Monday, November 11, 2013

Initiatives, Isolation and Mr. D

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A few years ago I was heavily involved in a cross-curricular literacy initiative in our school. The initiative was in conjunction with the District, and at one point I received a call from a representative from the Department of Education with a very interesting proposal. They wanted to see if any of our teachers would allow the Department to capture some of their best practices on video as they taught students in their classes. The answer? It was a resounding no.

None of the teachers, including myself, were overly excited with the idea of being captured on video. Assurances were made that only the best practices would be used and any other material would be edited. Yet we could not be sold on the idea and once one teacher declined, everyone else fell like dominoes.
I share this story because I was reminded of it as I read the Journal article on TeacherStudio and then my subsequent exploration of the TeacherStudio site. The site promotes the sharing of best practices through video, and it made me wonder why the idea of teachers at our school being on video was heavily rejected. The quote from Kelly Pounds might shed some light on the reasons for our shyness and hesitancy. Discussing the creation of TeacherStudio, she said, "The project has been in development for over three years, and it started with our own feelings of isolation when we were classroom teachers."

I think these feelings of isolation have an even greater effect on our attitudes and willingness to share, collaborate and communicate as professionals than we may realize. Even though the teachers at my school (including myself) were involved in a District initiative that caught the attention of the Department, there is still this "us" versus "them" attitude. I would be lying if I did not say that sometimes when I see an email or message from a District or Department representative, I sigh and wonder how much time and effort will I need to invest on top of my current teaching responsibilities. Additionally, I sometimes feel even more isolated when I get involved and find my emails or phone calls unanswered as I try to determine exactly what my role in the initiative is. Sadly, it seems sometimes everyone is just going through the motions.

TeacherStudio offers a white paper on their site - if you are willing to share some of your contact information. I decided to submit my information to see the white paper and there was a quote in the white paper that I think may explain some of this isolation, disengagement and why sometimes teachers, as professionals, feel they are sometimes just going through the motions. Citing Ashby et al. (1996), the white paper states, "Before change can be planned and implemented, a school must decide what it stands for and where it is going." It then further states that, "It is critical that schools make decisions that are consistent with their vision and to ensure all staff are informed and on board." I think this is one of the biggest issues with district and department led initiatives that sometimes seem shaky in their vision and where teachers feel they have no ownership, input or voice in the initiative.

Recently, I said yes to another District initiative. I am apprehensive and maybe that is just my own pessimism. Yet I have been told by other teachers that the person leading this initiative is very professional and they have had good experiences being involved with this individual in other District initiatives. So I am trying to be optimistic, and I am excited to see that our first meeting looks more like a brainstorming session on what we will do and how we will do it, as opposed to being handed the information and instructed to complete it.

But I do think that departments and districts should also decide what they stand for and where they are going. So many times teachers invest time and energy in projects and initiatives only to see the support slowly drain away as the department or district refocuses its efforts elsewhere, or simply loses interest in the original plan. Years ago, before I was a teacher, I remember my father making a comment about the educational system. While it is somewhat cynical, I think it does hold some truth. He observed that many times the educational system changes focus so quickly and so many times it never gives a program or initiative a long enough run to see if it even works. Indeed, when I consider some of the proposals I have been part of over the past ten years, I see why my father made this observation.

Now please do not get me wrong. I have observed some positive changes through some programs and initiatives and they have greatly enhanced the learning environment for the students. But I really do think that increasing the quality of learning experiences for students requires teachers to be engaged and really feel they can make change and have a voice in the educational system. As indicated in TeacherStudio's white paper, quoting Hank Levin from Brandt (1992), “If you can’t make a school a great professional place for its staff, it’s never going to be a great place for kids."

Perhaps the use of Web 2.0 tools for professional development and knowledge management and sites like TeacherStudio can address some of these issues. TeacherStudio discusses the need for real accountability and continuing support to help facilitate real change. As we increasingly share materials, ideas and best practices with each other through online platforms, maybe the feelings of isolation will subside. Maybe teachers who are reluctant to share their best practices will find that the support and guidance within their professional community will encourage them to showcase their own work.

I am not sure if commercial sites like TeacherStudio are the answer, but its streamlined design and concentrated effort on achieving certain objectives can certainly act as a solid model for districts and departments that are serious about addressing the needs of teachers when it comes to knowledge management and professional development.

Although I do have to mention an amusing observation after watching one of the videos on the TeacherStudio site. The videos embedded on their site are from their YouTube channel, and other video suggestions were offered at the end of the videos. One suggestion was a video of CBC's Mr. D. While I am a huge fan of the show, I am not sure he would necessarily illustrate best practices...

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