Re-Envisioning Professional Roadblocks as Opportunities for Success

Posted: December 3, 2017 in Inspiration, Posts with Dr. Mary Howard, Reading, Writing

“We must be willing to assume the role of learner as we work side by side with children and our peers in a never-ending growth process of excellence.”

studentteacherwriting

Post by Dr. Mary Howard and Roman Nowak

As we write these words, we are mindful that schools everywhere are contemplating what intervention practices they will implement for their most fragile learners. We (Roman and Mary) spend much of our time pondering this very issue so we applaud these efforts as we are committed to the collective responsibility of educators to ensure success for all learners.

Given the recent study showing less than promising results for our intervention efforts in RTI (Response to Intervention), however, we wonder if we are posing the right question. What if we redefined our focal point so that “What intervention practices should we implement?” is transformed into “How can we humanize our approach to intervention?”

We believe that this question could shift our efforts from a grab-and-go intervention mindset to professionally responsive decision-making grounded in honest conversations that lead to positive practices. If we re-envisioned our roadblocks or challenges as opportunities, we could make thoughtful choices with a broader purpose designed to ensure success for our most fragile learners while awakening personal passions residing deep within those learners.

As educators, we are aware of our profound mission of helping students find success. There is an immense pressure placed on teachers to help students attain standards or achieve various state tests and benchmarks. This pressure often translates into a desire to find quick fixes that could apply to all students in a professional trade-off where little attention is given to the student before us. Each student has unique needs but these are often ignored as we try to find grandiose and convenient “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

Pernille Ripp’s tweet below illustrates how this intervention shift could refocus our efforts within a renewed spirit that would deepen and amplify learning rather than replace our most powerful pedagogical practices.

pernille

As we begin our reflection on possible solutions or pathways to success, let us keep in mind a common belief or practice that often hinders transformation in learning and support. As an education system, in the search for efficacy, we often look to convenience for solutions. In The Danger of Convenience, David Cain argues the downside of relying on some “new technologically-endowed superpower” to solve problems that may not need a technological fix. Albeit convenient, technological solutions cannot replace the heart and empathy of a passionate educator. With busy schedules and high pressures, we may be satisfied with quick and suitable solutions. But these solutions rarely take into account the specific needs of students; therefore not allowing them to reach their full potential. As a system and as leaders, we need to strive to push past this traditional belief and implement solutions that are more complex, have more depth, but that always keep kids at the center. And this kind of responsible decision-making by its very nature means that we must take the time to engage in committed professional dialogue so that we can make the most informed choices.

With this lofty but achievable goal in mind, we take a closer look at some shifts that can help us initiate our journey to re-envision professional roadblocks as opportunities for success:

Keeping the child at the center of our efforts
Programs, packages, and scripts have become increasingly commonplace in schools. These one-size-fits-all approaches have exacerbated our efforts to support children who do not fit neatly into such a narrow perspective of learning. As a result, we are seeing the aftermath of what Tom Rademacher aptly describes: “With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.”  When fidelity to the program requires our full attention, fidelity to the child, who brings unique needs to the learning table, will inevitably be minimized.  We can only keep the child at the center when we loosen the reins of obligation to the program. We do this by making room in every day for the essential practices that accommodate responsive differentiation and allow children to take ownership of their own learning so that they can become active participants in that learning. Practices such as read aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading allow us to address learning needs through approaches that bathe children in high quality texts they can read and choose to read. Students need to be able to have a voice and choice in these texts so we fill our learning spaces to brimming with beautiful options. This helps develop their autonomy, responsibility and encourages deepened engagement in tasks. Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward remind us that “Books are the best intervention.” Yet independent reading and engaging peer collaboration that revolve around those texts is often sacrificed for interventions that actually reduce the volume of reading and meaningful talk.

Using numbers to inform our practicescodered
There was a great article in ASCD’s Educational Leadership about being “Data driven vs data informed.” Although data often comes to us in numerical formats (percentages, ranks, grades), we must move beyond the numbers and see our students in the data. What story does our data tell us? What story does our knowledge of children tell us? What school story do we want to share with the world? Numbers can be a great starting point since the results of assessments can help inform how the student conveys his or her learning at any given point. However, in order to get to the root of any challenges or roadblocks, educators need to go beyond the numbers and learn about students as they actively engage in learning in order to professionally assess how to support learning. This deeper knowledge is inseparably connected to the daily learning process. It is important to challenge current beliefs and practices with data and to be aware that the numerical data may conflict with our deepest understandings about children. We must be responsible for our school story and the unique faces that bring that story to life. When people pose questions about success and begin to cite numbers from rankings, turn that story to the names of your students and everything they are accomplishing. As educators, we need to advocate for our students and put the focus back on their personal learning journey. It isn’t all about the numbers…it is about people and our responsibility to support each individual journey.  

Acknowledging our first line of defense
We have inadvertently created a revolving door leading to the “fix it” room as we relinquish professional responsibility from the heart and soul of our intervention efforts – the classroom teacher. With the best intentions, these thirty-minute instead of supports ignore the other six hours of the day that offer our best support opportunities. Even when tiered supports are deemed appropriate they reflect in addition to instruction that maintains the classroom teacher as the first line of defense. Our most effective interventions occur in the heat of learning moments based on expert kid-watching, flexible small groups, side by side support and intentional differentiation. These on-the-spot interventions reflect the carefully designed supports that occur in the natural course of any learning day as students actively engage in a wide range of meaningful independent or collaborative learning experiences. We must remember to encourage, build and celebrate professional practice. In order for our educators to be fully engaged in every child’s success and well-being, we must offer the right tools and opportunities that fit the child, the experience, and our purpose as we acknowledge that financial incentives will not solve current roadblocks. As Daniel Pink expressed so well in his TED talk based on the book Drive, we must give our people autonomy, mastery and purpose in the work they do; this is how we will encourage transformation in our schools. When knowledgeable educators are afforded the freedom to make the professional choices for the students in front of them, they are far more likely to expend their precious available minutes in the learning day in the best possible ways.  

Making professional knowledge our first priority
The very foundation of our instructional efforts rise from the decision making of expert teachers based on sound professional knowledge. Intervention programs are prevalent but none of these will ever replace teachers who have a deep understanding of literacy practices informed by research. This requires schools to hold ongoing professional learning in high esteem, using day to day instructional experiences as growth opportunities. It is this deepening knowledge over time that can help us to identify or refute practices as we sharpen our instructional lens to focus on intensifying our efforts so that we can achieve the accelerated progress that can only occur within a spirit of professional urgency. Professional wisdom helps us to make these moment-to-moment choices that draw from our best understandings about children at any given time. As we try to include voice and choice for students, we must offer a parallel system for our teachers. We need to allow them to have more autonomy and choice in the professional development we offer as we broaden learning opportunities that are designed to support their personal growth and where they are in their learning journey. We must continue to break the traditional mold of professional development and offer creative solutions for a constantly evolving world. Just as we make room for children to follow their passions, we must build a culture of support where we can celebrate professional curiosity so that we can encourage teachers to follow their passions on their own and through collaboration.

It is clear that educators have a great heart and want to support the needs of the learners in front of them. But it is imperative that our hearts and intellect unite as we cautiously examine our own practices so that we can alleviate those that are ineffective and embrace those that truly merge our beliefs and our actions. As leaders, we must acknowledge the commitment of our educators by offering the professional support that translates to informed commitment. This requires us to continue reflecting and challenging the current status quo to ensure that any programs, solutions and pedagogical practices that make their way into our classrooms are dynamic, research-based and evolve based on the needs of students. We must resist the temptation to simply purchase a product or implement an instructional approach without the benefit of the best interests of children guiding the way.

In a system overloaded with data, we must keep our sights on the individual faces and stories of the kids before us. Given a vast sea of professional options, we are ethically responsible to make thoughtfully responsive choices. Let’s not assume that what we are doing works. Let us question, let us learn, let us grow so that we can constantly do better for students based on our heart and our head. We must model success to help learners find their own success. And we must be willing to assume the role of learner as we work side by side with children and our peers in a never-ending growth process of excellence. Only then can we truly say that we have made the shifts that will humanize our approach to interventions.

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References:

Study: RTI Practice Falls Short of Promise https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/11/11/study-rti-practice-falls-short-of-promise.html

Code Red; The Danger of Data-Driven Instruction
http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/nov16/vol74/num03/Code_Red@_The_Danger_of_Data-Driven_Instruction.aspx

From Striving to Thriving by Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward
https://shop.scholastic.com/teachers-ecommerce/books/from-striving-to-thriving-9781338051964.html

The Danger of Convenience:
http://www.raptitude.com/2017/11/the-danger-of-convenience/?utm_source=Jocelyn+K.+Glei%27s+newsletter&utm_campaign=f44dad74e9-Newsletter_11_30_17&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0d0c9bd4c2-f44dad74e9-156827377

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching by Tom Rademacher
https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/us/2017/11/21/why-the-phrase-with-fidelity-is-an-affront-to-good-teaching/

Comments
  1. […] Re-envisioning Professional Roadblocks as Opportunities for Success written by Dr. Mary Howard and Roman Nowak […]

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