Richard opened his session by talking about storytelling - something that is huge to me...especially within our school. Stories are an excellent teaching tool - and who makes the stories about teachers...that's right - Hollywood. So, we brainstormed movies that have been made about teachers: Freedom Writers, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, etc.... Feel good movies that show teachers changing the world one student at a time. But, as Richard mentioned, imagine the teachers in these movies 3 years down the road burned out and defeated...and why? Because they are doing it all themselves. Where are the movies about teachers being collaborative and working as a team? And why don't they exist?
And this was really the main topic up for discussion - actually it has been a common theme for this entire conference - collaboration. As I watched the homeless men sift through chicken and pesto wraps Richard words rang in my ear: "We are playing educational lottery with our student's lives". His words were true...there was the proof, right there in front of me. He stated that we are often inconsistent in our educational practices - some teachers let students retake tests, some don't, some teachers phone parents when a student is falling behind, some don't. What happens when students don't learn -well, that depends on who the teacher is. In fact, you could spend your entire careers not knowing if the teacher next door is having more success or doing a better job of teaching a skill than you are. PLC's get rid of this. Actually, to simplify, collaboration gets rid of this...which is what PLC's are all about.
In his school and in their division Richard asked: "Why has what to do been left up to the teachers?" Example: "Boy I have this student that is really struggling, what can we do"...Division: "we don't know...we don't have a plan" (I am however, happy to say that this is not the case with our division...as a teacher I feel fairly supported). Well, Richard wanted to have a plan, they wanted to have a system.
On that train of thought Richard continued to talk loosely about leadership and having a system. He cited the walkthroughs that principals are doing and said that often direction is misplaced. We need to be assessing learning - not teachers and teaching. Granted, good walkthroughs do assess learning, but we need to be aware of the objective. He took it a step further and said: "what if principals took the time they spent assessing teachers and spent it helping collaborative teams? What would be better: sitting down with the principal once a year to discuss year plans etc...or sitting down and planning, reflecting, sharing, and discussing once a week with a collaborative team." This type of thinking is a step toward schools becoming truly collaborative.
Think he's done...think again. "We need to take an interdependent approach to schools....we should not be concerned with 'my' kids, but 'our' kids...we need to be concerned with all kids in the school". Wow, this guy was on a roll! He used an analogy that I particularly liked: many schools right now are like a "team" of marathon runners. Can you really call a bunch of marathon runners a team? No. Why? Because they are competing against each other! Ahhh, but are they really. Ask any marathon runner if they enter marathons to win and they will most likely reply no. Then what are they there to do - JUST FINISH. And if they beat their best time, great. Now I don't know if he meant a teachers main goal is just to finish, but I do know that he meant we are like the marathon runners in that we are all part of the same "race", we all want to do our best, and we are not really competing against each other. Yet we are not a team. He encouraged us to instead be more like a rowing team, in which we need to work very closely as a team to achieve our common goals.
As a final thought the pressure to change and do better in terms of collaboration does not lie solely on teachers, and it does not lie solely on administration...it lies on all of us. He did however briefly talk about how to change teacher's minds for them...anyone familiar with the Jedi? Actually, he talked about how to influence teachers and he said (he quoted someone but I can't remember who) nothing changes someone's mind like cold hard data hitting them in the face. Which is true, but not always. He offered this example of a conversation between a principal and a teacher: Principal: "your students failure rate is three times higher than anyone else's, aren't you concerned about that? Teacher: "Well that's because I am the only one in this building that holds students accountable...I am preparing them for the real world". And on that note he made a very interesting point in terms of "real world" preparation.
Now how many teachers, and be honest here, have not let a student hand something in because they missed a deadline? Now how many teachers have failed to hand in their marks on time? Did the principal or vice-principal say "nevermind, we don't want your marks anymore!" No, chances are they gave you a "talking to" and took your marks anyway. In the real world there are consequences for missing deadlines...but responsible people still have to hand stuff in. This should be our approach to learning...even if it means we will stand over the shoulder of that student until he/she gets it done...we will not let them fail!
He ended with this humorous analogy. A mother and father say to their son: "son, if you don't mow the grass by Saturday then you won't get to come to grandma's house with us and you'll be left here unsupervised" Well, Saturday comes and the grass still isn't mowed, so they leave him behind...and he has a party...and mom and dad come home...and the cops are there...and the cop is threatening to charge them with negligence etc... "We're sorry officer, we thought he liked coming to grandma's house, we thought we were punishing him." "Listen, you seem like nice people...a little naive, but nice, so I'm going to let you off the hook." Next weekend comes and the same thing happens. Now, is that officer going to be so nice? Probably not. His question was, then why do we let ourselves, as teachers, get away with the same type of behavior? Student: "you mean to tell me that if I don't hand in this assignment I won't have to do it...ever? And all I have to do is receive a zero?" Well not all students would be okay with that...but some would. So not only do we need to change the way we think, but we also need to change the way we do things...we need to change our system . And PLC's and collaboration provide the vehicle for that change.