Navigating Vulnerability Part 2: De-Centering the Teacher

Navigating Vulnerability Pt 2When we take on coaching or other leadership roles, we aren’t going to get anywhere with those we’re leading unless we recognize the vulnerabilities they’re facing. Last month, I started a mini-series of posts on this idea. Each post in the series will tackle a different vulnerability by exploring:

  • How to recognize the vulnerability in what you’re hearing
  • How to steer into it toward new learning

A lot of the work I’ve been doing lately has been on moving away from prescriptive writing lessons that teach students to follow a formula and toward a more analytical approach to exploring how to write in different genres. This is a very different approach than most secondary teachers are used to, so it’s safe to say that a lot of vulnerabilities bubble up throughout this process, but there’s one that I’ve started to recognize over and over again.

First they say: My kids can’t handle this.
But keep listening: They need step-by-step directions.
And listening some more: The kids in my class are all at such different levels, I can’t possibly manage having them all look at different things. I just need to tell them what they all need to do.
So what might be an underlying vulnerability? De-centering the teacher

Did you notice the contradiction there? So many teachers recognize that their classrooms are made up of students who represent a multitude of skill levels and interests, yet their perceived solution is to give everyone the same level of help (which, more often than not, is the level of help that students at the lowest skill level might need). I don’t believe for a second that it’s because any of them are ill-intentioned. Instead, I think that there’s a vulnerability around differentiation that they aren’t fully recognizing.

Once, a teacher I was working with recognized it outright. She said something like, “but I don’t know everything the kids are going to notice. What if they ask me something I don’t know the answer to?” Oddly enough, I think this was one of the highlights of my coaching career so far because the teacher was not only so aware of her own vulnerability, but also because she was so comfortable sharing it with me. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen. Usually, I hear something like the exchange above. Teachers “differentiate” by offering the same directives to everyone because they don’t know how to manage when they aren’t the ones giving out the information.

Pulling yourself out of the center of instruction as the giver of knowledge is uncomfortable if that’s what you’re used to.

So how can we steer into de-centering ourselves in our instruction?

Shift our mindset.

This might be the biggest piece. When we say the word “teacher,” of course it’s natural to think of yourself as the center of instruction. We’re the experts. But the shift here is that we don’t need to be the experts in every little thing our students will read and write. Instead, we need to be experts in getting our kids to think, read, and write in analytical ways. We need to shift our mindset of teaching from giving information to facilitating learning.

Pack some pocket moves.

Sure, that mindset shift may sound simple on paper. It only took up one measly little paragraph to explain, even. But it’s probably one of the most challenging things we’ll take on as teachers. And, like any new thing we learn, we’re on a constant wave of learning. Sometimes we’ll have really great days, and some days a student will say something or ask a question that throws us off our game, and we need to regroup quickly. “Pocket moves” is what I use to describe my go-tos when I’m lesson planning. If I’m stumped about what to do next, having these in my “pocket,” will help get me back on my game.

1. Use mentor texts instead of formulas.
Instead of puzzling over what to tell students about how to write a particular thing (genre, structure, craft move, etc), offer some examples of it and let it tell them. You’ll need to facilitate this, of course. You can’t hand a student a beautifully-written text and expect that they’ll magically absorb its power. That’s where some questions come in.

2. Ask questions before jumping to answers.
There’s no way you can be an expert in every genre, every craft move, or every mentor text your students will encounter. So, when a student is looking at a mentor text, instead of being prepared with the answers you hope they’ll find in it, be ready to pull out some pocket questions like:

  • What about this text makes it an example of ___(genre)____?
  • Is this a good example of ____(genre)____? Why? What do you think does or doesn’t make it effective?
  • What do you notice? Why do you think an author might do that?
  • Hattie wrote about a great pocket question to go along with this: Why This/Not That?
  • If you wanted to try some of the same moves as this writer, what would you try?

Whether you’re leading teachers who are feeling a vulnerability around decentering themselves in their writing instruction or you’re feeling it yourself, you’re on a long journey. There aren’t any quick fixes to get you there overnight, but recognizing it and being armed with a couple of tried and true moves can help you navigate it.

What other vulnerabilities have you encountered when coaching or leading teachers? What vulnerabilities do you wish a coach would have recognized in you? I’d love to explore this thinking with you and in future posts in this series. Connect with me in the comments below or on Twitter @megankortlandt

– Megan 

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