Professional Development Opinion

When Principals Forget How Learning Works

September 21, 2017 4 min read
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By Rebecca Mieliwocki

This is my 22nd year of teaching. In that time, I’ve had eight principals. Every year, without fail, there’s something new and different to learn. New content standards, cooperative learning strategies, positive behavior support, Thinking Maps, curriculum to support English learners, culturally responsive teaching, Accelerated Reader, Reciprocal Teaching, Step Up to Writing, portfolios, Love and Logic, Growth Mindset. You get the picture. It’s a sushi-conveyer belt of educational fix-alls designed to solve every possible issue facing our schools.

Every year administrators line up those spiffy binders full of the latest, greatest solutions for teachers, and every year we willingly take them. We leaf through them, sit for the one-day training, and then guiltily slide them onto the shelf when we get back to our classroom. You know the shelf. The one where the other dozen binders live, untouched. (See mine above.)

It’s not that teachers don’t want to learn. Quite the opposite. Great teachers are always learning and working hard to improve. It’s just that we’ve seen this so many times before.

All kinds of money and fanfare get spent on the shiny, new program in the beginning, but precious little thought, time, or funding gets spent making sure new programs work or that teachers have

enough training or support to make a difference with them. We do our best to integrate these ideas into already packed lessons. We meet with colleagues late after work to go over what we’ve done. Wholly on our own, we do yeoman’s work to see if we can make a go of the new material. At the end of the year, when test scores are the same and nothing substantive has changed, it’s time for everyone’s favorite sport—The Blame Game! Guess who gets the biggest share? That’s right. Us. Our punishment for not transforming education with the new initiative—a whole new thing next year. It’s a thoroughly demoralizing cycle and no way to ensure growth or success.

I wish school leaders could cede some of this space and work to their teachers who know better than anyone else how learning happens and how to make that new knowledge stick.

Here’s what we’d do:

First, we’d establish a relationship with our “students,” ensuring that teachers understand the why of what they are learning. We’d be very prepared to demonstrate why teachers need to carve out time, energy and brain space for the new program. We would share our internal philosophies and personal reasoning to justify the investment of our collective efficacy. We would share data and facts about how and why our children will benefit from our work.

Next, we would work to fully engage our learners. For adults, this means meeting them where they are, honoring their experience and wisdom, and creating well-crafted learning experiences that are highly relevant to what they do and what they need for their own work. This takes differentiation because not every teacher needs the same pathway.

Finally, our teacher learners must be given opportunities to construct meaning with the new information. So many administrators get this wrong. It’s not that they skip this step. It’s that they never built a plan that includes time for educators to think through how the new strategies and information connect to their work in real practical terms. That is why so many programs are doomed from the start.

For new material to take root in the mind and practice of a teacher, we must devote time, space and opportunity for them to apply and practice the new material in their context. Ideally, they’d do this work during their paid day and collaboratively with department colleagues or in smaller learning pairs or squads. They’d get whole group, small group, and independent practice. They would get time to come together to discuss progress, setbacks, and aha moments. If teachers were in charge, they’d make this a priority because they know how vital it is.

These three steps build the kind of collective wisdom, strength of practice, and forward motion we want to see when we set out to learn. Over time, wobbly starts become small successes. Successes breed confidence and confidence gives us courage to try even harder. Eventually, we have programs making an impact, not just on the teachers and their practice, but on the children we are there to serve in the first place. Everyone wins.

When school leaders realize that what’s good for student learning is terrific for teachers too, we’ll banish the binder-filled bookshelf for good.

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). A 20-year veteran English teacher, Mieliwocki is currently on special assignment for her Burbank, Calif., district.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Mieliwocki. Used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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