How the education system is set up to hinder growth as a teacher


We, as teachers, all know that we are not at our best during the first couple of years of teaching.  You go through your education coursework, student teaching and other preparation periods and tasks but nothing truly gets you ready with all you’ll ever need to know the minute you step foot into that first classroom.  In fact, I sometimes have the urge to find the students from my first few years and apologize to them that they didn’t get the much better teacher that I became over the years! :)

But is our profession set up to help or hinder that growth past the first few years?  I’d venture to say hinder and I’ll explain why…

The New Teacher Period

The first few years everyone expects you to be “green” – make mistakes, need help and guidance, be figuring out your “style” in the classroom and so on.  There’s a lot of support for new teachers (as there should be) – including new teacher programs and institutes within a school and/or district, forums, groups, online professional development and many other places new teachers can go and say “I’m new and I need help.”  Most new teachers can find someone, somewhere that remembers what it was like to be new and form helpful relationships.

However, as a couple of years pass, you stop being “new.”  People begin to expect that you know what you’re doing.  And add to that the turn-over rate in the profession, especially in some areas or content areas – and not long after you come into the workforce there will be newer new people coming in right behind you that will be looking to you for answers and help.

So you’re not new anymore, people expect you to know what you’re doing…yet they also expect you to continually be growing, learning, adapting.  Teachers are required to attend (and often required show proof of implementation) professional development and are constantly being told that we must innovate, keep up with changing times/demands on our students/demands from our students/technology/content or any number of other things.  Yet I believe that the entire system is set up to not only not-facilitate that growth, change and adaptation but to hinder it.

Deliberate Practice and Developing Expertise

There’s a well-known paper on the role of deliberate practice in becoming an expert by Ericsson helps me begin to be able to think about one of the ways in which our profession is not set up to promote continual personal professional growth.  It’s a long paper that is well worth the read, but here’s one of the parts that really stands out to me when thinking about working as a teacher:

“The distinction between work and training (deliberate practice) is generally recognized.  Individuals given a new job are often given some period of apprenticeship or supervised activity during which they are supposed to acquire an acceptable level of reliable performance.  Thereafter individuals are expected to give their best performance in work activities and hence individuals rely on previously well-entrenched methods rather than exploring alternative methods with unknown reliability.  The costs of mistakes or failures to meet deadlines are generally great, which discourages learning and acquisition of new and possibly better methods during the time of work. … Although work activities offer some opportunities for learning, they are far from optimal.  In contrast, deliberate practice would allow for repeated experiences in which the individual can attend to the critical aspects of the situation and incrementally improve her or his performance in response to knowledge of results, feedback, or both from a teacher.” (Ericcson et al, Psychological Review, Vol 100, No. 3, Page 368).

Routine practice (just doing something) will improve skills to a point.  At that point the individual will plateau.  In order to continue to develop skills – and work towards expertise in a field or craft, people must continue deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice includes identifying ones weaknesses, putting oneself in the position to have to address those weaknesses, feedback, reflecting on ones work and the results of that work and making changes and repeating the cycle all over again.

How is the teaching profession set up to not only not encourage deliberate practice, but to outright hinder it?

  1. When you attempt to address weaknesses you will, by definition, try things that don’t work.  Things that are a step backwards.  Even things that are a step in the right direction take time and more deliberate practice to become part of your repertoire.  This process is hindered by internal and external constraints.  Externally, teachers are reviewed (judged) and expected to be performing at their best.  After all, it’s their job and they’re being paid for it – they are expected to be doing their best work.  But you cannot address weaknesses while at the same time always doing your best work.  You cannot try new things with high-stakes testing.  Internally, teachers feel guilty if they give their students less than their best – like I said, I’ve often felt like finding students from those first couple of years and apologizing!  As a teacher you hate to try new things and have students not learn – or worse be set back by something.
  2. Feedback most often comes from the wrong source.  Most feedback comes from your boss.  Which means that your boss was watching you to provide that feedback.  When performing with your boss in the room you’re going to be trying to do your best work.  Again, if you’re trying to do your best work you’re not going to be taking risks and deliberately and systematically trying new things in your classroom.  Unless of course you have a fabulous boss that realizes all of this…and if that’s the case…congratulate yourself and thank your lucky stars and take advantage of that opportunity to grow!  But the rest of us, for a variety of reason, aren’t that lucky.
  3. Professional development is too often one-size-fits all.  It’s amazing that for a profession that urges its teachers to differentiate for differences in students’ prior knowledge that the information provided to teachers is frequently not differentiated!  Often the professional development provided for teachers is not addressing the teacher’s weaknesses and immediate needs as well as it could or should.
  4. Reflection is not a key component of the normal teacher workflow.  Yes, teachers have planning periods – and a ton of things to do during those planning periods…like planning!  There is not enough time, or incentive to reflect.  I recently took part in a time management/productivity workshop that we organized for the graduate students on our campus and one of the realities of life that I walked away recognizing is that we do what has immediate consequences to not being done.  We prioritize out time to do things that will have immediate consequences – we make the copies (or upload the files if you’re paperless) that our students need for the next class period because if we don’t the class plan can’t proceed, we fill out that form because if we don’t we’ll get nasty-grams in our mailbox/email inbox, we grade that stack of papers because if we don’t students will bug us about what their grades are.  Yes, we need to do all of those things for other reasons, too…but we need to do a million things and we just don’t have time for all of them – so how do we choose what gets done and what gets pushed off?  We do what has noticeable consequences if it doesn’t get done.  Yes, we need to reflect on that lesson/method/technology that we used yesterday and write notes on it or modify the lesson plan/activity/worksheets/instructions so that next year when we pull it out we’ll remember what our experiences were from this year.  But those consequences aren’t immediate enough for us.  We tell ourselves we’ll do it over the weekend, during the next professional work day, over the summer, etc.  Reflection does not have an immediate – punch to the gut – have to get it done or else x will happen tomorrow consequence to it and therefore it gets put off.

What can individual teachers do?

Yes, there are teachers out there (thank goodness!) that are making it work – that are growing as professionals despite the system fighting against it.  You can overcome the four obstacles (there are more than I listed here – but can’t make this post too long!) yourself by:

  1. Working to address your weaknesses even if that means your test scores might dip, you might mess up in the classroom, you might have some guilt over not doing things perfectly because you tried something new.
  2. Ignore feedback of your bosses that aren’t recognizing your efforts to grow for what they are…ummmm…been there, it’s hard to do, but if you believe in what you’re doing to better yourself and your teaching it can be done!  Seek feedback from other sources – students, parents, peers that you trust (careful not to delve into the world of politics and jealousy…find peers that have goals to grow like you do!)
  3. Seek out your own professional development – classes, workshops, seminars, conferences, Twitter, creating your own Personal Learning Network, etc.
  4. Set up accountability for your reflection.  Get an accountability buddy – someone you know in your school or online – and report to them each week on if you took time to reflect, why or why not, and what realizations, changes or plans that reflection let do.  Having to “face” someone week after week and tell them you didn’t do it yet again will help you have immediate consequences for it – thus pushing it higher on your to-do list!

What can departments, schools, districts and systems do?

But why should teachers have to work in spite of the system to accomplish deliberate practice?  Shouldn’t the system want to foster it?  Shouldn’t the system be set up to encourage, reward and demand growth and innovation…isn’t that what it claims to want?  Systems can change to deal with the five issues above by:

  1. Changing observation forms and policies to take out the high-risk aspect.  It’s similar to test anxiety of our students.  If teachers and students learn to look at tests as formative assessment that help the student and teacher know what steps to take next to foster the students growth instead of summative judgements on student’s capabilities and worth, it helps all involved.  Likewise, if administrators and teachers set up observations and feedback as formative assessments for the teacher rather than summative judgements, everyone will win!  My best observations ever came from my first administrator that would ask me (or suggest if I couldn’t think of anything) what I wanted him to watch for while he was in the room.  One time he tallied how many times I visited each lab table while they were doing their lab and if that visit was teacher-initiated or student-initiated.  He literally had it mapped out on a drawing of my room and I could see the patterns and we could talk about changes I wanted to make or things I learned from looking at those patterns.  If only every administrator I had looked at observations that way!
  2. Encourage and facilitate feedback from other sources.  And not just the required “you have to visit another teacher one time per quarter to observe them and then you guys sit down and talk about it” mandates.  That often falls into the feeling of “busy work” and quickly becomes “you did great” kind of feedback that we discourage in our students peer-reviews.  These types of observations/feedback/discussion experiences need to be based on interest and professional relationships.  Two professionals have to have a trusting working relationship in order to give and receive truly beneficial feedback from one another – and to take the time to critically observe each other and learn from each other rather than sitting there and spacing off just because you have to be in another teacher’s room for x amount of time.
  3. Differentiate professional development.  Allow choice.  Demand accountability – teachers can play hookie or do meaningless things during PD time, but allow them to justify why they want to learn x and what they did with it throughout the rest of the year.
  4. Set up accountability for reflection and growth within your own building.  This is easier than setting up feedback between people – as you don’t necessarily have to share what your reflections where (so that you don’t feel like the others are judging you) – just that yes, you did reflect and that you are forming plans to grow and change based on that reflection.  Yes, there will always be people that lie and say they did it when they didn’t…but the honest people that truly do want to reflect and grow will do it because they don’t want to lie when they have to “check in” each week…and it will help them do it because external pressure to get something done (consequences) are far more reliable than internal (telling yourself you’ll reflect at the end of each week)…it’s just human nature in our busy lives!
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