Meet a Teacher #4: Teacher’s Wants vs. Student’s Needs
March 05, 2009, 7:31 pm
“Show me a school where teachers are learning, and I’ll show you a school where students are learning.” - Deborah Meier
Meet Erik Yazdani, NYC Public School Teacher: When I began teaching, I was idealistic about learning my new profession. This quote provided inspiration. I thought to myself that good teachers were those who constantly collaborated, shared ideas, observed one another, provided feedback, prepared and delivered professional development, and visited other schools for new ideas. Further, good schools were places that encouraged and enabled teachers to do this. Two years later, I still believe that those are things that good teachers and good schools do, but far too often, I just haven’t done them myself. (I can’t blame my school either – while imperfect, it is probably better than most at facilitating learning.)
Intuitively, it sounds reasonable that to serve students well, teachers should be continually learning about their profession. After all, we face a complex social system in our classrooms each day. Students bring diverse personalities, issues from the home, diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities, and other simply inexplicable behaviors. Differentiating instruction to these students while continuing to refine the art of teaching our core content requires continued innovation, experimentation and creativity, no matter how many years of teaching experience you have.
It is curious then that the average school is such an inhospitable place for real learning among the adults. Classrooms are often isolated kingdoms that discourage foreign visitors and the feedback or ideas they might offer. Professional development sessions, if they exist on a regular basis, often turn into administrative meetings or simply provide content that pleases few. And our mandated certification classes can be so dry that they induce more sleep than real learning.
Why? Educators list a lot of reasons for these problems. One common complaint is that the principal or the school environment is flawed. Another is that we are too busy. Those reasons may be true, but I think a more productive place to start is by peering into ourselves.
A part of my early idealism about learning was a belief in the importance of feedback. As an engineer in college, I learned that any system requires continual feedback, otherwise it veers off course. (Close your eyes while driving your car and you’ll quickly discover the rate at which you need feedback from the outside world.) But as I get more experienced as a teacher, I find that the times I reach out for feedback from others or make time to observe other teachers grows more and more infrequent. The simple reason is that I have settled into comfortable routines. I’m seeking out what psychologists refer to as a state of ‘equilibrium’ – a place that provides a sense of security and peace of mind. When others provide ideas, or worse, tell us what to do, it can threaten the equilibrium we have nurtured in our classrooms.
But equilibrium is deceptive. It may often feel good to us, but it isn’t in the long term interest of our students. That’s because real learning – the kind that is experiential and actually changes our behaviors, priorities or habits – requires that we depart into temporary disequilibrium. A good idea from another educator often forces us to reconsider something we’re doing and we must leave the safe waters of the harbor for the uncharted seas. The collective desire of individuals to protect their classrooms from disequilibrium becomes part of the culture of schools, and as with so many elements of culture, it just starts to feel normal.
To advance our school cultures, we need to start by recognizing the nature of the problem. Blaming the principal for the environment in which we find ourselves is too easy – it lets us off the hook for our own responsibility in the mess. Teachers often wait for principals to act, but leadership can and should spring from all levels of an organization (a principle called ‘distributed leadership’). Teachers can organize small, informal observation groups on their own. What about a weekly meeting at which teachers pair up and share observations of each other, then rotate pairs the following week? A simple structure like this can begin to reform a rigid culture - often the whole school won’t go along at first, but these meetings can start small and grow from there.
You might think of other structures your school can adopt to incentivize real learning and feedback among the adults. As you move forward, however, it’s important to recognize that teachers cherish their autonomy. You may be working against a subtle, yet powerful school culture. But continue to ask the question: “What do we lose by erecting such rigid boundaries between classrooms?”
NYC Public School Teacher