This summer I sent to quite a few baseball games. I love baseball. I love the pace and I love the pure strategy that goes into every pitch of a game. Baseball is the one sport where, when I watch the game, I am able to place myself in the shoes of the manager and in my mind I always make the right call. Of course, the truth is that real baseball coaches are processing things that I can’t even imagine. I work with a young man who is an amazing baseball coach. I thoroughly enjoy watching Coach Barta prepare his team during warm ups, watching him motivate his team during games, and I enjoy watching him develop strategy during a game. He is one of the best.
This year I have been able to have more conversations about strategies than I ever have. Of course I’m talking about teaching strategies. Much like coaching baseball, the strategies of teaching are as much an art as they are a science. Teaching, like coaching, is as much about following your instincts as it is about following a prescribed playbook. Yet, we have to have a plan and we have to continue to hone the strategies that we know are effective in the classroom.
Much has been made about improving our schools during the current legislative debates about educational funding and school start dates. There is no doubt that schools should continue to improve. In the comments on this blog it has been suggested that there is no correlation between funding our schools and student achievement. It is a worthy conversation (one that all but one of the Republican legislators I have contacted has been willing to have with me; just saying). I can’t control the resources that our legislators are willing to ladle out to us, but I can control my classroom, so I am hopeful that I can continue to hone the strategies that I know will help my students improve.
I have always been a firm believer that setting a rigorous yet inviting classroom culture is the best possible strategy to encourage student success. The truth is that I do this pretty well I believe. After watching lots of great teachers and having numerous conversations about teaching this year I have focused my work in recent months on two strategies in particular, feedback and question. Dr. John Hattie has done lots of work on strategies that actually produce results in the classroom and these are two strategies, when used effectively, that he has found to have significant impact on student learning.
I am working hard to find new and better ways to give my students timely and honest feedback. Being a high school band director some of the feedback is easy. We perform each day in my classroom and so I naturally provide feedback on that performance. What I am working on are ways to make the feedback specific and meaningful. I had a few colleagues watch an example of my teaching a few weeks ago and it was enlightening to get their feedback on my feedback and questioning. What they saw that I didn’t immediately recognize was that I was often providing too much feedback to my students immediately after they performed. I would rattle off a litany of things for them to improve on and then expect them all to be fixed on the next run through. Having some master teachers watch my work led me to an epiphany that I was much more effective when I offered short and specific feedback that included an opportunity for the students to reflect on ways to improve before moving on. It seems simple, but it was eye-opening to me. I am discovering that opening my classroom to new sets of eyes is leading to me refining techniques that I thought I was decent at.
I am also working on questioning in my classroom. Rather than constantly making statements about what I want to hear or I want to happen in my classes I am asking my students to think for themselves more often (still not often enough). It is difficult sometimes. I almost always (OK, I always) think I know the best answer for what I want from my classroom. But, is me simply reciting what I want for my students what is best for them? I want them to be able to think on their feet. I want them to be able to problem solve as they perform. So, I have worked on asking more questions in my classroom. What is hard is being sure to ask questions that promote thinking on their part. I have seen many band clinicians come in asking students questions in which they want a very specific answer and they just ask the question until they get the answer they are looking for. I’ve been very guilty of that. The better questions are ones that might have multiple answers and that actually require the students to think and problem solve. I’m not great at it yet, but I’m getting better.
The answer to the question, “how are our schools going to get better?” is in the hands of teachers. Each classroom is where our schools are going to get better. As we start to focus our energies on strategies that really impact student thinking and student learning our schools are going to get better. They are getting better. The strategies that I focus on won’t necessarily be the same as the strategies that my next door teaching colleague works on. I have the seen the power of teachers who are reflective and vulnerable. It is powerful. We are the change. Innovation comes in a lot of forms and it happens at a variety of speeds. We are the change and we are going to continue to make our schools the best in the world by simply showing up each day with a game plan. We are the change.