Who tells you how to teach?

This post was inspired by this passage from Teachers Should be Seen and not Heard by Anthony Mullen in EdWeek, Jan. 7, 2010.


“What do you think?” the senator asked….

…”I’m thinking about the current health care debate, “I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”

The strange little man cocks his head and, suddenly, the fly on the wall has everyone’s attention.

“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”

In Quebec it is the provincial government’s Ministry of Education, Leisure, and Sports (MELS) who tells us how to teach, via the consultants who work for the Quebec English Schools Network (LEARN) via the consultants who work for our school boards, via our principals, via our department heads. At least that is how it is supposed to go, in the government’s perfect world, I guess.

I, more often than not, go straight to the source. I read my curriculum, The Quebec Education Program (QEP aka ‘The Brick’), which offers philosophy, nothing tangible, then I create the tangible – the daily activities, from data-collection to project to evaluation and back again. Sometimes I do so on my own, sometimes with other teachers. I definitely spend a lot of time doing my own research into how/what/why to teach the students in my care. Some of what I use has been provided by other teachers who do the same. Some of it I found on my own, rarely via consultants though it does happen at times. Whatever it is I do my first and foremost truth is to my students, then I am true to the curriculum.

There are consultants available to me. Why don’t I use them? I consulted for a year. I had to get back into the classroom, as I often say, because I missed the daily energy of contact with students. But there was more to my decision to leave consulting than that. I felt that I was losing my credibility as a teacher. Who was I to consult with teachers on how to deal with the kids in their classrooms when I was no longer in the classroom? The nature of the students I teach changes every year. The further I was away from the classroom the less right I felt about consulting on the subject.

Does this mean there is no room for the consultant? No. But we need to look at how consulting happens. Too often consultants have never been teachers. They have never had to negotiate the many layers of teaching in a classroom – from pedagogy, to behaviour, to technology, to management, to learning disabilities, to multiple subject matters, to headaches, sore stomachs, teen girls at their time of the month, the farts, the dress code, the Internet not working, the why do I have to sit there?s, the exam stress, the I don’t know how to read but I think no one knows so I will continue to be a pain in the ass so no one ever finds outs. I’ll stop there.

What if teachers consulted with each other? If part of our workload was about learning and sharing about something specific, either in content or in process – say history or using laptops in the classroom? Something that relates to what we mainly teach. How much more satisfying and meaningful would my job be if I could teach a bit less and have time to research and share with my colleagues?

How do you think that would work? I’d be interested in seeing what different people think about this, from consultants to administrators to teachers. If you are a consultant does it make you angry to read what I wrote? If you are a teacher would you want to be scheduled to research and share? If you are an administrator do you trust your teachers to research and share? Is anyone already doing all of that?

‘Seeking to understand’ in action

If only humans had it this easy when it comes to understanding each other

If only humans had it this easy when it comes to understanding each other

A norm that I aspire to, however difficult it can be at times is this one:

Seek to understand before being understood.

I just read a story about an administrator who practices this norm.

From Karen S. about a Kindergarten student in trouble in Talking Him Off the Ledge at Talkworthy:

“In a few minutes, he got the idea that I wasn’t there to make his day more miserable but that I was genuinely trying to understand him.”

She described the encounter between herself and the child as magical. I felt the magic as I read her words. Karen is a true leader. Go read the whole story. It’s a story worth listening to, sharing, and believing.

“We are responsible not only for the stories we tell and the stories we listen to, but for the stories we choose to believe.” ~Thomas King

doing the right things or doing things right

Came across this quote on my iGoogle page today:

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.
– Peter Drucker

I’m reading this in terms of classroom leadership. And in light of the recent conversations about teaching and teachers that have been erupting across the blogosphere. (Read my last few posts to get links if you’re at all interested)

I like the distinction Peter makes. It’s a good one.

I like this picture of him (Peter Drucker) because it reminds me of my grandfather. The image is from ChristianSarkar.com, in Managing Ignorance: The Passing of Peter Drucker, from 2005.

Peter Drucker

The quality of teaching is not strained

The more I think about recent conversations around teaching – about why some people leave, and others don’t, about why some choose it over more lucrative or socially respected professions (in some circles) – the more this phrase spins in my head:

The quality of teaching is not strained

Of course, that was stolen from Portia’s famous lines to Shylock in a Merchant of Venice in her speech on mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Act IV, Scene I

In this case strained means something that can not be forced. Mercy’s greatest quality is that it is voluntary. It must be naturally so or else it is no longer true mercy.

I think about this in relation to teaching. We can train teachers in pedagogy, even show them what it means to be compassionate, to love children. But that compassion, that love of children, that recognition that true learning depends on relationship and sharing your story. That part, that can not be strained. That part, that’s the passion that calls many of us to our profession. And it is what keeps the majority of us who stay.

Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.
~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Why do anything unless it is going to be great?
~Peter Block

Leadership for any kind of change.

Please, Administrators of Canada (and probably the US and Australia, and South Korea, and New Zealand, and Morocco, and…), please stop jumping headfirst into change initiatives and expect your teachers to jump on with you as if they had been there from the start.

Do you know that some of the least effective PD (wish I could locate the references. I can’t so trust me on this one for now) EVER is when a small group goes out to a conference or training session and then tries to bring their learning back to their schools?

If you know this, then why is it still happening? More importantly, why is this model for PD still being offered? Especially with all of the different models that are available to us now through the technologies that are being advanced every single day?

You see, what happens is the marathon effect.

Chicago Marathon

It’s effect on organizations is described nicely here, in a passage from this document on transitions for sustainable social change:

People leading a change have usually already gone through their transitions and are ready to hit the ground running as soon as the change is announced. Others, however, are either just entering the Neutral Zone, or have not even made it through their Endings. They need time to arrive at their New Beginnings. Change leaders need to give them that time for adjustment and guide them through their transition rather than wonder why it’s taking so long.

Even worse is when this happens on a consistent basis. One year differentiated instruction, the next – learning with laptops, the next – SMART boards, the next – multiple intelligences, the next…
When this happens organizational trust is very low and you get a school of teachers who are doing their own things while the administration is cut off from what is really happening.

So. If I could whisper something in the ears of all of you who are in charge of professional development at your schools it would be…

…slow down. Honour time for transition. Find out what your teachers need and want in order to let their passion for teaching shine. Nurture it, celebrate it. By doing this you’ll create a climate of trust in your organization through which so much can be accomplished.

Remember, when you run a marathon there is only one winner. We can’t afford only one winner in education.

Leadership Day 2009, hosted at Dangerously Irrelevant

Leadership Day 2009, hosted at Dangerously Irrelevant