I have always said that assessment is one of the hardest things a teacher does, and I still think that. But a conversation with one of my teachers this week made me wonder if maybe something else teachers do is even harder.
Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is self-assessment. Their own self-assessment and self-reflection on their practice. Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is to be willing to look at their practice, decide it needs changing , and do the hard and messy work of changing how they teach.
I know this is a hard thing for teachers to do, because lots of times teachers don’t. But I don’t think teachers don’t change because they are lazy or uninterested. In fact, I almost never meet teachers who don’t truly care about their practice. Most do. However, change is scary. For teachers, a change in practice is also intertwined with a fear of losing classroom control (who doesn’t have the scary teacher nightmare in August?). Probably the way that the school system implements change doesn’t help either. One shot workshops don’t work because when a teacher goes back and tries out the new idea, it probably doesn’t work very well at first. But, there is no support. The workshop is over. Or, there is an implication, delivered by the principal or board staff, that this new idea is it, we will all do it, we will all get it right, and that’s that. Again, there is little support, little deep understanding of the change, and, therefore, little buy in.
Teachers change their practice when certain conditions are in place, at the school level, that give teachers the support to make changes. Here are a few things that have worked in my schools to help create cultural changes that last:
- “Try something new; no one will die”. I say this often to my teachers. They made me a sign that hangs on the wall. We have to support teachers with new ideas by allowing them ample time to muck about and try things. They need to know that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. They need to know that as they are trying out new ideas they will be learning, too, not just their students. They will be reflecting and changing and assessing as they go. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to have it all figured out before you start. Just start trying it and see. You may have to change your rubric. You may end up changing what your learning goal was. You may not get to all your lessons. You may change direction half way through. That’s ok so long as you are reflecting about your new idea in light of what are students learning and able to do. Your students won’t die and everyone will learn something. Next time you will teach it better.
- Teachers need to believe that teaching is the coolest thing they do. Most teachers went into teaching believing this. When a culture in the school is established that reinforces this “coolness” factor, there is renewed energy in the building. The easiest way for that to happen is for everyone to think that I, the principal, thinks that, too. I have conversations all the time with my teachers about teaching. I talk about what they are doing; I talk about what one teacher is doing to another; I talk about things I’ve seen; I talk about ideas I’ve heard about; I talk about books I’ve read; when I go into classrooms, I talk with kids about their work or I teach. No one in the building doubts that I think teaching is really a very cool thing to do.
- Teachers work in teams. We always work together–in subjects, in grades, in cross subject teams. Teachers who teach similar things are in classrooms that are next to each other. Budget decisions are made in teams. The work of learning about teaching is done in teams. But, the work is rarely about planning the same thing together. Teachers do plan together but it is not mandated. Learning together is mandated but how you teach your class is left up to individual teacher style and professional judgement. Almost all my teachers teach similarly but I have never told them they have to. What has been the same is the deep conversations and learning we have done about pedagogy, assessment, teaching practice and student work. We never have PD by compliance.
- You need to have and build capacity in the building, and I have to be part of that. We are all learning to be better together. We read books, watch video clips, work with consultants and Learning Support Teachers. We learn from each other. We consult. While I have lots of expertise in curriculum, I don’t have it all. And when I don’t, it isn’t a big deal. In front of the teachers, I pull out a book where I think we might get some better information. There are definitely better ways of teaching, and not so good ways of teaching. There is a lot of research out there to point you in the right direction. Everyone at my school, me included, knows that we are heading towards the research-based ideas. We aren’t taking “baby steps”–we are diving in (me, too). But, if we don’t get it right, well, no one will die and we will figure it out next time.
- Start with little things you know will work. When you can offer teachers little ideas that you know will work, and the freedom to try them without fear or evaluation, then it is easy. Teachers change their practice because it works for the students in their classroom not because the principal is coming to visit or check. For example, the prescribed posting of learning goals and success criteria in classrooms across the world has not changed practice as we might have hoped. Why? The posting alone doesn’t automatically change what happens with kids so it isn’t exciting or fun or cool. A teacher can post learning goals and success criteria and students can stay the same. What does make a difference is that the posting means that students are more confident in the learning, and that in order to post, the teacher has done the deep work of being planned and purposeful. But the posting alone doesn’t ensure those things. But, when teachers find something that does engage their students or helps them to learn better, well, that’s exciting. So, then teacher practice changes.
We need to recognize that changing one’s own practice is really, really hard. Teaching is a personal profession. Teachers want to do a good job and feel successful. A class of 30 disengaged or unruly students can make you feel pretty unsuccessful pretty quickly. So, without the right conditions in place, teachers are reluctant to change. But, when teachers have ownership, the freedom to experiment, someone interested in what they are doing, and the support of colleagues and administration, then it is much easier to give it a try–no one will die.