Saturday, February 4, 2017

All Boats Can Float Higher

Good to Great

If you are a teacher leader or instructional leader in your environment, you know the extremes that we often see in school buildings.  We all know teachers with great intentions, yet who lack the knowledge to run an orderly, productive classroom. In these rooms everyone has grown to expect chaos, and it is generally known that little learning takes place.  If such a teacher asked your advice on how to change this dynamic, it likely would not be hard to help.  Maybe you’d offer tweaks that could shift the relational dynamics or routines for the better, especially if employed at the start of the year.  You might advise that reflective collaboration with experienced peers, journaling, peer observations, mentoring and reflective videotaping can all help to see from an outsider’s lens what elements might be missing and shore up some knowledge gaps. But what if the teacher with the reputation for running a tight ship, whose presence is commanding enough to calm the most rogue behaviors and to keep order against the odds, wanted your thoughts on improvement?  How does this teacher improve classroom morale and academic outcomes? If asked how to upgrade the educational outcomes in these kinds of classrooms, where would we look?  These teachers’ charismatic blend of authority and structure create such a safe and predictable place to land for students that it’s easy to think they have arrived.  However, just like proficient and advanced students can often get overlooked in our classrooms, the “got it together” teacher could benefit from our attention, as well; these teachers both need and deserve to grow.  More importantly, their students deserve a thoughtful communal response to the teaching and learning in their rooms.

Classroom management matters. How we maintain order matters.  Beyond maintaining order, however, I contend that the next level we should always aim to improve is classroom engagement.  Where maintaining order is not our concern, we can refine our focus and look to the level of “plug in” that we see in our students.  In the “tight ship” classrooms, disengagement will likely not show up the same way it might in the "struggling" space.  It will not likely be an outburst.  It won’t be loud, disruptive talk with a neighbor…students dare not outwardly disrespect certain teachers, or draw attention to themselves for bucking a culture of order.  However, in a room where students quietly check out because pacing,  intentionality or relevance of instruction need tweaking, they will experience some of the same learning gaps as in the challenging classroom.  How can we help bridge the gaps?

Shifting, Together 

I believe that many of us can be teacher leaders in our environments who help to build reflective communities of practice, touching these teachers’ classrooms and their students’ learning.  In service of instructional goals, teacher-based teams can engage in collective classroom “research” around student engagement, videotaping lessons and analyzing them for things like wait time, body language, students’ displays of quiet distraction, level of participation in discussion, etc.  Teachers can be led to explore issues like lesson pacing, number of active participants in a given lesson, rigor of questioning, student enthusiasm and level of teacher-directedness versus student initiative.   In addition, even quick check-ins with students themselves after some lessons can be instructive.  “What was your favorite part of this lesson?  What questions did you have at the start of this lesson? What answers do you have to those questions, or what new questions have emerged?  How would you explain to someone else what you learned in this lesson?” Informal assessments like these can automatically tie in to teacher planning and refinement of practice. 

Creating communities where teachers reflect on practice in this way has the potential to illuminate places where teachers achieve compliance, but without true student investment.  It also has the added benefit of coaxing teachers towards the ongoing reflective stance that motivates one to pursue a process like National Board Certification.  The process itself can serve as both catalyst for and affirmation of ongoing refinement.   Students who respect a teacher too much to disrupt should still be respected in turn by a teacher with the courage and presence of mind to consider their needs carefully and discover whether instruction is addressing those needs.

Some Critical Questions

  • What were the time markers between places of shift or transition in this lesson or the activities required?  
  • What is the “climax” of this lesson?
  •  Where did you see the students most piqued in their curiosity or engagement?  
  • How much physical movement or manipulation did this lesson require? 
  • Where stamina was needed, how did students display or not display this?
  •  If not engaged with stamina, what did they do instead? Did students voluntarily take on an inquiry stance in a certain part of this lesson? What preceded this? 
  •  Did the lesson shift at some point from teacher-directed to student-led? 
  • Did we see any place where students were quietly complying but not plugging in to the task, instruction or assignment? 
  • Did you count any instances of the teacher asking a question and then having to answer it? If so, how many times did this happen?
  •  Did you observe ‘cold calling’ practices that seemed to keep students on their toes? 
  • What evidence do we have that students’ light bulbs were clicking?  
  • What new learning do students demonstrate?

These kinds of look-fors can invigorate teaching that may be well-intenti
oned but in need of an upgrade in well-managed classrooms. 

Assuming that great classroom management is equal to great teaching is similar to assuming that those who live in an orderly home must automatically be well-loved and well-fed. The two are related, but not at all equal.  If we are to maintain environments that remain stimulating for the students of teachers with great classroom management, we have to give them the challenge of always looking into the ways that those students interact with their learning.  This ensures that all boats get the opportunity to float to their highest potential, and that no one is left behind in our quest for the best.