Can we push accomplished teachers even further? (Part 1 of 3)

June 16, 2016

The hallmarks of accomplished teaching are analysis and reflection, the disposition to think carefully about teaching and learning, past and future, with the goal of constant improvement. I think every teacher I know, and certainly every National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), has the drive to improve. After all, no one wants to devise and deliver an ineffective lesson, and it’s never a pleasant experience to pick up the pieces of fragmented instruction when we occasionally mess up. And when we see the positive results of our efforts, the sense of satisfaction and utter joy can last for days.

I wish I could say that the general inclination towards improvement ran deeper in our profession, however. It may be a problem in other professions, or even in human nature. Unfortunately, there is a crucial threshold where we should keep going and we back off. Wanting to improve a lesson or unit of instruction is the easy part of improvement. I’m not saying teaching is easy work, but rather that it’s easy to find the motivation to improve our curriculum and instruction. We all want to see students engaged, learning, creating, making connections, taking positive steps in their academic and personal development. But sometimes, the improvement of teaching requires that we re-examine paradigms that have shaped our approach in the past, and that’s a level of analysis and reflection that some teachers are less prepared to enter. It’s difficult, intimidating, even threatening. We may not like the implications.

Nonetheless, in this blog post and the two following in the next two weeks, I’m going to suggest three areas where we need to bring more of our peers into hard conversations, and consider significant changes to widespread practices.

Part 1: Technology and “kids today” (also: “parents today”)

Teaching has changed significantly in the past decade. Not just teaching, but the means by which all of us access information, create and collaborate, and even interact with each other. While technology may have driven that change, the effect is deeper in our collective psychology now. Expectations regarding the ease and frequency of communication, the immediacy and interactivity in our daily engagements, have fundamentally changed how we think and act. We sometimes talk about how our brains are “wired” – something that has been altered, ironically, by the wireless experience of the internet age.

If you started teaching 10 years ago, you didn’t have a smartphone, and your students certainly didn’t. Text messages were far from ubiquitous, and “app” wasn’t in our vocabulary. If, like me, you started teaching 20 years ago, you probably took students to a computer lab, where they used their own diskettes to save work. They could search the internet, using Netscape, and the lucky ones among us had 56k modems to access our AOL or EarthLink accounts. We rented video tapes at Blockbuster.

In a relatively short time period, we’ve changed, and for some teachers, the changes are viewed as a negative. Kids today can’t focus. They expect everything to be fun, interactive, student centered, rewarding in the short term, flexible, negotiable.

If we find ourselves frustrated in some aspect of our teaching because student or parent expectations are changing, we must analyze the situation and reflect on our responsibility to change with the times as well.

It’s not just those kids today, not just parents, not just school. Look around a cafe or waiting room or a train station. What’s happening in your teachers’ lounge or staff meetings? So we certainly can’t expect students who are growing up today to think or behave in ways that are not shaped by the world they live in. Some of these changes might be for the the worse, but complaining about the changes won’t undo them. If we find ourselves frustrated in some aspect of our teaching because student or parent expectations are changing, we must analyze the situation and reflect on our responsibility to change with the times as well. We live and work in a new digital, connected, interactive era.

That doesn’t mean that we need to change everything we do, nor does it mean all of our changes must involve technology. The low-tech, analog experiences and simple pleasures still matter. If technology has influenced pedagogy towards less teacher talk and more student activity, the activity doesn’t have to involve the internet, or coding. One of the pleasant ironies of our technical evolution has been that it spawned the “Maker” movement, which embraces all sorts of do-it-yourself projects, skills, and crafts. Talk to someone with a makespace at the their school, and you’ll likely find that it includes ways for students to make something by sewing, sculpting, or constructing – it’s not all about robotics, programming, circuit boards, and digital video.

I’m not suggesting that we must provide exactly what students and parents want all the time. We need to educate students and parents about how teachers communicate, what we share (or don’t share), when, and why. For example, I’ve worked with students and parents who would like to monitor how every assignment affects the student’s course grade. I think that such attention constitutes a kind of hyper-vigilance that can be exhausting and counterproductive. Instead of complaining about kids today, however, I need to engage with students and parents around the expectations and issues to reach some mutual understanding. And I also need to recognize that I can and should change what I used to do; it benefits everyone involved if I address the expectations and preferences of my students and their parents.

Part 2 of this blog post series examines practices around homework, formative assessment, and grading.

In Part 3, I propose that we need to give up some preconceived notions about roles and responsibilities in school leadership, professional development, and evaluation.

David B. Cohen, NBCT

David B. Cohen is a National Board Certified English Teacher and the Blog Editor of The Standard. Cohen taught high school English for 12 years in Palo Alto, Ca. For several years, Cohen co-directed a teacher leadership network called Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). That experience gave him opportunities to learn about and work with teachers from all over California. Having worked with a variety of other networks and organizations, and having built relationships with individuals and groups around the state, Cohen is currently working on a book about excellence in California public education. Follow him on twitter @CohenD.