Monday, November 25, 2013

What is excellence in teaching in a Friends School Context?

  Wordle: Quaker Spices
One of the critical conversations happening at Westtown School this year revolves around what it means to be an excellent teacher at this school with its particular mission. In a recent discussion on the characteristics of good teaching I received some push back on the use of the word "excellent". The criticism was that the word smacked of elitism and furthermore if a teacher was an amazing, spell-binding lecturer did that make her a better teacher than one who crafted thought provoking problems for his students to solve. What is the standard if not excellence? And once we have a standard how do we define and name its characteristics?

I took these related questions with me to the recent Friends Council on Education Peer Network Meeting for Associate Heads and Division Heads. Our topic for the day was "Faculty Evaluation and Professional Growth in a Friends School Context: How does Quakerism inform how we go about doing evaluation and professional growth?" I explained that criticism of the term "excellence" seemed to be rooted in a strong strain of equality within Friend's schools. The first response to my questions after a collective chuckle was "what are we all supposed to be... equally mediocre?" But then two other members of the group nodded in agreement and said that this was a theme found among their faculty as well -- this conflating of excellence with elitism. Fortunately another member of the group offered a way forward from within the Quaker testimonies--To be excellent is to do one's work with integrity. Integrity is one of the Quaker SPICES (testimonies). The whole list includes Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship.

Integrity asks of us to give our best in every situation, to deal honestly with our students and colleagues. At its core it calls on us to have our outward lives express our inward thoughts and beliefs. So what are the queries we might ask (rather than a check list of things to do)  in relation to whether or not we are doing our jobs with integrity? I would begin with following:
  • Does my teaching in philosophy and pedagogy support the mission of the school?
  • Do my actions in the classroom, as an adviser, on the playing field, in the school community, place the needs of my students at the center?
  • Do I deal honestly and forth rightly with my colleagues and supervisors?
  • Am I open to learning new ways to do my work in the evolving life of this school?
  • Do the strategic imperatives of the school and my personal talents and beliefs align?
I'm sure this list isn't exhaustive and would welcome hearing others' thoughts.

In my next post I will explore my thoughts on Stewardship as another means of defining excellence.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Taking Risks, Taking Flight

I have a colleague who spends her summers carefully planning every day of her curriculum. She is one of our innovators, one of our first adopters. But before she adopts she tests, plans, prepares-- nothing is left to chance. This year she is adopting and adapting on the fly. Her experiment is to more frequently follow the lead and interest of her students. Reflecting on this experience of "flying by the seat of her pants" she had this epiphany about how she felt and how her students must always feel. Seldom do our students (and hers are in middle school)  feel like the expert. They are always in learning mode, always to a certain degree off balance --or just taking off. How powerful for them to have their teacher model for them how to manage that experience.

I have another colleague, a master teacher who shared with his intern last year on the eve of the intern's first solo lesson, "the worst thing that will happen will be that its a failure." Just the lesson will fail, the next day you get to try again. This experienced teacher has lived a career built on experimentation in how students learn best. He is still experimenting -- his students think he is excellent.

Just last week I watched a group of our primary circle students play at the water table, a number of tube and funnel attachments were tried and failed to get the desired result. Finally, the kids figured out the combination that gave them the right sort of bubbles in the right color. Eureka! And then they started all over getting it wrong lots of times until they got the new result they wanted. Young children don't need permission to experiment, they are hardwired for it.

I see part of my role as creating the climate and support for teachers to experiment, to take risks with their pedagogy, their content, their approaches to teaching. Becoming a master teacher is an ongoing, career spanning adventure. Personally, I have come to believe the minute we are no longer wanting to venture something new we need to retire. Learning to enjoy the energy that comes from not being one hundred percent sure or  the absolute expert in the room reinforces for us and our students that we are partners in a learning community.

Creating that climate means providing resources for learning, time to be creative, and permission to try without always waiting for perfection or certainty or even an ok from an administrator. Peer coaches and mentors need to see their role as one of fostering courage. Our professional growth cycle and evaluation systems must reward risk and question stasis. We need to be involved in a process of ongoing revelation--always with our students as the focus of what we do.