Tie And Jeans

For-reals guaranteed path to teacher improvement

While in CA, I got a chance to catch up with an old friend who’s also a NAIS educator. We met well before either of us thought of teaching, and our oddly parallel careers often provide interesting points of reflection and introspection.

Since we last saw each other, he’s taken on a Dean of Students-ish role at his school. He’s thrilled with the position, which extends his great relationships with students from his classroom into the cultural fabric of the upper school.

We spent a while discussing the brass tacks struggles of establishing cultural norms that extend past classroom doors into the hallways, athletic fields and social spaces. I asked him about classroom and faculty observation (always a sticking point at independent schools, and often the first thing to fall off any admin schedule) and he grimaced. “Observing other teachers is fine, because I can strive to be a wide, objective lens. But I’m so glad I don’t have to tell anyone how to be a better teacher.”

This stunned me.

My friend is a whip-smart guy, and I was staggered by the fact that he found helping teacher peers improve more daunting than shifting the cultural norms of high school students.

Something changed at the party (we both had kids under 5 running underfoot) and we never made it back into that conversational moment. But that disparity stuck with me for the rest of our vacation, riding in my head through airports and aquariums.

Full ego time, I think the general outline for “how to improve as a teacher” is almost a solved problem. Not that the journey is easy, but that the path is well marked. Here in all its vainglory, is Andrew’s Path Towards Teacher Improvement.

0) Admit in your heart that you’re not a perfect teacher. Accept in your heart that you’re not the worst – that even on your bad days, your caring and strength will have a positive affect on students.

1) Confess, out-loud in a supportive community of craft, the specific challenges you face in any aspect of your teaching life. Do this as openly, honestly, publicly and immediately as possible.

2) Reach out to specific teachers you respect in that community, and directly ask them for their thoughts, advice and general help with the specific challenges you’re facing.

3) Take that advice. Immediately turn back into the problem areas and shift things up. Don’t wait for next semester or next year, or for after the Unit test. Make a specific change in your teaching practice, and talk publicly about that change in the same community.

4) Observe the results closely and share more. Don’t trust yourself to be the sole implementor, observer and arbiter of this refinement. Share as much first hand material as you can, and invite as much external observation as possible.

5) Repeat. Remember to loop back to step 0 when you get a handle on what previously seemed impossible and start to believe your own hype.

When we care about our teaching craft, it’s easy to disappear inside ourselves and treat it like a montage-problem. If I stare at the screen/project/papers/empty classroom long enough, the background music will swell and the problem will be solved by the next scene.

That’s crap.

The only thing that has ever improved my classroom is being able to see the problem through another set of eyes. Sometimes this doesn’t need much external influence – any teacher worth their salt can poke at lessons and classroom practices through the viewpoints of particular students. But the supercharged stuff comes from bringing another educator (or two or twenty) into the heart of the problem, teachers you trust enough to be open to their critiques and suggestions.

I know, it’s not original. Supposedly that cycle describes the basis of the observation and evaluation program at every school. But we all know there’s years where no other adult sees the inside of your classroom. Sometimes we forget the steady, quiet damage wrought by that isolation.

As a faculty facing admin, your macro job is to help individuals take the initial steps and maintain forward momentum on that course. The micro job is to help find and refine solutions to particular obstacles and challenges. While the micro is far more challenging than the macro, that doesn’t mean the macro process lacks value. Admins can take steps to form those communities of craft inside a particular school and connect individual teachers to existing ones in the wider world. Admin can serve as seed crystals for those communities, as bridges between diverse ones (taught well, 3rd grade Art and Calculus can share a ton of teaching craft), and as exemplars that model constructive non-evaluative feedback for other educators.

To help teachers improve you don’t need to be able to solve every micro problem. We all have a teacher craft bag of tricks, and being an admin doesn’t imply that yours has to be infinite. The highest priority for an admin focused on faculty improvement is to ensure that every teacher (including themselves!) is connected to a group that views these challenges as substantive and solvable. **

It sounds too simple, but those steps are what I’ve seen save new teachers and flagging veterans alike over the last 15 years. Sometimes these procedures are codified into groups like the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project, which saved my bacon more than once, or thrive informally in healthy and vibrant faculty rooms. But even without those existing structures, every teacher has daily access to the widest range of support imaginable. Leaping into those groups, even super friendly ones like the Mathtwitterblogosphere, demands incredible humility and courage from all teachers, to publicly ask for help straight from the heart of our struggles. For educators who inspire 17 year olds to live with integrity, curiosity and passion, helping teachers into these communities of craft shouldn’t be a mystery.

** Those two traits are key. A group of veteran teachers that’s *knows* that every classroom discipline problem can be solved with colored flags and detentions is not sufficient.



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5 thoughts on “For-reals guaranteed path to teacher improvement

  1. Margo Isabel on said:

    Lots of insight and valuable suggestions Andrew. If teachers follow your 0-5 advice, maybe “formal observations” would not be so necessary. 1 take away for me: to be more intentional in creating an environment where teachers will seek out each others input; 2 thought: you refer to trust, this is key and sometimes seems to be a point of contention thus creating a culture of trust needs further attention to create this supportive environment. You have given me food for thought to start the year. Thank you.

    • tieandjeans on said:

      Thanks for the kind word, Margo!

      I don’t think any of this eliminates the need for in-school observation, formal or otherwise. It’s depressing to leave a school and know that there’s nothing in your “official record” that speaks to how WELL you taught, or what you contributed to the school. Formal observations provide a window for that.

      Unfortunately, the time crunch on admin is such that if you’re going to have formal observations, you largely give up on meaningful informal ones. Which is why I think that supporting (less politely: shoving) teachers into communities of craft is a great role for admin. That might be in-house, anchored by instructional coaches, or they could be on the broader web. But then the admin’s attention is focused on supporting the teacher in that community, possibly coming in to kick around a particularly challenging issue, rather than being the primary support.

      The trust conflict you mention comes from when the person responsible for your formal (job-keeping) evaluation also says “come to me with any problems you have throughout the year!” Unless there’s a visible and well-established cultural norm that WORKING on your teaching craft is always preferable to IGNORING problems with your craft, that tension will never resolve.

  2. I sometimes get heat for the amount of effort I put into improving what I do. But, I find the more I reflect on my teaching with colleagues who may not be so reflective, the more they seem to start thinking about whether what they’re doing is the best way to do things. The vast majority of my colleagues are constantly improving, rethinking strategies, assignments, course structure. But a handful have a “I know best” kind of attitude. I think one thing I’m always feeling is humbled, humbled by the prospect of trying to help my students learn, humbled by knowing that there’s always a student who knows more than I do about something. Going into the classroom feeling that (without taking away the idea that I’m pretty good at what I do) is important to me. I think when you belittle the importance of the task at hand is when you stop improving. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s how I’ve felt for 20 years.

    • tieandjeans on said:

      It makes perfect sense, and I think if you *asked* 98% percent of teachers you’d hear a similar response. But in my own practice, I recognize that when I compartmentalize and put aside some aspect of the teaching craft as something I’ve fully solved, I promptly stop improving.

      I used to think that tech/CS teachers had a leg up on this process, since we’re based in a field that is A) really fast and where B) we’re always beginners again. At this point I’ve met as many stagnant, complacent folk within those groups as any other subset of teachers. But the principle still seems good! There’s a lot about learning new STUFF that’s helpful when you’re trying to improve your teaching craft, although the two aren’t identical.

      • Yep, one of my deeper frustrations with CS education has been folks who mostly teach the way they were taught or the way they learned and think that’s good enough when there’s a ton of good research out there about how to do this better.

        I’ve semi-developed a community of practice at my school for teachers to discuss mostly tech stuff, but we end up discussing all kinds of things related to teaching. Administrators often drop in. I’m continuing it this year and it’s something I look forward to. The teachers who attend tell me it’s the highlight of their week. Unfortunately, we end up with less than 10 teachers attending. One of my administrators has offered food to boost attendance. I’m hopeful.

        I had wanted the group to read articles and discuss them, have it be a place of sharing and a place to learn from each other. We’ll see how it goes.

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