Teaching Opinion

Offer a Safe Place to Challenge Beliefs

By Starr Sackstein — January 12, 2018 3 min read

As children, we often adopt the beliefs of our parents, sometimes neglecting deeper exploration of our own. Perhaps when we get older, we revisit some of these beliefs and adjust accordingly based on our experiences and new learning, or perhaps not.

As educators, we often adhere to the basic ideas and practices we’ve experienced ourselves as students in lieu of reviewing these beliefs regularly and adjusting as needed for the students who sit before us.

In 16 years as an educator, the students I’ve had the honor of working with have changed a lot. Regardless of the school community, I’ve been in, the ideas, expectations and learning needs of my kids were ever-evolving and because of that, it would be remiss of me to not evolve with them.

When I began teaching, I largely went with what I knew. My teaching style resembled that of the teachers I enjoyed most who worked for me. Looking back at it now, it was ego-centric and misplaced, but I didn’t know any better. My career started without a formal student-teaching experience like most early educators get. I came in as a second career educator going an “alternative route” to certification. Instead of student-teaching, I had a mentor.

But we were all working from a more traditional toolbox.

It took about six years for me to realize that I needed to do things differently. This coincided with a comfort level with content that I didn’t have in the beginning as well as a comfort with teaching. I ramped up my professional reading and started getting involved with professional organizations. From there it was email listservs, and conferences and more reading.

I did a lot of reading and listening.

Enter Twitter. This game-changing move got me blogging and interacting with different educators from all over the world. It is because of the great shifts in my own practice and in turn, the great shifts in student learning that I recognized that my beliefs weren’t serving my students (and maybe never served some of them... ever).

Too often, we fall victim to believing that our students learn the way we learned best and then we and they never evolve.

Some educators come to this on their own and seek out additional professional learning and others, need a nudge. That nudge can sometimes be in the form of department-wide conversations which lead to consensus.

In our last department meeting, in an effort to better integrate our experience as an interdisciplinary department, organized teachers into heterogeneous groups to explore educational topics worth coming to a consensus on.

The topics addressed by the 8 groups were:

  • homework
  • no zeros
  • redos/retakes/late work
  • differentiation
  • extra credit
  • restorative justice vs punishment
  • assessing for learning
  • student-centered learning

Groups were asked to read a short article independently and annotate it in terms of what validates or challenges their ideas. They were asked to make a group chart paper of ideas they agreed with from the article and which ones challenged their beliefs. They were also asked to come up with questions that would be used at the next meeting to engage in a Socratic Seminar on the different ideas as we come together to hear each other’s ideas and beliefs.

Each group presented their chart papers briefly (and I will share their ideas in a document prior to next month’s meeting) and then answered an electronic exit ticket which offered me some information in terms of how to move into our Socratic Seminar.

Change is hard for everyone and sometimes unless we are exposed to different options, we don’t even know they exist. It’s my job as a team leader to present ideas and offer a forum for discussion so that we can all hear and grow together.

There has been mixed feedback from the meeting but I’m going to suspend my concerns until our next meeting when we have some more time to flesh things out. One suggestion I heard was to reassure staff that my expectation wasn’t for immediate change. It sounded preposterous to me, but if that is what they need, I will definitely remind them that I will never make major decisions about change in isolation; we must come to it together.

How do you help your staff push their thinking on important educational topics? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress 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.