Teaching Opinion

Response: Finding a Balance Between District Mandates & Student Needs - Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 13, 2013 11 min read
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(This is the second post in a two-part series on this topic. You can read Part One here.)

Last week, Juan Cortes asked:

Many times teacher are told by our districts to follow specific programs, but many times those programs do not differentiate or do not address specific needs of my students.

How can I balance following what my district tells me vs what I feel the students need?

Well known author/educator Rick Wormeli and I responded to Juan’s excellent question in Part One of this two-part series.

Today’s post will be featuring responses from educator/authors Kimberly Kappler Hewitt, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Heather Wolpert-Gawron, along with comments from readers.

Response From Kimberly Kappler Hewitt

Dr. Kimberly Kappler Hewitt is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. She is the co-author of Differentiation is an Expectation: A Leader’s Guide to Building a Culture of Differentiation (Eye on Education, 2011). Kim speaks, consults, and leads professional development across the U.S.:

As educators, we are ethically bound to do all we can to best serve students, to maximize their potential. Because no two students are alike, serving students in this manner necessarily involves doing different things for different students--differentiating. A differentiated classroom is one in which student learning is the focus, a strong sense of learning community permeates, formative assessment is used to guide instruction, students are empowered to monitor and maximize their learning, students are flexibly grouped, and students have multiple opportunities, modes, and methods for learning and showing what they know. The art and science of leading a differentiated classroom is challenging and immensely rewarding...and requires the support of one’s supervisor.

To not only to acquire your supervisor’s support but also to position her as your advocate for differentiation:

1. Utilize district-approved programs and instructional materials to support differentiation, not curtail it.

For example, if I’m a 5th grade teacher required to use Saxon Math, a “teacher-proof,” scripted curricula, I can still cultivate a classroom culture of learning in which each of us is responsible for maximizing our own and one another’s potential. I can still use formative assessment to inform my instruction (e.g., what intervention I need for students who have not mastered prerequisite skills and what extensions or enrichment I need to provide to students who have already mastered some of the unit’s content). I can still flexibly group students by, for example, providing sets of manipulatives to students to collaboratively solve real-world inspired problems. In other words, it’s not just about the program I use but how I use it and what materials, experiences, and activities I use to supplement the program in order to do right by students.

2. Invite your principal into your classroom. Seeing is believing, and if your principal sees students engaged, challenged, and supported, she is going to recognize that you are doing quality work as a teacher.

3. Provide your principal with artifacts of your teaching, including student work samples, parent newsletters or blogs, project overviews, etc. While you want to avoid inundating your principal with such material, again, it is helpful for your principal to know what goes on in your classroom and what kind of “effects” differentiation is having on students.

4. Share with your principal a short article about differentiation (e.g., September, 2000 volume of Educational Leadership (V58#1), or share the link to Differentiation Central.

Remember--and take heart that--our highest commitment as educators is to our students.

Response From Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is CEO of Powerful Learning Practice LLC and co-author of The Connected Educator (Solution Tree, 2012). She’s a former elementary teacher, university teacher educator, and technology integration coach. She is a persistent advocate for passion-based inquiry learning, which she discussed in this 2011 interview at Education Week Teacher:

Many years ago when I first entered public school teaching (after leading a small independent school), I remember struggling with the “teacher’s guide” and reading series I was given to use in my elementary classroom. It was so scripted and I felt so boxed in. I knew that the strategies I was using were more effective than the dumbed-down activities in the series. They were one-size-fits-all and lacked any true creativity or opportunity to personalize the content to meet the individual needs of my students.

Yet my administrator had made it clear that as a new teacher I was to follow the guide. He felt it would make my teaching equal to others using the same guide (“teacher-proofed instruction”). Equity of educational experience was the district’s top priority, and he was afraid if teachers began to “go rogue” there would be disparity in quality and he would be held accountable.

I went to a trusted and more experienced friend and asked for her advice. She said something that has served me well over the years: “It is a teacher’s guide, not a teacher’s bible.” It was an ah-ha moment for me. The solution was not to buckle under, or to ignore credible learning goals, but to meet those goals my way. That was the day I became a champion for Do It Yourself teaching.

I realized that I couldn’t depend on the district to know everything my individual students needed or what I needed for that matter. By design they had to plan for the masses, and it was my job to think about the individual needs of each of my students. I had to take their expectations and “go them one better.” I had to prove that I could teach to their minimum standards, beat the tests, and take my kids to levels far beyond what they were imagining.

I knew there was a great deal I needed to learn in order to do that. For example, it seemed as though technology changed minute by minute. I wondered how to keep current and how important it was that I master all the tools before I used them in my lesson planning. In fact, I began to feel overwhelmed as I allowed myself to think about what I didn’t know and wondered if I tried to change my practice without district sponsored in-services and workshops just how successful I would be.

DIY learning. What would that even look like?

The idea of orchestrating your own learning, selecting your own mentors, organizing your own conferences and workshops, and pursuing just-in-time learning has taken off around the globe.

It is relatively easy today to become a producer of information rather than just a consumer. In the era of connectivity, informal mentoring relationships are easily formed and those with expertise are eager to pass on what they know. The first step is to be clickable or findable online. I am unable to learn from you if you are not sharing online. I will never be able to find you and leverage what you know. And the reverse is true -- if you aren’t active in the wide world of PD, you can’t learn from me and so many others.

Becoming a connected, do-it-yourself learner begins with your willingness to be a findable, clickable, searchable-on-Google person who shares openly and transparently. From there we can form a connection, a conversation, a relationship and begin to collaborate.

DIY learning requires a shift in mindset too. Rather than being a passive receiver you have see yourself as an active learner with a “learner first” mentality. As connected adult learners, we arent’ afraid to admit that we don’t always have the answer to a question or problem, and we willingly invite others into a dialogue to explore, discuss, debate, or generate more questions.

To be most effective, DIY learners need to be intentional and create your network connections with purpose. It helps to ask yourself questions like:

1) What is it I am interested in learning or changing?
2) Who has some expertise in this area? Who can I connect with online that can help me?
3) How will I measure my progress? How will I know I have learned what I wanted to know? How will I show leadership in my system that I don’t need a “teacher-proof” script in my classroom?

The best DIY tip is to create a Personal Learning Network online. That way you can have others to learn with in a job-embedded context.

Here are some key tips to get started:

1. Establish one consistent username across all networks to build and manage your online reputation and identity.

2. Find one or two people you trust and respect to follow. Maybe these are people you know or people who have a reputation for helping newbies.

3. When you find people online you respect, look at who they follow, and select your first connections from their list. You may want to begin your network by considering well-respected bloggers with whom you’re familiar. Often bloggers include links to their social media accounts. Review who is in their networks and whom they read and follow.

4.Follow or create a hashtag related to what you are interested in knowing. A hashtag (#) connects all the learners interested in a topic together. For example, the #etmooc is being used in blog posts, twitter conversations, podcasts as part of an open online course. All I have to do is Google the tag and all the learning is pulled together into one place.

Where can you get more information about PLNs?

There are several useful books about PLNs, including Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (Solution Tree, 2011) by Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli.

This infographic at the Powerful Learning Practice web site portrays “A Day in the Life of a Connected Educator” and shows how PLNs fit into the total picture of DIY job-embedded, connected professional development.

Kathy Schrock’s “Guide to Creating Your Personal Learning Network” includes many resources and a set of six investigations in the sidebar that can get you off to a good start.

Here’s the bottom line: My district had sought to dummy-proof instruction so all students would receive a quality education. It is tough to scale quality assurance when you have a lot of diversity in the teaching force (as many systems do). Leadership’s all-too-common mindset was: the better we can standardize procedures, the more we can control outcomes.

However, the truth is that teacher quality can’t be controlled with mandates from on high. Rather, it comes with building the social capital and collective intelligence of your teachers. If administrative leaders would focus on seriously developing leadership skills among teachers -- and then create opportunities for them to gradually step out in their leadership roles within the school and system -- they would find less need to control and more opportunities to empower their best practitioners, spread effective (not rote) teaching practices, and promote a high level of professional collaboration that leads to student engagement and achievement.

Teacher who learn collectively in learning communities (virtual and face-to-face) -- sharing what works, reflecting on action research, implementing new ideas, and then collectively remixing the best of the best -- do not need to be “led” with quality assurance gimmicks or district mandates based on some cure-all package bought from a textbook publisher. Instead, teachers become partners who hold each other mutually accountable for school improvement and student outcomes. Teachers can help make this happen by taking the initiative and beginning to build our own authentic learning communities. You don’t need to wait to be told. You can do it yourself. We all can.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher in San Gabriel, CA and author of ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews:Tips for Middle School Teachers:

Engaging teaching will translate onto test scores. Or, at least, kids’ scores won’t be scarred if you stray from the program so long as the strategies you use are research-based and student-centered. We work in a world of great hypocrisy, a world where we are told to differentiate but we must use standardized programs to do so that are the very opposite of individualized programs. Incorporate student choice when you can. Incorporate collaboration when you can. Incorporate independent learning and teaching questioning when you can. Engaging teaching is about taking those sucky programs and making them magical by sprinkling your own common sense into them.

Responses From Readers

Andrew Thompson:

The class teacher is the decision maker for children in class. District admin making teaching decisions is poor pedagogy.

Thanks to Kimberly, Sheryl, Heather and readers for contributing their responses.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.