by Sarah Brown Wessling
I often find myself in conversations with administrators who ask familiar questions: Why can’t our school make change? Why don’t these initiatives change instruction? We did the PD, so why didn’t the plan work the way we designed it? Sometimes the questions give way to probing discussions. Other times they seem to stagnate with frustration. Either way, there’s always a desire to have a different outcome than what they’re getting.
The answer to these questions comes with a confession. A bit of an embarrassing one. Sometimes when I’m in a big auditorium listening to a presentation with lots of other teachers, I want to check my phone. Sometimes, I want to make a grocery list. Sometimes, I wish I could find a way to respond to student work without anyone noticing. In these moments, I’m everything I don’t want to be as a teacher, as a learner. Which is to say, I’m exactly like millions of teachers across the country who sit in professional development sessions in big auditoriums with other teachers and feel the same way when they are being talked at.
Here’s what teachers tell me and what I’ve learned from my own experience. School wide meetings are presented in the abstract, using concepts and numbers that aren’t connected to real kids or real situaitons happening in our classrooms. We learn about extensive plans that seem to carry the hope for something better or different; yet, these plans seem actionable only in an ideal world instead of one where an honest representation of the challenges faced in our school informs a roadmap for change. For these meetings to actually work, it is time for administrators to acknowledge teachers as learners and to use the auditorium as a classroom full of the same obstacles and opportunities faced by teachers every day.
The answer for administrators aiming for successful implementation of strategic plans is the same for those teachers planning strategies for differentiated instruction: plans don’t create change, people do.
Facebook feeds and grocery lists will continue to be alluring until a person gets in-between them. Last week I saw my new principal, only in his second year, “go off script.” He showed us a photograph of his first grade son and told us about a tough day he had at school last year. Without asking, people put away their devices and leaned in to listen because suddenly there was no script or set of numbers or a plan, but a person helping us think about becoming better teachers. He didn’t talk, he taught.
I’ve spent good portions of my 19-year career both standing before those big auditoriums and years sitting in those seats. Even though the distance between the two may be mere feet, the stretch between message and learner can be vast. For those educators who find themselves asking those familiar “why” questions, here are some tips that can help uncover new answers and shift our PD paradigms.
Abstractions alone won’t work. You know the kind I mean: vacuous vision statements and cliché sentiments like, “this is the year” or “exciting changes are happening, we have a new plan.” Big ideas are necessary, but big thinking is more crucial. People usually can’t think big without grounding the abstract concept to something concrete. “Every Student Succeeds” doesn’t mean anything to educators without hearing Leon’s story or learning how a 3rd grade team of teachers decided to live this maxim at their school. Ideas without anchors just float away and with them, the possibility for growth.
Numbers need words. If you want to inspire, aspire, motivate or urge, numbers alone won’t do it. Here’s why. Unless you’re talking to a group of psychometricians who spend their days reading the stories of numbers, you can’t assume anyone will be moved to action or change because of the digits alone. Whether the numbers have changed or surprised, revealed or held steady, there is a reason. A cause and effect. That’s what teachers in big auditoriums need to hear: what’s underneath the numbers so they know which actions their best teaching selves should summon.
Telling isn’t understanding. There’s something my students taught me a long time ago: just because I talk about it, doesn’t mean they learn it. I cringe to think about the semesters when I equated my success as a teacher with the amount of “content we covered.” Even the word “cover” gives me a nervous hesitation because the only image I see is a “covering up” of content, a blanketed approach that obscures what’s underneath. It’s true: when I “covered” a lot of material, I coated it with a layer of talk, a sheath of my voice and my understanding. Teachers in big auditoriums are no different. Just because they hear about the initiatives and goals and strategies, doesn’t mean they’ve come to understand them. Which makes complete sense, because understanding is something we must construct and learners can’t construct if compliance is more important than a little chaos.
We’re always teaching something. Whether it’s the experience we give teachers or the ones we give our students, our actions are always little insights into what we value and what we build our systems around. And the part of me that sits, really wants the part of me that stands to know: engagement is a bridge we build together, each of us coming from opposite sides, saying “I’ll lay down a plank if you will.” That’s how we meet: by extension.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. She is also the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and Laureate Emeritus for Teaching Channel. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahWessling or catch her weekly advice column for teachers on her website, Open Teaching, at sarahbrownwessling.com.
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.