Friday, August 26, 2016

Do we look for the positive?

I recently conducted an inservice for over 100 secondary teachers. It was the kind of back-to-school professional development day that could have been a waste of time for all of us, a useless filling of six hours of "seat time," a rah-rah session for the latest initiative -- you know the kind of workshops you've sat through in an uncomfortable cafeteria seat on days when you'd rather have been in your classroom, getting ready for students. However, the directors who had hired me had given me quite a bit of leeway in planning. They asked me to focus on the quality of teacher collaboration and to guide these teachers in using reading strategies across the curriculum. I was excited by the challenge and planned a day with lots of opportunities for interaction, use of video and other technology, and modeling of strategies like Cornell notes that teachers could turn right around and use with their students.

In one segment of the day, I chose to show a video of middle school science teacher Jason Schmidt, a vibrant young educator who demonstrates how to use the think-aloud strategy with a lab assignment he's giving his students ( I asked my participants to watch the video and concentrate on the moves Jason makes as a teacher. What is he doing to engage students? What is he doing to impact their cognition? For the administrators in the room, I asked, what is Jason doing that you'd like to see teachers do?

Despite the not-so-great filming (I'm sure Jason has a student at the helm), there's a lot of good in this video. Jason exemplifies curiosity and enthusiasm. He connects science concepts to his own experiences. He uses complex vocabulary terms that he wants students to understand deeply. And he physically models going into and out of the text to read it and then think on it. In six minutes or so, he provides an excellent model of a reader -- and how to read in science, when there is sometimes highly technical information to be comprehended.

After the video, I asked the teachers to conduct a table talk about the questions I had posed. What is Jason doing well, I summarized, as I set them off to talk, having had them appoint a facilitator and reporter for each table. I set my on-screen timer for six minutes and took off to circulate, ready to listen in on table groups to see what their thoughts were.

One table called me over. The table was occupied by four women, all of whom were in their 40s or 50s, and as I recall, had raised their hands earlier in the day when I asked who had more than 15 years of experience teaching. The fifth occupant was a young assistant principal from a different school from the women, a young man named Michael whom I'd met the week before. I stepped over to the table, expecting that a question or clarification was needed, and one of the women said, "We wanted to tell you that we thought he took way too long to explain the assignment."

There it was -- the thing that teachers often do, even when they're explicitly asked NOT to do it. Critique. Criticism. Letting someone know what's wrong instead of what's good, or right, or just interesting. Slam! Jason Schmidt is not as good of a teacher as I am -- that was the implication. One of the women even said, "My students would never listen for that long. They would just want to get to work."

I was livid. I frantically searched my brain for what to say, what to do. I could feel my face getting hot because I was frustrated. So.... I said, "You know, I'm in hundreds of classrooms a year, observing, and I'd be so happy to see a segment of a lesson like this. Why do you think I chose this video for us to watch? I thought the task was to discuss what the teacher did that was good or that other teachers could emulate. Did your table come up with some positives?"

All four of the women almost visibly recoiled. They were shocked that I would not honor their criticism. Thank goodness for Michael, who saw the direction the table needed to go. He started offering positives from the video. I patted him on the shoulder, gave the entire group another verbal nudge, and went on to the next table, trying to get to the rest of the room before time was up.

Why is it so hard for teachers to state something positive -- or to even THINK about it -- before they jump in with criticism? And why are teachers so threatened when they see a fellow teacher do something that works? Why is the natural response (for some educators), "Well, that would never work with MY students."

This conundrum is at the heart of school improvement. Teachers will never change their teaching if their gut reaction is to look for the negative instead of the positive -- and to look for the positive FIRST and ALWAYS.


  1. HI Angela--Gillian from #sunchatbloggers group. That's a good question. I think the response of many people to critique before acknowledging the positive of something can come from the item/idea in question striking a cord--hitting us where it hurts. Educational reform/change requires VULNERABILITY and that's not easy. It requires us to be honest about what we are NOT good at. And response like always have a backstory--something negative or conflictual in the teaching context of that person. Maybe?

    1. Agreed - and acknowledging/embracing change means admitting that you aren't doing something the best way now. That can feel threatening!

  2. Thanks for posting! I can see how this situation was a bit frustrating for you. I've noticed that some teachers become "set in their ways" after a certain numbers of years in the classroom. In addition to being positive I think teachers need to keep an open mind when participating in professional development. #sunchatbloggers

  3. I so understand your frustration Angela. Personally, I loved this video and want to thank you for sharing it. It's unusual to see a think-aloud being modeled at the high school level, especially in a Science class. I can't wait to share this with my teachers (who will definitely see this in a positive light - they love to learn!)

    The question you bring up about teacher attitude is an important one. If we want to see changes in schools, we have to find a way to break through this defensiveness and instill a growth mindset. Not an easy task!

  4. Angela this can be one of the most difficult things for teachers to overcome. There is, for some very strange reason, a feeling that one person doing well means others are not; that one persons success is their failure.