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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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."
- 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?