Supporting Change

Last Saturday we had breakfast with an educator who has a powerful position in a major foundation. Part of his work includes developing teams to change curriculum. We talked about how hard change is and how important a supportive cohort therefore becomes.

He’s only known me in the latter part of my career and insisted I must always have been a change agent and constructivist teacher. “No,” I assured him. “In fact, many years ago one of my students told me that I could talk bell-to-bell on fewer breaths than any other teacher!”

She may have meant it as a compliment, but I recognized the downfall of that approach when a colleague working on her administrative certificate used my class and me for a case study.

Recording detailed observations allowed her to quantify the teacher talk. Even in the early 80s, despite my teacher training that focused on students as “buckets to be filled,” I talked too much.

“Ellen, you’ve got to get the kids talking… it can’t be all you.”

“But how do I do that?” I really didn’t know.

I don’t remember what suggestions she may have offered then, but when my visionary department chair introduced our department to problem-based learning, I finally understood. PBL gives students more ownership of their learning, creating situations in which they usst construct and evaluate their understandings. Constructivism made learning more compelling and teaching more exciting – if also more challenging. PBL provided a meaningful structure for that shift from teacher talk to student ownership. I began to seek ways to make even traditional literature study more student-centered.

Changing my ways did not come easily, though. I stumbled through my first training on coaching, at a loss, nearly ready to give up. Continued training experiences and a connected community kept me going. Too much of a “lone ranger” in my own building, I depended on conversations with my department chair and emails with colleagues from the frequent workshops I took.

After a couple of years, I had transitioned to such a student-centered classroom that I was now a trainer. Ironically that shift got me in trouble with some parents at a Back-to-School night. The day after I proudly described the kinds of work my students were doing, one of them stayed after class. “Mrs. Ljung,” he said, “My parents are upset about what you told them last night. They asked why you were getting paid a good salary when we were doing all the work. You need to explain it better.”

The next year for Back-to-School Night, I invited my students to describe their work in the classroom, leaving the room while they did so that parents could believe in the authenticity of their words. Students willingly gave up free time to help, so invested were they in this kind of classroom experience. Yet I know I would still be a breathless talker without the support of my peers in shifting my role.

That same visionary department chair started a brain research study group. Learning about new findings from neurologists and their potential impact on teaching and learning invited new approaches, and our conversations and sharing of both frustrations and successes made daring those approaches more accessible.

It is far easier for teachers to repeat lessons year after year, teaching in the same way, regardless of their student population, than to seek new ways to become more effective. Ongoing support makes such a huge difference. Why, then, so schools and districts too often fail to offer teachers opportunities like learning cohorts?

If we truly want to improve schools, we need to help teachers form learning cohorts where they take ownership of their learning and its impact on their teaching. That requires a systemic approach that’s long over

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