Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Teaching Inside a Think-Tank

The day after the Education Sector event on teacher evaluation/professional development I found myself on my co-worker's porch, along with 15 other teachers from my school, discussing A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough. No one asked us to get together this summer for professional development. No principal, administrator, or master teacher identified a weakness in our teaching and thought we would benefit from spending our time together, reading and discussing ways to improve.
In fact, the group grew organically. Jenny heard about the book on education blogs and wanted to read it. She emailed a group of us and we all got excited. We planned to meet 3 times during the summer. Somehow the group grew into 35 interested teachers, all of whom were willing to spend time during the summer doing professional development simply for the fun of it. We were even going to buy the books ourselves until our administration heard about what we were doing and stepped in. (Did I mention we have the best admins ever?)

I couldn't help notice the gap between what we'd heard discussed the day before by the New Haven teacher project and DC's IMPACT. They'd been analyzing teacher buy-in, discussing how to bring in outsiders (Master Teachers) to observe teachers, education the administrators so they'd be prepared to evaluate and support teachers with professional development.

So how do those groups have to worry about teacher buy-in and my school (and others like it) have teachers self-selecting to participate in professional development and starting their own professional development groups?

I call my school The Think Tank for this reason- we're a group of educators always looking to better ourselves and our teaching any way we can. Everyone is always actively engaged in improving their teaching. I think there are some factors that play into creating a think-tank school culture, and sadly, these are the factors that programs like IMPACT and the New Haven project are missing. Of course, these are factors that can best be supported within single schools, and require strong administers with clear visions and strong back-bones.

1) Our coaches are all in-house. The two programs we heard discussed all brought in outside observers. I think that's a great step beyond only relying on a principal to come in and observe (and let's be honest, that doesn't always happen, does it?) but bringing people in from the outside continues to promote a dog-and-pony show aspect of evaluation. Make it look good they day they come in. Surprise visits? Prep your kids to notice when a stranger is in the room and to be on their best behavior to earn stickers/Popsicles/anything once the stranger leaves. It's also more likely for teachers to buy-into a program that is done in-house, by people who know their kids, the population, the school culture, etc.

2) Our coaches are teachers too. Our coaches are in one room a year, for half the day. We buy what they're selling because they are still in the classroom, reminding kids to wash their hands and flush the toilets while teaching those fabulous writing lessons they want us to use.

3) Our administration is flexible, even when our school system is not. Our admin feels comfortable taking risks, which encourages us to take risks as well. We feel free to try new things, read new books and implement what we've learned. We have a strong teacher-research program that even broke away from the county's program because we outgrew the rigid structure the county created.

4) It's not us verse them. Mostly when we're working with coaches it is not about evaluation. It's about letting us become better teachers. We don't have to put on a dog-and-pony show because when we're being coached it is ok for the coaches to see us at our worst. That way they can offer real, meaningful feedback that in the end makes us better teachers.

5) A structure is in place for fixing mistakes before the evaluation cycle. Our admins might not get into our classroom enough. It's a reality, and while we'd like them to be in more, it's not the end of the world that they are not. (I know, *gasp* how can we be doing ok without teacher accountability? Doesn't someone need to be there to slap our wrists when we mess up?) Instead, our collaborative model insures that good teaching is going on in every classroom. Every teacher has a co-teacher for at least an hour a day, if not more. This promotes discussion, reflection, and a way of looking at teaching beyond "shut my door and do my own thing". And if something isn't going well the support system is in place to improve things before the admin gets involved. Which means if the admin gets involved, it is because they need to be.

6) Trust. Our admin trusts us, and we trust them. And that sums up everything, really.

IMPACT and the New Haven program sound like they are on the right track. But there are legitimate issues when it comes to teacher buy-in as well as having the resources for the Master Teachers and administrators to actually get into classrooms and observe the 5 mandatory times, and have the meaningful conferences with teachers. By putting coaches into classrooms, making sure they are teaching while they are supporting the staff as a part of the school community, a school can create a collaborative model that pushes teachers into a mind-set where they are always looking for ways to improve their teaching. I'm not sure anything I heard from IMPACT or New Haven was going to promote the problem-solving teaching styles I benefit from at The Think Tank.

1 comment:

luckeyfrog said...

I'm very jealous.

Our school is in late stages of not making AYP, so we have had lots of changes (including a longer school day and for some, a longer school year) and everyone is, honestly, exhausted.

I also feel like our coaches don't do much coaching (they just manage data), and our evaluations felt kind of us vs. them. Or maybe that's just because I didn't do so well. In any case- your school sounds great!