I finished reading the outstanding Why They Can’t Write by John Warner recently, which was filled with excellent writerly advice. But it also got me thinking about the somewhat accidental path that got me engaged in continuous professional development.
When I first started teaching, I was eager to get involved in things that would help me improve. I soon discovered that I could also help shape curriculum and practice in my district by joining certain committees.
I became engaged in interesting conversations, and then I got asked to represent our district at the rollout of the new Common Core, and eventually PD just became a habit. My wife these days might call it an addiction with all the blogging and state and national organizations I’m involved with, but since when are English teachers concerned with semantics?
My point is this: If you’re reading this site, you are probably like me in key ways. Prone to experimentation in your classroom practices. Eager to share with and learn from other professionals. Discontent with status quo, even when things are going pretty well. Always thinking of what’s best for your students.
Are you sufficiently flattered yet?
Good, because I’ve got an assignment for you…
At the end of his book, Warner sums his plea to teachers of writing up in pretty dire terms: “…fewer and fewer students have the benefit of being allowed to explore their own minds, and are instead subjected to running the educational gauntlet, which requires them to sacrifice so much in the interest of ‘achievement.’”
Depressing stuff, but I’m willing to bet that your classroom is one of the few breaks many students get from that gauntlet. I can say with confidence that mine is, as are most of the classes of my PD-minded colleagues–that’s what PD does.
The trouble is, if we content ourselves with being a one-stop break in this daunting “gauntlet,” are we really serving our kids that well? If we know that we are getting them after they’ve been battered by some bad practice in literacy and then send them off refreshed from our class…to go get battered by more bad practice–is that really best practice?
I can hear some of you shimmying deeper into your caves even as I clear my throat to say it out loud, but yes, we must do more to encourage our colleagues to embrace change as well. It’s intimidating and often a losing battle, but ground can be gained, and it can be done without direct confrontation.
Below I humbly offer some strategies that might help make the process a little less painful and a little more productive. You can read them in your cave and then come out later when you’re feeling braver.
Strategy One: The Creepity Sneak
One of the best ways to encourage change amongst colleagues is to be sneaky about it. Don’t hide behind doors or anything (but if you do–send the video of the results!), but be subtle.
Department and PLC meetings can be great places to start quietly encouraging adjustments. Start by casually bringing things up with one or two colleagues and see what you can get them to agree to. Maybe it’s something tiny, but then you take that tiny success and show it to someone else who’s a bit more reluctant. “Look at this thing we did–and the kids wrote like amateur David Foster Wallaces! You gotta try this!”
If it’s small enough and yields some success, you might be surprised what a recalcitrant colleague might be willing to try. Don’t underestimate the social capital you have with peers.
Once you get a foot in the door, you can continue to sneak new approaches and practices into your colleagues’ classrooms a bit at a time. As teachers we share frustrations about everything from assignments that go sideways to students who just won’t engage. Use those moments to bring up a new idea gently. “I had a similar issue with Stefano in class last year. You know what finally worked? Letting him choose a topic that wasn’t on our required list–in fact, it worked so well that this year I let students conference with me about a self-designed topic if they pre-approved it with me. It worked wonders!”
Your colleague might take a pass, but guess what thought will keep creepity-sneaking back into their head every time they encounter another Sticky Stefano Situation…your excellent idea.
Strategy 2: The Grade Grub Grenade
Another natural space for productive conversations with colleagues is in the realm of paper grading. It’s a pain somewhat unique to us English teachers, and it’s a place where you and your colleagues are almost certain to be on the same page in at least some areas.
The next time an opportunity presents itself in this area, suggest that some small group sit down and actually do some grade leveling–everyone grades the same small set of papers and talks about where they scored similarly and where they differed.
They key to these conversations is to be subtle and gentle as you try to redirect whatever you hope to change. Don’t barf out an entire new agenda on them just because one teacher wants to punish run-on sentences more than you do. Start small to get them thinking about things differently on their own. As Han advises Chewie when they have to fly the Millenium Falcon into the Empire’s territory, “Fly casual!” Try to go in with a focus area already in mind–if the rubric is poorly thought out, be prepared to help them see why. If grading has gotten too punitive, be prepared to highlight student writing strengths that need to be celebrated (and a philosophy about how to celebrate them tangibly!).
One of the reasons I like the Grade Grub Grenade is that you’ve lobbed your best ideas about writing into a place where it will impact the most interested minds–everyone wants solutions to grading papers more effectively and constructively, so teams tend to enter into such experiences fairly open-minded.
Strategy 3: The Rain of Hellfire, aka, Consulting with Your Local ISD Experts
Okay, so this one might be misnamed. I saw an opportunity to use “hellfire” in a semi-academic setting and I took it! In all honesty, this might be the most effective and least confrontational way to encourage/inspire change in your building, if you have access to the English People in your ISD (or perhaps some other local body of experts you can reach out to?).
Besides the fact that most ISDs are filled with lovely, eager, intelligent thinkers who are just itching to help districts improve their practice, the nice thing about ISDs is that they can often bring professional development efforts into your building at little to no cost. If we’re going to be grumpy at our colleagues who never attend PD, we also have to acknowledge that attending a lot of it can be invasive of our time and expensive. With those hurdles removed, many of your colleagues might be open to a little professional encouragement, no?
Indifference Is Not a Strategy
Whatever you decide to try, just keep telling yourself that it can’t be enough for those of us who have found knowledge of a Better Way to just be content keeping it confined to our own classrooms. Change happens slowly, but if You ten years from now looked back on You reading this blog post, would they wish that you’d lobbed that “grenade” or done a bit of “creepity sneaking” or would they be content that your students always had a great experience with you and then spent the rest of their years in “The Gauntlet”?
How do you encourage your colleagues to try new strategies? Let me know on Twitter @ZigThinks or find us on Facebook.