A provocative post by Andrea Hernandez has had my mind in a swirl for the last few days. Honestly, I think it is probably one of the more important posts I’ve read this year, and the issues that she begins to raise in this piece have been at the forefront of my mind since I began this little independent venture of mine.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I worry too much. It’s my greatest flaw, and I’m pretty candid about that. Today, I’m worried about the economy, and I’m worried about the impending election, and I’m worried about my brother-in-law who has been deployed to Iraq, and I’m also worried that Laura is going to figure out that Santa does not exist this year. Or maybe she already has, but seriously? I am going to worry about that anyway.
Since I’ve started consulting independently, I’ve often worried about the teachers that I hope to help and the students that THEY hope to help. I’m particularly concerned about knowing enough, doing enough, helping…enough. I think everyone is worried in this way, actually, and I also think that this is a good thing. It’s so easy to become frustrated, particularly when we have this incredible vision…these worthy goals….and forces continue to align themselves in a way that complicates our achievement of them. Ironically, these forces often come in the shape of other well-intentioned people who have incredible vision and equally worthy goals of their own.
Andrea takes issue with “the experts” who continue to criticize the way that schools and teachers are doing business. “I am working pretty hard to bring real change to a real school and I’ve looked to you for answers, for ideas, help, a path to take, inspiration,” she says. “To me, your job seems easy – you stand on the outside and offer your critique.”
She’s right, you know.
“I’m not making any lame excuses for my school or any others. But, as a teacher, I know and so should you, that you don’t entice people to learn and grow and change by belittling their efforts. Criticism has its place, but I can’t imagine trying to teach a child through constantly telling them how much they don’t know, how far they have to go, how much they just don’t get it.”
“Yes, it is frustrating that schools and teachers and administrators aren’t getting it faster and change hasn’t happened, like 10 years ago. But, what can we DO to make it happen NOW?”
I am not sure if Andrea was directing that question to specific people, but it’s been rattling around in my brain for the last few days now, and I’m thinking that anyone involved in staff development would do well to read this post and contemplate a response. I have, for what it’s worth, and maybe it’s because I don’t consider myself much of an expert that I can confidently say this:
I don’t know.
I just don’t. And furthermore, I don’t know that any SINGLE person could know the answer to that question, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves an expert. People who pretend to scare me a little quite honestly.
I actually think that Andrea might know more than any old “expert” about what could be DONE to make change happen in her school NOW. And I think that the teachers that she works with probably do, too. I’d bet that Andrea could rattle off a list of the perceived forces that align to prevent change in her corner of the world, but too often, teachers don’t feel valued for their expertise nearly as much as “the experts” seem to be.
In the staff development biz, I am often told that it’s impossible to be a “prophet in your own land.” This is one reason why schools bring in “the experts” isn’t it? I’m not sure if I agree with that perception, though. I’ve watched more than a few people assume powerful leadership roles in schools that I’ve worked in. Many are administrators, many of them are teachers and many of them were even………students.
So, I could be totally wrong here, but rather than relying on prophets or striving to become one myself, I’m embracing the notion that “it takes a village.” I know some stuff, to be sure, but I’m not going to go about pretending to know it all, because I don’t. Everyone has a role to play in schools that are working toward change. No single person could ever be expert enough.
I don’t know how to help Andrea or teachers like her, but I am thinking that we need to value each other more. We need to respect each other more. And Andrea is right–this doesn’t happen when we’re standing in judgment of others, putting them down, or nurturing that special brand of superiority that thrives upon learning that someone knows less than we do. It also doesn’t happen when we allow ourselves to feel threatened by those who do know more than we do. It doesn’t happen when our fear of making a mistake paralyzes us either.
If we truly envision ourselves as “change agents”, Andrea seems to be suggesting, maybe the first thing that we need to change is ourselves. Maybe we need to rethink what it means to be “an expert” and start getting to know those around us better. Maybe they have helpful expertise.
As professional development providers, maybe we need to invite teachers to turn more toward each other. Maybe we’re best placed at a seat inside the circle rather than at a podium in front of it. Maybe we need to concern ourselves less with becoming “big experts” and more with helping small groups define their own expertise. I’m trying this right now. It seems to be working well so far, but I’m not going to attribute improved test scores to this shift in my practice any time soon. Who can make that argument convincingly?
Here’s what I do know: I’m grateful for Andrea’s timely post. It has certainly influenced my own thinking about the work I’m doing this year and who I want to become professionally over time. It also has me thinking about how often we are focused on changing KIDS, SCORES, AND TEACHERS rather than changing our own thinking and our own practice as “experts” or “staff developers” or whatever it is we call ourselves when we are asked to stand before teachers and lead change.
So, I don’t know if any of this gives you more hope, Andrea, but in light of all of this, it’s evident to me that your blog post has the potential to create important change NOW.
Wow. I am floored that you thought that much about what I wrote. For once, I am speechless. Well, ok, I can always come up with something to say.
I feel the need to explain the post more, but I’ve long since lost track of the details that brought my frustration to the point where I sat down and wrote and wrote and then hit publish, barely reading over my words before I did so. It was a long, unconnected string of posts I had read, culminating in Will Richardson’s “Back to School” post, where he laments the state of what he has seen on his travels to different schools around the country. I’ve noticed a distinct difference between the theorists and the practitioners, practitioners being those who work with children in schools (and have to deal with a million things that get in the way of the ideal teaching/learning that the theorists prescribe.) I’ve been in the position of being both theorist and practitioner, as many of us have, and I always think that when I’m away from the practice side for too long I begin to lose credibility.
I know that I can’t generalize about “experts” or leaders any more than I want to be generalized about as a teacher. I guess that is what it comes down to: every situation is unique and needs to be treated as such. Being a change-agent is so challenging because there is something in most of us that struggles with change. You are so right that we must always look at ourselves first – who, among us, can not do better? I also believe that, like watching oneself grow older, we don’t notice the small changes that take place on a day to day basis. It is only when time has gone by and we see an old picture that we realize how much we HAVE changed. I am now starting year 3 in my current job and on a day-to-day, nothing is moving fast enough. But, when I take a step back and survey the bigger picture, I realize that we’ve come a long way. If an outside person looked at my school they could easily critique all that is missing or needs to change. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But they would have only one part of the picture.
Thank you for continuing the conversation! I really look forward to reading more about the work you are doing and continuing to learn from you.
Other thoughts that I was having, but didn’t cram into that already rambling post:
I think sometimes the experts are brought in to create a sense of urgency….to heighten our level of concern….and this is a necessary thing. I’m thinking, though, that if this approach isn’t balanced with celebration and recognition of all of the progress that has been made, people start to lose hope.
I also think that good teachers and especially those who are identified as teacher-leaders tend to maintain such tremendous forward vision and such tremendous drive to help their kids and their schools progress. This is important, and I identify here as well. If my mind is always on the future and my eyes are always on those long-term goals, though, it’s hard to be present and to take stock of all that has been accomplished and all that is going well.It’s also hard to step back and help teachers see that bigger picture too. I think we need to do this much more often.
Your post is an important one. Thanks for sharing it.