This may sound harsh, but there are many factors that have shaped the traditional American teacher's belief system. Enter Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof- "Tradition!" We teach the way we were taught because we learn by doing. It is not until we experience a new way that we are transformed.
In the case of the American teacher, history has been repeating itself for over 100 years now. Yesterday, I was creating a slideshow of American classrooms from 1910 to 2014 for my New Teacher Cohort. Interestingly, in each photo the teacher was front and center "teaching like their hair was on fire" while students sat in straight rows doing what anyone does when they have to sit and listen for eight hours... There were nuances in each photograph. My personal favorite was the teacher from the 1940's pointing to her chalkboard with the words written in perfect cursive, "Wash your hands before eating." Excuse me, will that be on the state test in April?
It wasn't until I found pictures from the year 2000 and up that students were depicted working in small groups, using technology, conducting experiments. The straight rows were gone. Then I got to 2014, the rows were back, but every student was using a tablet or a phone to assist them. The teacher was in the back working with one student. Every student was engaged, learning at their own pace, with the teacher there to clarify, scaffold, enrich, and all the other buzz words. The students were working like their hair was on fire. I don't see this kind of classroom very often, but I know it exists. But how to I get my teachers to engage in this kind of teaching?
This mismatch of photo to my reality presents a conundrum for many reasons. First, you have teachers and college education departments that are products of "traditional teaching and learning". Without support, meaning access to strategies and willingness to try them, observing other teachers, or receiving helpful feedback from observers, the teacher closes the door and class proceeds as it has been for a hundred years. Then, in walks the evaluator who sees a large number of students disengaged with traditional teaching and "Ding..ding..ding..thank you for playing. You are no longer an effective teacher." What? And we wonder why teacher morale is at an all time low.
Many of our veteran teachers ask, "How is it that I have been an exemplary teacher my entire career, and now you are putting me on an intensive support plan for ten days? You expect me to unlearn everything I have known to be good and right for kids or I lose my job?" They feel angry, betrayed, and insulted. Teachers have been left behind and are expected to catch up yesterday. Try to teach feeling like you just got run over by a Mack truck with your evaluator's name on the licence tag. Some teachers simply shut down and resist change.
New teachers are not much different from the veterans. If schools do not support and mentor their new teachers, they tend to teach the way they were taught just to survive. Let's face it too, teachers love to talk and tell what they know. It is hard for us to give up the limelight. Lecturing M-Th and test on Friday is so much easier to plan than prepping six different stations, fighting with technology that doesn't work, or not having the physical resources (i.e. textbooks or iPads for every kid) that we need.
Sometimes, we resort to traditional methods because the school infrastructure no longer supports us. For example, any time I ask a teacher, "What do you need?" The answer is unanimously, "Time." In the past ten years, our paperwork demand has morphed from only doing lesson plans and grading papers to doing those two things plus data analysis, smart goals, communication logs, discipline logs, email requests from school and families, meetings, meeting minutes, and the list goes on and on. The paperwork demands outweigh the hours in the workday.Teachers often say to me, "When am I supposed to have time for my family?"
Keeping track of these "maintenance tasks" and "due dates" can take up every inch of the teacher's mind and spirit, making it hard to quiet the teacher's brain. Many teachers I work with do not have the mental space to change because they are exhausted and overwhelmed. We live in an age where we are bombarded with information and expected to respond to information almost immediately. I heard a speaker say that the average American today takes in more information in ONE DAY than people 100 years ago took in their entire lives.We can't escape information bombing- it's on our phones, the radio, TV, computers, email, etc. Sometimes, we need to just shut off our devices to shut off our minds.
However, this is difficult for the modern teacher.
So, when teachers have to make a choice about reading to learn, attending a mediocre PD where they listen to someone talk about what they should be doing, or watching another video (all on their own time) many simply do not have the mental or emotional space to do so. It is a conundrum, but stay
tuned for Part II where I present solutions for helping teachers engage in improving their practice.