Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Implying Trust vs Judgement Toward Our Fellow Educators

Teaching is changing. When I went through teacher training fifteen years ago the idea of co-teaching was barely touched on. It was expected that you would teach in isolation, only see your co-workers in the teacher's lounge or before/after school, and would pretty much be on your own with making your lesson plans and determining how to help a struggling student.

The expectations for teachers today are very different. Collaboration and team planning are a part of the territory, and working together with your colleagues is essential to being a successful educator. This is a wonderful, welcomed change.

But we need to change with it. Working together only works if we are willing to trust each other as educators. We need to drop the idea of who is a better teacher (just like we need to drop the idea of who is a high student and who is a low student). We need to recognize one another for our different strengths as teachers and come to the table with not just open and honest dialogue but respect for one another's professional ability as well.

Team work falls apart when we don't trust the members of our team, but too often I see us undermining one another's teaching skills. I hear this underlying tension in conversations I have with educators at schools across the country. In talking with teachers they relay a conversation with a team member who thought she was being helpful but in fact left the teacher feeling judged and helpless. Teamwork falls apart when we become skeptical of one another's teaching styles and in turn become uneasy because we suspect our colleagues are skeptical of our teaching style as well. It's too easy for conversations to become laced with judgement and defensiveness instead of being about the facts at the table.

Teams can only have hard conversations, problem solve tough situations, and develop meaningful strategies to increase student learning if everyone comes to the table ready to have an open and honest discussion. Yet some of the language we use often limits building trust with one another. We want individuals on the team to not take what's said personally, but we also need to watch our words to make sure we aren't making it personal. Instead of implying judgement our words with one another should say that we trust in our teammate's ability and intentions.

Team conversations can often go one of two ways. Take for example a team discussing a student's difficulty in sitting on the rug and attending to the lesson, which is leading to limited gains in math.

One conversation may go this way:

We can only help kids if we are helping each other.
New teacher: I'm having difficulty with Johnny's attention on the rug. He's never looking at me despite what I've tried, and with these new math scores I'm beginning to think it's more of a problem than I first thought. Any ideas on what to do?

Teammate 1: In my classroom I hold the students accountable for sitting on the rug quietly. I have high expectations for them to sit there quietly and they each know what I expect.

Teammate 2: Oh yes! My clear structure makes it possible for each of my students to learn. I tell them exactly what I expect and then hold them to do it. If they aren't attending they go back to their desk to take a break. That keeps them on track.

Or this way:

New teacher: I'm having difficulty with Johnny's attention on the rug. He's never looking at me despite what I've tried, and with these new math scores I'm beginning to think it's more of a problem than I first thought. Any ideas on what to do?

Teammate 1: Does Johnny know that when he's sitting on the carpet he's expected to learn? Sometimes kids get in the habit of tuning out on the rug and don't know that we want from them during that time.

Teammate 2: How would he do if you had him model how you expect him to sit on the rug before the lesson starts? It wouldn't take more than 20 seconds. You could say, "I want everyone to show me how we sit on the rug. Criss-cross applesauce, hands in lap, eyes on me, listening ears on."

Teammate 1: What about checking for understanding during the lesson? You could insert some questions into your lesson that would let you be able to tell if he's listening or not. That may keep him engaged and will let you know where he is getting confused.

The first conversation does nothing but tell the new teacher that her teammates don't think she has good structure in her classroom. She may not, but now she's brought a problem to the table and is leaving with nothing tangible but judgement. She doesn't have any strategies to go back and use with her student and she's a lot less likely to bring up a concern again. The words her teammates used- accountable, high expectations, clear structure- are meaningless. They did not help Johnny and they actively hurt all the other students the new teacher needs help with and will now be scared to ask. She knows her teammates don't trust her teaching.

In the second conversation the teammates hid their judgement. They kept it away from being personal and saying, "in my classroom," which implies that the speaker would never have that problem herself. They didn't use buzz words and gave clear suggestions the new teacher can take back and use. She left feeling like she has action items to try instead of feeling like if she was just a better teacher (whatever that means) these problems wouldn't happen.

Instead of using statement that imply judgement, "In my classroom..." or, "If he is just given high behavior expectations..." we can convey the same message by taking away the personal wording and be specific with one another. We often use buzz words like 'accountability,' 'high expectations,' 'clear structure' with one another that don't mean anything. Conversations with each other need to be open- clearly describing what we mean by high expectations, accountable, and what clear structure would look like in this case for this student.

It's hard because we often don't have time to have full, open conversations. We all approach teaching differently and the uncomfortable truth is that there are no right answers. Our job would be a lot easier if there was a strict formula for getting knowledge into little brains or managing difficult behavior, but there isn't. There are research-based strategies and proven methods, but to learn those we need to have open conversations. And here's the dirty little secret on research anyway.

If we can take away the personal, underlying messages we can build trust with one another, which leads to truly open and honest conversations about students. The more we are able to build trust with each other the more our conversations will lead to problem solving and helping kids.

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I had a hard time writing this post, and struggled to find the words to say what I wanted to say. I'm still not sure I conveyed my message. It's just- we need to build one another up instead of pulling each other down. I find myself hearing about decisions educators make at other schools and immediately assuming the teacher is an idiot. Why do I do that? The teacher is probably not an idiot- is probably doing the best she can at the moment- and my judgement isn't going to help fix that. I don't know the educator or the situation, yet I still am quick to judge. In some ways it is harmless when I'm making a judgement about a teacher I've never met, but it is extremely harmful if I do the same thing with the teachers I work with on a daily basis.  If we are going to work together to improve our students' education we need to start finding ways to convey true collaboration instead of judgement. 

We shouldn't avoid hard conversations and we shouldn't hold back when we see where a student can improve. But if our words are truly going to make a lasting impact we need to choose them carefully.

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