Ninety Days to Make It or…..?
Kaity O’Riordan and Shari Pawlus
3rd Grade Teaching and Learning Leaders
Troy School District
September started off like any other “new year.” The sharpening of pencils, the cleaning out of desk drawers, the creation of new bulletin boards, and the intense anticipation for what the year would bring. As usual, we planned meticulously the evening before school started for fear that we would be late on our first day. The coffee was ready to brew, the outfit picked out, the lunch was packed- we were prepared. We barely slept that night, and bolted out of bed before the alarm went off the next morning.
As we walked down the hallway to our office, something was noticeably off— where was the crowd of parents waiting to meet the teacher? The staff members rushing around putting the finishing touches on their welcome-back-gifts? The frazzled secretary answering phone call after phone call? And- most importantly- where was the line of students with their faces pressed up against the window, waiting to start their first day?
Now, don’t get us wrong. We knew by this time that we were great partners in this new venture. But our excitement to see each other that morning couldn’t match the enthusiasm of twenty-seven students on their first day of fifth grade. We began to feel a sense of loss. Surely once the day got started, the feeling would begin to fade. We quickly sat down, opened our shiny new laptops, and got busy. Emailing each other. From our desks. Which are five feet apart. That’s when it hit us.
There was no blueprint for this job.
This was a brand new pilot position in our district. We had no footprints to follow; there were no lesson plans for us to use and tweak to fit our style as we went forward. Not even the “Emergency Sub Plans: Watch This Movie” kind of guidance. We were on our own. Give us twenty-seven students in the same situation- we were calm, cool, and collected. Thirty-six third grade teachers? No clue.
Here’s what we did know: in May, an email came through with the posting for two third grade teaching and learning leaders. Things we saw in the posting like “adult staff learning is just as important as student learning” as well as “work to build capacity for teacher leadership” made us confident that this was the position for us. We believe in the idea that the teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s learning. An opportunity to help teachers be the best educators they can be? We couldn’t it let pass us by.
Our excitement for the possibilities of this position drove us through the first few weeks. We recognized that pushing into classrooms while teachers are establishing routines and relationships wasn’t going to make us any friends, so we took all of our energy and started brainstorming. Our office walls were filled with our stream of consciousness—how to get into teachers classrooms, how to share ideas across the district, goals for each year of our pilot, our philosophy and vision. This brainstorming period started as a way to get to know each other’s ideas and try to carve out a path for what our work would be. Looking back, we now realize that it was also a way for us to develop our relationship as well as a shared vision for our work. We also quickly recognized that this vision was fluid; it was impossible for us to set anything in stone while in such unchartered territory and without the input of our teachers.
We liken this to trying to plan out a school year of lesson plans before ever meeting the students. We couldn’t truly plan our work until we knew our teachers. So we set aside those grandiose plans and made lunch dates. 12 of them. At each building. On our own budget. (As a side note- Kaity quickly learned about the gem that is Costco!) J
Our goal for these lunches was two-fold: start to build relationships with the teachers at each building as well as learn more about them as teachers. We brought them lunch and talked a bit about our backgrounds, as well as theirs. We also took them through a protocol where we began to uncover their motivations as professionals. What was an idea they wanted to learn about? What was something they felt comfortable teaching? What did they want to try in the classroom? What subject did they want to see someone else teach?
We left each lunch armed with new information about our “class,” including a sense of the school culture, team collaboration, and individual teacher personalities. Cognizant of the fact that a teacher’s lunchtime is extremely valuable, we built a bridge and offered to stay after lunch to help teachers with anything they might have been doing during lunch time. We were so proud of ourselves for thinking of this because we thought it would serve another purpose- a chance to be in classrooms with teachers to get a sense of their style. And, of course, have some kid time, which at this point we were sorely missing.
Throughout the 12 lunches with teachers, we continued to reflect and adjust. Not only what we were having for lunch, but more important things like what questions we asked to ensure we understood teacher needs. We also adjusted the types of things we were willing to help with after lunch, which afforded us the opportunity to be in classrooms and see teachers in action.
As we pondered and looked at trends from building to building, what we heard our teachers saying was that they really needed support with our new math curriculum. We brought one teacher per building together for a day of professional learning, and have made inroads with those teachers to work more closely. As a result of the learning and questioning done at the session, the teachers began to invite us into their classrooms during math instruction.
Being in rooms more frequently made us realize something about ourselves in this new position- we were very uncomfortable giving constructive feedback. Although we were effusive with our encouraging feedback, we were seeing some things that we wanted to ask them about in a constructive way- we wanted to help them be more reflective. As luck would have it, the leadership conference we are attending in Lansing had “offering effective feedback” on its next agenda in early December. We learned a protocol that will help us deliver both encouraging and constructive feedback that we are looking forward to trying in the new year. (For more information about the protocol, please click the link: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/situation-behavior-impact-feedback.htm)
By working intensely with a small focused group of teachers, we are committed to helping them develop more effective instructional strategies that promote critical thinking. We are also committed to building their capacity to be more reflective in their decision making, through the use of classroom data. By building their confidence in both of these areas, we are hoping to see them emerge as teacher leaders within their grade level. As such, they would form our first 3rd grade math lab, with a focus on instructional strategies that promote critical thinking as well as data driven decision making. Looking forward to next school year, these teachers would splinter off and become the facilitators of district wide teacher labs.
Although we are missing the noise of an active classroom and the face of a student who “gets it” for the first time, we are convinced now, more than before, of our jobs’ importance and understand that even though we are not with kids every day we still impact learning in the classroom- for both student and teacher. We look forward to the joys and challenges that the rest of this year will bring as we continue to build capacity amongst our third grade teachers as effective instructors and teacher leaders. We also look forward to looking back in June to see how effectively we’ve built our own capacity as coaches.
Happy New Year!