Knowing when to get out of the way

I have twice had the experience of taking over a choral program, and on the second occasion, my earlier experiences were crucial in forming a program where the students eventually could perform independently.

The first choral group, which I inherited about 12 years ago, was in great shape, and I had to do very little to maintain the quality of this group. They knew how to rehearse, they knew how much time it took to learn the music, they knew how to arrange, they knew how to connect with an audience, they knew what kinds of pieces worked and what didn't, and they also knew how to sing. Furthermore, the group had processes for selecting new members, for organizing themselves, for recruiting, and for connecting with the community. The group was a known entity, and were in constant demand. As a result, I had little to do but keep them on track, to nudge and guide when necessary. They were a great hit, and really enjoyed their time in this group.

The second group I took over in a different school was not in good shape. They had none of the skills, processes, or knowledge of the first group. They rarely performed in public, and expectations and demand for the group were negligible. However, when I took over this group, I knew what it should look like, and set about building this same set of skills and habits as the first group. This was a difficult process, and took a lot of work on my part.

However, after seven months, they performed at a girls' school. For the first time, I stepped back from the group, and they killed it. I could barely hear the group sing because the girls were screaming with joy and excitement. On the bus on the way back to school, the buzz was the same as had been with the first group: they were excited and couldn't wait to do it again. This second group still has a way to go, but the ball is rolling: they are now seeing what I saw, and it is getting close to the point whereI begin to get out of the way and let them experience doing it themselves.

My journey as a teacher is about helping students to build the tools, habits, and behaviors to be independent. It is about instilling a sense of responsibility, an understanding of what it means to be committed to something, an recognition of the importance of integrity, and an awareness of the needs and dreams of others. It is about helping students to be active in their learning; they should not be receiving their learning from me, but should be partners with me in their academic, social, and physical development.

What stands out for me when I think about all the stories I have heard of what we do as master teachers of boys is the centrality of the relationships we have with our students. The content, curriculum, even teacher methodologies are secondary: it primarily about the relationship of one human with another.




The Power of Bumping into Students in the Hallway

At a conference in New York last week, I met a physics teacher from Toronto. He spoke thoughtfully and honestly about his teaching, and despite having been identified by his school as a master teacher, he said that for the past two years, he had been failing as a teacher.

He explained that after a long and rewarding career, he had retired a few years ago. However, his school had asked to come out of retirement two years ago to teach part time. About 6 months into the first year, he felt that something was wrong; it didn't feel right. During his second year, he realized what it was. He would come in to the school, teach his classes, then leave, possibly not to return for a couple of days until his classes cycled back through.

He realized that he was missing all the incidental contact with his students that really build relationships and understanding of one another. He wasn't bumping into them in the cafeteria, in assembly, in the hallways, in clubs, and advisory. He was coaching them on the sports fields or even seeing them play in athletic contests. In short, he felt that had become just a classroom instructor rather than an involved member of the faculty, and as such, he just didn't have the same relationships he once had had as a full-time teacher.

As teachers, we have the opportunity to connect with our students in so many ways. Much of this contact might seem to be inconsequential, but each meeting adds a little more richness and understanding between the teacher and the student. And this rich understanding can have multiple benefits when we are trying to engage, motivate, and guide them in the classroom.

Should we grade our own assessments?

Should we grade our own assessments? Some science teachers use “internal reliability statistics” that measure whether questions on a test are potentially confusing or misleading. For example, if there is a question that many otherwise high scoring students get wrong, but that otherwise low scoring students get right, then the question may be imperfectly worded or confusing.

One teacher admitted that when he first used this process, he was horrified to only get a 70 on this test of his assessment; that is, 30% of his test was potentially misleading. However, he was able to revise the test and score higher on the second internal reliability test. Nevertheless, he indicated that when he participated in this process, some language arts tests scored as low as 30% on this measure. This, surely, is a cause for some concern.

Clearly, there is great potential here for teachers to be defensive, after all, their work is being graded. However, there is also potentially a great benefit to students here: this process can eliminate misleading questions and insure that assessments are actually testing the knowledge and skills which they are intended to. How can we create an environment where teachers embrace the opportunity to get objective feedback on their assessments and the chance to revise them.