I have titled this post, “The Challenge of Change,” in reference to the difficulty of creating sustainable change in instructional practice. In my experience, as a teacher and support teacher in elementary schools, there are many factors that make changes to instructional practice difficult to foster. I believe the path to real change and adaptation will come from building our faith in practicing teachers, teacher expertise and encouraging and supporting teachers to share expertise. This approach is not commonly embraced by politicians, academics and some administrators. There is often a thinly disguised anti-teacher sentiment, a sense that teachers are stubborn and unwilling or unable to accept guidance to improve instructional practice. These people tend to believe that outside consultants and professional developers should guide instructional improvement.
I do not believe that there will be lasting, sustained, positive change or adaptation in instructional practice as long as this is the norm. As long as there is a sentiment that teachers must be taught by outside experts, the system cannot evolve to support continuous instructional improvement. In my experience, outside experts share knowledge that does not fit the needs of the teachers being instructed. Workshops and conferences share the basics of new programs in ways that do not allow time for teachers to collaborate and make sense of the new program or strategy and how to implement it with their own student population. Workshops are either too broad or focus on areas that are not needed. The time spent in most workshops would be better spent by teachers at a school site examining student needs and planning interventions based on those assessed needs. I do believe there is a role for outside experts in the role of coaches in this collaborative process at a school. These coaches are experts who can facilitate teacher collaboration to keep it on track and bring teachers examples of best practices from their experiences working with teachers at other schools. A shift from having teachers sit through workshops by outside experts towards allowing teachers more time to work with colleagues is important. Another popular sentiment that I have heard expressed by professors of education and others is the idea that teachers either “have it or they don’t” the idea that teachers are “naturals” to the profession.
The idea that teachers are “naturals,” or they “have it or they don’t” is dangerous to the profession. This suggests that there is no way for teachers to improve and no need for them to change and adapt over time, in response to the students they serve. This way of thinking suggests that we need to get rid of the “bad teachers” as if there are all these wonderful “natural teachers” out there and we just need to find them. As a nation and as a system of education, we must acknowledge that “bad teachers” have gotten to that point in most cases because they have not been supported as they began their work. The current models of teacher professional development basically throw teachers into the classroom to sink or swim. Insufficient attention has been paid to the creation of effective systems of learning and growth for teachers. Teachers are expected to know what they are doing, and learn to do it better and better, while working alone in their classrooms. This sentiment that teachers “have it or they don’t” can keep practicing teachers from admitting areas of weakness, because it would seem that they are not suited to the task of teaching if they seek help to improve their practice. The isolation of teachers in classrooms is another roadblock to change .
Teachers work in relative isolation from our colleagues. I am focused on the work of teaching my own students in my own room, which makes it difficult for me to receive feedback on how my practice might be improved. It is a challenge to arrange a visit to see another teacher as he or she models best practices. Use of video technology could be helpful to provide teachers with opportunities to view best practices of other teachers and view how others might handle tricky situations in the classroom. Another impediment to change has been a lack of shared language, goals and objectives or shared curriculum standards.
When I first became a teacher in the early 1990’s, it seemed that each teacher was teaching themes and subjects that they found personally engaging. This led to situations such as students studying dinosaurs in Kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade, ad nauseum. Though there is something positive to having teachers share areas they find personally interesting, it makes it very difficult for teachers to learn from each other and share expertise if everyone is teaching different subjects at different times of the year. As state and local curriculum standards have become more accepted, it is becoming easier to learn from each other as student learning goals become more common and clear. Shared standards allow me and my grade level colleagues to compare the outcomes of our students’ work and compare instructional strategies to determine which are the most beneficial for students. The final impediment I will mention is time.
There is a lack of time in the contract year for teachers to do meaningful collaborative work that will allow them to learn from each other. Reorganizing school schedules and professional development requirements to allow for collaboration time to be counted as professional development would be a positive step. But there remains a lack of trust that teachers will use time wisely if unsupervised. The use of Internet forums to document teacher collaborative work and allow for easy sharing of curriculum outlines, lesson and unit plans and even collaborative editing of such documents would serve the dual purpose of providing a space that facilitates collaboration while providing administrators with documentation that teachers are doing work worthy to be counted as professional development.
Ideas in this post were originally presented in my dissertation
Zykanov, S.H. (2010) Professional Learning Communities in elementary schools and how technologies are utilized. University of San Francisco.
Other thinkers who have supported some or all of these ideas include:
Elmore, R.F. (2000) Building a New Structure for School Leadership. Albert Shanker Institute, Washington D.C.
Little, J.W. (1999) Organizing Schools for Teacher Learning. Chapter in Book, Teaching as the Learning Profession.