Thursday, July 25, 2013

Never work harder than your students

Robyn R. Jackson's Never Work Harder than your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching is a wonderful text that highlights seven principles of gifted teachers, emphasizes that they can be learned and presents a strategy for improving teaching from wherever a teacher is.

Her seven principles are:
  1. Start where your students are.
  2. Know where your students are going.
  3. Expect to get your students to their goal.
  4. Support your students along the way.
  5. Use feedback to help you and your students get better.
  6. Focus on quality rather than quantity.
  7. Never work harder than your students.

As a special educator I especially appreciate her start where your students are. In this age of increasing standards, it is all too easy to start where you want your students to be. This is a formula for Swiss cheese learning that results in a subsequent collapse at some point (hopefully later down the road when the student is someone else's "problem"). I have repeatedly worked with students who have been pushed through without actually learning material and the next year they start at the same place as the students who got it. These students experience frustration and failure on a regular basis. Teachers complain that, "He cannot get it," but accept little responsibility to get him there. I have spent endless time filling in missing knowledge and supporting learning at level so that the student does not fall farther behind. If we are going to pretest students to rate the teachers, can we also use that data to inform instruction and help fill holes and build bridges over the chasms so that the student can experience some meaningful learning?

The feedback idea also resonates with me. Having just finished Role Reversal (see this link) which talks extensively about feedback, I see the value in this principle. It is incumbent upon us as teachers to give meaningful feedback. No one learns when three papers are returned the day after the quarter/ trimester/ semester ends. A "C" tells us nothing. If we comment about everything, students are overwhelmed and ignore it all. Let them redo assignments after they make corrections that you guided them to make. Not by circling a word and writing sp or adding in missing transitions, but by asking them to look back at spelling, use spell check, or give a mini lesson on a spelling rule, or give a lesson on effective transitions and asking students to look for transitions in their paper and improving them. We need focused feedback that allows students to learn. In order to provide this feedback, the sixth principle comes into play. If you are working on introductions, there is no need to write a paper, write an introduction. If you want students to recap the causes you identified for the French Revolution, a list does just as well as an essay. If students need to be able to identify conclusions from lab results, only have them write that portion of the lab and fill in the blanks for the data elsewhere.

For teachers looking for a framework for refining their skills, Never Work Harder than Your Students is excellent. Teachers can take the pretest and identify focus areas for self-development. Possible steps to develop a particular principle in practice are provided so that someone cannot say, I don't know how. Jackson also includes a variety of Yes, but... sections throughout the text. Some of these are more useful than others, but they attempt to respond to common roadblocks that people perceive. ASCD has a variety of webinars by Jackson archived that talk about using her framework to develop struggling students and teacher skills alike. For those who want to explore without buying a book, Jackson's website, Mindsteps is a wealth of resources and information as well.

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