I am a subscriber of Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo. Larry is running an excellent teacher blog, so I am posting a portion of what he has pulled together because it addresses the focusing idea of this blog: Learning our way into continuously better teaching.
In part two of a series that Larry is doing called “Finding a Balance Between District Mandates & Student Needs” (click the link above to visit the blog page), author Sheryl Nussbaum Beach responds to this question from reader Juan Cortez:
Many times teacher are told by our districts to follow specific programs, but many times those programs do not differentiate or do not address specific needs of my students.
How can I balance following what my district tells me vs what I feel the students need?
Response From Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach
[Bio:] Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is CEO of Powerful Learning Practice LLC and co-author of The Connected Educator (Solution Tree, 2012). She’s a former elementary teacher, university teacher educator, and technology integration coach. She is a persistent advocate for passion-based inquiry learning, which she discussed in this 2011 interview at Education Week Teacher:
Many years ago when I first entered public school teaching (after leading a small independent school), I remember struggling with the “teacher’s guide” and reading series I was given to use in my elementary classroom. It was so scripted and I felt so boxed in. I knew that the strategies I was using were more effective than the dumbed-down activities in the series. They were one-size-fits-all and lacked any true creativity or opportunity to personalize the content to meet the individual needs of my students.
Yet my administrator had made it clear that as a new teacher I was to follow the guide. He felt it would make my teaching equal to others using the same guide (“teacher-proofed instruction”). Equity of educational experience was the district’s top priority, and he was afraid if teachers began to “go rogue” there would be disparity in quality and he would be held accountable.
I went to a trusted and more experienced friend and asked for her advice. She said something that has served me well over the years: “It is a teacher’s guide, not a teacher’s bible.” It was an ah-ha moment for me. The solution was not to buckle under, or to ignore credible learning goals, but to meet those goals my way. That was the day I became a champion for Do It Yourself teaching.
I realized that I couldn’t depend on the district to know everything my individual students needed or what I needed for that matter. By design they had to plan for the masses, and it was my job to think about the individual needs of each of my students. I had to take their expectations and “go them one better.” I had to prove that I could teach to their minimum standards, beat the tests, and take my kids to levels far beyond what they were imagining.
I knew there was a great deal I needed to learn in order to do that. For example, it seemed as though technology changed minute by minute. I wondered how to keep current and how important it was that I master all the tools before I used them in my lesson planning. In fact, I began to feel overwhelmed as I allowed myself to think about what I didn’t know and wondered if I tried to change my practice without district sponsored in-services and workshops just how successful I would be.
DIY learning. What would that even look like?
The idea of orchestrating your own learning, selecting your own mentors, organizing your own conferences and workshops, and pursuing just-in-time learning has taken off around the globe.
It is relatively easy today to become a producer of information rather than just a consumer. In the era of connectivity, informal mentoring relationships are easily formed and those with expertise are eager to pass on what they know. The first step is to be clickable or findable online. I am unable to learn from you if you are not sharing online. I will never be able to find you and leverage what you know. And the reverse is true — if you aren’t active in the wide world of PD, you can’t learn from me and so many others.
Becoming a connected, do-it-yourself learner begins with your willingness to be a findable, clickable, searchable-on-Google person who shares openly and transparently. From there we can form a connection, a conversation, a relationship and begin to collaborate.
DIY learning requires a shift in mindset too. Rather than being a passive receiver you have see yourself as an active learner with a “learner first” mentality. As connected adult learners, we arent’ afraid to admit that we don’t always have the answer to a question or problem, and we willingly invite others into a dialogue to explore, discuss, debate, or generate more questions.
To be most effective, DIY learners need to be intentional and create your network connections with purpose. It helps to ask yourself questions like:
1) What is it I am interested in learning or changing?
2) Who has some expertise in this area? Who can I connect with online that can help me?
3) How will I measure my progress? How will I know I have learned what I wanted to know? How will I show leadership in my system that I don’t need a “teacher-proof” script in my classroom?
The best DIY tip is to create a Personal Learning Network online. That way you can have others to learn with in a job-embedded context.
Here are some key tips to get started:
1. Establish one consistent username across all networks to build and manage your online reputation and identity.
2. Find one or two people you trust and respect to follow. Maybe these are people you know or people who have a reputation for helping newbies.
3. When you find people online you respect, look at who they follow, and select your first connections from their list. You may want to begin your network by considering well-respected bloggers with whom you’re familiar. Often bloggers include links to their social media accounts. Review who is in their networks and whom they read and follow.
4.Follow or create a hashtag related to what you are interested in knowing. A hashtag (#) connects all the learners interested in a topic together. For example, the #etmooc is being used in blog posts, twitter conversations, podcasts as part of an open online course. All I have to do is Google the tag and all the learning is pulled together into one place.
Where can you get more information about PLNs?
There are several useful books about PLNs, including Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (Solution Tree, 2011) by Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli.
This infographic at the Powerful Learning Practice web site portrays “A Day in the Life of a Connected Educator” and shows how PLNs fit into the total picture of DIY job-embedded, connected professional development.
Kathy Schrock’s “Guide to Creating Your Personal Learning Network” includes many resources and a set of six investigations in the sidebar that can get you off to a good start.
Here’s the bottom line: My district had sought to dummy-proof instruction so all students would receive a quality education. It is tough to scale quality assurance when you have a lot of diversity in the teaching force (as many systems do). Leadership’s all-too-common mindset was: the better we can standardize procedures, the more we can control outcomes.
However, the truth is that teacher quality can’t be controlled with mandates from on high. Rather, it comes with building the social capital and collective intelligence of your teachers. If administrative leaders would focus on seriously developing leadership skills among teachers — and then create opportunities for them to gradually step out in their leadership roles within the school and system — they would find less need to control and more opportunities to empower their best practitioners, spread effective (not rote) teaching practices, and promote a high level of professional collaboration that leads to student engagement and achievement.
Teacher who learn collectively in learning communities (virtual and face-to-face) — sharing what works, reflecting on action research, implementing new ideas, and then collectively remixing the best of the best — do not need to be “led” with quality assurance gimmicks or district mandates based on some cure-all package bought from a textbook publisher. Instead, teachers become partners who hold each other mutually accountable for school improvement and student outcomes. Teachers can help make this happen by taking the initiative and beginning to build our own authentic learning communities. You don’t need to wait to be told. You can do it yourself. We all can.