Around October of my first year of teaching, I experienced an overwhelming depression brought on by what seemed the inescapable truth that my work simply did not matter. My students would succeed or fail despite my efforts. New teachers typically cite this belief as their primary reason for leaving the profession.
Déjà vu struck last week. I left work Friday afternoon convinced that the individuals under my tutelage would flourish or founder despite my efforts.
I am no longer a classroom teacher. Instead, I provide professional development programs for P-12 teachers. Sometimes these programs take the form of weeklong workshops. Occasionally, they look like the more typical “drive-by” PD— a few hours after school or on an early release day. Most recently, I’ve been helping individual schools identify their instructional challenges and then tailoring PD to those needs.
Twenty years in education, nearly half of it with adult learners, has led me to the conviction that there is no such thing as Adult Learning Theory. While adult brains may have better impulse control and somewhat longer attention spans, they also have much more deeply ingrained habits of mind than children. Encouraging a new way of thinking about a difficult topic is exactly as difficult in adults as it is in children—more so if you first have to supplant an old way of thinking.
I begin most workshops with an injunction against blaming the students. To do so is to accept an external locus of control, to concede that nothing in your classroom is in your power.
As I struggled with my frustration with the lack of progress I was seeing in the teachers I work with, I returned to this idea. If my students weren’t making sufficient progress, I would change my teaching practices to address that. What, then, was I doing wrong as an educator that was preventing my teachers from progressing?
When teaching a new and sophisticated concept to children or adolescents, I know I must provide multiple opportunities for them to engage with the material before they will feel confident in their understanding.
So, why would I expect an adult to make the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction based on a single modeled lesson?
When teaching complex processes to children and adolescents, I break it down into discreet steps and teach each explicitly.
Why, then, should I be surprised that the teachers I work with didn’t do any of the things that must precede a student-centered classroom, things I not only had not taught but had not even identified?
When working with children and adolescents, especially those with troubled academic pasts, no learning will occur until you establish a mutually respectful and caring relationship with each student.
My group e-mails weren’t doing the trick? Shocking.
I went back in on Tuesday with a renewed internal locus of control: what can I do differently to help these educators be more effective?
I sat in on a first grade reading class and saw that, although most of the students were eager to participate, the teacher was calling on only one student at a time. As a result, students were either shouting out or checking out. Both problems could be remedied if the teacher used more student-to-student interactions, but the children didn’t know how to engage in an academic conversation.
With her blessing, I’ll be modeling that skill both for her benefit and theirs on Thursday.
Discreet steps. Multiple exposures. Personal relationships.
I’ll let you know how it goes.