The new learning infrastructure is about creating effective teams. Where and when they make a difference in curriculum, instruction, and student learning.
Inclusive teams that concentrate on those three academic goals are curriculum councils and subject area committees.
Council and SAC members are teachers, administrators, board members, parents and patrons.
Teamwork in Schools Not Always Focused on Academics
In American schools, teams have existed for decades. Most were designed for managerial and operational reasons. Convenient communication systems for administrators who wished to appear acceptant of participatory governance. Advisory in nature.
- Building faculties are often referred to as team members. Supervised by a principal who provides direct and supportive guidance to a subordinate cadre of teachers. Most guidance related to policies and procedures. Scheduling, student management, discipline, routine assignments, and generalized staff development.
- Smaller teams within a building traditionally function at grade levels or within subject fields. Concentrating on management concerns.
- Building leadership teams (BLTs) have been used for decades, typically to advise the principal on school policy and procedures. In larger schools these leaders are subordinate to the principal: grade level or subject area department chairs.
While existing or traditional teams are positive, their main purpose is operational or managerial. Rarely do they consider academic challenges and opportunities.
Once, there were many academically focused teams.
Interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary teaching teams were used extensively in middle and high schools — before the NCLB era.
Often, they used a curriculum created by team members. Rarely linked what they taught directly to the district curriculum. They did not necessarily stay true to a grade level scope and sequence.
Academic Teams and the New Learning Infrastructure
The new learning infrastructure involves academic teaming supported by the district’s mastery objectives and total curriculum.
The story of Mary, Rebecca, Barbara, Ken and others is about a district creating such a system. The district is moving forward through use of dialogue. Issues continue to arise that need review and discussion. Those issues are referred to as barriers.
Barriers so far discussed include:
- Teacher Education and Expectations of New Teachers
- Micromanagement of School Improvement and the Assembly Line Mentality
- The Pandemic
- Superficial or Sidebar Methods of Stimulating an Interest in Improvement
Now they are concentrating on one of the more perplexing barriers. How to transform pedagogical stars like Jackie into team players.
Pedagogical stars who accepted “school” as they experienced it. Performing as teachers by following the same practices they knew and loved in their youth.
Pedagogical stars uncomfortable with the new learning infrastructure. Cooperative, but waiting until this innovative school model disappears.
Like others have before.
Rebecca Addresses Pedagogical Stars, COVID and the New Learning Infrastructure
As an assistant superintendent I must stay cognizant of trends and challenges. What I read today is frightening.
The average age of today’s teachers is 42. About 77 percent of those teachers are women. Most entered the profession roughly 15 years ago when they were between 23 and 27 years old. Some were younger. Even as public-school students they have never known classrooms without:
- external standards
- high stakes tests
- data-centric decision-making
- instructional resources aligned with approved subject content
Prior to COVID, up to 40 percent of new teachers left the profession within five years. The reasons they left varied widely.
The percentage leaving the profession during the pandemic is reported significantly higher.
Those choosing to prepare for teaching is much lower than in the past. COVID may be one reason.
I am 49. After ten years as a classroom teacher, I decided to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in education. To prepare me to become a leader in curriculum and school administration. To qualify me for both building and district level certification.
My work as a building principal and district curriculum director opened my eyes to many challenges. The pandemic has been the most destructive.
Problems related to masks, social distancing, vaccinations, and virtual/hybrid learning platforms are challenging enough.
Even more challenging is the isolation felt by teachers trying to cope with so many issues.
Debilitating feelings of isolation. Likely because teachers did not usually work in academic teams before the pandemic. In addition, they had not typically worked together in the design of instruction aligned with a well-articulated local curriculum.
Classroom-based instructional platforms needed to be changed dramatically. Most teachers had to figure it out on their own. They did not know how, nor was the district organized to give them the help they needed.
Jackie and other outstanding young teachers were among those who reported feeling alone and isolated. School became something other than what they understood.
Jackie needed to change but did not have the professional skills to do it on her own. Nor had she been part of a team that could help her modify the situation.
A Heart-to-Heart Discussion with Jackie
I decided to talk with Jackie about her remarks during the curriculum council meeting. It was an emotional dialogue.
For the first time in her personal and professional life Jackie felt like a failure.
I asked her, “Jackie, haven’t you had times in your life when mistakes were made, when conditions were not as you wanted them to be?”
“Sure, but most of them were manageable and easily corrected. My supportive family, teachers and friends were always there to get me over the bumps in the road.
“Feelings of success motivated me to continually do better. That is why I try to build a classroom environment in which my students feel successful. If they feel successful there is a better chance they will be. Just as I was.”
“That was not always true with me,” I said. “School was not easy for me, possibly because I was late to mature and felt challenged by subjects like math. Developing friendships with other students was often a problem, especially during my middle school years.
“Sometimes I would cry at night and tell my parents how upset I was because of my gawky look and stupidity in school.
“They loved me and tried their best to build my self-esteem. But that rarely helped. During teacher-parent conferences teachers would say I was a challenge in class. They suggested strategies to help me meet my ‘potential,’ whatever that was supposed to be.
I smiled. “In my younger years I had a few teachers like you, which made me feel better about myself. It felt like a warm emotional blanket. But in later years, I did not feel ready for handling the tough challenges on my own.”
Jackie looked amazed. “How can anyone who has accomplished so much academically have been the kind of student you were?”
I said, “We often learn best when we figure out how to survive. When we make mistakes and struggle to get ahead. When the deck is stacked against us. It’s a problem-solving mentality that comes from an internal strength created by failure.
“My best teachers and professors were people who put me through the intellectual ringer.
“I asked one of my overbearing professors, Betty Bracket, why she picked on me so much. Betty said my potential needed to be probed. Something she could detect but did not see used.
“I wondered what specifically Betty detected in me. She said, ‘Irrepressible curiosity and an almost irreverent ingenuity.’
“She told me to take to heart two quotes from Albert Schweitzer: ‘The path of awakening is not about becoming who you are. Rather it is about unbecoming who you are not.’ ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’”
Jackie looked puzzled. “How will understanding those perspectives help me become part of what this district is doing to change curriculum, teaching and learning? To change what I do in the classroom? To become part of a teacher team that views mastery in a different way?”
I suggested we ask a few more teachers to join our discussion. To seek answers to her questions.
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