Professional Development Opinion

Support Teachers Where They Are for Initiatives to Thrive

By Starr Sackstein — February 15, 2019 3 min read
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If we want anything to be successful, we need to know who we are working with and what they need.

A blanket declaration that we are starting a new initiative without any front-loading about why or an implementation plan that addresses how, that initiative, no matter how noble it is, will fail.

Too often in education, leaders at the top make decisions after reading something and/or hearing about the latest and greatest and inadvertently leave behind the people who on the day to day will be doing the heavy lifting.

For any change to happen in a system that sometimes moves so slowly it feels like it is moving backward, there must be a systemic understanding of why we are making change, how we will do it, and how we will differentiate the changes depending on the readiness of the folks who are expected to execute it.

When I was in the classroom getting rid of grades, no one I was working with was with me. My principal decided a year or two into my experiment with the shift that everyone was going to go to standards-based grading the next year.

At one faculty meeting, it was announced that we would be making the switch and that a committee would be put together to help write a handbook on grading. No one participated in this committee, so I was asked to write an assessment manual, which I did.

The next September, at the first faculty meeting, teachers were told they were expected to use standards-based grading without any formal professional learning on the why and none on the how. My assessment guide was presented to a handpicked committee who made notes, but it was never shared with the rest of the staff.

Behind closed doors, I implored my principal to pull back the expectation for this year and to promote a pilot program. Since I didn’t want to be a part of the problem, I wrote up an implementation plan that allowed some people to volunteer to do the work as a beta team and, over the course of the year, revise what I had written by myself as the assessment handbook.

This way, there could be the necessary buy-in, as well as time for us to provide ample professional learning, on the philosophy and the implementation as well as being able to communicate with the parents the radical change in how we were thinking about assessing learning.

As someone who really buys into getting rid of grades, since I came to the realization on my own, developed a system that worked for my students, and began building on what I learned each year, I knew that we had only one chance as a school to make this happen and if we didn’t do it right, we would lose the opportunity forever, leaving a bad feeling about the topic and ruining even the idea of the shift.

And I was right.

There was no formal rollout or explanation, just an edict that no one followed. Few people sought me out privately to try to understand and maybe even implement some kind of hybrid version of what the expectation was. At the end of the day, however, nothing really changed schoolwide.

As a leader, now, I recognize the need to help teachers understand the why. After they can understand the why, it is necessary for us to take the time to understand what they need to be successful.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Where is each teacher?
  • How much do they understand about the initiative?
  • Have they had enough training? If yes, was it the right training for them?
  • Have they had enough support?
  • Was there ample follow-up and opportunity to express their needs and/or time to start practicing?
  • Is there flexibility in what it can look like and how it is implemented in each space?
  • Is there a timeline for when teachers need to be on-board?
  • How do we move even the most resistant teachers or more importantly how do we understand their resistance?

It’s time for big changes in education, not just the programs we choose for math or social-emotional learning, but a full systemic overhaul that sees learners as independent thinkers, who are capable and curious. The kind of change that shakes up the very core of why we educate now since it is different from the why we did when our system started.

Although we can make a case for developing more informed citizens, we really want critically thoughtful, creative people who are less afraid of risk and more willing to take chances to grow. Our current system doesn’t breed that in most people. As a matter of fact, the ones it does happen for are outliers who are likely bucking the system in some way.

So how can we support each learner in a way that inspires them to make meaningful change? Please share

*photo made using pablo.com

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