Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Don’t worry about Teaching. Focus on Learning.

We have enjoyed a great start to the school year in Needham!  Before students returned to classes earlier this month, I met with all of our teachers, staff, and administrators to prepare for the new school year ahead. 

I urged them to not worry about teaching.  I encouraged them to focus, instead, on learning.  Following are excerpts of my comments to the faculty and staff at our August 31st meeting:

This year let’s keep our eye on how we are learning and how our students are learning rather than worrying and fretting about how we are teaching.  Let’s de-emphasize the teaching and highlight the learning.  Let’s turn it around a bit.

In fact, let’s do two things: Let’s lean on one another to share ideas, create plans, listen, observe, and problem solve.  Use your colleagues—whether you are a teacher, nurse, aide, or secretary—to learn and innovate together.  We simply can’t afford to do it alone. 

Let’s lean on our students to do the very same thing.  Let’s involve them in deep and real ways to enrich and support the learning dynamic in the classroom.  For example, I know this year our 7th grade teachers will often be leaning on our 7th grade students to assist them with iPad and technology questions.  What a great opportunity for teachers and students to learn together!

Sometimes we are afraid to learn because it inevitably leads to a wrong answer, misjudgment, or mistake. I think it is simply more comfortable to direct, administrate, and teach.  It puts us in control, and we retain power and confidence! Learning, however, leaves you vulnerable, questioning, uncertain.  Learning leaves us exposed.

That space between not knowing and deep understanding is scary and uncomfortable;  it’s a place that creates stress, tension, and doubt.  It’s also a place that is exciting, promising, mysterious—and can be great fun. Fortunately, we are in a District that will support our learning in this space; we have the mindset, tools, and energy to take risks and try new things or make new relationships.  Our core value of personal growth promotes learning readiness and the evolving educator evaluation model supports this kind of learning.

Now if we are going to focus on learning—and with thanks and apologies to Canadian education researcher Michael Fullan—I’ll expect that we adopt some clear expectations around how we will learn together.   I want all administrators and teachers to support their own learning during faculty meetings, collaboration and common planning time by taking five actions I have borrowed from Fullan that I believe will improve instruction and provide better results for all learners, especially students:

1.     Discuss specific student needs (Who are my students?  Does a student require ELL support?  How can we assist them to master new vocabulary? What is the family dynamic?)
2.     Use data that clarifies student needs (Review grade level math data.  Discuss the results of common assessments or MCAS. Consider the use of attendance or discipline reports to guide decision-making.)
3.     Pursue creative and demanding instructional practices (Interdisciplinary learning, integrating the arts and wellness, “Thinking like an Historian.” robust writing and presentation opportunities—the key here, by the way, is high expectations!)
4.     Monitor, discuss, share, and celebrate learning progress (Share and talk about your successes and failures!  Are the interventions working? Visit a colleague’s classroom to observe.  Highlight and celebrate the work of colleagues and students.)
5.     Repeat. (Do it all over again!)

In order to boost learning, this is how our lead learners—teachers and administrators—should use the time the District has provided. 

Colleagues, in the coming days, scores of young people will arrive in our classrooms and schools, and they will be both excited and anxious to begin a new year.  Let’s commit that we will focus our work this year and always on their learning and on our professional growth.

Let’s use our time, resources, and experiences to lean on and support one another in collegial, collaborative, and joyful learning—learning that will enrich our students’ lives and make this world a better place.

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