The Doctor’s In


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Dean Shareski’s post “Why Teachers aren’t making “the Shifts”” examines reasons for teachers not making progress in changing their practices with the changes that are taking place around them.  They aren’t staying current. Dean’s post is a great read and really covers much of what needs to be said. As well, there are some great comments. I was going to comment but figured maybe a post would more in order. Although I agree with Dean, I believe that our current situation is the result of decades of how educational thinkers have treated teaching and learning. Our current state didn’t just “happen”.

During the discussion, Dean discusses the physician analogy that is often cited when talking about professionals and the changes that are taking place. Like Dean, I find the whole medical analogy to be problematic in a few different ways but mostly because we’ve moved surpassed the medical model in education.

The Doctor is In

What if we followed the medical model for education? Okay, they have certain specific technology that has changed the way testing and treatments occur. But much of the rest is no different than it was over 50 years ago. In fact, in many small local hospitals, much of the decor hasn’t changed much and the actual building is nearly 50 years old – like most schools. The format – arrive, tell a receptionist you are, take a seat, wait to be called, go to a small examining room, doctor comes in with file (paper file), and discuss the current situation. Now, here’s where things get tricky and we sometimes make assumptions that doctors are cutting edge. They listen to our symptoms, press or make us cough or whatever – figure out what we have, give us something or tell us we’re getting older and doing that will cause a pulled muscle which will feel like your ribs are broken. Rest and don’t do that again. But, think about it, how many human bodies have they seen that are physiologically different? Basically, all human bodies are the same – with similar responses and organs in the same place. But imagine, if each time a doctor had to do a diagnosis that the body wasn’t the same. They had to look for the heart and lungs to do the tests. That just by looking at the person you couldn’t tell what was different on the inside.

Next, imagine that instead of sending the person off to get blood work and an X-ray the doctor had to do these themselves before they could send them to any experts for followup – they had to do all they could at level 1 before they could look for level 2 support? And, imagine that before being able to move on to level 2 supports, they had to confer with three or four people and demonstrate that the person needed to see an expert because they had exhausted all their level 1 ideas and tests.

Finally, imagine if you will, that despite the advances in technology, the doctor still used “old technology” – yep, a stethoscope and put the thermometer under your tongue or, instead of the fiberglass cast they still used plaster?  Would they be labelled as behind and not keeping up as a professional? What if they still use paper files and everything isn’t on a computer? What then?

Medical Model for Teachers

The students show up at the school, all sitting in chairs outside the classroom waiting for their teacher to see them. One by one they file into the room where they have a short meeting with the teacher who examines where they are in their development and assigns them some more work to do before sending them off on their way to get it done. When they encounter a student who seems to be having difficulty, out comes the referral form and the student is sent off to get the appropriate supports, not returning to see the teacher until after the specialist has released them from treatment. Within the school building are all the necessary support people, from dieticians to reading experts, all working with children. And if the student doesn’t make progress? Well, do we blame the obesity epidemic on doctors?

Really, we need to stop trying to shame people into doing things because that’s what we’re doing. We’re finger-pointing and creating an analogy that will hopefully shame people into changing their ways. Instead, we need to listen. And not the head nodding, repeating-back-but-not-really-listening-but-checking-the-excuse-list type of listening. I mean, if we really examine our learning paradigm, do we throw the towel in when a student gives us excuses for not working? Or do we dig deep and see what we can do to help them – not do the work for them but help them in their learning.

For far too long we’ve treated teachers as empty containers who need to have PD days where we open their heads and pour in some more information hoping that they’ll go back to the classroom and do it. We’ve hired staff to unpack outcomes, build units, incorporate technology all in the name of efficiency so that teachers don’t have to be burdened with these learning activities – we’ve left it to the “experts” who then pour it out for the teachers to use. We’ve tried to make the learning for teachers easy and relieve them of as many burdens as possible instead of letting real learning take place – the messy not-so-controlable type of learning.

That is where there is a the biggest difference between doctors and teachers – professionalism. For decades we’ve de-professionalized and “teacher-proofed” curricula and lessons in order to create units and lessons that can be followed from start to finish moving along the checklist of effectiveness and efficiency in order to cover more information more quickly. There have always been those who have bristled against this and stretched the boundaries in the classroom. With the ability to share stories and ideas via social networks, teachers are able to find like-minded individuals. This shift has created an exciting change in how some teachers are engaging students and questioning the way much of the school-system functions and the current role of teachers. But this isn’t all teachers. In fact, teachers are at different stages of adoption and shift which is natural. But as Dean points out in his post –

When I think of some of the teachers who are changing their practice, they are often what I describe as “positive deviants“.  I’m always interested in their stories as to how they began to make the shifts they’ve made. Often there’s a bit of luck. They happen to go to a conference and hear a Will Richardson speak and are awaken to ideas they’ve never heard before. Sometimes they take a class and have a professor that introduces them to a new approach to learning. Sometimes they hear about a thing called blogging and head down a rabbit hole. While lots of people might have these same experiences and do nothing, there’s a greater number of teachers who’ve never even had a chance like these. Again, I don’t know exactly what it is but knowing we have such a small number of teachers really making these big shifts isn’t because teachers are uncaring, dumb or lack conviction.

After decades of “teacher-proofing” and years of having “experts do their work”, it’s only when teachers head out on their own, through their own learning, that a shift begins to happen. Most teachers, even after hearing something great and going back to try things out, have run into the “NO” wall. Others, myself included, who have tried to move things ahead, have met with resistance and, at time, being publicly humiliated or ridiculed for what they are doing. This really kills any desire to try things differently. Not everyone experiences incredible support for what they are doing. There are many who have to quietly go about what they do. And there are many who leave the profession – some to become advocates of change in education!  A great majority of teachers do not see the need to adopt many of these practices because they are already taxed with other initiatives and requirements from division and provincial educational authorities. And not following these can be harmful to ones job health!

Why are We Surprised?

Teachers care. Period. Some teachers are in it for the “job” but even they care. Some care so much it drives them away because they cannot reconcile the caring with what is happening. Some care so much they work themselves too hard and leave the profession. Most care so much that they do what is asked of them and then do more. They spend mornings, noon hours, after school with students. They spend countless weekends traveling all over with sports because they care. We need to honour that caring more and not make assumptions about why they aren’t keeping up with their “professional learning”. The most disparaging line I’ve heard lately goes like this:

Teachers say they don’t have time to incorporate technology and learn about new things for students. Saying you don’t have time tells me your priorities.

It’s not exactly like that but the gist is because these teachers don’t have “time”, students aren’t their priority. Maybe in a very rare case. More likely, they are doing so much on so many fronts and have bought into the “they’ll tell me what’s important at a PD event”. Really, with so many initiatives taking place in schools, teachers have little time for their own learning. In fact, many districts, in the name of efficiency, are doing the learning for teachers by unpacking the Standards or Outcomes for the teachers, telling how to teach – use Inquiry/PBL – doing the work for them so they can get down to teaching! What they seem to have forgotten is that the learning comes when you do the work themselves.

Are we surprised that teachers aren’t making the shift? Maybe if teachers had been given the professional respect of professions, we wouldn’t need to ask the question.

Next up, those who are on the edge – Outliers – being on the edge – success or failure. A personal journey as an Outlier.

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