This past Friday I was given the day off to go and observe another school or educator for the purpose of learning something valuable to add to my own teaching methods and practices. I took the opportunity to return to my small hometown in Colorado, where there is realistically only one school system, K-12, for the entirety of the 14,000 people that live there. Besides the fact I got to spend some time with my family, I chose my home because there is only one school for K-2, one for 3-5, one for 6-8, and one for 9-12. I felt it had some comparable value to where I work. Our high school is a charter, with a connected elementary governed by the same board. My hometown's schools, though, are traditionally public, so I reasoned there were enough constants to make the comparison meaningful. I've outlined what I discovered in that comparison.
Lessons from the Schools
The high school has a much more relaxed cell-phone policy. Officially, you may use it in the hallways during passing period. In-class, however, it is to be put away. In practice, as I found, it seems the policy is much more at the discretion of the individual teachers. The instructor I observed let students openly use their phones, even during the middle of lecture. This is unheard of in my high school, where second-time violators lose their phone for the whole semester, and teachers are constantly reminded of the phone policy. The teacher said, "We use technology so much for research that I find it mostly pointless to congest our tech-needs for laptops when they've got the entirety of human knowledge at their finger tips." I asked if he was concerned about abuse, and he acknowledged there is a cost to what he does. But he also believes that if a student wishes to ignore his lectures, he or she is free to do so. The results will show themselves on the test.
I have the unique privilege of being the son to two educators, and so I observed my mother's 8th-grade reading and English classes next. Something that I noticed was that, despite having an advanced Promethean board and a separate whiteboard, she does absolutely zero lecturing with those tools. She writes down nothing. I asked her about this method, concerned that students would miss key details or not write anything down (as most students live by the motto, "If it's not written, it's not important). She does not have nothing, I discovered. All students have their literature textbooks open during that part of the lesson. For grammar-time, each student has a handout that requires careful attention to complete and fill out. I found this method attracting, as it does not require much in the way of having detailed lecture notes, but it must require a lot of grading.
Her method: in front of her desk is a little table and chair with a binder that has the answer sheets to each handout. Assignments are distributed at the beginning of the week, due Friday; students may submit at any time beforehand. The assignment must be graded by the student. It is expected that if a student misses too many, they will stop, review, and ask for help. Like the teacher at the high school, this shocked me. How do you maintain academic integrity? Won't students grade favorably, or be too lazy/disinterested to ask for help? She replied, "I spend a great deal of time teaching internal motivation to either learn or to succeed. They can go through the grading, not caring what they got or cheating. At the end of the day, though, when it comes time for tests, they'll suffer of achieve because of what they did at those grading moments. And I tell them that constantly."
I then went to the one of the elementary schools where my father is principal. I have some experience with middle school, but I have no contact with the "ankle biters." They are quite charming and cute, these little kids, as they stare in wonder at my handlebar mustache, and the apparently uncanny resemblance I share with my father. I did not learn much from the class-instruction, as the methods are far different for that young an age group. However, after speaking with a few teachers and my dad I did gain something from the school's operations. Like the middle school, the principal only schedules about one to two all-staff meetings that last for no more than about an hour. This was incredibly surprising. At my high school, our staff meets are every Wednesday afternoon from 3:30 to 4:45 (though this is easily budged to 5:00).
At least as my father does it, he meets with each teacher individually once a month (e.g., on their Thursday planning period at the end of month) after he has done a short observation. That's where he coaches and conveys constructive criticism and highlights problem areas for lesson plans. The staff meetings are, as he (and the middle school principal) puts it: a) for those things that absolutely cannot be communicated in an email, and b) those that must be done with a whole group. If it can be done individually or in smaller teams, or if it can be communicated by email (whether weekly or ad hoc), he would rather teachers spend time planning or at be home than in a meeting for meeting's sake.
No one likes meetings, of course. But I hadn't considered this style of meeting before: fewer all-staff, for necessary items only, with fewer agenda items, and other communiques done by other means. It sounds more productive than an afternoon of filling up time because that's what's scheduled. And honestly, a monthly coaching session with a teacher's administrator would be really beneficial. I'm coached now, don't get me wrong. But it is not as often as once a month.
The Theme of the Day
At all schools I kept getting the ideas in my head: independence, responsibility, motivation. The high school teacher placed the bulk of responsibility on the student; apropos for a teacher of soon-to-be graduates. My mother emphasized that a student must seize the opportunity to learn, otherwise the teaching will be close to useless. Beneficial for an age where minds are critically developing. At both levels, the students are given a considerable degree of freedom. At the elementary, the administration does not approach all meetings as a time to build up the team or teachers; that's why they spend so much time each month coaching faculty individually. That speaks to a lesson of cultivating growth without excessive oversight. Which, really, is what I think the whole day was about.
The high school where I teach is not shy about how rigorous its academic program is. It is a top-performing school in the nation, and strives to prepare kids deliberately for college. We as instructors are expected to maintain the results that get students to that level. That remains my goal as a teacher. But, even in just my second year, I can see the wear and tear the rigor has on my freshmen, 14/15 year-old kids. The stress of success and competition among high-strung students kills these kids. I see every freshmen each day, as I am the only teacher of a required course. My students are generally happy, and not too disgruntled. But I can see exhaustion and fatigue. This is not what I want for them.
Students at my high school have a solid reputation for strong academic results. But at least in my class, which is very much philosophy-based, grappling with independent thinking is tough. The students are not stupid. Rather, unless I specifically instruct it or tell them to write it down, they are non-responsive. They look at me like dear in headlights. Of course, I attribute some of that to my still-new teacher status; I've not yet mastered all the tricks. But what I feel, and what some kids have told me, is they are afraid to get it wrong. I try my best to create an environment where students can give wrong answers, but these kids are not afraid of me. They're afraid of failure itself, of being wrong in front of other "smart kids." It's the fact they go to a good school, that they should already know things. And so, if they don't absolutely know it, they keep silent. That, in turn, makes me feel as if I'm forced to structure everything to mind-numbing detail.
To get these many hands in the air would be a glorious achievement.
I don't want to numb anyone's mind. My goal, I realize now, is to find some way to maintain the academic rigor my high school demands without the "soul-sucking" sound of boredom, resentment, and fatigue. I'm not sure what that is, yet. I have many teachers here who can help who have more years teaching than I've been alive. But now that I know what I'm looking for--cultivating growth without excessive oversight--I can develop deliberate tactics to do that.
At this point, you don't need to read any father. These are just some pointers and tips I picked up from other teachers I found interesting and want to incorporate into my classroom.
Develop times in a lecture that allows students to go to the whiteboard and write down their answer, or participate in the lecture itself
"Look through these lenses": have students explore odd ways of approaching a subject already thoroughly covered
Essential Concepts: place the "conclusion" of a lecture point at the beginning of the lecture point, not the end. Helps students understand everything to follow easier
Test-corrections, while laborious, can help maintain the learning process, even in "failure"
Direct criticism of a student is better than skirting the issue, even if in front of the whole class.
If possible, allow students to annotate, teaching them how to personalize learning
High schoolers need sarcasm to keep things interesting, but be careful to avoid too individualized comments
Anything that can bring in personal background to a lecture is generally beneficial