Monday, 28 May 2018

Building Efficacy

I’ve had a long history with the idea of efficacy… dating back to when I decided to become a teacher (age 5, true story) and knew only one four syllable word (Mississippi – again, true story, but admittedly an odd choice for a girl from small town Saskatchewan).  I became a teacher because I wanted to help others love learning… and I believed in my ability to make it happen. This belief was based on evidence, not arrogance. Year after year I watched my mother and her Grade 2 students do amazing things that decades later would be explained by research into the brain and learning, differentiation, and quality classroom practices. Armed with twenty-one years of this research and a newly minted B.Ed., I began my teaching career with a clear end in mind – fostering a love of learning in my students.

Like all first year teachers, I was challenged by my thirty-two Grade 1 students and all they needed to learn. The path that we followed that year was not direct, not perfect, and certainly not without setbacks. But I did not give up or take it personally. Because I believe in the power of teaching and the ability of a skilled practitioner to make a difference for learners, I became what Regie Routman calls a teacher-learner. For the next twenty years I studied the art and the science of teaching - learning from my students, colleagues, mentors, professors, authors and then applying my learning to my teaching and reflecting on the impact on student learning. All the while believing in my own ability, and that of my colleagues, to make a difference in the lives of children.

I learned the word ‘efficacy’ when I began training as a coach.  I still credit the word with being hired as a consultant. As I remember that interview, I was asked about the qualities of a person who, in my opinion, would make a good consultant. I responded that I believed they wanted someone efficacious – someone who believed in her or his own ability to make a difference, and further, believed in the efficacy of teachers and would view the role of consultant as supporting and developing that efficacy. This has been my mission for the last fifteen years.

On my reading list this year was Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning by Jenni Donohoo. It is helping me think about something that occasionally happens when I do a demonstration lesson or work in residence, teaching a class with a group of teachers observing. In the debrief following the lesson sometimes a teacher will say, “Of course that worked. They had to pay attention with so many of us in the room.”  And each time it happens I pose these questions:
  • For what reasons was this carefully designed lesson successful with these learners at this time?
  • What factors within our control might have contributed to the success of this lesson?
  • How might we develop the capacity to talk about the power of the thinking, planning, and impact of a professional teacher and leader?

What we do matters. Why we do it matters. How we do it matters.

Collectively, we need to both believe and live this.


Donohoo, Jenni. 2017. Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning.Thousand Oakes, CA: Corwin.

Routman, Regie. 2000. Conversations: Strategies for Teaching, Learning, and Evaluating. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

To be inspired, or to not be inspired… that is the question

Teacher: How can you still be so optimistic, idealistic, and passionate about
               teaching? You are so lucky.

Me:  There is absolutely no luck involved. I make a point of being inspired by kids
         and teachers. I choose to collect and share stories of the amazing things 
         that happen in our schools every day.

This is a variation on a conversation I have had many times. It doesn’t mean I am naïve. It means that I believe you find what you look for. Take this week for instance. I had lunch with a principal, a vice-principal, and two grade 7/8 teachers from a small school with what many would describe as an at-risk population. They shared a story that moved me as a human being, inspired me as a teacher, and found its way to the top of my All-Time Favourite Inspiring Teacher and Student Chart. The story began with our writing lesson study back in September when the school decided that they were going to explore three questions all year:

·      Who am I?
·      Where am I from?
·      Why am I here?

In Grade 7/8 we decided that one of our goals was for students to understand that humans write to pursue answers to those very questions, to, as Shelley Harwayne says, “make sense of our green minutes on earth.” At lunch this week I learned how two teachers, supported and encouraged by a principal and vice-principal who lead by walking alongside teachers, could transform a group of adolescents into a community of writers and activists. And how did they do this? For me, the short answer is by dreaming big – by really thinking about what it is they want students to learn about being - a writer, a reader, indeed, a citizen of the world. And then teaching in ways that convey the power of writing in understanding ourselves, others, and the world we live in… the power of writing to really, really communicate what is in our hearts and minds… the power of writing to effect change in the world.

The longer answer is by making a commitment to finding meaningful and authentic reasons to write and real audiences to write for. To knowing your students and their passions, your curriculum inside out, and what is going on in the world, so that when Senator Murray Sinclair publishes a poem about grieving for the country, your students are invited to write about what and whom they grieve for… and the poems are shared with Justice Sinclair and the Prime Minister. So that when your students return to school on the Monday following the Humboldt Broncos devastating bus crash, the first words they say are…

“We have to DO something. What can we write?”

Thank you, Lavallee School, for inspiring me as a teacher, a writer, and a collector of stories.

Harwayne, Shelley. 2000. Lifetime Guarantees. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Monday, 26 March 2018

What's A Teacher To Do?

As a teacher I gave up worrying about what I can’t change or control long ago. I focus on what is within my power to control or influence. And frankly, I believe there is a lot of room for me to make a difference in the lives of children.  In my teaching life no one has ever said, “You must do THIS in exactly this way.”  Don’t get me wrong, they HAVE said, “You must do this” but the how has been up to me.

So what’s a teacher to do when she or he is given a set of criteria created at the school, district, provincial, or territorial level and told to use it? Because we work as part of a team, because we honour our professional obligations, because we know it is a research-based practice… we use it. But it doesn’t stop there.  Because we understand that criteria are most effective when co-constructed with the learners who will use it, we involve our students in the process.

In one school district a team of teachers and the math consultant created criteria for math problem solving.  Along with the curriculum, this criteria describes quality and proficiency for teachers. We then use it to create a clear learning destination for our students, describing what they must know, understand, do, and articulate.  Next we use samples to make this target clear to all. These samples may be student work from another year, a pair of students describing their solution during a math meeting or congress, or the teacher modelling his or her thinking (notice I said thinking, not steps or solution) during a problem solving demonstration. As the students observe, the teacher pauses periodically to ask, “What do you notice?” and records student responses, beginning the process of co-constructing the criteria in the students’ own language.

On our own or with members of our team, we connect the criteria co-constructed with the students to that we were given, looking for what may be missing, but more likely noting that students have noticed more than we ever would.


Monday, 26 February 2018

Teaching for Student Success

What counts…
What matters…
What is important…

… in teaching for student success?

You can ask people who know me. They’ll tell you I don’t waste time playing in the shallow water. I go deep. But this question was one even I was afraid to ask. Until now.

A group of mentor teachers and I explored this question as a way to provide authentic and meaningful support to teachers new to the profession, while remaining true to our non-evaluative role. Modelling our process on what we would do with students, we began with the end in mind – not our opinion about what is important in effective teaching, but what our school district and ministry or department of education say on the topic. Because we were in Ontario, we used the 16 Competency Statements from the Teacher Performance Appraisal, but any document used in teacher evaluation will work.

After reviewing and discussing the pertinent documents, teams of teachers wrote “I can” statements about the grade or discipline they taught. As we engaged in the conversation, it became clear to us that the conversation itself was important. We need to talk about this as educators.

As ideas were recorded, we saw that just like in the learning destinations we write for students, we were not prescribing steps or isolated elements of teaching.  Rather, we were talking about big ideas that could be met in a variety of ways, honouring the individuality so critical to teaching.

Here are some examples of our first thinking:

With thanks from Ottawa Catholic School Board

Now, whether we are mentors talking with teachers at the beginning of their career, a team of Grade 2-3 teachers exploring the teaching of writing, the Math department in a high school, or a principal and a teacher talking about strengths and goals, we have something practical, positive, and possible to guide our work.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Joy of Giving

I have been experiencing the joy of giving in a heightened way these past few months and it is about more than Christmas. It is our practice at connect2learning to offer a gift, most often a book, as a way of expressing our deepest appreciation for the opportunity to work alongside teachers, schools, and systems. Since November 22nd, I’ve been giving  Making Physical Education Instruction and Assessment Work, the book I co-authored with my friend and colleague, Karen Cross. On two occasions (so far!), I’ve actually been able to place it in the hands of a physical educator and say, “We wrote this for you.”

The joy is about more than sharing a new book I’m very proud of.  It’s about shouting from the rooftops that assessment is a topic that connects us - classroom teacher and specialist - and we have much to learn from each other. All too often, the perception, and sometimes the reality, has been that whole staff professional learning does not pertain to the physical educators in the building. With this book, in which we apply the big ideas, structures, and strategies of assessment in the service of learning to the teaching of physical education, we show that a focus on quality classroom assessment is an inclusionary professional learning practice that recognizes that  “We are all teaching children and adolescents to be responsible, contributing citizens. We are all interested in developing self-determining, lifelong learners.” (Augusta & Cross, p. 41) 

Together we can talk about:
·         identifying clear and meaningful learning destinations for students,
·         collecting evidence of learning from observations, conversations, and products,
·         describing quality through the gradual release of responsibility, using samples, and co-constructing criteria,
·         giving feedback that moves learning forward, and
·         involving students in self- and peer assessment.

While we’re at it, let’s include the music specialists, the visual arts teachers, the industrial arts educators, the drama teachers…