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Getting It Right: Teachable Moments and Education Policy

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). Today we're hearing from Jeanne DelColle, a social studies teacher at Burlington County Institute of Technology and the 2012 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.

As a teacher, it is my job to take complex information, find ways to break it down for my students so that they understand it, and help them develop connections and discover how the content they learned fits into a broader perspective. There are many methods to doing this, but some of my best lessons have been occasioned by what we call "teachable moments." These lessons are often student driven and organically manifest themselves because of a particular catalyst. In trying to help students understand the world around them and their place in it, we make a slight detour from the day's planned lesson in order to grasp a larger concept. I see the opportunity to address cage-busting teacher leadership as just such an experience.

Writing education policy is like writing a lesson plan. As a high school history teacher, I strive to keep my lessons fresh, trying new ideas in the classroom to help my students maximize their learning. Sometimes, you spend all weekend designing a lesson that you are really jazzed about, then come into class on Monday morning, roll it out, and find that it all tanks, regardless of how much time it took you to prep, how much research you have done, or how much you have aligned the plan with the curriculum and tried to make it rigorous, relevant and fun. You know it has all gone wrong when you see the quizzical expressions as the kids just tilt their heads and say, "Ms. D., I just don't get it." Worse yet, they simply disengage. From that point you have a very small window of time to recover before you lose the class.

Failure. It's not a matter of if but when. It doesn't matter that failure happens, because you can't grow if you always do what you have always done; it is what you do when failure happens that is important. When a lesson fails you have three choices: 1. Proceed with the lesson anyway and force it down their throats. 2. Blame the students when they don't get it, give up and give them a worksheet as you retreat to your desk in exasperation. 3. Talk to your class, explain what you are trying to accomplish, get some feedback from them, adapt the lesson and try it again.

I don't suggest the first two choices because they create a bad classroom climate full of distrust and hostility and promote the idea that failing means you are a failure. Number three is always the best option for both sides, although it is not the easiest. You risk losing face because you have to admit that something is wrong. The good news is that if you are sincere, your students will often take up the challenge and help you, which creates buy-in from your students who now feel that they have a stake in the success of the lesson.

So why do lessons fail? More often than not it is a failure in communication, so you need to develop a common language with your class that everyone understands. Sometimes a step is missing; we need students to be able to crawl and walk with information before they can run.

Sometimes there is something within the lesson that touches a nerve and shuts students down. Great teachers build a classroom environment that provides a safe place in which it is okay to try something new and fail without being berated. In order to do this, good teachers need to know more than content; they need to know their students and what factors influence their perspective. More importantly, they must be aware of their own unique lens, too.

The reform policies being implemented around the country are like lesson plans in that they are crafted with research, procedure and a desire to improve education for our students. But sometimes, even with the best intentions, reforms tank, and once again you have three choices. Policy makers can force the reforms, blame it on teachers, or actually gather some feedback from educators and retool so as stakeholders, there is a shared sense of responsibility in the success of the policy.

Most states develop reform policies from the top down, and they neglect to engage teachers in the process of policy development, and gather feedback for course corrections. Any decisions made about teachers, without teachers, are doomed to fail especially if there is a lack of two-way communication, no common language, and little or no concept of the challenges faced by educators on a daily basis.

Too often, I have heard policy people across the country say, "Well it's going to be regulation, so they are just going to have to deal with it." To which my response and the response of many other teachers is, "Then change the laws." Just because something is in code is not a good enough reason for me to buy into the idea. The jam it and cram it method of learning is seldom successful and often causes much resistance; ask any student.

There are many obstacles, you can call them cages, that prevent two way communication between policy makers and teachers. Often cited are: lack of capacity, lack of time, difficulty finding a group of teachers that are willing to productively engage, lack of money and lack of trust. Instead, exemplars of a particular policy are paraded out and held on a pedestal for all others to aspire to and regulation is passed with little consideration from the field. This approach is certainly easier for those creating policy, but disingenuous at best as unequal schools are held to equal standards, and if you tried this in a classroom, the kids would call you out on it in about 30 seconds. If we want teachers to be respected as leaders, then they must be treated as such by policy makers.

There is one more reason that a lesson can fail: if the students don't do their homework, which leaves them unprepared to engage when the lesson begins. Students cannot be passive when it comes to their learning, and neither can teachers when it comes to crafting policy. It is not the responsibility of policy makers alone to bridge the gap that exists; teachers must do their research, be prepared to discuss and not complain, build some consensus among their colleagues and other stakeholders, and propose solutions that will work beyond their classroom. We each have our own particular lens of experience, but we must all be prepared to broaden our perspective if we are going to find some common ground and work together.

When a lesson tanks, there are lessons to be learned both by the teacher and the students, who, with the proper growth mindset, learn that to fail does not mean you are a failure. Policy makers should use this teachable moment to engage educators and learn with them because now more than ever, failure comes with very high stakes attached. In order to bridge the gap so policy works, both sides must make the effort. Teachers need to step beyond their classroom and examine policy from a district or state perspective, while policy makers need to become good at doing what they espouse most highly: effective teaching. It's not as easy as it looks, but it will save a lot of time and energy if policy makers view teachers as partners in crafting education policy.

-- Jeanne DelColle

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