Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what an audacious task teachers have before them. I’ve tried to really think like a teacher and consider what is asked of them on a daily basis. I began my career as a teacher in the late 1990’s but so much has changed about the way we educate kids. In a conversation with a new teacher who shared with me his astonishment at the varied number of academic levels in each of his math classes, I suggested to him to consider differentiating and utilizing more small group instruction as a way to meet the needs of every student. I offered my support. I told him I was willing to sit down and plan with him when he was ready to implement this in his classroom. He was grateful and thanked me. I told him I did not want him to feel overwhelmed, but whenever he was ready to move in that direction, I’d be happy to help him plan for this.
Several days later our conversation came back to me on a drive home. As I chatted with my co-principal I began telling him how incredibly difficult, time consuming, and complex planning can be when a teacher truly makes an attempt to differentiate in their classroom. It’s like writing a lesson plan for 26 kids, I told him. The entire planning process is different and requires so much more time.
Today, we are no longer asking teachers to write lesson plans, but learner plans. We are asking them to take a look at each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and plan for how they might bring that student to proficiency based in their learning needs and styles. What a grand request! A planning period doesn’t begin to meet the time requirement needed to accomplish this. Then we top it off by utilizing our teachers’ planning periods to hold meetings, requiring them to submit meeting minutes, asking them to listen to us talk about the important upcoming meetings and calendar events, or quizzing them to see if they have read the book study book or viewed the latest greatest video we’ve seen as principals and thought was so awesome, or we use it to conduct a professional development session. Some meetings can’t be avoided, but we can be more strategic and focused about when we meet and how often we do so.
As principals, it is our duty to protect the time of teachers. I’ve always been a proponent of meeting less and collaborating more. As I reflected on my conversation I began to feel an overwhelming sense of panic about what I’d suggested to the teacher. I recognized that I needed to go back to him and offer to help again. I understood we would need multiple days to really plan for this and get it right. And so I will do just that.
However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that what we ask if teachers is incredibly complex. How we support their work matters. We can’t do that by filling up their calendars or creating due dates with non priority matters. I’ve never been a collector of lesson plans for this reason. For most of my career I’ve known teachers who were required to turn them in yet received no feedback on them. The reality of the situation is this, how many principals have the time to give every individual teacher the feedback on their lesson plans that they deserve? Very few that I know. Instead, I ask teachers to have their plans available because I feel confident that I know good instruction when I see it. A lesson plan doesn’t tell me if the teacher has the ability to use the pedagogical knowledge that they have or to adjust and monitor in the midst of a lesson when students aren’t understanding. Collecting them in my opinion is an excercise in futility. Feedback I provide from an observed lesson and a collaborative follow up conversation has proved to be far more valuable to me and the teacher. So…that’s what I do.
This year marks the tenth year since I have not been a teacher in the classroom. What I fear most is forgetting what it is like to be a teacher in the classroom and making decisions that I truly don’t see the impact of on the classroom teacher. Because of that I sub when possible and on Friday I did just that in a reading class. I do it, not because I have the time, but because it keeps me grounded. It helps me keep my feet in the shoes of a teacher and ultimately it helps me make better decisions in the instructional leadership realm.
The support we provide to teachers as lead learners and principals is critical. It is hard to lead someone if you are not familiar with their daily experiences. An immersion back into the classroom can be very valuable to administrators. So I challenge the principals out there to teach for a day. Give a teacher an additional planning period and cover their class. Plan a lesson for a class and teach it. Walk in their shoes every once in a while.
You’ll be amazed at how that will feed your instructional leadership perspective. Do your feet hurt yet? Mine do.
Until Next Time- Be true, Be you, & Be a Hope Builder!