Because For Educators and Parents, Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

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  • The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question-what subjects shall we teach?
  • When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question-what methods and techniques are required to teach well?
  • Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question-for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?
  • But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question-who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form-or deform-the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?

Parker Palmer, The Courage To Teach

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Beginning my position as a new Head of School, I opened our first full staff professional learning session with the above quote from educator Parker Palmer. Determined to shift from my voice to our voices as quickly as possible, I moved almost immediately to a learning activity modified from one Palmer describes later in his book.

Imagine a moment when everything was going right for you as a teacher; when your teaching was so good you felt you were born to teach, and you knew you were making a difference for students.

The happy social buzz of first day greetings, which had begun shortly before our learning session as we arrived for a welcome breakfast, continued. The ebullient, celebratory mood of greeting friends and colleagues after a summer apart gently moved deeper, broaching seldom asked questions about qualities of teachers that lie at the heart of learning; transcending curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

After a short time, I invited teachers and staff who wanted to do so to share with the whole group; acknowledging teachers’ humility and reluctance to speak in a manner that might feel like boasting. The stories inspired. Some were about individual students’ triumphs in overcoming challenge or adversity; some about entire classes making remarkable progress; and others about a key attribute of a teacher that positively impacted students year after year. We applauded each and every speaker, beginning our year with appreciation.

We then moved just a bit deeper as Parker Palmer encourages us to do. I asked teachers to focus, not on their own celebratory stories, but on those of their colleagues, identifying the gifts, the personal strengths and qualities within their colleagues, that  bring success.  Colleagues talked about care, the ability to listen, patience, perseverance in the face of challenge, and grounding in enduring values. They spoke, meaningfully and thoughtfully, not about skills or specific knowledge, but rather about qualities that enable teachers to connect and build relationships with students. Intuitively, teachers reached beyond themselves, emphasizing the need to understand our students, equating greatness in teaching to connection with students; as individuals, as a class, and as a school-wide community of learners.

As we concluded the session, I shared with teachers my commitment to being present in classrooms regularly, not to judge, but to engage, learn, appreciate, and support. In time, I plan to offer ongoing non-judgemental feedback to prompt teacher reflection. Yet in the beginning, as teachers at my new school and I get to know each other and develop trusting relationships, I choose to refrain from offering feedback and instead to focus almost exclusively on presence and heartfelt appreciation. As the Head of School of an independent school, in which the format for teacher evaluation is not mandated by a district or the state, I have that freedom. I can take some time, engage with teachers, and collaboratively design a feedback framework emphasizing growth.

In the past I interpreted, or more likely misinterpreted, educational research as indicating that paradoxically praise is  judgmental and disrespectful of teachers’ and students’ abilities to reflect on their own learning; successes and mistakes alike. Teachers opened my eyes; sharing the pain of giving heart and soul and only infrequently, if at all, receiving appreciation from supervisors. I have heard from teachers about how disconcerting it is to feel as if one is “on stage” as a supervisor, even a caring supervisor, observes. Trained to focus on learning from mistakes, teachers often, almost obsessively, analyze what went wrong in a lesson,while glossing over what went right. We frequently see ourselves through intensely critical lenses and imagine those observing us do as well. We too often neglect to celebrate our successes, inadvertently missing out on the potential to build from our strengths.

As Parker Palmer boldly asserts, it takes courage to teach. That courage deserves appreciation.

And so, I reach out to teachers in my own school, and to colleagues more broadly wondering about ways of structuring appreciative, reflective exploration of teaching practice.  If you were able to structure a system of feedback for professionals to promote growth, in lieu of formal evaluation, what process would you use? What components would you include? What would be helpful for you?

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Comments on: "The Courage To Teach" (12)

  1. Shira,
    WOW! What an incredible piece -not only powerfully transparent but extremely thought provoking. Your tireless efforts to balance being a Lead Learner who coaches the staff while also doing the administrative tasks that are necessary is an inspiration to the rest of us – thank you for always sharing your journey!
    In regards to offering feedback/perspective/whatever to the staff, I always try and spotlight a couple of things that went really well during a visit (I try and be in the rooms each day) and then I try and end it with a question just to push people’s thinking. No judgement passing. No “This is how you should have done it.” No, I know better. None of that. Just supporting their growth and development. That is how I approach this opportunity to coach!
    Thank you for pushing my thinking Shira!
    Tony

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Tony,
      Thanks so much for the encouragement and feedback! Finding ways to be a lead learner with a coaching stance is an ongoing process and I am continuously refining my practice. I appreciate your beginning with appreciation; leading into reflection. I’m grateful to you for sharing and look forward to continuing the conversation and the learning.

  2. Hi Shira, You are starting with such a wonderful focus. I will think of your words tomorrow on our first day. I think evaluations should, as you suggest, begin with strengths–what is it that you do well. Then I believe teachers and leaders should focus on goals–both collective and individual goals; how is it that we can improve what we do to teach children well. Then as we move towards our goals it is advantageous to converse, adapt, and try new strategies and efforts to meet our goals. This, I believe is a great way, to assess, evaluate, grow, and model true learning for our students. Thanks for all you do–happy school year :)

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Hi Maureen,
      For quite some time, you have been helping me view feedback through teachers’ eyes. Last year, I began with goals, moved to nonjudgemental feedback, and ended with compliments. I added the compliments because not doing so felt cold and impersonal. Yet I didn’t lead with compliments and appreciation. Your suggestion to begin with strengths, building from there, is compelling. I thank you for the insight!

  3. Shira,
    Your belief in a coaching stance is so evident in this post. Your position allows you some freedom to explore a variety of ways to provide feedback, encouragement and growth as you inspire and grow leaders in your school.

    I wonder if you can continue with a multi-tier system. What if the teachers continue to share stories about the accomplishments of their peers all year long in the form of “thank yous” and “in appreciation” notes on cards that you provide. I love small note cards (no essays required) but a format that allows the recorder to be specific and concise in their comments.

    I like your idea of compliments in your feedback to the teachers and Tony’s idea of a question pushing for more thought/action. With a new building, you may even want to delay the goal setting a bit. What if you added in teacher reflection first through the use of a sentence frame on this order?
    “I used to believe instruction was ________________________________, but now I believe instruction is REALLY _____________________________________________.

    Your year is already off to a fabulous beginning. Thanks for sharing a new resource as well!

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Thanks so much Fran! I had thought about beginning the year with compliments from me on note cards; holding goals until we know each other better and have established trusting relationships. You raise the bar in suggesting that teachers have the opportunity to share appreciation for one another. I love the idea!

  4. Shira, It has been ingrained in us to give constructive criticism, this post goes way beyond that. It shows the care and commitment you have made to your faculty that treats them as the professionals they are. What could be more important than creating a learning environment that encourages collaboration, open dialogue and growth mindset. All students benefit in the end.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      Thanks for the kind words, Faige!I love the collaboration and dialogue we share and do hope to foster such learning relationships at school. I similarly want to offer the praise and appreciation that you so beautifully model in your thoughtful comments.

  5. You just changed my plans for my opening faculty meetings tomorrow. Thank you so much for sharing with us with such an open heart.

  6. Dear Shira, Thanks so much for telling your story of how you’re using Parker Palmer’s insights at your school. Thanks to your generous creative commons license, we posted it at the Center for Courage & Renewal (founded by Parker Palmer) blog today and at Facebook. http://shar.es/iX1Ii Check out the other resources on courageous teaching, including videos by Parker.

    • Shira Leibowitz said:

      I am so honored you have read the post and chosen to share it at the Center for Courage & Renewal. I read the Courage To Teach shortly after it was first published, and I reread it from time to time for wisdom and inspiration. There are a number of conversations I have facilitated with teachers over the years stemming from workshop ideas shared in The Courage To Teach; each leading us to thoughtful, reflective, honest dialogue. I thank you for sharing so many resources on courageous teaching and am proud to participate in the conversation.

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