I’ve noticed that a certain subset of newer teachers, say those who started in the past 5 years or so, have this really intense emotional reaction to certain activities within the realm of professional development. Specifically: If you put a photocopied packet in front of us containing strategies for organizing classroom activities or groupwork, we will go ballistic on you. Mild-mannered English teacher start composing death threats in rhyming couplets. Normally rational physics teachers start calculating how much force it would take to throw you out the window. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why this is, and I think I’m starting to get a handle on it.
Last week Jennifer Abrams (the educational consultant, not the bodybuilder) was at my school to give a workshop on working with adults. This is something I definitely need help with. In the context of my social group — mostly early 30s overeducated progressives with a bent for alternative culture — I know how to run an effective meeting and how to get a project off the ground. Among the mostly career teachers of widely varying age and experience levels that make up my professional group, I have a much harder time.
The workshop started with Jennifer reviewing some of the things that set adult learners apart from children, and she modeled some approaches to dealing with these differences. The points she raised — that adults want to be seen as competent, that they want to be involved and self-directed, that they need context, and that they need time to process experiences in order to truly learn from them — were all, I think, spot on and rang true for me. We ran through a basic set of questions from The Presenter’s Fieldbook – A Practical Guide by Robert Garmston which I thought were a great framework for stepping back to consider both the purpose and structures around work we want to do with other adults.
Then we jumped to the sample activities. And Jennifer modeled the idea that adults need some autonomy and self-direction in order to be engaged by letting us look at the activities on our own. These activities have names like “Say Something” and “Head, Heart and Hand” and “Seeds, Weeds, Needs”. I and some of the other teachers in the workshop immediately got frustrated. Here was another set of “strategies”… the sort of thing we’ve seen a thousand times held up as a examples of good instructional practice, but rarely, if ever, seen demonstrated in real-life teaching situations.
I don’t think it’s possible for even the least-sharp of blades to cut through the years of credential-mandated formal education and induction programs on the way to being a Highly Qualified Teacher without hearing about Jigsaws and KWL Charts and Think-Pair-Shares and 3-2-1 Lists and Exit Tickets and a myriad of other gimmick strategies again and again. Before last week, I hadn’t quite put my finger on why these sorts of things incense a certain subset of teachers, myself included, while others are perfectly happy to take the ideas and run with them. And others, the real veterans, either instinctively know how to avoid these sort of meetings or how to switch seamlessly to grading papers without getting perturbed. But now I think I know why this stuff burns some of us up, and how to avoid falling into the cynicism that disconnects people.
When strategies are put in front of me in the abstract, without any story around them or concrete example of their implementation or justification for why they would be the right thing to do, it feels like a cop-out on the part of the presenter. Sometimes a teacher doesn’t have a solid lesson plan and thinks, well, I could just have them read from the book for 30 minutes. Handing me a packet of strategies feels like saying the same thing: Here, use this stuff to teach yourself. And often (although not in Jennifer’s case) this lazy dictate comes from someone who is also telling you how to do your job.
And I don’t mind if you have an opinion about how I should do my job. I know I have more to learn. But if you have a technique that you think is worthwhile, show me an example that I can evaluate, or put it into a larger context that frames its utility. Don’t just throw a bunch of abstract ideas in front of me and claim that they’re useful or make it my job to figure out if and how they’re useful. As the old adage goes, “If you want to help, you have to be helpful.” And what’s really helpful is if we talk about how to use techniques in ways that actually make a difference in addressing the kinds of problems that we’re actually facing. I need to be able to imagine not only using the strategy but also believing in it. That’s how I teach. If the person handing me the packet doesn’t have anything to say about when and why they think these cute little activities are worth using, why should I bother trying to guess? If you truly believe that these are powerful tools for teaching, then show me how they work!
Last week, I started to get some perspective on this position for two reasons: One, some colleagues that I like and respect got annoyed at the same thing I was annoyed at and spoke up about it. Two, another colleague I like and respect pointed out times when she’s used the very strategies I was disparaging. She then went on to point out how I could use another one of these strategies in a specific context that she knows I’ve been struggling with. Suddenly the very objects of my discontent became useful tools. Jennifer handled the feedback really well and kept the group more or less on track. To me, it felt like a turning point in my understanding.
If you, dear reader, happen to work with newer teachers who have probably had an overload of ideas pushed in front of them but stand at a deficit of working examples, keep this in mind as you help them. It would be much more helpful if they saw and heard about the details of one strategy working in one situation than to get ten strategies and zero applications. This connects back to one of the key points about adult learners that Jennifer opened her presentation with: “What is to be learned must hold meaning; it must connect with current understandings, knowledge, experience and purpose.” We know from working with students that meaning doesn’t come from a worksheet or a chalk-and-talk. But it can pretty easily come from a story or an example. If there’s no story offered, a good presenter will be able to give me one when I ask. Or I could make one up for myself using my own current challenges. These are ways for me to be beyond cynicism and to extract any available value from ideas that float by.