Thursday, June 28, 2012

Possibility, Not Certainties: Consulting and Teaching

Dreaming of Fireflies (M.A. Reilly, 2012)
I was reminded today about the complexity of teaching and how in this age of efficiency and faux expertise, how often the hired consultant can and does do significant educational damage.  I say that with some humility as I am a hired consultant. Today I met with primary grade teachers, teaching assistants, special education teachers, and technology coordinators who will be part of an early literacy summer project that I have designed for a city. 11 years ago, I left this same city, resigning at that time from the position of director of literacy.  So in many ways, today felt like coming home.

The work before us is the prevention of reading difficulties for 4,000 children. Although I have shared and refined the design with master teachers from the city, many of whom I had worked with previously, today was the first day that teachers had a look and of course what they had to say mattered greatly. I was encouraged by their response as the summer plan is ambitious and rests on teacher expertise, risk taking, and diligence. Preventing reading difficulties requires expertise and care when working with children, especially those whose reading progress appears stalled. It requires us to be risk takers and to acknowledge what we don't understand as we ask ourselves, what made the child do or say x? It is from a teaching stance of not knowing that great learning is possible.

2-hours into the work this morning, a participant raised her hand and said that she had been visited by a consultant who spent 10-minutes in her class and reported her to the principal because she was teaching vocabulary through a call and response method. The principal later told her that she had to stop this practice as it was wrong according to the consultant. This comment surfaced after I had said that there are multiple ways to attend to a reading aloud component and that what was most important would be our thinking at the time. Several other participants said that they had been told (again by  visiting consultants) that they had to read aloud a text without interruption first and then they could return to it to do intentional work such as attending to vocabulary, aspects of comprehension, etc. I suggested that again that our intention should be informed by our thinking, not an arbitrary rule.

These stories gave me pause, not because of a matter of right or wrong, but because the exchanges exemplify the misuse of power. Consultants often are afforded significant power by those who hire.  It's so very easy to name something going 'wrong' when observing teaching if for no other reason than the work is so inherently complex and the thousands of decisions that a teacher makes are ones that another might and probably would make differently, especially if the other person is not the teacher of record, shares not a histroy with the students, and is simply visiting for a brief period of time. Our personal and professional histories always inform how we see and fail to see. It also is incredibly different to observe a lesson and revise it in your head as opposed to actually teaching. The distance between revising in one's head and teaching is vast.

At best, it's a foolish exercise for a consultant to be a pseudo-evaluator and equally foolish for a principal to situate the consultant in such a role.  In practice, it harms children, especially when it reduces the risk taking and confidence of the teacher.  I find that a method that allows for more authentic and meaningful work as a consultant is to teach.  Part of the summer school plan involves three consultants from my company and myself teaching, along with the city's master teachers.  This literal rolling up the sleeves allows me to work from the stance of learner.  I have no doubt that the children I will have the opportunity to teach this summer, along with their teachers, will help me to learn any number of things that on this late June night I cannot name. That's a gift, for sure.

It is the initial not-naming that I want to emphasize.  When entering a classroom, we need to do so with the stance of not-knowing, so we have enough room to be puzzled, to notice, and to wonder. Complexity requires us to acknowledge that a single path, method, and belief regardless of how sound it may seem, represent not the way, but rather a momentary limitation.

I want to remember that the theory making I hope to do happens best alongside the learners as we problem solve, try on different ways of working, make leaps of faith, and often fail at the very work we most prize. So tonight I am hoping that along with these 160 teachers, I fail in ways that most inform the work and allow me the opportunity to model risk taking through action.

Taking risks, leaning in to learn, problem solving with the children and our colleagues, and becoming confident in not knowing represent important ways of working that open us to possibility, by releasing us from given certainties. 

1 comment:

  1. I am so excited for you and this work--can't wait to see videos in August.

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