By Sharon Archer, First Published by Real Clear Education, April 20, 2016
We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but how many of us have actually stopped to wonder why? Is the dog just apathetic? Insecure in his ability to learn? Unsure of the goal? Maybe the greater question to ask is, “Why not?” With the right motivation, feedback, love, and support, I could have my 13-year-old black lab, Linus, rolling over by sunrise. This, however, can only happen with the right approach—from someone who has taken the time to get to know Linus and understands why he’s not rolling over already.
Unfortunately, in the ever-changing world of education, too many people believe our veteran teachers are unwilling to change—or are even incapable of learning “new tricks.” As an Opportunity Culture multi-classroom leader in New York’s Syracuse City School District, I have found that could not be further from the truth. I’ve been fortunate to work with several veteran teachers, some with more than my 15 years’ experience, and watched them challenge themselves, growing into better teachers who feel professionally renewed.
Along the way, they pushed me to grow as an MCL, especially Mr. H. and Ms. C. Mr. H., with more than a decade of experience, needed some math content support. Ms. C., with more than two decades, found herself struggling under the pressure of a new curriculum, new principal, and an ever-evolving urban student population. I was also leading brand-new teachers on the team—and I quickly discovered that my approach with the veterans needed to be very different.
As the year began, I found Mr. H. nestled into his comfort zone. He was masterful at classroom management and developing relationships with his students, a critical skill in an urban setting. His desks were neatly stacked in rows, and he owned the front of the classroom. Students practiced skills independently at their seats after a teacher-directed lesson. But his class needed more student-centered instruction. I knew I would be slowly and deliberately shaking this classroom up.
Mr. H. was stuck in a rut, but I could not assume that he didn’t want to grow. I had to believe that he would welcome a transition as long as it was his decision, at his pace. I had my foot in the door as the content specialist; now I just had to nudge him into more student-centered instruction.
An MCL, unlike other mentors or coaches, gets to continue teaching, while also leading a team, coaching, co-teaching, and providing feedback and support. So I showed up every day. I watched a lot. I made sure to plan with Mr. H. weekly. I knew developing a relationship was key to influencing change. After several weeks, I suggested, “Maybe some partner work?” I assured him that with us both in the room, we could keep students on task while they worked in partner groups. Soon, 10 minutes of that became the norm. Soon after, we discussed his students’ wide variance in math ability. That was my in to establish “parallel teaching”—co-teaching alongside him—and small groups.
An MCL must coach experienced teachers carefully—observe, be subtle yet insistent, use the power of positive presupposition, and be ever-present. By midyear, we were having seemingly casual conversations about differentiation and data-driven instruction, but I was steering him toward group work, centers, and pre-planning high-level questions. When he would say, “This is too hard for the kids,” I would respond, “What part could they do? How could we get them through it? Where could we start?”
Every time he put a roadblock to developing a more instructionally successful classroom, I framed it as a positive, implying that he had the knowledge to solve the problem himself—because I knew he did. But more important, he knew he had my support—that I believed he could manage a student-centered classroom, and would help him if needed.
In Ms. C.’s case, a focus on evaluation and judgment over time had done more harm than good. She was rapidly becoming disconnected from the love of teaching. Rather than sit her down for a hard conversation (often part of the job) I started just working next to her. Quite literally: I was her sidekick. Emotional support was job one.
I began to coach Ms. C. within the context of situations that arose. This way, I was her teammate. Soon, I began to influence her, but I was not yet able to hold her accountable. Accountability goes a long way in fostering growth and self-study, but accountability without support leads to frustration and failure. So I needed to balance my support with the norm of accountability.
Ms. C. started to thrive after we set clear goals together, with “check-in” meetings so she could hold herself accountable to implement changes by a certain date. Inviting her input empowered her, and providing her with support went a long way in leading to the results we both wanted. It is always better to coach and encourage teachers than to judge and evaluate them.
This all worked because these teachers were open to being coached. Most of us, if we’re honest, would prefer to hear only positive feedback, but that leaves us stagnant— we should all invite feedback and even constructive criticism. As I’ve seen, even those of us who are veteran teachers can continue to fine-tune our craft—and most of us want to.