Someone on the Co-op (and I apologize that I don’t remember who) wrote in a post a while back–a long while back–that “Teachers operate within a context they do not control. Absent the appropriate context and support, we often do not truly know how good those teachers are, or can be.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that lack of control since I read that. There are so many things I’d like to try for my students. With many principals, I’ve been blessed to have support to scaffold my kids in different ways. In my first year of teaching in my county, my principal let me, as a second year teacher, teach an individualized math class—the kids worked through the book on their own and I helped as they asked for it, giving direct instruction to those who needed it, but allowing others who didn’t to work at their own pace. I still wonder what that ‘good ‘ol boy” network, old school principal saw in me that he let me try that.
I’ve always been what, in the research, is called a “vanguard” teacher—one who often leads the pack in trying new things and encourages others by example to do so. In June 2008 I did a county presentation on wikis and that got those going in our county. In November 2008 I did one on Twitter, and that began our county journey into that. I could list 15-20 more examples like that—Robotics at the elementary school, a storytelling group, contests and challenges I introduced to others, being asked to facilitate the first laptop lab in our system, and on and on. The bottom line is that the context in which I work—which is different from most teachers, I admit—has always been supported by leaders in my system—either my principal or at the county level, so that I could do the things that felt right to me for the kids I was teaching–whether that be as the SPED cluster teacher, a K-5 classroom teacher, a tech teacher or now, as the gifted resource teacher. The visionary thinking is not about me—or what I do–but about providing the very best opportunities for kids to learn and collaborate and think with tools they will use in their lives.
I’ve just finished my first year with yet another new principal. I guess I’m lucky–in the 37 years I’ve been teaching I’ve only done this 8 times. Principals can and do make the difference in a building—and I have to say I am not slow to switch schools if I find I am with a principal who doesn’t understand how crucial support and appropriate context is the success of both students and teachers. So it’s interesting to get a new principal, to see how they assess the culture of the school (or not) and what they do (or not) to support structures already in place and what they do (or not) to create new structures that support student learning in ways that matter.
Since much of what I do may be new or not be common practice in my school, and I am not a traditional teacher, it’s fascinating to see which leaders understand me and what I am trying to do with kids and which don’t get it. Conversations are crucial here—neither of us can assume anything. Just as I am trying figure out the way they work, so are they (hopefully) trying to figure me out–and either of us adopting a stance of unease, distrust or fear is stupid. Transparency is best. If they, whomever and in whatever role they play, don’t buy into transparency, then the context is wrong for someone, and the support won’t be there for any of the parties involved.
I once had a principal look me square in the eye—in front of a colleague, no less–after the completion of a difficult task and say, “I really didn’t think you’d pull this off.” Does that communicate positive thinking or belief in a teacher’s skill and ability? How do you think most teachers would respond to that in their classrooms? I, frankly, see that comment as expecting failure–and if you can say that to a teacher, what will the teachers think you expect from the students? Looking back, I wish I had had the presence of mind to say, “That’s an incredibly hateful thing to say to someone” and get up and walk out.
And, I had another leader say to me, when I asked for support with a TRIAL project, “We’re already doing that in another school.” What does that imply–that we don’t need to try it in multiple settings? That nothing can be gained by different types of teachers doing it? That we can learn everything we need to by trying something once? I see that as really inexperienced thinking–and shortsightedness. I frankly, see that limited understanding as not having a clue about technology use or design thinking and how it works differently for different clientele and leadership—and I see it as extremely narrow thinking.
I had yet another principal (who is now in our central office and who was the one who helped me facilitate the first and second laptop lab in our county) say she felt her job was to figure out how to say “yes’ when teachers asked to do something in their classrooms. Most leaders initially say no, and many see that to be their job. Sadly, I have worked for some of those. What a different culture those two viewpoints establish! And, what a different feel for design thinking that also develops!
I guess I cite these incidents as examples to show we should always think about context and support. The context of the person asking or doing is crucial to their success–and that context is different for every adult, just as it is for students. If we don’t consider the context of our students’ learning, will we, as teachers, be successful helping them learn? I think not. If our leaders don’t support us in the context of our learning, will we be the teachers we could be? I think not.
I’m circling round to the quote that began this post- “Absent the appropriate context and support, we often do not truly know how good those teachers are, or can be.” Context, support, relationships—all are important in scaffolding for success. Research is ripe with showing how crucial relationships are in education.
How are your leaders in the area of understanding support and context?