The Reflection Pool

Teachers, Don’t Worry About It

I like to spend time in classrooms with students.  I work with sixteen schools and try to be in each school at least once a month. And when I’m there talking with principals and vice principals, one of my favourite things to do is go into classrooms. It gives me an opportunity to meet school staff and talk with kids. And all educators know that the big payoff of being in education is that you get to hang out with kids.

I do know, however, that my presence in classrooms can cause some stress, even some consternation. What I am there for? Am I evaluating the teacher? Will I report something negative? When I approach students and ask them what they’re working on, I get that some teachers hold their breath and hope it will be OK.  Sometimes, it’s not. But teachers, don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault.

Students don’t always tell me what they know. They can get nervous too. They know that I’m someone who doesn’t often come into their classroom and I’m usually with the principal, which must mean something. Or they just forget, because the learning goal or success criteria simply isn’t at the top of their mind. That’s OK.

When I go in classrooms and see kids working together, or reading, or helping someone out, or thinking, or even texting, I smile. That’s kids! I know teachers are doing their best and want the best for their students. I know how hard you work and how thankless the job can sometimes seem.

Nonetheless, it’s my privilege to visit your classroom.

Co-Learning and Hierarchy: Mutually exclusive?

Co-learning: when a group of people comes together in a spirit of inquiry to share knowledge, investigate possibilities and learn from each other. (From Edward Brantmeier article)

Characteristics of Co-learning:
*  All knowledge is valued
*  Reciprocal value of knowledge sharers
*  Care for each other as people and co-learners
*  Trust
*  Learning from one another

Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc

I had a wonderful opportunity during our September professional activity day. I got to sit with both elementary and secondary staff to talk about student learning needs evident in student work and what educators need to learn in order to meet those needs. Talking with people about ideas is my favourite part of the job, and these discussions were passionate and student centred.

In each school, the educators obviously care deeply about their students. They were wrestling with big ideas like integration of technology into critical literacy, problem solving, how to balance classroom management with a focus on higher order thinking skills. I loved the discussion.

At first, I flattered myself that I was co-learning. Wasn’t I open to listening, being trustworthy and valuing the knowledge of all participants? Well, yes, at least in my mind. Then I had two important conversations. The first was with a principal who shared that maybe my presence hadn’t been viewed as positively by staff as I’d hoped. In my eagerness to be transparent, I had highlighted that even though I was a superintendent, I was there to learn. But perhaps that just drew attention to my position and made people uncomfortable. When I spoke in a group, my words carried more weight than others and some felt criticized. Not the trusting atmosphere I was seeking! It was a setback.

The second conversation was with Steven Katz, a thinker, professor and researcher at OISE who works with our district. During a principal learning team meeting, he talked about hierarchy and how naive it is to pretend that it doesn’t exist in a learning session. When a superintendent sits down with principals or teachers, hierarchy exists because of the evaluative component. Announcing that I’m a co-learner and expecting that reality to disappear is naïve at best.

Honestly, I could kick myself! I know that. I have felt it in sessions as a teacher, a vice principal, a principal and now as a superintendent, with my boss. I’ve done lots of reading about trust over the past couple of years, so I understand how it is earned and builds over time through a combination of character and competence. (Steven M. R. Covey)

For a time, I felt a bit stuck. Then I realized that I have to go back to my core beliefs about learning and our work.

Co-learning can happen, even with the spectre of hierarchy at the table.  I’ve experienced it as a principal and a superintendent, after people come to know me better and when I leave my ego at the door. I need time with the schools where I work. I need to accept that the hierarchy exists, acknowledge it, and get on with the work. I also want to clarify my purpose in sitting at the table with other educators. It is three fold:

1) To hear and reflect on their ideas and insights;

2) To interrupt group think and established patterns of thinking; (see Intentional Interruption by Katz and Dack)

3) To interrupt my own thinking so I can truly learn.

I’m ready to get back in there.

Why We All Need to “Do Technology”

Photo Credit: tizzie via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: tizzie via Compfight cc

I have a confession to make. I am a bit disheartened when I hear educators and leaders say they aren’t good with technology. You know the conversation, it goes something like this:

Me: “I’ll share that document with you via Google Drive.”

My friend: “Oh, I don’t know how to do that. Just print me a copy. Or email it to me.”

Or how about this?

Me: “Let’s do xxx with some technology embedded in the agenda so people can learn how to do it. We can experiment and see how it works.”

My friend: “I can’t do that. I’m a techno twit! (Laughs heartily)

Why is it still OK for some educators and leaders to act as if technology is some weird, new-fangled thing that they just can’t possibly learn? It reminds me of what has been happening around Math lately.

We’ve become aware that attitudes and anxiety about Math are infectious and are not helping our students. Annie Murphy Paul wrote a blog post about why so many of us hate Math. Her thoughts and especially the comments they generated are great reading. We know that when an educator says, “I’m not good at Math,” a classroom of kids hears and Math goes down in their estimation. We are working to overcome that Math phobia for educators and to watch our use of language around students when it comes to Math. We want to effect a change in Math instruction.

I don’t see using technology as any different. We need to learn so we can help students navigate the tools. We need to model how to learn. Sure, it’s hard to learn new things. I’m not talking about how to make a new delicious dish or how to teach fractions better. I’m talking about a change in thinking and behaviour.  It’s one of the hardest things for human beings to do. And no matter how much we claim we are life long learners, true learning is difficult. It’s so hard that we often shy away from it. Steven Katz argues this very persuasively in his book Intentional Interruption.

The good news it is possible. If we face our fears and just dig in and accept feeling a bit stupid, we can learn new things. This fall we have been embedding technology in our system curriculum team sessions. For some educators, this was the first time they had been exposed to some of our district provisioned tools (e.g., Google Apps, the Commons). It was hard work! But the team has persevered.  One instructional coach made a profound comment:

“This has been really hard for me, but I’m so glad I’ve had this opportunity to really struggle to learn something. It has reminded me what our students and teachers go through when they have to learn something new.”

What can you do to help educators and leaders embed technology tools in their practice?