Rediscovering Modeling in Professional Learning

Teachers? How many of your PD presenters were willing to come into your classroom and demonstrate what you’re learning live with students in their natural element?

Principals? If a teacher you’re evaluating needs support in instructional or classroom management strategies, do you feel equipped to show them how it’s done?

PD Presenters? Do you ever get the opportunity to teach alongside someone who is learning from you?

These are the moves that make a difference. I’ve recently been reminded of this.

Since September, I’ve been involved in a new professional learning model that is built around job-embedded learning opportunities for one main reason.

To see if it works better. And it does.

Bad professional development is the worst-kept secret in education. I’ve attended them. Heck, I’ve given them. I’ve been called in to present some tech tool for a half-day to some captive staff and never heard from any of them again. Now, I’ve been told I put on a pretty good show. We laughed some. I used some fancy strategies.

But, I doubt they learned a thing. And what’s worse? Everyone seemed cool with that.

Well, our team stopped being cool with that. If it’s worth training, it’s worth putting a structure in place that will actually impact teacher and student experiences. And it required re-discovering modeling in the classroom.

And so, the former HS geometry teacher who’s last year in the classroom was 2014 with mostly 10th and 11th graders is going into early elementary classrooms and teaching math.

I promise, the students aren’t the only one learning something. Because I’ve discovered a paradox. In many ways, good teaching is good teaching. And in other ways, the early elementary classroom is a whole different world than the 10th grade classroom.

It isn’t always pretty. It is NEVER perfect. But it is almost always productive. And that is a massive step in the right direction from the standard remembrances of PD’s past.

Because here’s the reality. Can an elementary teacher learn from a HS teacher? Yes. But talk only goes so far. The PD presenter might say, “Your students need more opportunities to respond during your whole group time”. It is perfectly reasonable for the learner to say, “Can you show me what that looks like?” And instead of a cheeky demo on-the-spot, you make an appointment and a plan and go and teach that teacher’s students.

The feedback has been overwhelming. And the impact on teacher practice has followed suit.

And the stated difference in the feedback is the modeling. That has changed the game.

So, PD presenters: What options do you have to connect with folks you are presenting to? How might you get into classrooms to demonstrate?

Principals: How does your credibility spike when you can own a classroom for a half-hour to demonstrate good practice?

Teachers: If you have a trouble area in your practice, invite someone in.

It’s high time we start holding our professional learning to a higher standard.

Effective collaboration means embracing dissent

As professionals, we give ourselves and each other a lot of credit for being good collaborators.

We do this because there is a notion that collaboration is what professionals do. It’s the Law of Detachment, right? If we are professionals, then we collaborate. We are professionals. Therefore, we collaborate.

Except that, as with most things, it isn’t that simple. For starters, basic professionalism requires that people play nice with each other which is related to, but different than from effective collaboration. Second, collaboration is a skill. It must be practiced. There’s explicit expectations. It’s more than just sharing space while working.

Finally, and most important, collaboration is going to require people to be faced with dissent — or at least be willing to do so.

And not simply because it’s polite to do so, but because the dissent makes your final product better. And the goal of collaboration is to allow multiple people to create a product that is better. By better, I mean a product that will have be more effective, efficient, more smoothly implemented and long-term sustainable.

And the stakes are rising. These last six months here in the US have ramped up a lot of frustration among educators of all kinds. The election and related sound bites matched with different changes at the state levels (here is Michigan, we’ve got state-level assessment changes, new science standards, new student literacy laws… just for starters) are generating many, many, many opportunities for meaningful collaboration.

The tricky part is that when we are frustrated and stressed (and many of us are), we don’t want dissent. It FEELS a heck of a lot more productive to knock out a plan amidst conversation where everyone is (more-or-less) on the same page to begin with.

But, in so doing, we lose the chance for the dissent (which shows up in the form of “yeah, but”). And the dissent is how the thoughts go from ideas to effective solutions.

Put another way, Michael Fullan says:

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another one of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

Groups of like-minded people are often biased. They often have blind spots built around their common appreciation of the issue in question. They often have a hard time empathizing with people who either disagree or are agnostic to the issue in question. This is generally true regardless of the group or their nature of their agreement.

Put specifically, folks problem-solving around inquiry and PBL need explicit instruction advocates on their team to create effective solutions. Standards-based grading folks need to keep their traditional-grading colleagues at an arm’s reach. You want to do a better job of supporting those unrepresented students, your problem-solving group better include some folks who think those kinds of supports shouldn’t exist. You want to create that maker space, go find the person who thinks makerspaces are a waste of time and resources. Progressives and conservatives need each other to navigate these modern issues (that extends beyond the realm of education, by the way).

It’s not the most comfortable, particularly when the issues are charged with emotion. It may not even be productive at first. We need to learn to frame these conversations differently.

Statements like “we want to create a makerspace” might need to become “We want to create a more effective use of the media center. Here are some ideas we have.”

There will be misunderstandings, some of those will be ongoing, and possibly loud. But in the end, it opens the door for a better solution. A solution with more roadblocks anticipated and prepared for. A solution with a broader embrace of the realities of the implementation. A solution that wider appreciation for the struggles of a diverse group of people who will be operating within the solution.

In short, a better solution.

And it begins with embracing each other for the value we bring to the solution, particularly the folks who say and think things we disagree with because you want those folks to show us all of the ways our plan is ineffective. Expose our bias. Reveal our blind spots. We all have them. And if they don’t get exposed during the planning process, chances are when the solutions are rolled out, they will be exposed then. And your window for that solution might close with the problem still the problem.

And once we’ve made the decision that our chief goal is creating meaningful, lasting solutions we’ll need to learn to identify those who disagree with you not as folks to be avoided, but rather folks who are essential to the problem-solving process.

The Value of Opening Your Doors

Have you ever heard a teacher say something like “Yeah, you know administrators make all these rules and policies, then I close my door and do whatever I think is best”?

Ever heard that? Or something that basically means the same thing?

There’s a lot of different directions that could take, of course, with that as a starting point, but I want to focus on “closing the doors”.

Let’s look at this at several levels. Often “closing the doors” represents an attitude as much as it describes a physical state-of-being. “Closed doors” implies that we don’t want people seeing us do what we do. (Or perhaps, at least, only certain people.)

But it also creates risk. “Closed door” teachers often don’t see their classroom practice compared to other teachers. This stifles innovation, collaboration, public relations and other essential components of schools in search of consistent improvement.

It follows, then, that one good first step toward improving innovation, collaboration and public relations in a school is to open the doors. Let teachers explore each others work, let the community see what goes on. And not just see, but explore, participate, and engage.

Yesterday I saw that attitude on display at Cavanuagh STEAM in Lansing, MI (follow them on Twitter @CavanaughSTEAM ).

 

School hasn’t started yet. It begins the Tuesday after Labor Day, but already the doors were open, the teachers were ready to give the community a chance to explore their classrooms.  Parents were given a chance help shape the direction of the projects their students will be completing and provide opportunities for authentic audiences for student work. One kindergarten teacher had a small block-based  maker activity ready for the incoming kindergartners. She reminded me as I chatted with her prior to the event that this was many of her students’ first school experience. She clearly wanted to make a good first impression.

The event, “Family STEAM night” gets repeated 4 times per year. After the first one, subsequent evenings have a strong emphasis on showcasing excellent student work and giving each teacher a chance to highlight some of the outstanding experiences their students explore in the classrooms.

Their doors are open and they invite the community to come in and join them. Sadly, I had to leave before I got to see what it looks like when they do. I look forward to the next Family STEAM night when I can see the halls filled with parents and students getting to see first hand what it means to be a student at @CavanaughSTEAM.

Simple Leadership Advice

I’m going to attempt to model this my internalization of a bit of advice that I received recently.

Leadership is about trust. You want your people to trust you?

Speak plainly and keep your word.

By speak plainly, I mean say what you mean in a way that designed to be heard and fully-processed by those who hear it. Trust corrodes when those you are leading feel the need to constantly read between the lines of your statements.

By keep your word, I mean if you commit to doing something, then do it.

The advice I received was from Mark Wilson, but his was directed at goal-setting. Goals should be simple and easily understood. He didn’t mean that they should be low-level goals. But they should be able to be stated simply.

All of our students will be safe in our school.

All of our freshman will successfully complete all of their classes.

All of our new students will get a complete orientation to our school community before they attend a single class.

These are not-simple goals, but they are stated simply. That makes them easier to follow. Easier to implement. Easier to assess.

And it also makes it easier to keep your word. Here’s what I said I would do. Did I do it?

Well, if your goals sound more like this…

“To support the ever-dynamic pressures of a 21st century global economy, we will consistently find new and innovative learning experiences to blend with classical best practices to provide the highest-quality academic pathways for our diverse learners to produce successful work- and college-ready graduates.”

… then it becomes quite a challenge to evaluate whether or not you did what you said you do. This goal is not necessarily more complicated than “All of our freshman will successfully complete all of their classes”, but it is much less likely to become the unifying slogan around which we focus our energy. And isn’t that the point of stating the goal?

 

To close, all of this talk about speaking plainly has me thinking of this delightful scene from Shrek the Third

 

 

Reflections on #mindshare16

After the first day of MACUL’s Leadership Mindshare, Mark Smith (@smithstem) and I reflected on the somewhat unique structure that was on display. “As they started unpacking their idea, I told them, ‘We’re not going to have another conference. We just don’t need another conference,” Mark told me. He didn’t explicitly describe what he was trying to avoid, but whatever it was, it worked.

The goals of the event were to bring experienced leaders together with novice and aspiring educational leaders and then make the open sharing of ideas, effective networking, problem-solving, and inspirational story-telling a built-in part of the experience. The designers of the two-day event predicted quite accurately that these were the things that folks would not need to be coerced into doing. These are things we attendees did with great enthusiasm.

There were some keynote-ish presentations from Mark Wilson (@markwilsonGA), Dr. Brad Gustafson (@GustafsonBrad), and Amber Teamann (@8amber8).

And between those short presentations, the presenters mingled among the breakout conversations, which were designed to revolve around the themes of the presentations.

The balance was a powerful piece. We’ve long since realized that PD’s where we sit and listen for extended periods of time, but at the same time, there was a limit on the productivity of the smaller 6-7 person breakout discussions. There was time when we needed to come back together and hear some stories and advice, laugh and think.

The structures were varied…

… and full use was made of the beautiful room we were in.

 

And in so doing, not only were we discussing in ways that were unusually high-engagement considering the standards of most educator PD, but we also saw some excellent strategies modeled — an important understanding for school leaders who have the stereotype of boring staff meetings.

Here’s a small version of Socratic circles I got to be a part of.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up, but in the end, there were many take- aways for me.

The value of influencing despite authority. My role currently includes ZERO authority, but many, many opportunities for influence. The goal is to be able to influence people toward powerful student-centered teaching and when growth is needed, I don’t have the ability to mandate anything like a traditional building leader would. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no opportunity. Do I believe in my ideas enough to sell them to people who could just as easily tell me to flake off?

We need to innovate the right way. Given the constant flow of new ideas, new structures, new devices and apps, there is a certain value to being able to reassess the experiences our students have in our schools. But innovation is an investment. And thereby a sacrifice. You sacrifice a known quantity for an unknown. You invest time and resources in hopes that there’s an improvement toward a greater goal. That makes it a risk. And you can’t simply rack up losses in the name of innovation. Innovation needs to be strategic, controlled, and focused on areas that serve to improve the school community.

Everywhere you are, someone’s been there before and been successful. Find them and learn from them. Everywhere you’ve been, someone’s there right now and could use someone to learn from. Let them find you.

In the end, I suspect there were a lot of folks whose feelings could be summed up pretty well in 140 characters or less.

 

Applying Growth Mindset to our Teachers

I enjoy reading/hearing discussions of education from the perspective of non-educators. Dan Carlin goes there occasionally as does Steve Dubner from Freakonomics and it was one of Dubner’s posts that captured my attention today.

The piece (entitled “Is America’s Education problem really just a teacher problem?”) explores the conjecture that has been expressed by a wide variety of people that the issue that our modern education system is dealing with really boils down to teachers. If teachers teach well, then the education goes well. If teachers don’t teach well, education doesn’t go well.

While I’m not prepared to validate the conjecture, I do think there is some value in exploring the power improved teacher performance might have to address some of our systems lingering issues. For example:

  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors we can control. Blaming the parent, the kid, the politician, the funding, etc. might be accurate and possibly satisfying, but we can’t control how those behave, so let’s not create solutions that require one of those “uncontrollables” to act a certain way.
  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors that are close to the students. Curricula, standards, college entrance tests, etc. are all going to have to be figured out eventually, but those are slow-burning solutions.
  • By focusing on teaching, we get a chance to explore a wide variety of the educational experience of the student. Instruction, assessment, feedback, engagement, classroom management, community relations, positive behavior supports, data collection and analysis all play a part in the work of the teacher. In addition, we can explore teacher training, recruitment and hiring, mentorship and development, pay, evaluation and union politics… I could keep going. That is an awful lot of the education sector that opens up when we start examining the work of the teacher.

And while I’m not in any position to put the salvation of the American public education system on the shoulders of the teaching profession, I would imagine if we give ourselves permission to examine the teaching profession, we might find some areas of improvement that would allow our system to better serve our young people.

Let’s also get out of the way right now that there aren’t any simple explanations to this problem and, as such, there aren’t any simple solutions. Also, let’s get on the same page about something else. From the article:

“When we say that U.S. students aren’t doing very well, and that U.S. teachers aren’t the best and brightest, let’s remember that we’re talking about averages. There are of course millions of American kids who get a great education in public school. There are of course many, many excellent teachers. We should also note that just because a future teacher finishes near the top of their high-school or college class doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great classroom teacher.”

American schools aren’t universally awful and it can also be a little tricky to predict what kind of student will end up becoming an excellent teacher. And while the system is complex and there’s a lot of moving parts, the teacher plays a central role in designing the experiences that students have during the school day. From the article (this quote is from David Levin):

When you think about the most important people in a kid’s life outside of their family it starts with their teacher. I mean for the obvious reason, right? You leave home, you go to school, and the teacher is the determinant of how that day goes. And even as the kids get older, when all the research says the peer effect is so essential, teachers have a huge impact on how peers interact in the classroom.

So, perhaps the most reasonable next step would be to make sure that each classroom has a talent teacher in it. Get rid of the lousy teachers and replace them with better ones. Right?

From the article (this quote is from Dana Goldstein):

And what I found is that this pair of solutions, driving people out, bringing new people in, it’s not enough. Because the demand for teachers is so high — we do need 100,000 new teachers every year to satisfy the labor market. So, what I suggest is, instead of starting with our fear of bad teaching, we look at teachers who are excellent at what they do right here in the United States, and we ask about how to create systems where we can replicate their best practices.

That’s a lot of teachers. 100,000 new employees every year? That’s a ton. And as far as best practices go, there are a couple of pretty approachable frameworks that are becoming pretty common place (Bob Marzano and John Hattie are becoming household names for a reason), so choosing a framework around the teacher development programs in school districts shouldn’t be the hard part. So what is the hard part?

Perhaps the hard part is that many schools envision their roles as developers of young people. (I don’t disagree with this, by the way…) Schools are in the human growth business. I suspect every single school in the country has a mission/vision statement that includes a lot of student-centered language about growth, development, and the like.

At the same time, I reckon hardly ANY of those districts see themselves as TEACHER development institutions.

But why not? If the data, research, and logic trail all point to excellent teaching being a huge indicator of overall district excellence (read “district excellence” as lots and lots of young people learning lots and lots and lots of good stuff), then wouldn’t a constantly improving teaching staff be a pretty reliable pathway toward improvement?

But what might that look like?

  • Schools subscribing to professional journals on behalf of their teachers and developing norms that the articles are read and discussed.
  • Real, effective mentorship programs that nurture the growth of their young teachers instead dumping them into classes and schedules that veterans would NEVER stand for.
  • open door policies where teachers are expected to visit each other’s classrooms to support, watch and then ask questions about what they saw and heard.
  • peer observation and feedback sessions with the intention of supporting the growth of a teacher who is struggling in an identified way. (Perhaps learning walks a la Kevin Feldman.)
  • teachers who are taking college course work getting opportunities to showcase their projects, discuss the texts that they are reading, and lead discussion in staff meetings.
  • high school math teachers (for example) being invited into an art teacher’s classroom so that the art teacher can demonstrate a really effective technique. (I am not a big fan of “only a math teacher can help/support/advise/understand another math teacher.)
  • a principal making sure that as many possible people on staff are qualified to lead a classroom of students for an hour so if a teacher needs to observe, discuss, consult, or brainstorm there is a variety of paraprofessionals, interventionists, guidance counselors, administrators, and other personnel who can stand in and let the growth process happen. (I can remember one school I worked at where even the athletic director could manage a classroom.)

This mindset see schools as the last part of the teacher training process. What if we saw the schools as the place that completed the training? (Not unlike teaching hospitals that openly have developing doctors learning their craft with real patients.) Not only will you be serving to improving the skill set of the teaching staff, but when professionals are cared for, have a sense of ownership and autonomy, their motivation and morale tend to improve.

Schools have long understood their role in developing humans, but perhaps they’ve fallen short because they’ve behaved as though their only task was to develop the minors. Perhaps if we get to the place where our schools understand their role in developing the adults as well, then we’d start to see the improvement that we’ve been seeking for so long.

The two key ingredients of real problem-solving

A quick word about dissent.

During a recent conversation with a teacher-friend I we stumbled into an area of conversation that allowed me to see dissent through the lens of leadership and problem-solving in a way that I hadn’t before.

Acceptance of dissent isn’t a new idea in leadership. Lots of writers talk about the need for leaders to appreciate it… here’s an example.

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another on of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

We were talking about problems that tend to have some pretty zealous advocates. For the sake of exploring a concrete situation, I’ll choose one for an example. How about student retention? This is a topic that can bring some energy out of some folks. It’s an important conversation, too. What happens when a student finishes a school year without meeting the minimum expectations to complete the grade/course they are in?

To push them forward would mean pushing the student forward into academic challenges that they likely aren’t prepared to tackle.

And making student repeat grades has just not been an effective solution according to ASCD, Education Week, John Hattie, etc…

So, when a district sits down to really solve this problem, they need to accept that they probably are going to need to choose a third option. Carelessly moving the student on is probably a poor choice. Making the student repeat the grade is also a poor choice.

The better option, the third choice, the one that will work better, is likely going to have to be crafted on site and with the resources available helping to guide the process.

This is where I began to see the need for two very distinct groups of people.

One group of people creates the boundaries… I’ll call them the idealists. These are the people who say, “We can’t retain them. We can’t. I don’t care what we do, but we aren’t retaining them. It doesn’t work.” Every issue has these people. Most of us can become these people when the issue at hand strikes us right. Luckily, they seem to be essential to the process. They also happen to be very frustrating to people who either disagree or just don’t see the issue as important.

The main issue with these folks is that zeal often doesn’t really solve problems. It creates boundaries for the solution, but (in the case of our example issue) simply eliminating retention doesn’t actually solve the problem of students falling behind. It just eliminates a series of potential solutions.

So, we need to bring in the dissenters… I think of them as the holders of the “yeah, buts…”

“We can’t hold them back.”

“Yeah, but they are still behind in their learning, so we can’t just move them on.”

Now… at this moment… as long as neither the idealist or the dissenter storms out of the room, the real problem-solving work can begin. The boundaries are set, the reality checker is in place and now the focus can turn to the ACTUAL problem In the case of promotion v. retention, it’s the fact that students are making it to the end of the school year not ready to move on.

And that takes some deliberate focus and patience. The zealous boundary-setters don’t want to hear about “yeah, buts…”. The dissenters tire quickly of the perceived inflexibility of the idealists. But I’m not sure real solutions to tricky, messy problems are more likely than when these folks can unify around a common goal.

American education (shoot, American culture as a whole) has a whole variety of problems that we are having trouble solving because the zealous idealists and the persistent dissenters have such a hard time embracing the valuable contribution that each other makes in the course of creating real solutions.

But real solutions… solutions that are effective and sustainable… probably require the active presence of both.