05 November 2005

What Do Teachers Need?

I've been thinking a lot this week about what teachers need (in terms of professional support) and why they do or don't get it.

Is the "eduspeak" a big turnoff? Likely. I had a teacher rail at me on Friday morning as we walked down the hall from the office. Here it was, not even 7:30 a.m. and this woman had been stewing in her own juices for hours...all over the term "scaffolding." Now, I admit it's a bit trite, but this is a term I actually kinda like. I like the idea of supporting student learning to a new place---and then removing the supports once the skill is learned. My colleague does not. Her perception of the term means that it is a support for a crumbling entity...not something used to build. This was just the tip of the iceberg for her. She ranted on about the need for scaffolding at all. Hey---we went through the educational system and made an effort to internalize the information and turned out just fine. Why on Earth isn't that good enough now?

I tried to explain that she and I had certain advantages (scaffolds?) in the forms of two educated and involved parents who made enough money to keep us comfortable. We had so little in our personal lives to worry about that it made focusing on what happened in the classroom pretty simple. But there are a lot of kids, then and now, who don't have that. We can't do much of anything about what happens to them outside the school walls, but inside, we have to give it our best shot. This means doing a bit of scaffolding for students who need help in building background knowledge. Not everyone has been to a museum or camping or had a parent read to them when they were young. What can we do in the classroom to bring everyone to a point where the same opportunities for the future are possible?

This explanation only served to make her more irritated. "Not everyone is meant to go to college. We'll still need people in services, etc." I agree. But I don't see the current trends in education as completely devoted to college readiness. It's about making sure everyone---regardless of their background---has the same basic knowledge and skills. What they choose to do beyond that is their own business. I do have some issues with the standards movement, but not with the ideas related to equity.

She and I have both been in this field for awhile. The standards movement has run over us, not through us as with the younger crop. These new expectations aren't things that we've had a chance to internalize---they've just been dropped in our laps and we're supposed to magically know how to change what happens in the classroom. Now that I have a greater support role in the district, it's becoming so much more obvious to me what is missing from teachers' toolkits. I'm just not entirely sure how to bridge the gulf. Here's some of the larger needs I see:
  • How do you "teach to a standard" and know if students have met it?
  • How do you change from a teacher who "covers" material to one who can say their students have "learned" the material?
  • How do you release your choke hold on the facts listed in the textbook and teach concepts?
  • How do you select instructional strategies and lessons that help all of the students in a classroom?

You may be wondering if I have the answers to these questions. I don't. I do have some ideas about how to approach them and some resources for doing so. I e-mailed my school admins with a few of these questions and the need for getting at the belief systems of the staff. We can't move forward as a school unless we have some agreement about what should happen in a classroom and why---along with a plan for supporting it.

The role of a public school teacher is difficult enough without having to figure out all of this on one's own. Those of us in support roles have got to find a better way to address the needs of teachers.


Mrs. Ris said...

You're right. Thanks to the stadndard movement, we are called on the change our teaching, some in a big way, and we do need support. Thinking of myself as a teacher of students who learn the material, rather than a teacher who covers the required curriculum was an easy change. It's much harder to actually teach our diverse populations to mastery. No excuses. All kids learn.

Your teachers are lucky to have you looking out for them.

Dan Edwards said...

Good Questions! Now, if we could just get a couple of years of non-interference from those who do not teach, those who have never taught children, yet know what is best for our children and us.

Also, regarding what we need to teach...support from the community and school administration for obtaining ANYTHING a teacher says they need and can demonstrate the need, to better teach those students in their classroom.

For example, I cannot use powerpoint presentations in my classroom. I do not have a laptop or the necessary computer/electronic gizmos necessary to present ppps. Nor is the school showing any interest in furnishing said equiptment.
BUT, new for this school season, I did get a combo DVD/Video player for my classroom, to use with the single 25 inch screeb tv with limited sound that I have had for over five years.

Mr. McNamar said...

Science Goddess,
I like your blog, always thinking. But, I think it is the terminology that get people all worked up. I hate teaching to a standard, but I don't mind teaching skills. When skills are presented as "targets" and everybody must be at said standard, I think some teachers feel put upon.
Now, I'll have to write about it because I'm thinking about it. Come over some time and see what you think.

Anonymous said...

There's a fairly good explanation of scaffolding at http://www.coe.uga.edu/epltt/scaffolding.htm. The original idea came from Bruner and others watching mothers teaching very young children how to play games and learn other simple things. It's actually not a very good metaphor--Bruner may not have understood the actual use of a scaffold in construction projects, which is not to hold up the building until it can stand on its own. That's unfortunate because the idea that the term "scaffold" is being used to represent is important for education. Like the complaining teacher you mention, I also choke on Edspeak, and I think for good reasons: the terms being used don't quite get at the point or represent a troublesome oversimplification, and often use inappropriate words. To someone sensitive to language use, it feels like bad grammar and it's embarrassing to hear educators using bad grammar.

Anonymous said...

Scaffolding, eh? I once wrote a parody of an English Journal type article, complete with such buzz words as "scaffolding." It was very much over the top. What was frightening is that several of my administrators thought it cutting edge, as did not a few teachers.

I propose a simple solution. Each teacher will show up each day well prepared and will provide the best possible educational opportunity that their personal and provided resources will allow. They will go out of their way to encourage, cajole, harry and in every other way, reach every student. And there, their obligation ends.

How do we tell students are learning? Is such arcane knowledge possible without mandatory high stakes tests?

We have absolutely no trouble accepting the idea that not every student will play first string on the varsity football team, and we're even pleased to outright ban 50% of our student populations from even trying out. Yet, we promote the fiction that every student can and will "learn" to the same level.

Yes, every student potentially can learn. But unless they put forth at least a little effort, they are merely ocuppying space and not buzz word, dramatic new educational technique or government program will change that. I know exactly what my students are capable of doing, and what they do--in actual pracitce--on a daily basis. Of course, no one will consult me on such things. Apparently because I tend to react violently when words like "scaffolding" are touted as the metaphor that will change the world.

Oh well. Ranted enough.

The Science Goddess said...

I like the ideas in Mike's second paragraph. No doubt, most teachers would. Somehow, making that happen seems as unlikely as the fiction that all students will learn to the same level. After all, if every teacher in the past had been doing as you suggest, the standards movement would likely not have emerged. We can assign and debate the terminology, but it doesn't change the equity issues we need to look at.

My hope is that accountability will have more reasonable goals than there are presently. You're right---100% isn't likely to happen.