Thursday, January 19, 2012

You Don't Always Get What You Want...

Chagrin. Teaching, sometimes, has its moments. Times when things don't always go the way we plan. An assembly pops up, a writing prompt, and sometimes a snow delay. Interruptions break the thread, they're inconvenient, but ultimately a good teacher can put order back into his or her day.

Observations are a different animal, though. They have the power to push someone forward, or they can break the teaching momentum that's building inside a teacher's head. Rehearsed teaching is difficult and inauthentic to produce on demand, but the false idea of that teaching can be perfected is even worse. Yet, this has been the model we've employed in education for years.

Confidence. Teachers need buckets and buckets and buckets of it. The public has been taking teachers apart in the press and in commentary on blogs and other public platforms. It's not helpful. I repeat...NOT helpful. Insiders know better, or I'm thinking they should anyway. Administrators, college officials, all individuals hired to assign a value to what teachers do need to develop a consistent, predictable scoring approach.

Probably the most important indicator to look at first in a young teacher is not how they manage the curricula they're trying to stuff into the kids' heads...but their ability to establish a presence and a class culture, because without that, nothing else can proceed.

I'm not saying that we should go slowly or pat teachers on the head and affirm them no matter what they do. Really, that's how you make negative teaching techniques go on for years. But the employment of outside individuals coming in cold to a classroom culture is not always helpful either. In fact, it can sometimes be destructive.

A colleague of mine from another district told me his principal refuses to give positive feedback at all. "That's what you're supposed to be doing, it's not my job to give you a compliment." Oh, give me a break. As an administrator, you are called upon to be a teacher of what kind of teaching is that? When a teacher, just like a student, does something never hurts to tell them so. In fact, it probably helps! Building upon a learner's strength, nudging them ahead a little bit at a time is the name of the game we call education.

So...what happens when you don't get exactly what you hoped to hear? My student teacher got a glowing review the other day. Yet, because her supervisor lead off with a small issue that was minimally not going was hard for her to hear anything after that. She's a brilliant teacher, and I tell her so each day. We reflect side by side and think about what we can improve upon.

On the day of her observation, we were forced to compress the whole day...snowfall, ninety minute delay, all part of the job. But. Compressing to her meant speeding it all up, and I blame myself for that. Upon reflection, we could've cut more out. But even though we didn't get exactly what we wanted in outcome, a powerful lesson was learned. Streamlined, but very pointed teaching can often produce the same results. Pacing is a high-level skill that takes more than three weeks to acquire.

The point that I see here is one that I'll take in for myself. The approach to new talent in teaching has to be a gentle one. The positive card must always be tossed out first. Strenghts...and then needs. And better yet? Setting up the two columns for reflection: 'strengths and needs,' allowing her to reflect on her own quagmires, and talking it through with her is probably the best way to start.

Ultimately, she'll have 25+ pairs of eyeballs and that'll be all she'll see. Observations come, and observations go...constant, gentle self-reflection, that intuitive knowing sense when things don't go your way, that's what will feed the instruction each day. But keeping that core belief in yourself is more important than anything anyone else can say!

Teaching and learning is a complicated business. It's the one job where I get to fall on my face and stumble a bit, then pick myself up and start all over each day!


  1. Teaching and learning is infinitely more complex and nuanced than I could have imagined upon making my decision to enter into this business of cultivating empowered learners.

    Sometimes, I think this new teacher business is like a rain storm. 9 times out of 10, though, I am finding myself pulling on my Wellies and getting dirty, having great fun splashing in the mud puddles of finding my voice as a new teacher, and you give me that room to do so.

  2. You'll be wearing those Wellies for years...mucking around and getting dirty is what it's all about! Teaching is so very complex, but I love the way you pull apart the layers and figure it out! You're a natural, Erin! There's a lifetime of great kids out there waiting for you! Have a great time this weekend! You SO deserve it! ;)