A few weeks ago, this article, “A veteran teacher turned coach shadows students for two days—a sobering lesson learned” made the rounds on my Twitter feed. It shares what an Instructional Coach learned by shadowing two high school students for two days. The information was disheartening. The students sat for extended periods of time, were asked to listen instead of participating, and were redirected to the point of potentially feeling like their presence in school was a “nuisance.”
In thinking about it though, I wondered what would happen if the same Instructional Coach shadowed a teacher at that school for two days or a week. To get the full picture of course, would require arriving early and staying after school for meetings or events. It wouldn’t be a high-quality experience unless she shadowed the educator into the evening and maybe even through to the weekend workday.
I’m not defending the lackluster learning environment she encountered. Instead, I’m wondering though if this is the place to stop the search? Maybe we need to look more deeply into why teachers might be teaching the way they are.
When observing in a classroom, I search for an entry point to the teacher’s instructional practice which would allow me to focus on what she/he needs to do next, to improve. It is hard to do with all that is happening in a classroom setting, especially in a rich and engaging elementary classroom where there is so much going on. Watching to see what is going well and can be built upon, isn’t easy.
What I do know though, is I’ve never encountered a teacher who gets out of bed in the morning and says, “My goal is to be boring, ineffective, or lackluster today.” If it is happening there is a reason.
As a teaching principal, I believe my job is always to be on the lookout for ways to improve teacher practice. If I was to shadow a teacher all day for many days, I believe I would see and need to consider the following as affecting the both the teaching and learning:
Teachers might be hyper-focused in the wrong ways because of a lack of focus in the school. Often initiatives seem focused, when launched. However, depending on where each teacher is in relation to the effort, there are hidden, invisible steps for each person to get there. Add multiple initiatives, as many schools do, and suddenly it isn’t always clear what the goal is or where things will head. At that moment, we all hold on fiercely to what we can.
Teachers might not have the training necessary to teach effectively, especially if we are adopting new practices. We know that learning and understanding are significant tasks. We know it takes years for our students to develop real understanding. It is the same for our teachers; however too often we expect understanding and change after a weekend workshop or a book study. Teachers who need more time to learn, often can’t get it.
Teachers might be overwhelmed with all the other non-teaching things they have to attend to and manage. Teachers are not only teaching a course or class; they are also sponsors for clubs, coaches, and chaperones. While it might not seem like a direct link, it does speak to what we all do when we are busy, stay with what is simple and straightforward to manage.
Teachers might be struggling with the real pressure of working with parents. While this partnership is vital, it can be difficult. Today’s parents are highly involved and can cause significant stress for the teacher. Navigating those relationships is important. However, many parents feel comfortable when “doing school” can be easily labeled and quantified. For the teacher then, it can be easier to simply teach like we’ve always done it.
I would be hard pressed to find a teacher who would let me shadow them for two days or a week. It would be a highly revelatory and open experience. It would take courage on the part of the teacher to do what they do and then trust me to learn from the experience as a way to help shape future decisions. However, as I write this, I believe it is something we should strive for: opening the door to being seen and to seeing.
Real change and real progress require real transparency. Until our schools (not just our teachers) can be places where honest inquiry into our work can be the norm, we will continue to hear stories like this and we will continue to be amazed things haven’t changed.