As a Curriculum and Instruction Consultant in my district, when I’m not working with students as learners, I’m working with their teachers. Over the past few years, we’ve been digging into some really hard work. I mean really hard. We’re working on moving away from teaching novels to teaching reading, away from prescribing a formula to analyzing mentors, away from grammar workbooks to grammar in context. Like I said, it’s hard, hard work.
Throughout the process, I’ve come to realize that we as teachers aren’t all that different from our students when it comes to digging into new, hard learning. We come with diverse experiences and understanding, and we learn at different paces and in different styles. And, when something is especially difficult or unfamiliar, it terrifies us. Some brave souls embrace the fear head-on while others avoid it or deny it or deflect it. (You’ll usually recognize that approach when you hear, “but that won’t work with my kids” in the break room.) Most teachers, though, fall somewhere in the middle: willing to try it out, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.
One teacher bravely confided in me about letting go of control and allowing students to make observations in a mentor text. “Megan, I feel like I’m jumping off a cliff, here.” My initial reaction was to assure her that I, and the rest of her PLC, were there to be her parachute, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that metaphor wouldn’t hold up.
When we’re taking risks, learning something new, making big changes, a swan dive off of a cliff is sometimes what it takes to get things moving. More often, though, what it takes is the kind of grit that gets you to the top of the cliff in the first place.
Now, grit has been an awfully buzzy word lately, and usually I do my best to avoid that kind of buzz. But, in this case, it has helped me to embrace and support risk-taking by encouraging thoughtful, honest reflection that is grounded in learning. The following is a protocol I’ve used with myself and with teachers in my district whenever it’s time to embrace risk-taking and move forward.
G: Something I Grasp about what I’m learning
It’s important to remember that moving forward is based in learning. When we acknowledge that we’re basing our educational moves on research and learning rather than on legislation, testing, emotions – or any other number of agitators that can set our reactionary impulses ablaze – we are assured that what we’re doing is for good reason. So, start the reflection off by summarizing one “aha” or one takeaway from the day’s learning.
R: A Reason I’m feeling scared
It’s important to name our fears, our nervousness; otherwise, we put up walls, say, “it can’t be done.” If we can recognize where this is rooted, we can begin to problem-solve and move forward. When teachers feel safe and supported enough to do this, it’s amazing what kind of beautiful honesty will bubble up:
What if my students notice something that I didn’t plan for?
What if they have a question that I don’t know the answer to?
What if an administrator sees chaos instead of messy work and practice?
Will I be able to help them all if they’re not all doing exactly the same thing?
Am I an expert enough to negotiate texts with this much flexibility?
Will the discussion get too big?
How do I push back when they just want me to give them the answers?
IT: I’m nervous, but I’ll try IT anyway.
My colleague’s metaphor of jumping off a cliff got me thinking. I’ve never gone base jumping or
skydiving. (Someday, maybe?) But I have done some hiking. A few years ago (before I had children and when I still did crazy fun things), my husband, some friends, and I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru. It was a four day hike along an ancient path through the Andes. The whole thing was incredible and difficult, but the second day is one I’ll never forget.
We gained a lot of elevation in one day, and by mid-morning I was struggling with altitude sickness. To say that I had to slow down was a massive understatement. I looked up toward the summit: Warmiwañusca. (Translated from Quechua, it means Dead Woman’s Pass. No, I’m not making that up. And no, it didn’t help me embrace my challenge.) When I looked up at it was when it was most tempting to stop. There’s no way I could make it there by sundown, I’d think to myself. Thankfully, though, I had a dear friend with me who kept me going. Instead of looking up, she’d coach me:
Just take 10 more steps.
Hike 3 more stairs.
Make it to the other side of that stream.
When she broke it up into little chunks, I could see myself doing it, and I was willing to keep going. We made it over the summit and to our camp with time to spare.
So, the last step in the GRIT reflection is to name it: What’s a small, manageable step that you can take toward moving forward? Don’t look all the way to the top of the mountain, but what piece of the learning can you take with you? Name it. Embrace it. Own it.
Keep doing this, and little by little, you’ll make it to the top.
What do you do to encourage reflective risk-taking with your colleagues? How about with your students? Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt.