Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Dream Team for Education

I've been thinking about football.

Photo by Craig Letourneau
This season the John Barsby Football team won the BC High School AA Championship. Again. Against the odds. A tiny high school in a low socio-demographic area. How? “We’re a resilient team,” says player Kyle Vollet, "We could be down by 20 and this team, we're going to come back to the huddle, we're going to look at each other and say, we've got this, we can do this." Team-mate Brody Taylor tells us, “With this team…we never, ever lose focus. We never give up and we play to the last play.” And I dream of a team like that for education: that day by day, year over year, bouncing back from losses, never losing focus, we make it possible for students, all students, to win the big cup in their final year – graduate at the top of their class and have every door to future paths flung open for them.

Why can’t school be more like football, one of the Barsby Bulldog players asked me one day as I tried desperately, fruitlessly, to engage him in a task for English. I wonder, too – or, at least, I wonder if the teams’s ongoing success and latest victory can yield fresh insights into possibilities for education. I know that if it weren't for football, the student wouldn't even have been sitting in my class at all.  Sitting isn't quite the word – lolling, perhaps. Every day (when he showed up), it was an enormous effort to cajole him to pick up his pen, write a sentence, read a page, engage in a conversation. Yet I watched him arrive at school before light even broke to practice football. He committed to long extra hours every day, to pushing himself to the limit, to team play, to fierce competition.

Of course, football has two strong advantages: students choose to play and the coach can choose to remove the player if he acts inappropriately or does not participate fully. But there’s more than that. I keep trying to figure out the magic, that something that I can take and use for education.

I have thought that the key is simply being a team – working together – in schools and across school districts. I worry that the extraordinary efforts in each classroom aren't enough: after all, the game for each child is 13 years long. If we were a team, gains made in one year could be built on in the next as we reviewed game tapes and players’ notes together, solidified winning plays, honed successful practice routines. By the time I met the football star in grade 11, he had shut down so thoroughly that it seemed improbable that our five months together could open new vistas of learning for him. (But I tried.  Hard. As did each individual teacher before me.)

I just don’t know how we can make a cohesive K-12 team possible. After all, it’s not as though we don’t make the effort to work together in education. We are endlessly creating visions, mission statements, goals, and strategies. We are asked to adopt the same programs, administer the same assessments, use the same language, attend the same workshops, so that students can build on each year and we can track student progress over the years, intervene, support, and enhance learning gains effectively to make the “big win” possible. It makes sense, but it never seems to work.

The trouble, we’re most often told, is that teachers aren't team players. And it’s true – at least it’s true that a good portion of teachers don’t “buy in” to the “game plan.” But lately I've begun to suspect that many of us feel like we’re pieces on a game-board being played, rather than part of a team that plays. It’s hard to put your heart into another set of plans that, at best, do nothing to improve the day-to-day experience of our work in classrooms, and at worst, exhaust our energies through demands to attend yet another series of workshops to learn yet more strategies, to organize yet more resources, and to spend yet more hours in our evening and on weekends to revamp lessons.

It seems possible that we are missing some key ingredient for building a team that wins.  Coach Stevenson, in talking about his team’s success, shares some of his practices – goal setting, embedding your message in everything you do, hanging your hat on a good drill, finishing strong each day, and remembering “fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals” – but emphasizes that we need to first be clear about the difference between a strategy and a tactic.  A strategy, he says, must answer the following questions:
1.  Who are we?
2.  What are we trying to do ultimately?
3.  How will we do it?
4.  What resources and means will we employ in doing it?

If you get the strategy right but tactics wrong, he says, you can remedy the tactics and succeed.  If you get the wrong strategy, you can refine forever, but still "lose." Or as Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

So who are we and what are we trying to do ultimately? If our efforts don’t enhance our work in the classroom, it’s hard to understand what the goal of the game is anymore. Certainly we can’t be a team and we don’t have strategies. Instead, we relentlessly employ tactics and the noise is deafening. We rush madly off, it seems, in all directions, depending on the latest government initiative – exhausting ourselves as we run the ball from back-to-basics to passion-driven education – and then around in circles with ongoing district “innovations”. We pause now and then to notice a pocket of excellence somewhere and relentlessly borrow their tactics to shift directions once again, dashing down the field toward yet another goal, leaving behind us the assorted debris of abandoned plans:  phonics cards, literacy texts, hands-on science kits (with most of the pieces missing), math texts (a new set for every new approach), giant blocks (we found some in our storeroom recently and no one could identify their purpose), colour-coded booklets to support a program we no longer have, kits, rows and rows of binders.

Yet while education leaders in university think tanks, ministry boardrooms and district offices may have lost sight of the goal of the game in the noise of initiatives, roll-outs, glossy hand-outs, expensive speakers flown in from around the world to show us all the latest research, teachers haven’t. They go to work each day, no matter what goes on around them, despite cut-backs in resources, new demands or changing policies, to do their best to coach a diverse group of students to do their best each day.

That’s who we are, after all, and what we are trying to do.  And despite all the sound and fury, we know, too, how we will do it. What, says Sir Ken Robinson, is the irreducible minimum of teaching and learning? The answer is simple:  the relationship between the teacher and the learner.
So how do we ensure the final win for each child? Maybe the extraordinary work of classroom teachers is enough. Indeed, perhaps it is the only thing that matters. Learning, after all, is intimate, individual, even quirky. Each day is a new game and any teacher with a modicum of experience will tell you that sticking with the game plan created the previous day, never mind one drafted in a board office by people who have never met the students, is impossible if you mean to meet the changing needs of students in a dynamic group. There is no magic and the diversity of students is surely met best by diverse teachers.

But what would happen, I wonder, if we put all our time, resources and energy into the game that matters? What if teachers weren't distracted and exhausted by all the noise of “change” while they focused on their classroom needs? What if they were given the autonomy and power and resources they needed? What if, instead of asking teachers to do more, to add, extend, change, improve, we changed and improved everything around the teacher and ensured that everything that was not directly related to learning in the classroom was provided by a community of support. What if she had only to say – I’d like to show a series of engaging video clips about different careers – and the clips arrived, ready to use. (This is something I actually spent several hours working to find, download and save; how wonderful to imagine that done for me.) What if the structures for ensuring student health were seamlessly integrated, the organization for parent connection designed and maintained, access to data and information at our fingertips, help for problem-solving a call away, time to work with colleagues available in an “as needed” basis, flexible spaces for team teaching a priority (my colleague and I recently squeezed two classes into our multipurpose room so we could work and learn together, wedging tables for our students between extra TVs, storage boxes, a popcorn maker, a piano and trolleys for the lunch program).

I still get stuck on my worry that students need connected coaching over time. Yet perhaps, free from the need to implement plans that don’t mean anything, free for the burden of doing everything from planning lessons to assessing students to organizing field trips and extra-curricular activities, to filing, photocopying, phoning, finding resources - classroom teachers will reach out to build a systematic and intentional network to support students and each other, to share practice, to create meaningful connections for students, with students and as learners ourselves. Perhaps, free to focus on work that impacts their students, teachers will build connections that are flexible enough to meet in-the-moment needs, dense enough to support a wide variety of needs over time. Indeed, I don’t doubt it.

Coach Stevenson, in his interview after the Bulldogs' big win said, "I'm bubbling. I feel like I could be Maria, swinging around in the meadows of the Swiss Alps right now singing the Sound of Music theme."  I can begin to imagine that teachers, buoyed by meaningful support, might want to sing with joy at the end of the day – and even in June – rather than dragging themselves out, exhausted and discouraged.  And outside the school building, I can even picture reporters vying to interview them, asking how they managed to get Jimmy to read this year when he didn't even recognize letters until November and Tom to engage in collaborative tasks without hitting anyone, and Joanne to find a way to love learning when at the beginning of the year she sat under her desk and cried.

Perhaps this is our best hope: each teacher in her own room, never giving up, never losing focus, doing her best to coach the team in her class, then passing the students on to the next teacher who does his best to coach them. Each of us has an eye on the main prize: ensuring that each child builds the knowledge, skills and attitudes to reach their potential and to contribute to the world we all dream of. Each of us uses our strengths and gifts to build on the work of the previous coach and support the efforts of the next coach. And all around us, a team of support stands ready to help with whatever we need – and fans cheering wildly.

I’d love to be a part of such a dream team.

No comments:

Post a Comment