Yesterday I read a great post on an EdWeek blog by Ryan Bretag called “Raise Your Hand…”
Join me in a little experiment won’t you? Here’s the first paragraph of Mr. Bretag’s article:
“Raise your hand if you spent time exploring, challenging, refining, and enhancing your professional practice today? Now, raise your other hand if that professional learning took place in a collaborative context with other professionals?”
How many of you have both your hands up? (or could have raised both hands if you weren’t fully participating in the experiment!)
I’m extremely lucky because I could have both hands raised today, and I did raise both yesterday when I first read the column (yes, I actually did raise them, and yes, I’m a little ridiculous, I know). Why do I consider myself so lucky? Because I know too many colleagues outside of our office that are unable to answer in the affirmative to these questions. I also vividly remember what it feels like to not be able to raise either as a struggling young teacher.
I often share the story that during my first year of teaching 5th grade at St. Paul Catholic School in San Antonio as part of the ACE program, I spent the entire first semester failing math…I was failing to give my students the thoughtful teaching and guidance they deserved. Remember the show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th grader?” Well Mr. Baker was not. Well at least not smart enough to figure out how to effectively teach the 5th grade math curriculum….STOP.
That last statement is false, and it was then too, even though at the time I absolutely believed it to be the truth. It’s not false because I’m some beacon of mathematical brilliance, I surely am not (although don’t let my mother get a hold of you or she may try to convince you otherwise), but because I was perfectly capable of teaching 5th grade math, I was just leaning too hard on the wrong set of skills.
Every day after school I would sit at my desk, stare out my window, and while listening to the hum of my gigantic air conditioner and the pigeons that roosted above it, I would hunch over and try to fight back tears of frustration, shame, and failure. All I wanted to do was teach these students, to help them learn and grow and develop…and I was failing. I could barely remember how to perform the basic mathematical skills and processes that I was teaching (while we did take a 4 week “teaching math” course before departing for our schools, my last math class before that had been as a freshman in college 6 years prior, and while that professor, Jack Oberweiser, has had a profound and continuing impact on my life, I probably should have sought out a bit more of a refresher before stepping into teaching students).
So how did I resolve the situation? I started relying on a different set of skills. One day after school, on the brink of a breakdown, I sulked down the stairs to the classroom of my mentor teacher, Mrs. Carla Berryman. In her classroom there were a group of elementary and middle school students participating in an after school art-club. The students invited me to join them in making friendship bracelets, and so I did. As I fumbled with braided the tiny threads into a bunch of knots beautiful creation…hey, this is my memory, I can edit it if I want to….I talked to the students, some of whom were in my class, about math. I also talked to Carla, who the previous year had been named the Archdiocesan Educator of the Year.
It was the first time I had talked to my mentor teacher about ideas that might help me teach math more effectively, and it was the first time I took the time to have an out-of-classroom conversation with real students about math.
And it was almost Thanksgiving (if you’re counting at home, that’s about 3 1/2 months of not asking for help).
The next day I taught a math lesson…and I didn’t feel like I had failed. And then I taught another, and another, and another…and while I didn’t always teach fantastic lessons, and I’m sure I didn’t reach every student as effectively as they each deserved…it was better, and not just for me, but more importantly for my students. I wasn’t feeling like I was failing them, because they were actually learning more…and having more fun doing it!
How did I make this change? How did I sustain it? I walked out of my classroom. I stood around with students before school, I took walks around the playground with them at recess, and I sat with them at lunch. I visited teacher’s classrooms, I watched them teach, I asked them questions.
You see during that first semester, I was relying on the wrong set of skills….I have moderate (at best) math skills, and extremely refined stubbornness skills…which is not a naturally outstanding combination for a math teacher. But I had also been part of elite teams for most of my life; I knew that no success came purely from a single individual, but rather as a result of working together as a team…so I just started talking with my teammates…relying on skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and communication to better work with my students and colleagues. I may never have become an exemplary math teacher, but maybe I became something even more important…better.
Read Bretag’s column, it’s excellent, and do yourself (as well as your students & colleagues) a favor: Don’t operate in isolation like I did, and if you currently are, start working to change it. Here are 6 action steps Bretag recommends. Give them a shot, you won’t miss those days of fighting back tears while staring out the window one bit, I promise
1. Dedicate a portion of your day to honing your professional practice both locally and digitally
2. Establish a professional learning network
3. Establish and maintain a virtual professional learning space that fosters shared knowledge and resources
4. Make professional reflection, scholarly work, and learning a priority and make it public.
5. Model professional learning for colleagues, students, and parents
6. Take a risk, rethink your norm, challenge your assumptions, and embrace the idea of being disturbed.
Quotes from “Raise Your Hand…”, written by Ryan Bretag, originally posted on Ed Week’s Leader Talk. November 4, 2010