Saturday, September 27, 2008


Education has changed in the past few decades, and one indicator of this seems to be that we are all busier than ever. The start of each school year feels more like a scramble, with new initiatives, new ideas, new constraints, and of course new students. My father, who retired as a head nearly 20 years ago and who ran his school with an administrative leanness that is scarcely imaginable today, has a very hard time wrapping his head around the idea that teachers and administrators seem to have so many meetings. "What are you meeting about?" he asks, in an accusatory tone. Are we noisily tailoring new clothes for the emperor only so we look busy and important? Are we only working to out-guilt each other with our claims to be working under barely tolerable loads of stress?

On bad days I think he might be onto something, but on the whole I am confident that the work that good educators are doing these days is pretty substantial. One of the main characteristics of the New Progressivism is an almost fanatical commitment to the re-examination and continuous improvement of practice. If we are meeting more often than our forebears, it is because we are at last talking with one another about the work we do and testing our assumptions and our actions against principles and benchmarks that we are working to make explicit and alive.

I spent an hour yesterday morning sitting with a couple of department chairs and the assistant head of school talking about units. We're going to make unit design the focus of both our professional development efforts and our evaluation system this year, and so we need to establish some baseline language and baseline expectations with which teachers can do the work we will be asking them to do. It was a great conversation, ranging from the challenge of creating great essential questions to the feasibility of integrating some Understanding by Design and Teaching for Understanding concepts into a schematic diagram that would help teachers conceptualize a process at which most are already, in their individual ways, quite adept.

The biggest issue we had, however, was how to present these ideas in ways that will not overwhelm and discourage a faculty already working very, very hard. The trick is to help teachers integrate new understanddings into their work in a way that reflects what the Coalition of Essential Schools calls "unanxious expectations"--the idea that we work toward our best not in the hysterical and destructively competitive pursuit of abstract "excellence" but rather calmly and in the service of explicit standards directed toward deep understanding and profound engagement. We have to allow our teachers time and space to build new concepts into their work in a way that is organic and authentic, and we have to give the tools and training to do this well.

A major difference between older models and New Progressivist schools, I like to tell people, is that in our kinds of schools we are asking teachers to take on two jobs. The first is the day-to-day teaching, correcting, advising, and coaching that all teachers must do. The second is the professional work required both to hone one's own craft as well as to forward the aims and strategic goals of the division, the department, and the school. When I was interviewing candidates I called my description of these two tasks the "informed consent" part of the meeting. For a teacher interested in disappearing into a classroom in September to emerge only in June, the New Progressivism is a bad match.

So let's step back, in late September, to ask ourselves whether our busy lives are worth it in terms of educational expertise expanded and student experience improved. I think that in schools committed to institutional reflection, collaboration, and improvement, all the meetings, all the conversations, all the drafts and redrafts, and finally all the new and better ways of doing the work are more than payoff enough.

I'd go so far as to suggest that the modeling that teachers do in such schools has a powerful effect on our students. In a school where they don't sense complacency and self-satisfaction but rather steady efforts to improve, they learn that good enough is always just a starting place. Rather than "stressing" students, this understanding becomes internalized as an ethic of improvement and even craftsmanship that will serve them well beyond their years with us.

No comments:

Click below to participate in the PROGRESSIVE SCHOOLS wiki