Thursday, 13 January 2011

Author of blog post hows your teaching

Author of the blog post "How's Your Teaching Practice," Todd Beach, career social studies teacher with a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and a Doctorate from the University of Sussex, explores the concealed realities of the teaching experience. He highlights a difference between teaching experience and teaching practice where experience equals (only) engagement and practice links to (instructional) improvement. He goes on to reflect upon his journey noting the feelings of being lost, isolated, and overwhelmed during his first three years. 

Going into his fourth year, he was moved from an isolated classroom to a commons area where nine other teachers taught their students (yes, one large, open space where he said showing video was taboo due to its distractive nature in such a setting). He discusses the challenges and advantages of this open atmosphere and remarks on the impact it had on his teaching practice. This unusual classroom layout allowed him to observe other teachers planning and teaching; likewise, his peers could observe him. Because he welcomed feedback and was so open to self-improvement, he made this relocation – that which many might consider to be disruptive and unfortunate – into a powerful learning experience that promoted a more reflective and adaptive teaching practice.


It takes one to know and understand one – a teacher, that is.
I immediately related to this article because I spent the majority of my time as a teacher during my first three years in survival mode… my first year I taught English 9, World History, Psychology/Sociology, and Second Chance Reading; my second year: 9-12 English and Second Chance Reading; my third year: English 9 and K-12 library and information skills. In addition to my teaching assignments, I coached varsity volleyball, co-coached track, and sponsored the National Honor Society students. In addition to these activities, I took college classes to add teaching endorsements at night and on weekends and more recently to get my Masters. Long story short: I burned myself out. Quickly.
Employed at a small, rural school, I didn’t have another teacher in my department to collaborate with...I was the department. And I certainly didn’t have time to reflect – so I thought, and what did it mean to improve? At one time as the high school language-arts teacher, I was planning five to six different lessons per day, grading over 400 papers per week, and writing tests AFTER I taught the lesson…always just in the nick of time. As you can see, I had it all wrong. I was spinning my wheels but racing backwards. Though I did many of the following steps naturally, it wasn’t about helping each student, differentiating instruction, collaborating with my peers, or creating assessments that matched my objectives… it wasn’t about improving my practice. Though I had an excellent principal and took advantage of her expertise often, in a sense, I was still just trying to get by and did not want anyone to know that I was really sinking. It was about surviving, and in the back of my mind hopefully making a difference in my students’ lives.
One particular quote by Dr. Beach caught my attention, “Trying to figure out what I was doing tomorrow and trying to get materials ready was my first priority; frankly there was no time to give serious thought to the actual practice of teaching.” This statement is what I think of as the epitome of struggling teachers (new and veteran alike).  
But what about practiced teachers? Beach references the book, Why Don’t Students Like School?. The author, Daniel T. Willingham, “defines teaching practice as an activity in which you are engaged but also an activity you are continuously trying to improve.” Seeking constructive feedback from knowledgeable people is an important component for instructional improvement according to Willingham. Furthermore, Beach mentions the concept of building professional trust between your teaching peers through observation, focusing on teaching behaviors, and providing suggestions (only) upon request. Other ways to actively work towards improvement in practice include videotaping followed by peer and self-reflection as well as editing video (from several teachers’ lessons) highlighting specific teaching strategies… all strategies followed by discussion and more reflection. The most important point of Dr. Beach’s article, to me, was at the end, “Schools have a responsibility to remove barriers which may inhibit [this] growth, but ultimately teachers must choose to improve their teaching practice." Isn't that the truth?  
A phrase to remember from “How’s Your Teaching Practice?” is the concept of “the invisible barriers which limit and sometimes prohibit the development of our teaching practice.” This concept is complex and holds different meaning for each teacher. Barriers in regard to providing/receiving feedback: for some it is a personality conflict between teacher and administrator; for some it is the fear of being evaluated negatively by peers; for some it is an anxiety that one might lose his/her job; and for some it is a school culture problem. And barriers in regard to the self-initiation of professional development: for some it is a matter of being in teaching for the wrong reasons (don’t care, care more about sports, want summer vacations and long breaks, etc.); for some it is the mistaken belief that one does not need to change; and for some, it again could be a matter of school culture and organization.
If only Twitter, Classroom 2.0, and The Educator’s PLN would have been around when I was in my first few years of teaching (or if only I had been aware of these types of resources). I am confident that if access to professional learning communities and resources (including those shared via Twitter and other PLN's) was closer to my reach, then one of the invisible barriers (that which prevents teachers from reaching out, collaborating and sharing, and making strides in instructional performance) would have been minimized and I would have been a more efficient and reflective teacher. I cannot believe how much my knowledge base has expanded in the past few months due to my activity in professional learning communities!
What does this mean for me as a principal? It’s simple: my role is to organize the schedule in a way that promotes teacher collaboration; to set the atmosphere up for constructive peer-to-peer observation, debriefing, discussion, and planning; and to support teachers with guidance, resources, and encouragement as they work toward improving their practice. My mission is to remember what it was like to be a teacher.
...And for teachers, don't be afraid to reach out. Hopefully, you have the freedom to observe your peer teachers, and hopefully you are willing to allow them to observe you with a follow-up of constructive feedback.

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