Saturday, August 9, 2008

Will a spoonful of sugar help?

I suppose today could be characterized as a small dose of my own medicine. Amber and I began our training today offering the same professional development agenda to a new group, the General Union of Teaching and Educational Professionals (GUTEP).

Our first day with our new group today was a little more raucous. I felt a little more like I was teaching 7th grade again because there were many points where adults from every corner of the room were vying for our interpreter’s questions, so he could not focus on any one of them let alone us. That classroom management issue was only part of our struggle, however. There were also lots of experts in the room who raised their hand for the floor to expound on what they had learned in their last graduate class. Folks who listened to our ideas and then spent a considerable amount of energy coming up with reasons for why it couldn't be done in their classrooms rather than brainstorming how they might actually apply the idea. We even got the classic “Do I have to work with this group?” which, trust me, translates without interpretation even through a veil. Of course, none of these behaviors are exclusive to Yemen. All of them deserve diagnosing and some of them even deserve ownership.

I intend to own some of this professional development misbehavior because I believe my students were telling me something. They were struggling in various places to connect to our agenda and to see how it is relevant to their professional lives. I made a classic teaching mistake. I didn’t differentiate my agenda and I did not take their place along the learning continuum into account when planning this agenda. The agenda that was like a hot knife through butter for last week’s group (because it hit their zone of proximal development I would guess) fizzled out a bit on the first day because their needs hadn’t been assessed beforehand.

We had been told (as those professional developers who are flown in from afar often are) that the assessment of what these teachers needed had already been done and they just needed us to deliver the content of what was needed. We just needed to develop a five day training on classroom management, interactive direct instruction, time on task, and (whew) teacher praise to deliver to 2 different groups. Well, like the oldest definition of accountability in the book, no one knows a lesson is bombing faster than a teacher 2 minutes into class with 30 pairs of eyes looking to be simultaneously educated and entertained and feeling like they are getting neither education nor entertainment.

Amber and I scrambled to retool during both of our breaks and we worked through tonight for tomorrow’s lesson, but we are left second-guessing whether this group is getting what it needs from us. Right now we will just have to create more of a connection at the beginning of each lesson when we assess their prior knowledge. We will have to scaffold a little more critically. I don’t think our agenda is fatal and I have confidence that we can salvage meaningful and relevant learning for these students.

I know I will have fresh appreciation for those emailed agendas of professional development days and comments at membership meetings from the members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Additionally, if every experience, good or bad, is supposed to teach you something, I will make sure that this experience teaches me how to be an even better advocate for high-quality, meaningful professional development. Ultimately, for the members of SPFT that is going to include better contract language. Immediately, for the GUTEP teachers, that is just going to mean a little more work on my part. In the most delightful way.

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