Monday, July 19, 2010

Last Thoughts and Difficult Questions

The last day of this intensive  seminar/course offered by LCEEQ and QuILL was the highlight of my week and though some of us wondered why we didn’t begin with this speaker, I understand why the organizers ‘kept the best for the last’.  Dr. Anthony Muhammad, author, educator of many years, award winning principal and educational consultant, plainly and powerfully presented his theory outlining the anatomy of school culture and explaining the resistance to change that many of us see in our profession.  Many educators and theorists have pointed out the uncomfortable irony that the education industry has been the very last one to adopt and benefit from the changes in the social and information landscape brought by the web.  (An American study investigated the IT integration of 55 different industries; schools ranked underneath coal mining at 55!) Dr. Muhammad brings an important voice to understanding some key elements in the resistance to change and while it is clearly impossible to do justice to his ideas in this blog post, I feel compelled to communicate the essence of his ideas here and heartily recommend to my readers that they read his book and follow this brave thinker.

Dr. Muhammad did an ethnographic study 34 public schools across the United States.  He collected his data over three years using both formal and informal methods.  (He sometimes posed as a substitute teacher and spent the day in the staff room simply listening to teacher conversations!)  He interviewed randomly selected teachers and administrators, conducted document reviews on student grades, staff attendance and a host of other factors.  The result is his powerful book, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division.

After one week of intensive learning, his insights are the ones I leave with and want to communicate to others.  A healthy school culture is one where all stakeholders in the child’s learning and success are on the same page.  A healthy school culture is one where the staff articulates in words and behavior the belief that all children can learn and will learn because of what we do.  Is this true in your school?  Examine your own behavior, think back to what you might have said about a student’s capacity to be successful.  Review the conversations in your own staff room and sincerely ask yourself how much of your school culture is informed by a belief that student success is solely the result of the students’ level of concern, attentiveness, prior knowledge and willingness to comply with the teacher; in other words, if the student fails, it’s only his fault.  (I know these words are hard to read but please continue.) 
Whether we like to admit it or not, teachers are a crucial factor in the students’ success.  Dr. Muhammad reminds us of this and the corollary consequences; teachers must take responsibility and examine the effectiveness of their classroom instruction.  There is danger in accepting the argument that student success is merely a byproduct of their natural cognitive talent.  If this were true, then we should conclude that teacher effort is a waste of time.  (Robert Marzano also says this when he warns of the power of social paradigms that teachers bring to the classroom.)
If you are feeling uncomfortable, then I think it is because you are thinking of your own practice and doing some soul-searching.  This is a good thing because without self-reflection and hard questions, we (and our teaching) will not evolve.  When faced with a student who is failing, I try every trick in the book to pull him/her to the pass line.   We all know them; cajoling, motivational pep talks, running after assignments, bending deadlines, calling parents, pleading, threatening and the list continues.  Most of the time some trick  works and the student passes; but sometimes, I have to admit defeat and fail a student.  I hate it.  Failing a student makes me feel like a failure.   My hunch is that many of us feel the same way.  Dr. Muhammad’s words are difficult and challenge us to self-reflection.  What could I have done differently?   How much more can a teacher do in the face of student non-engagement?  Am I responsible for a student’s failure?  
For me, the conclusion is not an easy one; maybe there was room for improvement in the design of the course, in the choice of assignments, in the classroom instruction that might have encouraged the student to ‘get it done’.  Assessment is crucial in measuring how students learn.  If a student participates in class and contributes to discussion but is not handing in assignments, maybe I have to design assessments differently.
Teachers have broad shoulders and by nature, I think we are comfortable with responsibility.  Dr. Muhammad has challenged me to look at my teaching and that is a good thing.  While I do not believe that any one human being is completely responsible for the actions of another, and therefore must admit that some students are always going to be beyond my reach because that is their choice, I have accepted that there is room for improvement in my teaching.  The bottom line is always the student learning and success; not my ego.  If we can improve student learning by examining our beliefs and practices, then we simply must take that step for their sake and the sake of a healthy school culture. 

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