This story begins a little after our math team meeting finished their fun math problem and transitioned into Best Practices. Best Practices are where someone on the team can ask the rest of the team a genuine question of the form: “What’s your best practice for…” Once the question is asked, we go around the table answering our own “best practices” that related to the question. As the facilitator of the group, and an administrator, I avoid asking the best practices questions for a number of reasons. As administrator, I want to use any chance I can to hear what teachers have to say, and as a meeting facilitator, I want to hear my voice as little as possible. However, I sent an email out calling for best practice questions and got no responses. It seemed like a good chance to see if the rest of the team could help with the question that emerged when I was doing observations.
The observation story actually begins about 3 weeks prior. The admin team at school began our observation cycle when teachers were all at the end of the first unit. Students were working on the final projects in all the classrooms. Despite us all teaching different projects about different content to different students, I noticed plenty of exchanges like this:
Teacher: For this part of the project you guys need to know how to do _______.
Student: _________? Isn’t that just Cross/Flip/Multiply and Square root?
Teacher: No… What? No, we definitely didn’t talk about that. [I actually don’t think any math teacher talked about that] Do you have notes?
Student: Oh, let me check my folder? [Student 1 pulls out folder with crumpled papers and those wavy stink lines like you see in cartoons] Hmm, I can’t find it.
[Teacher spends 5 minutes flipping through the folder, making small piles for complete and incomplete work until they come across the worksheet about _________. The sheet is largely incomplete, and it seems that the student has a shaky understanding of what they initially wrote down.]
Teacher: It looks like you either need to go back and reteach yourself this, or I need to work with you on it, or else there is no way for you to finish the project with an actual understanding of what you’re doing.
Student: I just need to do what I need to finish this project so I can pass the class. I also have projects in all of my other class, so I don’t really have the time to go back and complete previous work unless I’m doing the barest of minimums.
This scenario could play out with teachers reteaching material, or students working with neighbors to get the work, or maybe even kids looking on their phone to see what google suggests. These scenarios all result in stressed out teachers and students, with not a great deal of understanding to go around.
This all could be avoided if the kids could have actually learned what they were supposed to have learned before the project starts. Everything would be fine if the learning stuck. Failing that, if the kids took better notes, be aware of the things they don’t know, and ask the right questions to repair things that they don’t understand. Everyone would genuinely want to know the answer of this question, right?
This all came to mind during the math meeting. So after the math problem, I said “If no one else has a best practices, I have a question.” What kinds of things are any of us doing in order to ensure that kids really learn, so that at the end of the cycle they are able to finish the project independently? Of course, this was met with silence. I just saw that everyone struggles with it, why was I expecting people to respond with answers? In retrospect this request sounds almost like a demeaning form of torture, or a passive aggressive way to dress down the group, which wasn’t my intent at all. This seemed like a question that everyone was genuinely wondering, and airing it could let everyone know we share this frustration. The silence after the question sort of showed that it was a genuine frustration. Now, everyone else knows that they share this with everyone else on the team. The next steps could provide a chance for teamwork and collaboration on this newly discovered, shared problem. Now I just need to figure out what those steps are…