I belong to a group of school administrators on Facebook. It's a great place to share questions and get different perspectives from people (school leaders, aspiring leaders, teacher leaders, etc.) about different topics. I'm always baffled by people who say social media is the devil. The reasons they give are typically something like, "It perpetuates the negative". Ummmm...no, Facebook (or any other social media outlet, for that matter) is not the problem. The problem lies in the way we, as humans, choose to deal with other people, particularly people with whom we disagree.
I make it a point to model the art of disagreeing respectfully in all the professional learning opportunities I facilitate, as well as in the courses I teach in which graduate level students are asked to participate in discussions. The most boring discussion threads are when everyone simply writes, "I agree with you! Great post!" or even the opposite "Wrong, wrong, wrong" (we have all seen things like this (and much worse) on Facebook, right?). I want to hear juicy conversations (not in a creepy way, of course) in which we listen to others' opinions, and then we state our beliefs with sentence stems (that I will often put on a Powerpoint slide or write on a whiteboard at the front of the room) like, "I agree with _______ because ________. I was also considering ___________" or "My thoughts differ a bit from those of _______ because _____________". I always say the "because" is the most important part.
Just this week, I facilitated a group of educators on what effective teaching looks like. We participated in a protocol that I call "Agree/Disagree" or "Point/Counterpoint" or "Take a Stand". It doesn't really matter what you call it, but these types of skills are so very important to becoming the type of learner/citizen I believe we all internally want our students/citizens to become. I have always tried to remember this question myself, "Do I want to be right or do I want to make it right?" In other words, am I just biding my time while you share your opinion on a topic, while I am loaded for bear until you finish your statement, just so I can jump on it with all the reasons why you are wrong.
So, the other day, we engaged with this exercise with about 25 teachers and school leaders. I put a statement on a slide that said, "A good lesson can be taught without questions." I asked everyone to take a stand, either nearer to the Agree sign if they really, really agreed; nearer to the Disagree sign if they really, really disagreed, and stand somewhere around the middle if they felt ambivalent (or, more often than not, they felt it depended on the situation). I should note, here, that my group was from a First Nations community school in very rural Saskatchewan. They engage in much land-based learning and often have elders who come and talk to the students about stories from the past, the history of the land on which they live, how to ice fish, etc. Some of the people who stood nearer to the "Agree" sign said things like, "When an elder teaches, we are taught to be respectful and not ask any questions, but it is still a good lesson." I could see, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of people at the other end of the line shaking their heads. I chose one to express their views. She said, "I understand what ______ is saying. However, even when an elder is teaching or storytelling, we want the students to be asking themselves internal questions." We determined the words "good", "lesson", and "questions" were fraught with ambiguity (what does "good" mean to each person? what constitutes a full "lesson"? and Who is asking the "questions"?). What an astute group! What was interesting to me was the willingness of a couple of people who, at the end of the activity, said, "I first said I agreed with the statement, but after hearing ________'s reasoning, I would love to be able to move to the other end of the line". Wow! Someone was able to show the humble willingness it takes to say, "I don't have all the answers and I am open-minded enough to change my mind if I hear viewpoints from others that I hadn't thought of." This activity was pretty special to me and to the participants, as well. I think we could use a little of this in our everyday lives, don't you think?
Today, in this school administrator group, someone posed the questions, "Does your district require principals to gather lesson plans from teachers every week? Do principals have to give feedback to the lesson plans?", as he was honestly trying to decide if it was something he wanted to do. So many people had such harsh things to say, I was amazed (wait....isn't this a place to lift each other up and not judge?) ! Some of the responses were just simply a resounding "No! If the principal doesn't trust the teachers enough to do their job, I would quit if I were a teacher in a school like that!" or "I know how to teach. I don't need to write out a lesson plan in order to prove I know how to teach" or "NO WAY!!" These responses and so many others really made me think and reflect (and I did that for about 15 minutes before I responded to the gentleman who had been asking for help). Here is what I wrote:
It is incredibly interesting to me, as a lifelong educator (teacher, counselor, principal, professor, educational consultant, mentor, etc.), that the notion of teachers writing out plans and school leaders reading those plans could somehow violate trust or be a deal-breaker. I found the complete opposite to be true. The lesson plans should be written for YOU, as the teacher. As a former principal (and now an educational consultant for teachers and administrators in districts all over the world), I liked seeing the lesson plans so I could find out more about the teachers' thinking while planning. Often, I might pose a question like:
"In what ways do you decide on how to group students for particular activities?" I tried to broaden it, not just for this particular lesson but about their "teaching" in general. This also led to great discussions in person. Teachers loved to talk to me about the "for your use" questions. It gave them another way to think about their thinking (that metacognition piece that we know is so important for ALL of us as learners). I love it when people ask me questions like, "Given the number of participants you will have and the types of discussions you want them to have, how might you arrange the room for optimal learning?" This shouldn't be scary, "gotcha" intended, or based on an assumption that teachers don't know how to teach. It's yet another way to talk about our own teaching. Build a culture of trust in schools, and educators (and students) will no longer feel that "gotcha" or "waste of time" piece. I still write out lesson plans for PDs I am going to teach, so I can remember to ask some really cognitively juicy higher-order questions, so I can ensure my structure and pacing would work for the time I had allotted to teach, or so I can ensure I remember to mention an important point I reflected on from the training the day before. The district in which I was a principal was a union-district (lest anyone wonder); my teachers still loved being asked about their practice in a non-threatening way and advocating for their own teaching. Build a culture of trust, and life-long learning will be the norm. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Shortly afterwards, the original "question-asker" (my technical, academic vocabulary for the day) replied to me, saying:
Your response provides so many details that may help solve a mystery that I have been living with in my school. On the one hand many teachers comply by sharing with me their factory produced lesson plans every Sunday. On the other hand, other teachers would skip or only submit their lesson plans under consistent pressure and repeated requests. Time , or lack of it, was the thing to blame most of the time. My classroom visitations have taught me that teaching in the classroom is minimally related to lesson planning. Your response has opened my eyes to an ingredient that I have been missing: shared/ exchanged reflections on what the teacher intends to teach. Long term mutual trust will surely help me as a leader and help teachers take pride in their thinking but also increase their effectiveness and productivity.
Thanks a million!
All the while, people were still posting things like, "Should we even allow people who are not principals write posts in this group?" Seriously??? So many aspiring administrators would jump at the chance to read solutions to everyday leadership problems, but they sure might not feel welcome now. What about teacher leaders (grade level chairs, department heads, etc.) who still are in pseudo-leadership roles? Can't they also benefit from these discussions (as long as they are civil and not resembling something like conversations between the Hatfields and Mccoys)?
I have faith in the education system, so much so that I want to be an advocate for all who are a part of it. My advice for district office personnel as well as school board members? Get out of your offices and come into classrooms at the schools you represent. See how hard these teachers and administrators are working to improve the teaching craft and the learning and reflection for students and all others who are willing to continue to grow and learn.