunk it. I’m still puzzled to how those still end up on the doorstep.
Just like we are puzzled when PD continues to be irrelevant. The presenters continue to show up (many no more interesting than those phone books) and year after year, the information comes and goes in about the time it takes to check the email you have open. We weren't motivated to engage because we perceived the session objectives as not relevant or not interesting.
Now, think about the best PD you’ve experienced. What happened? Why did it make such an impact? What was it about the session objectives? The facilitator? How did you feel at the conclusion?
Now at this point, you are thinking this is a post about Professional Development, but it’s really about student experience. We had to be at a place of empathy before diving in. Before walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. So much about excellent teaching revolves around resonance. When we leave those rare PD sessions that are impactful, we find upon reflection something about the content, presenter, and/or engagement with our peers that reverberates in our psyche. It connects in a way that is meaningful and lasting.
Now consider the experience of almost any student sitting in a classroom right now. As you read this kids are having those zoo, mechanic, and phone book experiences. And simultaneously educators are having conversations about “why these kids just don't seem compelled to learn.” In the same way facilitators of PD are responsible for providing a more compelling experience; we too are responsible for engaging kids in ways that account for the aforementioned scenarios.
Be a Lion. Even the most seasoned zoo-goer (you know, the ones with the season passes) will make a point of visiting the lions. Why? There's something different about them. Something majestic. Something mysterious. It's the curiosity that keeps you going back. Remember that in your classrooms. Curiosity is the root of engagement. Be comfortable being unpredictable. We should consistently seek ways to approach new content in a way that is different than kids have experienced in the past. Why be content to teach volcanic properties with baking soda, vinegar, and papier- mache when we have the virtual reality capabilities to take our kids on a journey to explore Icelandic eruptions? If we want our kids to get over the hump of viewing us like another camel (yeah I went there) then we have to work to provide an experience that is more transformative than those they've had in the past. In doing so, we bring joy not only to the learning, but also to the teaching.
Find a Good Mechanic. Mitch the mechanic moments exist because many of us lack schema relative to the inner workings of a motor vehicle. This is a big problem. Why? Because people make meaning by connecting to existing schema. Without this vital prior knowledge, we are left to float amongst the confusion of vocabulary words that lack meaning. Think about it. So often mechanic moments (similar to those happening is schools) are as simple as confusion over vocabulary. The mechanic, Mitch (see also teacher) blows past us with words they have predetermined to be rudimentary. To us (see also students) we smile and nod, hoping not to be exposed as...wait for it...learners! Gasp! If only I knew what a carburetor was, what it did, and where it was located on the vehicle; I could engage in meaningful conversation. A good mechanic (see also teacher) would explain these words and their meaning to me. In doing so, I'd gain clarity, and likely learn even more. In our classrooms we can solve mechanic moments by implementing meaningful vocabulary programs. Beyond simply looking up words and writing definitions, we know vocabulary programs have a substantive effect on student learning when implemented with fidelity. Seek them out and use them regularly. Be wary to assume your words are being interpreted in the way you think they are.
Be More Exciting Than Another “Phone Book.” Admit it. There's a microsecond when you see a package on your doorstep and you are excited about what it might be. Only to be let down by the discovery of another phone book. But what if it WAS something different? Something better. Something meaningful. Kids have these moments of excitement on every first day of school. I'm especially referring to our “at-risk” middle and high school kids. They meet their teacher for the first time and there is hope. Hope that this time it will be different. Better. More meaningful. Before long, they are immersed in the realization that they've been given another phone book. A teacher who's going to do things in a way almost identical to their predecessors. And just like that, kids discard them and the potential value they bring. But what if this time it was different? It can be. As teachers we can challenge the notion of ideas like whole class learning objectives. We can embrace the notion that kids come to us at different proficiency levels, and as such, implement a multi-tiered approach to learning outcomes. Seek to develop objectives in the classroom for your kids who are proficient, approaching, and well-below proficient.
As educators, we want to experience success, and we long for PD to support us as we work toward achieving our goals. Our students also want to experience success. They want to experience a compelling and interesting adventure of learning, and not just another humdrum trip to the zoo, to the car mechanic, or to the porch to pick up another phone book.