Supporting Great Teaching: Overcoming Obstacles

Getting Better Together

You cannot have great teaching without great teachers. Any education reform that seek to separate one from the other by means of technological advancements, all-in-one assessment systems, or overloading effective teachers, will have long-term, massive consequences. Although we can engage students with devices, tablets, and modules, they make real connections to human beings. To teachers. The human dynamic in teaching is vital, and the connection between students and teachers is a powerful and important bond.

However, in establishing systems to support great teaching and great teachers, the human element may cause the most difficulty. Teachers are humans first, which means they have emotions, pressures, and realities that can’t be hidden away, even from a dynamic principal (or instructional coach) who’s implementing a new initiative. One of the lessons I’ve learned as an instructional coach is that you have to be able to work effectively with a range of personalities and experiences in order to create a system that supports and unleashes great teaching. This is tough! Through my work as a teacher, I’ve seen three obstacles that can slow or stop the creation of this system: empathy, followup, and assessment. These obstacles will serve as running themes throughout my getting better together journey this year.

Empathy

In order to create systems for great teaching, you have to understand each person, as an individual, as a human being, as a unique administrator and teacher. You have to, as Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird would say, “walk around in their skin.” This is a skill, to put yourself in another person’s shoes, and it’s sometimes lost in the typically hierarchical organization of schools. Oftentimes, you’ll find that there are levels of personnel between teachers and the administrative team, and issues can split the school into two sides — administrators and teachers. For example, when administrators have conversations on new initiatives, they might forget to take into account the impact they’ll have on teachers. By the time a new initiative reaches the teachers, pushback may be substantial. This is where empathy comes into play. Administrators and instructional leaders may be offended by teachers’ reluctance to accept a new initiative, but a more effective approach is to take the time to understand the root of the issue.

The challenge for an instructional coach like myself is putting the instructional issues I might see a particular teacher having on hold, until I’ve first taken the time to understand their problems or concerns, and to address these before moving on to improving the actual instruction. Empathy has allowed me to see what works. When you have empathy for someone, it can transfer to the teacher, and ultimately we will have empathy for the outcomes of the students we teach.

Followup

Many great intentions fail from a lack of followup. Whenever a teacher receives observational feedback and doesn’t receive a followup conversation or assistance in the form of professional development, the power of any suggestion for improvement is lost. As an instructional coach, I’ve had to put in as much, if not more, time into the debrief session as I do with the observational session. You could say that the proof of empathy is the action of following up.

Assessment

By assessment, I don’t mean paper and pencil, or mouse and computer. I mean being able to assess the readiness level of the teachers themselves. How ready are they for the initiatives and shifts in instruction that you’re building a system for? How have you prepared them to understand what great teaching looks like, sounds like, and feels like? These questions help me frame and focus my support. It also helps me see the additional supports and features that could compromise the infrastructure of this system.

Knowing what teachers are ready for and making known the vision of excellence that’s expected, is an important obstacle and there are three main solutions that I’ll discuss in my next post, but would like to introduce here:

  1. Establish common language and expectations. When all boats row in the same direction, sustained progress is possible. Ensuring that often-used words such as a “differentiation,” “engagement,” and “effective planning” are operationalized into observable behaviors is critical to establishing a common direction for all teachers.
  2. Build and sustain a standards-based infrastructure. Students improve when they’re allowed the opportunity to access challenging, grade-level work. The quality of this work is constrained by the standards that we use for instruction. Therefore, teachers must have a thorough knowledge of the standards that govern their curricula.
  3. Model. Observe. Give Feedback. Repeat. Effective teaching begets effective teaching. Modeling instructional shifts and schoolwide initiatives are effective first steps towards concretizing visions of excellence in instruction. However, it can’t end there; observation and feedback are the two followup actions that ensure the initial modeling was effective or needs to be re-taught in a more supportive way.

There are do’s and don’ts to each of these solutions, so make sure to read my next blog post which will outline strategies for implementation.

Remember to post any comments you have about this blog in the comments section below and post any ideas, pictures, or questions you have about creating systems that support great teaching on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using the hashtag #betterteachers. And read my previous blog post in this series, on creating systems for development.

This work was made possible through support by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Josh Parker is a 2013 NEA Global Fellow and the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year. He serves the students and staff of Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, D.C. as an Instructional Coach. He is a proud board member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Connect with Josh on Twitter: @MDTOY2012.

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