Houston, We Can Solve Our Problem

Quick, think for a minute about a profession that is essential to our future. One that has one foot in the present, but also one foot in the times to come.

What did you call to mind?

Medical research? Engineering? Technological innovation?

Yes, yes, and yes. But, those professions aren’t first on my list. Teaching is.

I have learned so much from working with educators for more than 20 years. I see dedicated, caring teachers. I see worn-out, cynical teachers. I see new idealistic teachers with great potential, and I hope that they are supported by leaders and colleagues who appreciate the newbies’ enthusiasm, model high expectations (both for students and themselves), and who are not threatened by new ideas and new people.

And, sadly, I occasionally see a teacher who should not be in the classroom, and I wonder how they passed muster in the first place — and why they continue to be the priority of adults, rather than the students they are failing to serve well.

Teachers for the future

Teachers, perhaps more than individuals in any other profession, help shape our future. How can we help ensure that more teachers are the thoughtful “future-shapers” we want and need?

If you google teaching quality, or simply teachers, you’ll most likely see stories about what other countries are doing to improve their teaching force: articles about “value-added” measurements and about barriers to change, among other topics.

All these issues are important. What you might not see immediately, however, are insights about the connection between building a large cadre of excellent teachers through a combination of relationship-building strategies, trust agency, expectations, support for collaborative cultures, and quality leadership that ensures we have teachers who are great future-shapers.

Teaching, done well, is hard. Effective teachers invest huge amounts of time preparing lessons, collaborating with colleagues, providing personalized assistance to students, and continuing their own personal learning so they can make sure they both understand and use the most effective teaching practices.

Yet, in too many schools we still have a culture of isolation — an egg crate structure where leaders fail to model and promote collegiality, and where teachers aren’t given enough time and opportunity to learn together, to collaborate, or to try new things that might better serve their students.

Bringing standards to life requires collective capacity

Michael Fullan, a highly regarded education researcher and thought–leader about school change argues that developing the collective capacity of educators should be among the top priorities of policymakers, district and school leaders:

“Collective capacity is when groups get better—school cultures, district cultures, and government cultures. The big collective capacity and the one that ultimately counts is when they get better conjointly—collective, collaborative capacity, if you’d like. Collective capacity generates the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching.”

As a friend of ABPC likes to say: None of us is as good or as smart as all of us. As Alabama works to implement new, more challenging (and needed) standards, it is critical that we also work to build this type of collective capacity, so our students are well-prepared and face a bright future.

Remember the Apollo 13 crisis, so powerfully depicted by the Ron Howard/Tom Hanks movie? The capsule experienced an explosion in outer space, jeopardizing the lives of the three astronauts. “Houston, we have a problem,” entered our vernacular as a result of the challenge facing the Apollo 13 crew. Knowing that to solve a problem that had never been solved before – and in a matter of hours, not days — would require unprecedented collaboration, NASA called on the best and brightest scientists and other experts and had them work TOGETHER to resolve the crisis. It was their collective capacity that brought about a solution — not just one or more experts working in isolation.

One story about collaboration’s power

How does collaboration produce better teaching, more learning, and greater results? Here’s just one example of the power of collective capacity, described Angela Hosey, an Instructional Partner at B.B. Comer Elementary School in Sylacauga, AL:

[After our opening three-day retreat], at our first Instructional Partner training in Tarrant, we were involved in an Open Spaces protocol where we chose a discussion group whose members shared our own personal concerns. I picked the group contemplating ways to express to the school staff the changes in our jobs.

From those conversations, I created a menu that showcased a variety of things I could do to assist teachers — instructionally, professionally, or even personally. With that menu in hand, I really began the process of shifting from reading coach to instructional partner at my school. The IP’s in my training group (in person and in our online community) provided all the ideas and resources I needed to help me and my school fully embrace the partnership idea and make the shift.

When I provided teachers with a menu of support options, my professional world changed immediately. Upper grade teachers were asking for help with writing, or asking to observe other experts in our school. I was a first grade teacher before becoming a reading coach. In the past, I’d avoided sixth grade teachers and classrooms like the plague. Yet some of my best partnering in my first IP year was in sixth grade. I worked alongside the reading teacher and the writing teacher. As a sixth grade group, we collaborated with our special education teachers on how to develop lessons that were truly differentiated.

In fact, with my [online] 24/7 access to our Pilot IP collaborative group, through our Ning-based community, I was able to provide ideas and resources to upper grade teachers more frequently than ever before. I even worked with upper grade math teachers!! Imagine my surprise (and the teachers as well) as I partnered to model or observe math lessons in third, fourth, and fifth grade. Talk about stepping out of my comfort zone!

Failure was not an option in April 1970. It’s not an option today for Angie and all the other Instructional Partners working in the Alabama IP professional development project.

We need this same sense of urgency everywhere in Alabama public education. Policymakers, private-sector supporters, education leaders, principals, teacher leaders, and teachers must work together in unprecedented ways to ensure that we all become the type of collaborative problem solvers and “future-shapers” we need to guarantee every student the opportunity for an excellent education and a productive life.