Creating a Positive Learning Community
In an ideal world, schools would be a place where students feel curious and engaged. They would be busy working on projects, questioning and researching with the help of a teacher guiding their learning. But all too often schools turn students off. They’re places to be avoided and students have to be coerced into learning. How do we turn this around?
In his Teach Like a Champion video, Doug Lemov says, “It’s about how champion teachers get 100% of students to do what they ask 100% of the time.” While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using strategies to help students pay attention, there’s something inherently wrong with the philosophy underlying the Teach Like a Champion video. We shouldn’t need to “get students to do what we say” — we should motivate students to want to learn. They should be listening because what we say interests them. They shouldn’t sit passively doing what we ask them to. They should be thinking critically, arguing their point of view, and passionately caring about our discussions.
In today’s society, teachers are blamed for everything that goes wrong in education. Standardized tests, scripted textbooks, merit pay, and the annual yearly progress rate (AYP) are all indicators of the lack of confidence we have in our teachers. This lack of trust — this desire to control teachers and turn teaching into a paint-by-numbers activity rather than a profession — not only insults teachers, it also creates a toxic learning environment for our children.
Whatever we model at the top of an organization is what will happen at the bottom. There’s no way we can expect teachers to treat their students with respect if the administration doesn’t respect the teachers. If we want teachers to trust their students, then teachers must feel trusted. If we want a space where students feel free to take risks and explore, then we have to create a school where teachers can take risks.
To create a positive learning community for our students, we need to provide the following for our teachers:
- Teamwork – In many schools there’s a definite hierarchy of power: administrators and principals at the top, followed by coordinators, then teachers, with students at the very bottom. In order to create a safe learning environment where everyone feels free to experiment, take risks, and truly learn, that hierarchy needs to be flattened out as much as possible. Instead of wielding power over teachers, administrators need to be seen as team members, playing the role of guides and models, just as teachers should do for students.
- Respect – From government officials to parents, teachers suffer from a serious lack of respect, to the point that many of them dread going to work and often decide to quit. In a school environment where the entire staff feels respected, people tend to enjoy their work and put much more effort into what they’re doing. A respectful atmosphere is not only a wonderful model for our students, but it creates a positive learning environment in which everyone thrives. Respect goes hand-in-hand with the next criteria: trust.
- Trust – Very few people seem to believe that teachers know what they’re doing. Teachers have studied levels of development, teaching techniques, how the brain works, differentiation, and how to scaffold learning. Students are not robots and they don’t all learn at the same pace – teachers know this and make allowances for differences. Trust teachers to know what they’re doing. Allow them the space to create projects and activities that will engage their students, spark their interest, and help them learn deeply. Trust that teachers care for their students and are doing their best for them.
- Listen – Everyone needs to feel heard. Before we jump to conclusions about what teachers are doing, we should sit down and listen to their point of view, just as teachers should listen to their students. But if we don’t model listening in a caring way, they won’t either. Listening to someone’s point of view, listening to their complaints, listening to their ideas, lets them know that they’re part of a community and that they’re important.
- Freedom to fail – Trust includes allowing people to fail. Teachers, like all people, can’t improve if they’re not allowed to make mistakes. If a teacher’s lesson or project doesn’t work out 100%, students will still learn. And one of the greatest lessons they’ll learn is that it’s okay to take risks and it’s okay to fail. We can’t learn if we’re not willing to take risks. We can’t learn if we need to keep up a façade of perfection. Taking risks not only allows teachers to grow, it allows their students to grow too.
- Encourage creativity – Doing the same thing year after year is a sure way to become stagnant and burn out. When teachers are bored, students are bored. Teachers need to feel trusted to be creative in their teaching. We need to let them try new techniques, observe other teachers and implement what they see. Allow teachers to extend themselves and try new things, so that they in turn can spark creativity in their students.
- Give up control – Textbooks, standards, and government testing all give us a false sense of control. We feel that if we can control teachers, we can make sure that every single student will learn… but this is simply not true. There are too many variables in learning and the teacher is only one of them. Once we give up scripted learning and forcing educators to teach to the test, we allow them the freedom to truly listen to their students, get to know them on a deeper level, understand their needs, and really teach. Control is a myth. One we need to let go of.
- Feedback – Everyone needs to know how they’re doing in order to improve. Teacher observation shouldn’t be about making sure someone is jumping through all the hoops that administrators ask for. Instead it should be about honestly seeing how a teacher is doing and helping them improve.
- Start with the positive – When we give feedback we need to start with everything a teacher is doing right. We need to help them see their strengths in order to move forward. Nothing strong can be built on the negative.
- Growth mindset – As we help teachers recognize their strengths and see where they can improve, we help them develop a growth mindset, the same growth mindset we want them to instill in their students. So many times when teachers reflect on their teaching, I hear them begin by enumerating everything that went wrong. Coordinators and principles need to help them see everything that went well and then focus on the one or two areas they’d like to work on. When teachers see themselves growing and improving as educators, work becomes an enriching place to be.
- Smile, be kind, share a laugh – We’re all human. We need to connect and feel like part of a team. Sharing a joke, laughing together – it helps make our learning community one we look forward to coming back to.
When we share with each other and care about each other, we create a space where people are free to experiment, learn and grow. A school needs to provide a respectful, caring atmosphere for its teachers in order for teachers to provide the same for their students. Our education is in serious trouble – teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and who can blame them? Fear and mistrust will never turn that around. Trust and respect are the only answers.
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