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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Quantum Leap—A Teacher and A Consultant Exchange Jobs

Trading jobs for a year gave a language arts consultant and a 3rd grade teacher valuable insights about the gap between research and practice—and how to bridge it.

Instructional Strategies
Consultants and teachers work in separate worlds, and yet their ultimate goal is the same: increased learning for students. One obstacle to achieving this shared purpose is that many change agents lack recent experience in schools. And in the final analysis, it is in individual classrooms and with individual teachers where change will either succeed or fail.
What better way to promote understanding than to exchange jobs? To better appreciate each other's perspectives, we—a language arts consultant, K–12, and a grade 3 teacher—traded jobs for one year. Prior to our exchange, neither of us had experience in the other's job. When the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency advertised for teacher applicants, Jacquie Lier was selected. This was the first such job exchange for both the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency and the Davenport Community Schools.

Translating Theory to Practice

Bruce: For 11 years, I have supported change in language arts. In my new role as a classroom teacher, I wanted to experience many of the curriculum changes that are evolving in language arts: flexible grouping, literature-based reading, cooperative learning, portfolios, interdisciplinary studies, and a student-centered, integrated language arts program.
When word got around that I would soon be teaching 3rd grade, teachers greeted me with, “Oh, I hear you're returning to the trenches” or “So you're going back to the real world!” Since I had been advocating a change to whole language, I knew I needed to experience for myself the obstacles teachers face while implementing these beliefs. This experience meant taking on the full weight of a teacher's responsibility—lunch tickets, discipline, parent problems—in short, being accountable for the children from the first day of school to the last day. Could I do what I had been suggesting to others? It was time to find out.
My year as a teacher was a dose of reality therapy. First, my beliefs about whole language were validated when I saw my 3rd graders become enthusiastic readers and writers, even when “they didn't have to.” I gathered proof from the children and their parents that our classroom was a good place to be and that the children were flourishing in Room 102.
I also learned that to increase my effectiveness as a consultant, I needed to understand how theory must accommodate the everyday classroom events that can sabotage any good idea. As a consultant, I had suggested ways of providing choices in literature and writing topics, but as a teacher I had to deal with the countless obstacles to creating a learner-centered classroom. As a consultant, teachers would ask during my inservices, “Yes, but what do you do about ...?” Their “yes, buts” always referred to an immediate, disruptive event they had to deal with.
I learned to appreciate the distinction—really, the gap—between those who mandate change and those who must implement it in classrooms that are overcrowded, undersupplied, and frequently interrupted. During the year in 3rd grade, my entire world of concern shifted from the theories and principles of whole language to “How do I make all this work?”

Translating Practice to Theory

Jacquie: As a classroom teacher for 20 years, I have been on the receiving end of calls for curriculum change. As a consultant, I was eager to better understand the rationale for these suggested changes.
Just as Bruce received comments from teachers, my colleagues also offered me congratulations and encouragement. They used phrases such as “risk taker,” “brave and courageous,” and “I could never do that.” I suddenly realized that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. Being selected for the consultant/teacher exchange program was a “quantum leap.” I was about to leap into an unknown world, leaving behind my support system, which I had developed from teaching in the same building for two decades.
On the positive side, I viewed the exchange as a sabbatical to grow professionally. My goal was to participate in professional experiences not normally available to the classroom teacher: collegial interaction, research and development of curriculum, and exposure to current issues on the local, state, and national levels.
Within a short time, my calendar was filled with requests that ranged from visiting individual classrooms to speaking to entire faculties on various elements of whole language. The variety of topics caused me much anxiety because I didn't think I could answer questions on theory; my expertise was in implementation.
However, much to my surprise, the teachers didn't ask the theory questions I had feared but, rather, wanted to know about the practicalities of whole language instruction. This I could help them with. My firsthand classroom experiences afforded me considerable credibility among teachers.
Another unexpected discovery was the world of resources available. I read more professional materials that year than in my entire career. The journal articles I read made me want to stand up and cheer. Here were the experts describing activities that I had been doing all along. I was more of an expert than I had realized. My self-confidence grew.
Another unforeseen aspect of my job exchange was the opportunity for reflection. Unlike at schools, where teachers have no common office space, the consultants' offices encouraged collegial reflection. As I read something that excited me, I often popped next door to get input from my peers, who were often able to shed new light on the topic. From these experiences, my knowledge also deepened.
The culminating effect was an understanding of the whys as well as the hows of my profession. While in the classroom I was so bogged down in planning and performing my daily duties that I was unable to see “the big picture.” As a teacher, I felt frustrated, even angry, when change was demanded from all sides, while it was up to me to work out all the hows. Knowing and understanding the whys has made change easier and daily planning more natural. I feel more professional than at any other time in my career.

Making The Return Leap

Bruce: A consultant and change agent once again, I realize, now, how necessary it is to have a deep understanding of the contexts in which change takes place. When advocates of change are naive about the very environments that they hope to change, is it any wonder that teachers experience frustration and distrust? Our yearlong job exchange moved me from having sympathy and head knowledge for the teacher's everyday context to having empathy and insight. I experienced a powerful shift in perspective.
Jacquie: Reflection is now a key role in my daily teaching. I take time to reflect about my children as learners and myself as an educator. I question what is happening with my students as I plan their instruction and make adjustments to meet their needs. I also encourage them to be reflective about their learning through self-evaluation.
After a year as a consultant, I returned to the classroom an affirmed teaching expert. That year gave me the experiences necessary to understand the principles of school transformation. I will continue to keep myself informed because I relish how self-confident and professional I have become. I like being in control.
For example, this year when we were encouraged to make some changes in our science curriculum, I didn't automatically assume that the changes would be better for me and my students. I asked questions: Why is this preferable to what I'm doing? How will I get the information I need to understand the change? Will you offer me support as I struggle to implement the changes? With my new expertise, I was able to evaluate the new program and decide which elements were in agreement with my instructional goals and complemented the principles of educational reform.

Postscript

The year of our job exchange was full of insights that have dramatically changed our professional perspectives. The most critical revelation has been the complexity of implementing change in the context of today's traditional school systems. If real change is going to be achieved, all teachers must be given opportunities to affirm their teaching expertise, acquire knowledge, and develop the confidence to make instructional decisions.
A year after trading jobs, we remain convinced that our enlightened views would not have occurred without the time to live in each other's world. We encourage others to build their own bridges to understanding.

Jacquie Lier has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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