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May 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 8

The Trouble with Top-Down

A small group of teachers were energized by learning from one another—until the learning was mandated.

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Four years ago, as a brand-new science teacher, I was working in a demanding, urban charter school. My days were endless: Wake up at 5:00, start my hour-long commute at 6:30; start my teaching duties at 8:00; teach until 4:00 with only a half-hour for lunch (during which I had to supervise the lunchroom); stay after school for extra help and meetings until 5:30. Once I made it home, sometimes as late as 7:00, I would start grading and planning for the next day.
Teaching was no cakewalk. Some of my students strained my capacity for patience and compassion. After pouring all of my creativity nightly into planning engaging lessons, I would struggle to get my lessons to take off. Even with only 20 students in the room, it takes incredible energy, skill, focus, and agility to manage teenagers' individual needs.
The administration at this school was incredibly supportive. We had weekly faculty meetings where we often engaged in professional development; administrators were always available to troubleshoot and work with us to support our students. Everyone at the school was working hard to provide the best opportunities we could for our students. The administration had a clear vision of what constituted good teaching and promoted a set of "best practices" that all teachers were expected to implement.
When I was asked as a beginning teacher to start implementing these best practices, I would try a technique and not see the results that I wanted, which made me less motivated to use the techniques. I wanted to improve, and I was surrounded by other young teachers facing the same challenges. I knew I could learn from them, if only I had the time to see them in action. I wanted to visit their classrooms, I wanted them to visit mine, and I wanted us to build on our collective knowledge as we worked toward a common goal of implementing engaging, effective lessons.

A Small Space for Learning

After a year of being in survival mode and wishing for an alternative, I started a club. Inspired by the work of my colleagues in the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation and by the book The Three-Minute Classroom Walk-Through, a group of about 10 teachers started to do short, low-stakes walk-throughs of one another's classrooms and then meet for coffee and bagels before school every two weeks to discuss what we saw and how we might learn from our observations.
During each two-week cycle, we would all visit the same teacher's classroom (although not all at the same time), and our observations provided an entry point for our conversations. I provided some structure in the form of prompts that would focus our observations and conversations on understanding what was going on in the classroom.
Our prompts focused on student and teacher behaviors or on ways that students were interacting with the content. For example, here's an early prompt: "Observe the seating arrangement of the classroom. Does the arrangement of the room match the classroom activity that is happening? How does the arrangement enhance or detract from the learning experience?" Another week we thought about vocabulary, and our focus question was something like this: "How are students accessing or using content language in the classroom?" When we needed to dig deeper, I looked for articles from the research community. Our observations and conversations focused on what students might or might not be learning and how this could relate to our own teaching.
With each successive round of observations, our conversations became richer as we grew to trust one another enough to talk about our struggles and uncertainties. Over time, we became more open and receptive to feedback and more willing to try new things. Focusing on student learning, rather than on fixing a problem, enabled us to identify qualities of effective teaching, which then helped us critically view our own teaching. This stance toward our teaching was new for many of us.
I learned so much from visiting those classrooms, and I felt so energized by having this opportunity to improve, rather than just survive. Even though it meant getting to school early and taking time away from the precious minutes for planning lessons, working with my colleagues in this format changed my whole attitude toward teaching.

Watching It Grow

After seeing the positive effects of our work as a small group, the administration wanted to apply our approach schoolwide and require everyone to participate. I was excited about this opportunity to engage more teachers in what had been such a productive experience, and I looked forward to collaborating with my administrators.
In adapting our structure to the 40-teacher faculty, we decided to conduct observations over a monthly cycle. Because it wouldn't be practical to have 40 people observe a single teacher in four weeks, we opened up everyone's classrooms for observations. To encourage participation, we decided to offer gift cards as incentives to complete the most observations. We also surveyed the staff to identify some common areas of interest that could focus our observations, and we began writing prompts together.
Teachers had indicated that they wanted to learn more about differentiation, so I crafted a prompt that would build on teachers' current knowledge of differentiation and the types of classroom practices that supported students' individual needs. My administration suggested that it would be more efficient to provide a preexisting definition of differentiation written by an expert. The prompt then became a directive to look for examples that fit this definition.
Our conversations happened in faculty meetings and were overseen by administrators, which meant that those conversations were often about what we were doing to meet administrators' expectations rather than about questions we had about our teaching. In each meeting, we had conversations with different people. Our staff was very collegial, but we never had the opportunity to develop the common language and trust necessary to make further progress. Having a schoolwide open-door policy raised the stakes of our observations. Teachers no longer were opting to welcome their colleagues; anyone could observe us at any time. This, in addition to extrinsic rewards for participation, drastically changed our motivations. Administrators' lack of trust in teachers' ability to have meaningful, productive conversations about their practice greatly hindered our ability to learn from our conversations.

The Source of Knowledge

Teachers have a great deal of knowledge about their practice and their students that no one else possesses and that is incredibly valuable to other teachers. Professional development too often ignores teachers' knowledge of practice, generated when teachers treat their classrooms as "sites for intentional investigation." When teachers investigate their own practice, they develop a deep understanding of their own teaching and of their students, with experts' knowledge for practice acting as a resource to inform their work. Once our administration became involved, our walk-throughs changed from a space for teachers to share their knowledge with one another to a platform for top-down delivery of instructional strategies.
I have found from my experience that the paradigm of teachers implementing expert-generated "best practices" disempowers teachers. Best practices are often pitched as short, easy "fixes" for teachers to start using right away, but it takes time, effort, and learning for teachers to successfully incorporate them into their teaching. I can now see elements of best practices endorsed by experts woven into my teaching, but they emerged gradually, through methodical and purposeful observation and study of my teaching, my students, and my context, with the help of colleagues. The message that there is a body of techniques that will make any teacher successful disregards what teachers already know about their teaching.
Best practices are doomed to failure when administrators pressure teachers to quickly implement them without taking time to embed them in what they already do. And when a so-called easy fix fails to yield the promised results, teachers are left with no way forward because they have relied on external expertise. Recurring cycles of pressure to implement expert strategies put us in a powerless position and build a wedge between administrators and teachers, such that any new mandate for improving practice is met with resistance and hostility.

What Teachers Need

In my experience, the vast majority of teachers are doing their absolute best, every day, to educate students. This makes us the solution to many of the problems of public education because we know our students best and spend the most time with them. The top-down flow of expertise and knowledge about teaching disempowers teachers from improving their own practice.
Teachers need space and time to engage in authentic learning. When teachers are supported and encouraged to inquire deeply about their teaching, are trusted to do this work with integrity, and are seen as sources of knowledge and expertise, they can make meaningful changes to their instruction. When administrators act as allies and thinking partners, teachers and administrators can come to the table and together craft an experience in which teachers make improvements that enhance student learning; a goal on which everyone can agree.
End Notes

1 Downey, C. J., Steffy, B. E., English, F. W., & Frase, L. E., & Poston, W. K. (2004). The three-minute classroom walk-through: Changing school supervisory practice one teacher at a time. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

2 Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, 24, 249–305.

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