18. Performance Competence in the New Learning Infrastructure

Like all new teachers, Mary finds the first year of teaching stressful. Being a neophyte is never easy in any context. It takes time to understand and work with an alien culture.

The shock of newness is mitigated somewhat by emotional or psychological preparation. But even good preparation cannot overcome all the questions.

How can Mary avoid looking or acting like an idiot? In what ways can she avoid making stupid mistakes?

Performance competence is key to overcoming feelings of inadequacy, dependent on two factors: how well a person was prepared before accepting the new responsibility and how much support is given by those who lead the organization.

Preparation and support — a truism understood everywhere.

Both the preparation and level of support must be quality. Aligned with the responsibilities given neophytes.

Two key words: “aligned” and “quality.”

In the mid-20th Century neither quality nor alignment were evident in teacher preparation or initiation into a school culture. Teacher education programs focused primarily on lesson planning and instructional strategies.

New teachers were usually given a brief orientation and resources to use. In larger districts, new teachers were supported by supervisors in the first year or two. Smaller districts depended on principals to be the instructional leaders.

Mary describes the meaning of performance competence in the new learning infrastructure.

Mary Chapman’s Story – Part 16

My new students need to know I am purposeful. Coming across that way is called performance competence.

A pleasant and earnest demeanor. Filled with a quiet yet persistent resolve. A resolve that conveys direction and the route we must take to arrive at our destination.

People of all ages respond well to assertive foresight. Outlined and explained in ways that make sense and seem worthwhile.

Nothing is more irritating than a professor who mumbles his/her way into directionless lectures. The story about the professor who dreamt he was lecturing and woke up to realize he was is both funny and frightening.

Seventh graders would have him for lunch before the end of the first week.

Unlike compliant college students, seventh graders feel a newfound sense of dubiousness. They test limits as never before. Neither child nor adult, they realize the importance of peers, and begin to question expectations in ways sometimes irreverent.

Seventh grade teaching is a good litmus test for the new learning infrastructure. A sociological lab in which students are both vulnerable and annoyingly forthright. Both immature and rapidly growing engines of insight at the same time.

Middle school students, especially seventh graders, often ask, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?”

Most young teachers, trying to assert their authority, respond with, “Because I tell you to.”

Indoctrination in the guise of teaching and learning. To force students into acknowledging the worth of what they must study.

A response like that will quiet fifth graders, maybe work in tenth grade. But it motivates seventh graders to become more negatively intent.

Eventually it creates a me versus them climate that only gets worse.

Barbara, a new friend on the faculty told me something profound, “Seventh graders are different only in that they openly share their ‘Why do we have to learn this stuff?’”  

“Students in all grades ask the relevance question one way or another.”

But seventh graders are the litmus test of relevance in the new learning infrastructure. They do not fear putting the issue on the table. Sometimes vehemently.

My district’s curriculum council and subject area committees have had to grapple with the meaning of mastery in the context of relevance.  

Some teachers believed it was fruitless to discuss the relevance topic with students. They are not mature enough to understand how a skill will be useful in the adult world. And some skills are prerequisites to later skills as students progress through the grades.

Not a sufficient rationale for dismissing the importance of relevance as an entrée into an evolving human brain.

The enormous challenge faced by the district’s curriculum council and all the subject area committees.

Including science.

The first barrier was the perspective of teachers, many of whom experienced the relevance issue themselves. Some just shrugged their shoulders and accepted the argument of teachers.

They studied harder because they trusted what the teachers said. Their learning that day was important for later grades.

And for life itself.

Barbara was one of those compliant public-school students. So was I. We were insensitive to kids who needed more context for what they were being taught.

They were on the margins of our inner circle and could be ignored.

But now that we are teachers, these students cannot be ignored. Mastery is important in the new learning infrastructure.

Students once dropped through the cracks using a bell-shaped curve mentality are now omnipresent. For teachers to smugly give those students Ds and Fs no longer works.

Barbara said, “The district decided the first step in correcting the problem was to review the wording of mastery statements. Then check how curriculum outcomes/components are worded.”

And to simultaneously give teachers in-service training on how to modify their thinking and responses to students.

  ©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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