Sunday, January 13, 2013

Psychiatrists:Lighbulbs :: PD-givers:???

One of my favorite jokes goes like this:
Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A:  Only one, but it has to really want to be changed.
I think about this joke a lot in my current role as curriculum coordinator, and also as a parent of three school-going children.  I think about when I observe a teacher at my school doing something that's -- well, let's say commonly-accepted but low-impact.  And when my kids come home from school with some story about pedagogy that just makes me wince--for example, starting class by going over homework answers, which (for those of you who don't know) pretty much stops any job interview with me in its tracks.  I think to myself: I could tell this teacher what s/he's doing is bad and why it's bad.  And yet, I don't think that initiating that conversation would change anything.  The teacher has to really want to change.

So what gets a teacher to want to change?  Because I'm in pessimistic mode, this is a shortlist of things I've found that don't work as well as they should.

  1. Unsuccessful students.  We have an amazing capacity to rationalize failure of individuals or groups.  How often have I said "----'s a weak student" rather than asking "How can I address ---'s weaknesses?  More often than I'd care to admit.
  2. Successful students.  When we look at a school (class, teacher) who is producing consistently excellent results, do we ask "what is their practice?"  Or do we say "their kids/budget/materials/prep time/----" is different?
  3. Data from actual lessons.  "Did you realize you spent 20 minutes going over homework problems?" "Yeah, it's a pain, but they really need to go over the answers they don't know."
  4. Professional development.  PD is the least effective instigator of change: it supports change initiatives that teachers already buy into.
Having said that, I think that 1, 2, and 3 can actually work -- with repetition, reflection, and most of all, a climate in which it's okay to admit failure.  The best part of the math office at Payton--when I was a regular teacher, and I think still today--was that you could walk in and say, to your colleagues, about your own class "Wow, that lesson just stank!"  More good conversations started that way than in official meetings; that moment--the moment you realize you need to do something different, or differently--is so valuable and fleeting, it needs to be honored.  In hospitals, they have regular, formal meetings for doctors to share their failures:  morbidity and mortality meetings, where doctors discuss how patients died, and think together about how to avoid those failures in the future.  Why not in schools?

In my current job, I try to emphasize that I'm here to help; some teachers are open about those conversations, but of course not all.  But I wonder: as we increase the stakes and the pressure, do we enable those all-important conversations--or shut them down?