It is completely possible for teachers to transform their practices if given the time,space, and consistent support to do so.
Engage Teachers in the Strategies We Expect Them to Use
For years, I have gone to "sit and get" professional development sessions where information was read to me off of a power point. I zoned out or felt as if my time had been wasted. Adults must be active participants in their learning and allowed to share their perceptions, knowledge, and skills while in the act of learning (Conti, 2004; Long, 2004).
If the expectation is that teachers must engage all learners, we must engage our teachers in hands-on experiences. For example, last week I led two sessions on two different topics, but rather than tell the participants only why, what, and how, I led them to actually performing the different strategies as "students". After which, they reflected "as teachers" either in writing or orally. The goal was to allow them to visualize themselves actually carrying out this strategy in their classrooms. Engaging in the strategy alongside their colleagues allowed them to pose questions and troubleshoot issues they might encounter when trying to implement the strategy.
How do I know if my training made a difference in a teacher's practice?
How many times have you gone to an inspiring workshop with aspirations to revolutionize your classroom, only put the book bag full of goodies in the corner, never to open it? If you are like me, probably a lot.
How do I know if my training made a difference in a teacher's practice? Jane Vella (2008) said you will see "New skills, new theories, new behaviors are in place in their old workplace." In my own experience, teachers either let me know excitedly that they trying out the new techniques or invite me to come and see "what their kids are learning".
Sometimes when the change needs to become a new habit, setting a follow-up date is imperative. Vella suggested that we must create systems that "request indicators of transfer" (2008, p. 322). After a training or a coaching session, set a future date to visit and see agreed upon indicators. This holds teachers accountable for their change commitments. Support them when they readily fail to put them in place. Probe the teacher to uncover where the hold-up is and support them in a way that is meaningful to them. Role-play. Co-plan. Demo-teach. They will tell you what works best, just ask.
Moving out of the classroom into a coaching role felt tricky and sticky. I didn't want to seem like a know-it-all or better than anyone. I wanted to appear humble, yet worthy of the title. It was like walking in a new pair of shoes. Coaching felt new and shiny, but a little painful. I also am a firm believer that trusting relationships have to be formed between the teacher and the learner. So, in Joellen Killion's (2008) words, I was coaching light.
Coaching light is providing resources, co-planning, co-teaching, setting up time for the teacher to learn from peers. The coach focuses on maintaining the relationship over improving student learning (Killion, 2008). The coach wants to be perceived as valuable. Don't get me wrong, coaching light is necessary. I became a better educator from experiencing all of those above. Also, teachers must be able to trust you as a person and you, as a mentor.
Listening to teachers and answering their questions is a huge part of my work. My go-to expression is this, "Do you want me to listen? Do you want feedback? Or, do you want me to fix it?" Often, I start off listening and once the teacher has vented, they look at me and say, "Okay. So what do I do?"
It didn't take long for me to realize that coaching light is not enough to improve teacher practice. During my first year and a half, I would get so frustrated when teachers couldn't or wouldn't improve their practice. They consistently got low evaluation scores, and that stung. I wasn't used to learners in my care not succeeding. I was doing everything I knew to do. Why couldn't they get it? It got so bad that I wanted to dismiss my failure as theirs. In the south, we have a saying, "She just needs to pack up and go to the house." I had days where I wanted to tell struggling teachers, "You need leave, like, right now. You are hurting kids."
My mindset was teachers are born, not made, but I was wrong.
Heavy coaching asks teachers questions that help what my friend Sylvia Sullivan calls "unpack mindsets." Well, I had to unpack mine first. When teachers did not change, my mindset was teachers are born, not made, but I was wrong. I realize now that I was more focused on saving their jobs than improving student learning. I was coaching teachers for the purpose of them getting better evaluation scores and I framed our conversations that way. It was almost like plotting strategies for "the evaluation game."
Now that I have started probing teachers' thinking and beliefs about learners and the decisions they make when teaching, I am seeing rapid transformations in their practices. Killion stated that after a few weeks of light coaching, the coach must shift to and stay at the heavy coaching level (2008, p. 4). By no means am I an expert. My goal is to get much better at coaching heavy and find tools and mentors to help me. Just like any other learner, I am a work in progress, capable of growth and transformation.
Conti, G. (2004). Identifying your teaching style. In Galbraith, M. W. (Ed.), Adult learning Methods: A guide for effective instruction. (pp. 75-86). Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.
Killion, J., (2008) Are you coaching heavy or light? Teachers teaching teachers. 3:8, May 2008
Long, H.B. (2004). Understanding adult learners. In Galbraith, M. W. (Ed.), Adult learning methods: A guide for effective instruction. (pp. 23-37).Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.
Vella, J. (2010). Designing and assessing learning experiences. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.