Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Meaning of Collaboration II: Professional Conversations

Let’s break down this question of Labor-management collaboration and see what it looks like in the school and classroom.
At the school/classroom level, the biggest impediment to collaboration is a lack of capacity for professional conversations.  Ultimately, at the school level, collaboration “looks like” the ability to fearlessly and accurately evaluate your own work, and to seek the assistance of others to both push out the positives to the wider community AND fix the areas in need of improvement.
Binary systems for evaluation reduce our capacity for professional conversations.  When satisfactory evaluations are the norm, and unsatisfactory evaluations put us on the long torturous path to termination, any remark that is vaguely critical becomes a threat.  The inability to criticize one’s self and to accept criticism from others cripples professional growth.  In a true collaborative environment, criticism is safe, and it is appreciated, because it is the one thing that enables teachers to get better at what they do.
The simple statement that some aspect of your practice could be better is not the end of the world, provided that it is accompanied by resources that enable you to grow.  The importance of this fact is illustrated by what our students do in the classroom.  This underscores what I said in my previous post:  that “there needs to be symmetry of expectations up and down the hierarchical food chain.”
I’m a music teacher.  I recently developed a simple assessment to help my beginning recorder students learn.  It is essentially a checklist of four things that make for great technique:  warm, gentle air, tonguing (whisper “duh” when starting notes), left hand on top, and covering holes completely with fingers.  If the student does all four things, their sound should match the model I provide.  First I had students self assess with fingers on the chest, and peer assess.  I was surprised at the number of “4’s” I saw even when this was not supported by the simplest observation (a 4 would more or less sound like the model.)  This is not rocket science.
The kicker is that this assessment is intended kindly, to give the individual a clear and simple path to improvement.
Self assessment is, of course, notorious for unreliability.  With the peer assessment, I can only conclude that kids were being “nice” so as to not hurt feelings.  But I find the implied thinking strange.  How is it nice to allow another person to be unsuccessful, unless one agrees with the Dodo, “At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’”
These were the compliant children behaving this way.  In a subsequent lesson, I provided the assessment myself, on a slip of paper.  As each child echoed my model, I quickly checked off the things they had successfully performed.  The slips gave feedback essential to improvement.  Fix the missing checkmark and voila!  My compliant children were not a problem.
Billy, my noncompliant student, freaked out.  He got a 2, due to right hand on top and not completely covering holes.  He rolled on the floor, “I suck!” he wailed.  No patient explanation would bring him back.  He was truly the canary in our collaborative mine.  He is not the only child in this school unable to accept constructive feedback.  Nor the only human being.
I was talking to a teacher.  We have a Danielson style evaluation system with a four point rubric, really just a more sophisticated version of my little four point checklist for recorder, one ostensibly designed to point us towards ways of improving our craft.  This teacher said something like this, “The principal evaluated me.  In the past I always got exemplary ratings (4’s) on everything.  He must have it in for me.  I didn’t get top scores on everything this time.  Oh well, I’m just going to ignore it and move on.”
Is this reaction substantially different than Billy’s?  By reacting this way, this person was turning our Danielson style rubric into a de facto binary evaluation system: satisfactory/unsatisfactory.  Under these conditions, it is impossible to move forward into improved practice.
Correlation is not causation, but I cannot help but be struck by symmetry of the adult behaviors in this building and the way the children behave.  The children unwittingly mimic the errors of the adults.  I work in two schools.  At my other school, fifty miles away, where I believe there is a true collaborative environment, I taught the same lesson to the third grade.  Children who had received a 2 or a 3 were happy to have a second chance.  By the end of the period every single child had achieved the model and received a four.  In a profoundly different and meaningful way all were in fact winners and all did receive a prize: evidence of their own competence and mastery.  And a beautiful sound singly and collectively on their musical instrument.
For collaboration to work in the modern labor-management relationship there must be trust, and there must be the ability to give and receive constructive criticism along with meaningful resources to respond to that criticism and grow from it: the professional conversation.  The success of new evaluation models, and of strategic compensation schemes, depends on it.  Trust could be enhanced by separating the issue of evaluation for professional learning from the issue of evaluation for the termination of poorly performing teachers- but that’s for another blog.
There is a way forward on professional conversation.  I am an NBCT.  That was a humbling experience.  Through a process that pushed me to compare myself to an extremely high standard I learned that I am not God’s gift to teaching, that I have shortcomings.  I can deal with those shortcomings, and I can build on my strengths.  In short, I received the capacity to think critically about my practice.  There was a Gestalt shift in my thinking about teaching away from limited dualistic categories towards a more nuanced thinking that encourages professional growth.  It doesn’t mean I’m the best teacher in the world; it simply means I have a greatly enhanced capacity for improvement.
It is incumbent on districts, especially districts like mine which have achieved a critical mass of NBCTs, to take advantage of this Gestalt shift, to move us away from either/or attitudes about effectiveness and into those more nuanced conversations about practice.  This will require trust, and a willingness to provide the resources people need to grow.
It is also incumbent upon teachers to take advantage of opportunities like the National Board process, to build their individual capacity for the critical, professional conversation.  It is only through the two sides moving towards one another that modern reform practices become sustainable and not just an exotic flavor of business as usual.
I believe this is what the great collaborative enterprise looks like at the school and classroom level.  If adults achieve this, I think we will see the change reflected in the behavior and dispositions of our students.  If we believe, in a profound sense, that we can grow, our students will believe the same about themselves.


  1. It may also have had something to do with the age of the students you first taught; were they also third-graders?

  2. Clix, yes they were also third graders - but I could tell a similarly striking story with an almost identically constructed assessment concerning a sixth grader, So I don't think its necessarily developmental. I've noticed an intolerance for constructive criticism within this community.

  3. I am finding that through life, it seems - adults and kids. I had a colleague get rather upset with me when I questioned whether their kids weren't "getting it" because they needed to change their teaching methods. "If most of the kids are unmotivated and not 'getting it' then perhaps it's not them..." (That didn't go over very well....)

    Part of this comes from fear of failure, of which I see a lot in my kids. Some of this comes from having to establish a safe place where mistakes are ok - I feel I do this and I see a difference in my students' performance. Much of our students' attitudes regarding criticism also comes from what they are seeing from the adult around them - if parents and teachers are showing that they can never be wrong, that attitude is going to move to the kids. (This is why I always admit my mistakes to the kids...)

    So - how do we foster the idea that critique is ok within our students? and more importantly, how do we foster it within the adults?

    (I apologize for any incoherent ramblings. I am realizing I am exhausted!) :)

  4. Nothing incoherent here - I think your school is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

    Seymour Sarason:

    "Sustained and productive contexts of learning can NOT exist for students if they do not simultaneously exist for teachers."

    That's what I've been blogging about for my last two posts.

    How can we get better in a vacuum? Do you feel safe? Do you feel mistakes are OK? Its amazing if you can create that for your students. Kiss your brain.